Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Almanac of Monroe County Politics 2007

Mustard Street's Analysis of the 2007 Elections

A single factor dominated in the 2007 Monroe County elections.

No, it wasn't Gov. Spitzer's drivers license plan (actually, voting registration plan) for illegal aliens. Democrats Dick Beebe wouldn't have won and Carmen Gumina might not have won, if it had been.

Nor was it Maggie Brooks's FAIR plan. Republicans Mike Barker and Tony LaFountain wouldn't be raising their right hands and taking the oath in January if it were.

To be sure, each of these factors had some significance, but we don't believe either, alone, to have decided any race. For reasons we'll discuss, we believe they largely offset each other in the scales of partisan advantage.

We all know the three most important things in real estate:   location, location, location. Tuesday's election underscores the three most important things in politics:   the candidate, the candidate, the candidate. In nearly every instance, candidate selection and candidate performance explain the outcome. The role of Spitzer, FAIR and money become clear only in relation to that factor. None of them was as important.

In this segment we'll look at the races for County Legislature, which is what seemed to fascinate the local politerati. Then we'll take a look at the county-wide and notable town races.

District 1
Yolevich (R) vs. Dunn (D)

In Todd Dunn, Democrats found a candidate of high caliber. Dartmouth graduate, RIT professor, professional engineer, deep roots in the community, with an attractive family, the personable and well-spoken Dunn campaigned diligently door-to-door.

Republicans held on easily to the Parma Town Board, so the presumed Democratic surge we thought we saw last year, when Democrat Joe Rittler came within 2 votes of taking a seat on the board, seems to have receded. This suggests that Democrats came within 183 votes of taking this seat because Dunn was their candidate.

Incumbent Republican Dick Yolevich is a well-known figure around Hilton, where he operated a donut shop for many years. Yolevich campaigned hard and well, fighting off Dunn's challenge for the Independence Party line in the September primary. The Independence line was important for him, as it was for other Republican candidates who had it:   looking at the Republican and Democratic lines only, Dunn beat Yolevich 2421 - 2266. We see this in other close races. This may be a reflection of public doubts about the FAIR plan, or at least confusion over it. The Independence vote alone was less than the margin of victory, but those votes, together with votes on the Conservative line, gave Yolevich four more years.

District 6
Beebe (D) vs. DiRaddo (R)

This is the district in Greece where voter registration trends Democratic. In 2005, the Democratic vote split between Pat Amato, wife of long-time incumbent Fred Amato, and Chris Hilderbrant, running on the Working Families and Green party lines. Ray DiRaddo, running for the seat for the first time on '05, beat Amato easily. But he had only a 65-vote edge over the combined votes of Amato and Hilderbrant.

This year, looking strictly, again, at attributes of electability, DiRaddo was the better candidate by a long shot. A former Town Justice, with a law practice in Greece for many years, he is well known and well liked. He is said to have worked hard door-to-door. He brought to the race all the advantages of incumbency.

Democrat Dick Beebe moved to Greece only recently. In 2005 he ran for Town Board in Penfield. Beebe campaigned diligently door-to-door, but against an incumbent like DiRaddo, he shouldn't have stood a chance.

What changed Beebe's prospects was the infusion of cash and manpower by the Working Families Party in the final two weeks of the race. The WFP called Democratic Chairman Joe Morelle, offered $40,000 and workers and asked Morelle where to put it. Morelle chose Greece. The money paid for an unprecedented 8 mailings in the last two weeks, hammering DiRaddo over Brooks's budget plan. Campaign helpers were transported from Albany and Syracuse to canvass the district completely, on foot and through phone banks. The political equivalent of carpet-bombing, it pulled Beebe across the finish line by 283 votes.

The Sixth District race was exceptional in several ways. First is that the more electable candidate wasn't elected. Second is that, in an inexplicable lapse from their usual thoroughness, Republicans didn't see this coming, which means they were asleep at the switch during the final weeks of this campaign. Third is that it's the only race in which the FAIR plan appeared to make a difference in the outcome. It gave the Working Families Party the hammer to knock DiRaddo from office.

