Monroe County Democrats can win countywide and suburban races after all.
Todd Baxter is now sheriff-elect and will take over for from Republican Patrick O'Flynn come January. He'll be the second Democrat in countywide office, joining County Clerk Adam Bello, who was elected a year ago.
Democrats had some big wins across the country last Tuesday, and the general narrative was that voters were rallying against President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans. Monroe County Democratic Committee Chair Jamie Romeo says Trump has caused people to pay closer attention to politics and elections at all levels. But, she says, local Democratic victories were won through the ground-level work of local committees, candidates, and party volunteers.
The party has now won back-to-back countywide elections, so Baxter's win isn't "a one-off" or a fluke, Romeo says. And considering that Democrats have a growing enrollment advantage in the county, as well as the edge in an increasing number of suburbs, "our county is moving in a good direction," Romeo says.
Pittsford provides a good example of what Romeo's saying. Democrats have run town candidates before, and some have come close to winning; Democrats started getting elected to the village board in 2013. This year, however, Democrats Stephanie Townsend and Kevin Beckford picked off two incumbent Republican Town Board members: Jared Lusk and Mary Gehl Doyle.
Republicans had the enrollment advantage in the Town of Pittsford going into the 2016 elections, but the town went heavily for Hillary Clinton. And sometime over the past year, Democrats gained the enrollment advantage, though just barely.
Democrat Howard Maffucci beat Republican Jason Rosenberg for the open seat 10th District seat in the County Legislature. The seat represents parts of Pittsford, as well as parts of East Rochester and Brighton, both of which have histories of electing Democrats.
Numbers aside, Maffucci is a well-known and respected figure in the community, largely because of his service as the former superintendent of East Rochester schools. He'll take the place of Republican incumbent Anthony Daniele, who has to leave the Lej at the end of the year because of term limits.
In Henrietta, Democrats have had an enrollment advantage for about a decade, but they've struggled to win races there. That changed this year. Stephen Schultz unseated Republican Supervisor Jack Moore, while Rob Barley and Michael Stafford bested Republicans John Howland and Kristine Demo-Vazquez. Both of the town board seats were wide open, since the incumbents decided not to seek reelection. Howland already represents most of Henrietta in the County Legislature.
Some of the controversies around Moore surely helped the Democratic candidates. In particular: the recent findings by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that there was evidence to believe he discriminated against several employees. But the Henrietta Democratic Committee has spent the past several years building up an active grassroots organization, and this year that work paid off.
Democrats were successful where they had strong, growing local committees that campaigned hard for their candidates, Romeo says. Henrietta and Pittsford had strong ground games, she says. They didn't rely on ads, glossy mailers, or social media to get their messages to voters. Instead, candidates and volunteers connected directly with residents, friends, and neighbors, working the phones and knocking on thousands of doors.
Clarkson Democrats did the same thing, and their town supervisor candidate, Jerry Underwood, narrowly defeated Republican Paul Kimball, who had served as supervisor since 1984.
Democrats offered some communities a choice where they previously hadn't had one, Romeo says. And then party members made sure there were strong committees and substantial volunteer networks to go out and talk to potential votes about those choices, she says.
At the county level, top Democratic leaders united and rallied around Todd Baxter, but the energized local committees helped bring him votes. As they campaigned for their town, village, and city candidates, they also campaigned for him, as did his own volunteers.
In a sense, this year was a warm-up for 2018 and 2019. Next year brings Congressional mid-term elections, and local Democrats will be focused on retaining the House seat held by Louise Slaughter, as well as helping the party try to unseat Republican House Representative Chris Collins, a high-profile Trump supporter. Collins' district spans parts of several counties between Rochester and Buffalo.
At the state level, all of the Assembly and Senate seats are up next year. Democrats want to gain true control of the Senate; the party technically has the majority, but members of the Independent Democratic Conference and breakaway Brooklyn Dem Simcha Felder have an alliance with the Senate Republican leaders that keeps the GOP in power.
