How Adam Bello got elected in Western New York as a Democrat

A neighborhood in Monroe County.
A neighborhood in Monroe County.
debra millet/Shutterstock
A neighborhood in Monroe County.

How Adam Bello got elected in Western New York as a Democrat

Monroe County’s new executive is typical of moderate Democrats who are flipping former GOP strongholds in upstate suburbs.
November 11, 2019

Monroe County just got a bit bluer, capping off a night of similar successes for Long Island and upstate Democrats. For the first time since 1986, a Democrat was elected on Tuesday to serve as executive of the county surrounding Rochester and its suburbs. Democrat Adam Bello, the current Monroe County clerk and former town supervisor of Irondequoit – a suburb of Rochester – defeated incumbent County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, a Republican, by a slim three-point margin on Tuesday. 

While flipping the seat makes history for Monroe County, some say it’s part of a gradual shift to the left that’s reflected in the rest of the state. Monroe County as a whole has reliably voted for Democrats in presidential elections in recent years. But, as in much of upstate, there’s a sharp contrast between the city and its suburbs that make up the rest of Monroe County. Rochester itself is governed by Democratic Mayor Lovely Warren, while the county executive and county legislature has remained firmly in Republican hands.

Now, some experts say, moderate Democrats are helping to turn the tide blue. “We've got Monroe County sort of paralleling what has happened in New York state overall,” said Timothy Kneeland, a professor of political science at Nazareth College in Pittsford – a Rochester suburb – mentioning last year’s flipping of the state Senate to Democrats. “Monroe County is kind of a trend-follower, maybe not a trendsetter, in terms of what's happening statewide.”

Like the Democrats who helped flip the state Senate by defeating Republicans on Long Island, Bello is relatively moderate. He ran on kitchen-table issues including solving the opioid epidemic and early intervention in childhood education. One of the more progressive issues he highlighted was a climate change and sustainability plan. “Sometimes he runs like a progressive, but both as (county) clerk and in his supervisor role, he definitely governed like a moderate,” Kneeland said. It’s a posture, Kneeland says, that isn’t threatening to Monroe County’s more conservative voters. 

Bello’s victory brought an end to a long campaign season for Bello and Dinolfo, who faced off in June in an Independence party primary, after they went to court over who had the right to the extra ballot line. (Originally, Dinolfo won the endorsement of the county party but Bello got the backing of the state party, causing confusion about whose name would run next to the Independence line). Dinolfo won that primary race, but the extra party line ultimately failed to deliver for her in the general – a somewhat surprising loss, given the fact that 6% of the total vote for Dinolfo in 2016 came from votes on the Independence Party line. “If she had won, it would have been those few votes probably from the Independence line that would have carried her,” Kneeland said. “Some of those voters probably chose not to vote for Dinolfo. You do want the minor party lines, you want to aggregate as many votes as you can, and in the past we've seen that that's been quite beneficial.” Representatives for Bello and Dinolfo did not respond to a request for comment. 

While Dinolfo ran on her experience in the seat, citing job creation and workforce development projects, Bello was able to secure endorsements from law enforcement and first responders unions including the Monroe County Sheriff’s PBA, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Association, the Monroe County Law Enforcement Association and the Airport Firefighters Association. What may have also aided Bello’s success is the fact that he was a known commodity in Monroe, as both county clerk and before that, as Irondequoit town supervisor. “He worked very effectively there with the local business community, people that would very likely have been Republican, to get things done in the town. Then he became the county clerk – again, a very pragmatic style of governing,” Kneeland said. 

While Rochester has been a Democratic stronghold since at least 1973 – when its last Republican mayor left office – Monroe County has had only one other Democratic executive since the role (then an appointed seat called county manager) was created in 1935. The elected position of county executive was later created in 1987. As a whole, Monroe County voted overwhelmingly for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. The county saw increased Democratic enrollment in 2019, and a slight decrease in Republican enrollment since 2018. “One of the things that we're seeing going on, really nationwide, is that first ring suburbs are becoming a little bit more blue than they had (been) in the past. That's a fairly recent phenomenon,” said Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor in the political science department at the University at Buffalo, adding that the change is driven in part by voters with higher levels of education turning away from the Republican Party, as well as African-Americans – reliable Democratic voters – moving from cities to inner-ring suburbs. “The demographics of those kinds of areas are shifting. I just don't think that there's enough of the votes left out in outlying areas that are rural – given that those places have seen a disproportionate drain in terms of population – to offset those changes.” 

Neiheisel said it’s a trend he saw in Erie County as well, where incumbent County Executive Mark Poloncarz staved off a challenge from Republican Lynne Dixon. Despite high turnout in rural areas of the county, Neiheisel said, Poloncarz kept Dixon at bay with a seven-point lead. “That race was won and lost in those first ring suburbs,” he said. “Even with really, really high turnout numbers in the rural areas, there just isn't the population to offset what's coming from the suburbs and even from urban areas in a low-turnout election.”

And while it appears that Republicans will hold on to a slim majority in the Monroe County Legislature – absentee and affidavit ballots won’t be fully counted until November 21 – Democrats did win a few new seats in the Legislature. Republicans previously held a 17-12 majority over Democrats, but as of last week’s election, they are set to hold only a 15-14 majority. As of Tuesday, Democrat Michael Yudelson led Republican Matthew Borkowski by only 45 votes in the race for the county’s 13th legislative district. 

Kneeland predicts that the transition in the county executive seat won’t be a rocky one, in part because he said voters are not as reactive to party labels in parts of the state like Monroe County. Yudelson – the Democrat in the 13th legislative district race – was once a Republican. Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley is a Republican who was once a Democrat. “I think this telegraphs how easy it will be for someone like Bello to work with Republicans because these party labels in some ways have become more flexible,” Kneeland said, adding that the Legislature still may not align with Bello on more progressive social issues, like the state law granting driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants. “As long as the policies are not that dramatic, I imagine we're going to see a fairly easy transition to the new government.”

Republicans had victories in Monroe and other upstate counties as well on Tuesday, including Doorley’s victory in the district attorney race, and in Onondaga County, where Republican County Executive Ryan McMahon defeated a Democratic challenger. Neiheisel pointed out that Republicans even flipped seats in some instances – including in West Seneca, where a Republican was elected town supervisor for the first time in 50 years. Ultimately, however, it’s victories like Bello’s that are significant, Neiheisel said. “The Republican party chair can get on the TV or send a letter out and say, ‘Look, we did this,’ but I really think that those victories ring pretty hollow when you're losing places like Monroe County, when you're losing legislative seats in Erie County that traditionally have been held by your folks,” Neiheisel said. “It's just signaling a sea change.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
20200119