Monday, November 26, 2007

The Almanac of Monroe County Politics 2007 -- Part III

Mustard Street's Analysis of the 2007 Elections

PART III:   County-Wide Races

Our look at the significant County-wide races concludes our analysis of this year's elections.

County Executive

County Executive Maggie Brooks is the poster girl for our theory that, absent an overriding issue, it's the quality of the candidate that made the difference in the 2007 local elections. Brooks is so formidable a candidate that Democrats couldn't find anyone to oppose her. That has to do with the candidate, not the money.

Unions and the Working Families Party ponied up enough to finance full campaigns in county legislative races they considered winnable. And Democrats fielded credible candidates against Brooks's predecessor Jack Doyle even though the disparity in campaign accounts between the Democratic and Republican candidates for County Executive was as great then as it was this year. The Democrats' problem in 2007 was that Brooks's popularity is so high they couldn't find anyone to take her on. So here's our candidate, candidate, candidate theory at its extreme: a candidate so good that nobody would take the other party's nomination.

An interesting aspect of this race was that the FAIR plan arose as an issue only after it became too late for Democrats to nominate a candidate. In the election, a no-name candidate on the Working Families line was able to get 26% of the vote against Brooks. This reflects two factors. One is the absolute hard center of the core Democratic vote: the voters who will vote for any candidate on any party line who opposes the Republican. The other factor is that Brooks made a conscious decision to spend some of her political capital on the FAIR plan. So she spent it, and got 74% against a cipher instead of 94%. That's what political capital is there to be used for.

When one of the two major parties doesn't field a candidate, the ordinary voter sees it as an uncontested race. The lower total vote in the race for executive, as compared to the higher total vote for the other county-wide offices, reflects that perception.

Family Court Judge

This race pitted Republican-turned-Democrat Sid Farber, Penfield Town Justice, against Republican attorney Joseph Nesser.

Voters typically demonstrate a strong preference for a sitting judge. Nesser's impressive strengths as a candidate obliterated that preference. As a candidate for public office, he delivered a virtuoso performance. It was apparent in each key aspect of this campaign:   qualifications, work and message.

1.     Qualifications.        Nesser capitalized on the fact that there are judges ... and then there are judges. Farber is a judge in a Town Court, where (as a Nesser commercial pointed out so effectively late in the campaign) most of the docket consists of traffic tickets. The distinction between a (mostly) traffic court judge like Farber and an attorney like Nesser, who has practiced for 21 years in Family Court, was recognized early in the campaign by the Monroe County Bar Association and the Greater Rochester Association of Women Attorneys. Both rated Nesser alone as "Highly Qualified." Nesser had received earlier professional awards for excellence as a lawyer in Family Court. Farber could show nothing similar, much less anything similar that related to Family Court.

In addition, Nesser has a long-standing relationship with many of the unions that usually support the Democratic candidate. In this race they all endorsed Republican Nesser, not Democrat Farber.

2.     Work.        In Republican circles Nesser acquired the nickname "Robo-candidate."   Stated simply, for 6 months he wouldn't sit down. From May to November, at any public event with an appreciable number of people you'd see Nesser. Not limiting himself to the usual dance card of parades, summer picnics and community events, Nesser would go anywhere he could meet more people. If there wasn't a traditional campaign event on a given night, he'd perch at the turnstiles at Frontier Field or the entrance to the War Memorial, to shake hands with everybody going in. If there were no sports matches or concerts, Nesser would check movie times and show up at theaters to shake hands with everyone in the ticket line. On weekends he'd start about six-thirty in the morning at the Public Market and go right through the day until the last event ended, often late in the evening. One observer described him as "almost inhuman" in his discipline and drive:   "The ultimate campaigning machine."

Farber was conspicuously absent from even traditional campaign opportunities until the latter part of the campaign.

3.     Message.       "I'm running for Family Court to protect children."  Cut and roll credits. Repeat a hundred times a day for 6 months. That was the Nesser campaign, his stated reason for running and his mantra. He never deviated from the core message. That, plus his "highly qualified" ranking plus his 21 years in Family Court. Over and over. And over. At every appearance and in every commercial. No deviation. An amazingly disciplined performance.

Running against the Stepford candidate, Farber grew increasingly nervous as the season proceeded, finally showing up regularly at public events. He resorted to a negative ad late in the week before the election. This only gave Nesser the opening he needed to respond, hitting hard on the theme that he had spent 21 years in Family Court while Judge Farber did most of his judging on traffic cases.

In a rare loss for a sitting judge, it was Nesser over Farber 52% to 48%.

District Attorney

District Attorney Mike Green is one of the most politically interesting public figures in Monroe County. Green is a Republican who had to take the Democratic line to get elected four years ago, after the Conservative Party insisted that Republicans nominate someone else. For Monroe County Republicans, he remains their most painful lost opportunity.

Like Joseph Nesser, he demonstrates a single-minded zeal for his chosen office.

The Democratic line gets Green the City vote and his "really a Republican" status wins him the suburban Republican vote, especially in the east side towns. (Green's wife is a Republican member of the Pittsford Town Council). So he entered this year's race a presumptive favorite even before factoring in his high popularity and job approval ratings.

Republican challenger Cara Briggs was a good candidate by any measure. But she found it impossible to get traction against Green, whose sober and focused demeanor only emphasizes his obvious dedication to his office. Briggs tried to demonstrate shortcomings in Green's handling of certain categories of prosecutions, but she could never break out of the "he said-she said" stage.

Yet even if she had, the overall impression of Green as an effective and focused DA would have been sufficient to render the charges harmless. Again we revert to the qualities the candidate brings to the campaign:   if Mike Green were an actor, he's the guy they'd cast to play a serious, dedicated and competent District Attorney. That he appears to uphold those standards in real life makes him a formidable candidate. Formidable enough to turn back a credible challenger like Briggs by 69% to 31%.

It's a measure of Briggs's strength as a candidate that she broke 30% against an incumbent like Green.


As we noted at the beginning of this series, the single most prominent theme to emerge from the recent elections is that the better candidate wins, unless something else grabs voters' attention.

The other big theme to emerge is this:   Republican error.

Republican error in choosing the wrong legislative candidate in Webster cost them that seat.  Republican complacency in Greece in the last weeks cost them an additional legislative seat.

Error by East Rochester Republicans in not detecting (or acting on) a powerful sentiment against the town administration elected Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro as Mayor and Village Trustee.   Chili Republicans lost the Supervisor's seat by renominating an incumbent whose "issues" had to have been known within the town Republican party.   Error by Mendon Republicans in tolerating clueless candidates cost them control of the Town Board.

Most of these errors involved continued party support for incumbents.   So maybe the most consequential lesson of the 2007 campaign is for Republicans across Monroe County:  scrutinize your incumbents as scrupulously as you evaluate new candidates.   As the 2007 vote shows, incumbency won't compensate for a candidate's inadequacies.

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