Will Brooks' style prevail again, this time over Frankel's substance?
Rochester, NY (October 19, 2011) -- Monroe County voters will select a County Executive this November. If the election goes as others have since 1991, a Republican -- Maggie Brooks -- will be elected. Republicans’ 20-year hold on the leadership of the county is not entirely unsurprising: they hold a strong enrollment advantage in the Monroe County suburbs, where voter turnout tends to be strongest. In addition, for many years Republicans held a reputation for effective governance: while Erie County was succumbing to oversight by a state control board, Monroe continued to operate with little fiscal drama. Since the county switched to an elected County Executive in 1983, Republicans have won every race but one.
Brooks vs. Johnson: Style Defeats Substance with a Heavy Dose of Fear-Mongering
Eight years ago, when Brooks first sought the seat, she competed against Rochester Mayor William Johnson. That race featured County Clerk Brooks as the Republican heir-apparent to departing County Executive Jack Doyle. Brooks had cultivated a reputation as an effective administrator, serving as County Clerk since 1996, being twice elected by voters. Perhaps more important, Brooks was known by most as a former television news anchor who presented herself in a friendly, but substantive manner.
Brooks’ opponent, Mayor Bill Johnson, had thrice been elected mayor by wide margins and had the potential to run well in the suburbs. Although many pundits questioned whether Johnson could break through in the county’s notoriously white suburbs, his substantive campaign and his plain-spoken approach to government won him support from a surprising range of local leaders. Curt Smith, the conservative author and former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, was one of Johnson’s most vocal supporters.
As most residents know, Brooks won a resounding victory due, in part, to an ad campaign reminiscent of the anti-Goldwater “daisy” ad. Rochesterians know it as the “Pac Man” ad because it featured a Pac Man-like character consuming the county, suggesting to voters that Johnson’s views on municipal government would threaten their local schools (presumably unleashing a torrent of poor students of color in them). In the battle of the likable Brooks and the substantive Johnson, Brooks unleashed the latent fear of integrated schools in suburban voters. Johnson not only lost the race, he nearly lost the Democratic bastion of Brighton. Fear on the one hand and likability on the other trumped substance.
The Power of Personal Political Style
The political landscape is littered with losing candidates who thought that a substantive campaign could defeat an opponent who was clearly thin on issue, but long on likability. Locally, several politicians have built their careers not on being policy wonks or forceful leaders, but simply by showing up and signaling their commitment to the community.
Bob Stevenson, former city council member form the Northwest District in Rochester: Virtually every resident of the northwest knew Bob Stevenson personally. He attended neighborhood meetings, picnics, festivals, swim meets -- you name it, Bob was there. Stevenson was also a decent, friendly man -- eager to listen and loath to speak ill of others. With such a combination of skills, Stevenson was untouchable, leaving office only when he himself decided it was time to spend more time caring for his wife and family.
Joe Robach, former Democratic Assemblymember from Greece and current Republican State Senator from Greece and Rochester: There could be no clearer statement of Robach’s effectiveness cultivating popular support in the community than the fact that he switched parties and ran -- as a white Republican -- in a district with a large Latino and African American (predominantly Democratic) population. Robach won that race and several others by comfortable margins. Like Stevenson, Robach has cultivated a sense among residents that he is “everywhere.” Robach shows up, chats, meets and greets, cracks jokes and then is off to the next event. But he is tireless in his travels -- and voters have responded.
Robert Duffy, former Rochester mayor, current New York State Lieutenant Gubernator: Duffy was not elected in 2005 because of his substantive policy positions; he won because he had spent several years as police chief cultivating relationships across the city. Duffy recognized that leadership of the Rochester Police Department, and later leadership of City Hall, required connecting with residents, making them feel a personal connection to their leaders. With a gregarious nature and a manner of speaking that intertwined self-deprecating humor with wholesome statements of personal values, Duffy was well-liked by voters.
In all three cases, these politicians have not needed to solve the complex problems of their political institutions, nor did they develop expertise in any specific policy areas. They simply established a favorable reputation and continued to cultivate throughout their careers.
Maggie’s Ad: “She cried”
Maggie Brooks, like Stevenson, Robach and Duffy, is well on her way to following in their footsteps. If one has any doubt about her approach, they should watch her latest political advertisement. In it, a woman talks of her trouble finding affordable prescriptions. When her pharmacist recommended a county-funded prescription drug plan that saved her money, the woman felt compelled to share her story with Brooks. What she emphasizes is that Brooks cried when hearing the news, supposedly saying that it was moments like these that make her work worthwhile.
The ad sends a clear message: Maggie is one of us. Maggie cries, she has a heart, she is not some portrait hanging in a marble building, she is a real person. Like Bob Stevenson swapping stories from the old days, Joe Robach shooting the breeze at the Public Market or Bob Duffy beaming with pride at the spirit of Rochester, Brooks is working hard to say nothing political -- just remind people that she is one of us.
Frankel’s Challenge: Make Scandal Stick to Maggie
For her part, Brooks’ challenger, Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel has a daunting task: to remind voters of the scandals that have plagued the county over the past decade AND to attach responsibility for them to Brooks. In theory, this should not be a hard task: Brooks has overseen the political appointments and made numerous key decisions that have sustained the atmosphere that tolerated these behaviors: she was asleep at the switch when it came to overseeing the Airport Authority. (Why did it take cigar purchases and strip club excursions for the County to say “Oh, maybe we should have someone review the Authority’s expenses account.”?) More recently, when the State Comptroller clearly documented irregularities -- and the potential loss of millions of taxpayer dollars associated with a shady IT bid -- Brooks blithely dismissed the audit as “mudslinging.”
Frankel has already earned the enmity of the County Republican attack machine. Voters are currently being reminded of her tax increases in Brighton and her pay raises -- issues that will not sit well in an electorate that is still agitated by perceived political greed. Frankel’s vulnerability, though, is that tax increases and pay raises are clear to voters; Brooks’ tolerance of Republican corruption is harder to see -- and easy for voters to separate from their image of Brooks as a decent, hard-working lady. Moreover, the County’s steadily declining fiscal state will not require action until well into the next term, meaning the pain County taxpayers will face, sooner or later, might come at the hands of a Democrat -- though it will have been brought on by years of Republican mismanagement.
Voters in Monroe County have a tough task indeed this November. One the one hand, a Republican candidate who, on a personal level, is probably a wonderful drinking buddy -- but whose political cronies have looted the County’s assets. On the other hand, a Democratic candidate who is a well-respected administrator, but who will have difficulty defending tax and pay increases. If voters favor substance, Frankel would run neck-and-neck with Brooks, likely winning given the sad state of County cronyism. But if style prevails, Frankel will run into the GOP Pac Man machine -- and a teary-eyed Maggie Brooks. Brooks’ tears might give her the edge on style -- and might win her a third term -- but the taxpayers will cry tears themselves, sooner or later.
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