And while Monroe County has more enrolled Democrats than Republicans, all of the State Senators representing it are Republicans. State and county Democrats will likely try to flip one or more those seats.
The next big local election is in 2019, and the county executive, district attorney, and all 29 County Legislature seats will be on the ballot. County Exec Cheryl Dinolfo and DA Sandra Doorley are both Republicans, and even after Maffucci takes office in January, Dems will hold only 11 of the 29 Lej seats.
The Democratic Party is going to have to recruit some stellar candidates if it wants to break the Republicans' grip on county government. Baxter and Maffucci's wins, combined with the suburban victories and Bello's 2016 election show that the party is capable of winning, Romeo says. She hopes the successes and new energy among party members encourage more people to run or otherwise get involved in local politics. And though Romeo doesn't mention it, the wins could help bring money in to the party, which it would need to some extent for the county exec race.
Baxter's victory in the sheriff's race comes with a "but." He was a Republican who switched parties for his run, and some progressives didn't warm to him. Gary Pudup, a Greece resident who's been active in the party, ran a write-in campaign so Democrats didn't have to, as he put it, choose between two Republicans.
But city voters favored Baxter heavily, as did voters in other Democratic strongholds such as Brighton and Irondequoit. In Greece, the Republican-dominated town where he served as police chief, he clobbered O'Flynn.
Republicans otherwise performed well in Greece. Supervisor Bill Reilich, who's also head of the county Republican Committee, comfortably defeated his Democratic challenger, James Leary. In the only contested Greece Town Board race, Republican William Murphy scored a decisive victory over Democrat Rumella Cameron.
GOP candidates also beat back challengers in Mendon, Chili, and Perinton. And Republicans held onto two Town Board seats in Sweden, preventing Democrats adding to the two seats they won in 2015.
That is to say that the Republicans are still a strong force in the county, and particularly in the suburbs. And in any contested election next year or in 2019, they're going to fight hard. Democrats will have to be ready to fight, too.
The city races
In the City of Rochester, there were no surprises, not in the race for mayor, the five at-large seats on City Council, or the school board. The winners of the Democratic Party's September primary were the winners of all the races in today's general election.
Mayor Lovely Warren easily won re-election, defeating her three challengers: Republican-Conservative-Reform candidate Tony Micciche, Green Party candidate Alex White, and independent candidate Lori Thomas. (County Legislator Jim Sheppard, whom Warren defeated in the Democratic Primary, was on the ballot on the Working Families and Independence lines but did not campaign; nonetheless, he received about 14 percent of the vote.)
In the City Council race, the winners were incumbents Jackie Ortiz and Council President Loretta Scott, former County Legislator Willie Joe Lightfoot, school board member Malik Evans, and newcomer Mitch Gruber, chief officer at Foodlink, winning in his first campaign for public office.
The other Council candidates in this unusually heavy field: Mary Lupien, Working Families; Andrew Hollister, Republican, Conservative, and Reform Parties; Chris Edes, Libertarian and Reform; Shawn Dunwoody, Working Families; Pam Davis, Working Families; Matt Juda, Women's Equality; Anthony Giordano, Green; and Ronald Ring, Green.
For school board, the winners were incumbents Van White, the current board president, and Cynthia Elliott, and newcomer Natalie Sheppard. The fourth candidate was Beatriz LeBron, the only Latinx running for the board.
Thanks to his election to City Council, Malik Evans has handed in his resignation from his school board seat, effective at the end of this year. Since he's only half-way through his four-year term, one of the new board's first jobs in January will be to appoint someone to fill his seat.
The ballot proposals
Like the rest of New York State, Monroe County voters said they want nothing to do with a constitutional convention. Approximately 80 percent of the county's rejected the ConCon ballot proposition, slightly more than the statewide rejection. Voters here also mimicked the state in approving proposals related to the Adirondack Park and to pensions for public officials convicted of a felony related to their official duties.
TIm Macaluso and Mary Anna Towler contributed to this article.