District 8
Gumina (D) vs. Malta (R)

Candidate, candidate, candidate.   In no race was there starker contrast between the electability factors of the two than in this. For the Eighth District, in Webster, Democrats picked a candidate with every hallmark of what it takes to win; Republicans picked a candidate having none.

Even more so than First District candidate Todd Dunn, with whom he shares many appealing qualities, Democratic challenger Carmen Gumina came straight out of central casting as exactly the kind of person a party wants to run. Gumina is a well-spoken, educated professional, pleasantly presentable, possessing a broad community base gained from years as a teacher and school principal. Incumbent Dave Malta is none of the above. Webster sources tell us Gumina ran an all-out door-to-door campaign and that Malta's campaigning was minimal.

The controversy over a negative campaign mailer from Malta, which Democrats skillfully turned against him, was irrelevant. Had it never occured, Gumina would have won anyway. Interestingly, the race in which the incident became relevant was the Beebe-DiRaddo race in Greece. By the time the Working Families Party knocked at Joe Morelle's door with ready money and busloads of trade unionists from Albany, Joe knew he didn't need to make the rubble bounce in Webster. It went to Greece and unseated DiRaddo.

District 9
LaFountain (R) vs. Levin (D)

In this race the strengths of incumbent Tony LaFountain and weaknesses of challenger Doreen Brady Levin had both parties' headquarters thinking from the beginning that LaFountain would win. However, each party supported its candidate with a full program of campaign mailings.

LaFountain has a long history of public involvement in Penfield, for many years as member of Town council and more recently as county legislator. His personal skills in relating to voters are said to be matchless. He's another candidate, like Dunn and Gumina, who present an array of qualities, as well as the background, that political parties want in a candidate.

Doreen Brady Levin, a real estate agent, entered the contest relatively late, at the point where it was looking like Penfield Democrats couldn't find an opponent to LaFountain. She does not appear to have a record of public involvement before this campaign. Her claim to fame is being married to local schlock-radio personality Brother Wease

LaFountain campaigned hard, door-to-door. Levin didn't. LaFountain won by 61% to 39%.

For someone analyzing elections, it's convenient to have such a case-study straight out of Politics 101. Candidate A has had a public profile for years and campaigned hard and well. Candidate B has no prior public involvement and didn't campaign. Absent overriding issues, Candidate A wins.

Whatever opposition to the FAIR plan there may be, or even just confusion over it, it wasn't enough to elect Levin or even to deprive LaFountain of a landslide win. This is notwithstanding the fact that Democrats hammered LaFountain over FAIR in successive mailings. This race and the Eleventh District race are two of the strongest indicators we have that candidate selection and performance are what carried the day in last Tuesday's elections, not FAIR or licensing illegals.

District 10
Daniele (R) vs. Nixon (D)

This was the hottest race:   an open seat, with equally matched candidates. If District 8 presented the greatest disparity between candidates in terms of qualities that make a good campaigner, the race in District 10 between Anthony Daniele and Ted Nixon offered the most closely-matched pair. Both are intelligent, educated, articulate men who by every account made a terrific impression on people. Both have been successful businessmen. Both have attractive families and present well.

Daniele has lived in Pittsford all his life. Owning a popular restaurant in Pittsford has brought him face-to-face with thousands over the years. Nixon has lived in Pittsford for 27 years. He had name recognition and other advantages from having run in the same district just 2 years ago. Apparently he enjoys a uniquely close relationship with news editors at the Democratic and Chronicle.

Both Nixon and Daniele worked relentlessly at door-to-door since early summer. Nixon had an enviably motivated and disciplined corps of volunteers from around Monroe County, courtesy of the DFA Rochester advocacy group. Daniele assembled an equally tenacious and dedicated team from the Republican Committees in Pittsford and East Rochester. No element of a successful campaign was omitted or neglected by either candidate.

