On Tuesday, Monroe County Democrats captured a prize that had eluded them for more than 30 years: control of both the executive and legislative branches of county government.
Adam Bello swept to victory over Republican challenger Mark Assini by a margin of more than 20 points, becoming the first Democrat to win re-election as Monroe County executive. The only other Democrat to hold the office since Monroe County began electing its county executive by popular vote four decades ago was Tom Frey, who served a single term that ended in December 1991.
At the same time, unofficial results Tuesday showed Democrats gaining a 16-13 majority in the county Legislature.
Two years ago, voters gave Democratic lawmakers a one-seat advantage, but control slipped out of their grasp when Sabrina LaMar decided to caucus with Republican lawmakers. In exchange, LaMar became Legislature president. LaMar lost in this year’s Democratic primary to Rose Bonnick, who won handily in Tuesday’s general election.
The Democrats’ triumph could prove to be as fleeting as their ascendance in the late 1980s. But the numbers behind their win suggest this time is different.
Built to last
The Republican Party has dominated Monroe County politics for most of the period since 2000. In 2003, former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson lost by 28 points to Republican Maggie Brooks in the county executive race. In 2015, former Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel was a 15-point loser to Republican Cheryl Dinolfo. The Republicans also repeatedly won sizable majorities in the county Legislature.
But almost unnoticed, the county GOP’s base of power was eroding.
In fall 2000, nearly 36 percent of county voters were enrolled as Republicans, versus roughly 35 percent for the Democrats, state Board of Elections records show. Blanks, or those who did not enroll in a political party, totaled slightly less than 24 percent.
By 2018, the enrollment tables had been turned. Democrats now accounted for nearly 41 percent of active enrolled voters in the county; the Republicans had fallen to 28 percent. Today, the gap is even wider: Democratic enrollment is nearing 42 percent of the total, while the GOP has slid below 26 percent.
In plain figures, the reversal of fortunes is even more striking. Republicans outnumbered Democrats by some 2,000 voters countywide in spring 2000; by fall 2018, they trailed the Democrats by 60,000 voters, and today the gap is more than 77,000 voters.
The city of Rochester, long a Democratic stronghold, has become even more so since 2000. But the truly decisive change has occurred in the suburbs, where Democratic enrollment has increased twice as fast as in the city.
At the turn of the century, Republicans had a 128,488-to-89,678 enrollment advantage among active voters in Monroe County’s towns, according to county Board of Elections data. Now, there are 135,576 active enrolled suburban Democrats, versus 114,254 Republicans—a gap of 21,322 voters.
Democrats today outnumber Republicans in 11 of 21 suburban communities, including most of the large towns including Greece, Irondequoit (where Democrat Andrae Evans on Tuesday defeated Republican incumbent Rory Fitzpatrick), Perinton, Brighton, Penfield and Pittsford.
After the election, with Democrat Cathy Koshykar a winner in the Pittsford Town Council race and Republican Kate Munzinger holding a precarious seven-vote lead for the other seat, with remaining absentee votes still to be counted, GOP Supervisor Bill Smith—who ran unopposed—posted on social media: “Pittsford is now done. People won’t know what they’ve lost until it’s gone. They’re about to find out. R.I.Pittsford.” (Smith later posted thanks to Pittsford voters for giving him another term and to renew his pledge to “continue the policies that have made Pittsford a successful community” and to “keep improving our Town, but to preserve its character,” adding that he promised to “fight with all the energy and ability I have to overcome any obstacle to its fulfillment.”)
In the county Legislature, the Democrats have the enrollment edge in a large majority of districts. Combining Republican and Conservative enrollment versus the Democrats and Working Families parties doesn’t alter the picture; in 21 of 29 districts, the Republican-Conservative enrollment is smaller.
Even as the Democrats were suffering defeats in county elections, they were gaining strength. In 2019, they whittled the GOP majority in the Legislature to a single seat from an 18-11 edge, and Bello won the county executive race.
On Tuesday, first-time Democratic candidate Lystra McCoy flipped the 18th District, defeating Republican Sean Delahanty, a county lawmaker since 2014. McCoy is the first Black woman elected in a suburban Monroe County district.
Whether the Democratic Party can increase its majority in 2025 is uncertain; a number of incumbents in both parties often run uncontested, and only a few races each cycle are truly competitive.
What does seem clear is how the Democrats, by building a sizable enrollment advantage, have put in place a solid foundation for long-term success in Monroe County politics.
More takeaways from Tuesday’s election:
■ The 2023 general election set a record for the lowest voter turnout in 59 years. Unofficial results from the county Board of Elections show a participation rate of just 28 percent, compared with the previous low of 30 percent turnout in 2021. While typically fewer voters show up for off-cycle elections, this is the first time the turnout rate has fallen below the 30 percent threshold. Presidential elections can see participation rates of reaching 78 percent (2020) or even 81 percent 2008), midterms usually fall in the 50 percent range, and off-cycle elections are even lower.
Across the county, contested races for Irondequoit’s 16th District and Penfield’s 18th District tied for the highest turnout rate at 41 percent. The Democratic candidate is likely to win in both races. Other contested races that saw relatively better turnout were Pittsford’s 10th and Brighton’s 14th districts, with 39 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Democrat incumbents held on to their seats in both cases. Rush’s 5th and Penfield’s 9th also had 37 percent and 36 percent turnout, respectively. Republican incumbents held on to their seats in those races.
The city of Rochester saw very low turnout, particularly in the central districts of 22, 28 and 29, which all were at or under 10 percent voter participation.
■ Money matters in politics, but it doesn’t necessarily rule the day. In the 16th District, former Legislature President Joe Carbone outraised incumbent Dave Long—who narrowly defeated Carbone two years ago—by a roughly 3-to-1 margin. According to state Board of Elections data, Carbone raised $99,000 for this year’s race, compared with Long’s $37,916. Yet when the votes were tallied Tuesday, Long won by 11 points.
In 2021, Carbone had a similar fund-raising advantage—but lost by 2 points, 49 percent to 51 percent for Long.
■ As with Democratic enrollment, the number and share of blank, or unaffiliated voters, has grown steadily. In fact, in Webster, where Republicans have a slight edge over the Democrats, both parties trail the blank enrollment. In competitive elections, a candidate’s ability to win blank votes often proves decisive. But knowing which way blank voters lean can be difficult—and the task has arguably been made even harder by 2020 changes to the state’s election laws that significantly raised the bar political parties must clear to maintain recognized party status and ballot access.
The change impacted four parties including the Libertarian Party and the Green Party; none are listed now in the Monroe County official enrollment data and were not on the ballot this year. The Libertarians and Greens have challenged the law in court, but last month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal. Their efforts now are focused on a legislative solution, with measures introduced in both the state Senate and Assembly.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. Beacon contributing writer Jacob Schermerhorn contributed to this article and created data visualizations for it.The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].