Republicans believed all along they'd win. Nixon's core group from DFA were similarly confident;   Democratic headquarters was never so sure. Daniele took it by 225 votes. The close result may be attributed partly to Democratic hammering of the FAIR plan (Daniele told the press he was hearing confusion and concern over FAIR at the door), but mostly it was a consequence of the Republican meltdown in East Rochester. The ER surprise deprived Daniele of the healthy margin the town had reliably delivered to the Republican candidate until last Tuesday. We'll discuss the ER result when we analyze town races, but it involved town issues highly specific to East Rochester. If FAIR were the issue, it would have clobbered Daniele in both towns. But Pittsford put Daniele over the top.

To illustrate that East Rochester was the factor here, shift to Daniele enough Nixon votes to give him the same margin Republicans had in East Rochester in 2005. That would shift 206 votes from Nixon to Daniele, giving Daniele a total margin of 431 votes. That would be a 55% - 45% win for Daniele -- the same margin by which incumbent Bill Smith beat Nixon 2 years ago. Daniele most likely wouldn't have garnered the same vote in ER as Smith, who ran as an incumbent. But even making allowances for that, it would still bring Daniele within striking distance of Smith's margin. Given the FAIR plan controversy, this is little short of remarkable for Daniele as a first-time candidate. It shows his strength as a candidate and, simultaneously, the underlying resilience of Republicans in this district.

Nothing we've learned tells us whether Spitzer's driving license disaster hurt Nixon. Clearly it worried him. He devoted a mailing to it, stating flatly that he opposed the Governor's plan. Nixon did robo-calls with the same message the weekend before the election.

But even if the Spitzer debacle influenced this race, the effects of FAIR must be offset against it to get a clear picture of the party dynamics in this district. Democrats have had Pittsford in their crosshairs for at least two years. They couldn't have found a better candidate than the exemplary Nixon. In campaign mailings they matched Republicans not only in quantity, but in quality and sophistication as well. They had a corps of volunteers surpassed only by the extraordinary Working Families effort in Greece. They had an election night gift in the Republican collapse in East Rochester.

Yet with every star in alignment for Democrats to pull it off, they didn't. We're likely to look back on this race as the Democrats' high tide in Pittsford.

District 11

Barker (R) vs. Davis (D)

We could almost take our discussion of the LaFountain - Levin race in District 9, change the names, and present it as our analysis of District 11. The dynamics were nearly identical.

Incumbent Mike Barker is a popular middle school teacher in Perinton. He served as Fairport Village Trustee before becoming county legislator for this Perinton district that includes the east side of East Rochester.

Democratic challenger Sue Davis chairs the Perinton Democratic Committee, but appears to have had little public visibility before becoming a candidate, for the first time, in this race. Both Barker and Davis were supported by ample campaign mailings.

Like Doreen Levin in District 9, Davis appears to possess the personal qualities to make a good impression at the door. Also like Levin, it didn't matter, because she campaigned barely or not at all. Barker, by contrast, maintained a full door-to-door schedule from the summer through November. He beat Davis 60% - 40%.

From this race we derive the same lesson we took away from District 9:   if opposition to the FAIR plan were the prevailing issue, Barker wouldn't have won, much less by landslide proportions. Once more, the lesson of this election:   candidate, candidate, candidate.

District 16
Esposito (D) vs. Kelderhouse (R)

As the seat being vacated by term-limited Stephanie Aldersley, this was one of only two open seats in play. On paper, Republican Peter Kelderhouse appears the stronger candidate. Ex-Marine, former president of the Rochester Downtown Rotary, current President of Irondequoit's Chamber of Commerce, and someone who campaigned diligently, Kelderhouse was the better candidate. By all usual measures, he should have won.

But his opponent was an unusual candidate. Vincent Esposito is an employee of the State Assembly, in Joe Morelle's office. Morelle took a personal interest in this race, twisting every arm he could find to secure advantage for Esposito, from getting him the Conservative Party endorsement in the spring (the only Democratic legislative candidate so endorsed) to securing him the Independence Party line in the summer, to getting him the endorsements of the Rochester Business Alliance and Democrat and Chronicle in the fall.

As a State employee reporting directly to Morelle, Esposito had only one day job since June: campaign door to door. He did it. Esposito is polished enough and pleasant-looking enough to have made a credible showing at the door, presenting himself as someone with experience in state government and therefore able to help the county work successfully with the state. No secret was made of his role as main squeeze of Channel 10 news reader Jennifer Johnson, lending such superficial patina of glamour to his candidacy as that may impart. Consequently, with a little help from his friends -- or, in this case, one influential friend -- Esposito was able to compensate for the resume-level advantages Kelderhouse brought to the race.

Add to it the clear voting trend toward Democrats in Irondequoit, evident so unmistakably in the town races, and you get the result last Tuesday:   Esposito over Kelderhouse by 62% to 38%.

District 17
O'Brien (D) vs. White (R)

Representing a town that appeared more politically competitive until last Tuesday, Legislator Ted O'Brien is the Pandora Boxx of local politics:   the most skilled Republican impersonator in the Democratic stable.   Only Ted Nixon comes close.

An orthodox liberal when the public isn't watching -- as on the internet message board of the left-wing-on-steroids DFA group -- O'Brien is indistinguishable from an unthreatening suburban Republican in his campaign mailings. This was true completely in 2005, and partially in 2007, only because of anti-Republican mailings on his behalf criticizing the FAIR plan.

This is a formidable quality in a Democratic candidate with a suburban district. O'Brien enhanced it by being one of only three Democrats in the county legislature to vote for the Republican motion in October to withhold county funds from implementing Spitzer's drivers licensing plan. Like Clinton signing Welfare Reform in 1996, it's a distasteful price you pay to get re-elected.

O'Brien deserves his reputation as one of the brightest members of the county legislature. He's clearly a star on the Democratic side. He has a reputation also for working diligently as a candidate. He justified it again this year. By every account affable and kind, O'Brien is a candidate who does well at the door. He gained name recognition earlier in his career as County Democratic Chairman. He's often the go-to guy when broadcast media need a Democratic talking head. Professional, presentable, smart and concerned, Ted O'Brien is another effective candidate.

His opponent, Dan White, has a record of substantial involvement in the community. A member of the East Irondequoit School Board, White has served as President of the Irondequoit Kiwanis Club and president of the town's youth sports association. Republican sources tell us that White campaigned hard. A few years ago, and especially, perhaps, in a race for an open seat, Dan White's community involvement and hard work might have put him over the top. But not against a skilled incumbent in what's now as solidly Democratic a town as Brighton.

O'Brien won it with 65%.   He can come out of the political closet.

The forces and influences that shaped the outcome of legislative elections become even more apparent in the significant Town races.

COMING NEXT: Town and County-Wide Races


TomT said...

This is an interesting analysis and for the most part, you're on the money.

I'm surprised there aren't other comments here. This analysis deserves a wider readership!

Tom Janowski said...

I also agree that this analysis is excellent, though I do disagree with some of the main points. It's one of those things where there can be two points of view and I suppose we'll never know which is right, wrong or somewhere in the middle.

My simplistic overview of the Gamina, Beebe and Nixon races...

Beebe had the extra boost of Working Families Party.

Gamina and Beebe were running against incumbents who did and/or said some very dumb things during the campaign that went a long way in pointing out the positives of Gamina and Beebe. Nixon, on the other hand, didn't have an incumbent to run against. Daniele didn't really say or do anything of much consequence during the campaign that drew negative attention his way.

Also, in Gamina and Beebe's races, their local school districts held widely publicized and well attended school meetings that focused parents' attention of the county funding reductions to suburban schools. Pittsford didn't have that type of meeting.

Philbrick said...

Tom Janowski -- Thanks for your additional insights into these county legislative races.

Would be interested in your take on those portions of our analysis you don't agree with, if you have the time and inclination to share them.

Our effort is limited to the four of us who produce this blog talking to whom we can, trying to figure it out then turning it over to me to write it up. No doubt we miss 99% of what's out there. So whatever you might wish to add would be of interest to us and to anyone else who might read this blog.

TomT -- We extend the same invitation to you.

Thanks to you both for commenting.