Empty Rhetoric: Overcoming the Limited Vision of Monroe County’s Democratic Leadership

by Gregory Lebens-Higgins

“To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter.” Marx

The Democratic leadership of Monroe County has proven incapable of governing for the intended benefit of anyone but their wealthy donors. Although they occasionally nod toward the material needs of their constituents, failure to grasp the root causes of poverty and alienation have left our community vulnerable and increasingly disengaged from the electoral process. Only by challenging the mechanics of exploitation and coercive social control can we begin to heal the deep fissure of inequality in Monroe County.

Adam Bello—the first Democratic Monroe County executive in nearly 30 years—declared that his 2019 victory represented “a new chapter in our community’s history. A new era of progress. A vision of opportunity for everyone.” Monroe County would “choose bold, new ideas and creative solutions,” he promised, “not more of the same.” Since then, his policies and rhetoric have demonstrated a lack of ability to envision anything but more of the same.

While the people of Monroe County suffer rate hikes and incompetent service from Rochester’s monopoly energy utility, RG&E, Bello has capitulated. He refuses to even explore the feasibility of a public utility, demonstrating the limits of his vision in response to the bold demand of Rochester for Energy Democracy. Bello weakly asserts that “creating a public utility is an extremely complex issue that is beyond the scope of Monroe County.” Perhaps this task is beyond Bello’s personal capabilities, but the concerns raised in his statement have been persuasively addressed by Metro Justice. Ironically, the day following Bello’s press release, the New York Public Service Commission announced it was penalizing RG&E for “failing to meet reliability and customer service targets,” further underscoring the weakness of his statement.

Bello also promises more of the same in his uncompromising support of the carceral state. He is investing an additional $7 million into the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to add 41 sworn positions. Instead of addressing extreme youth poverty and alienation, Bello is calling for the construction of a new juvenile offender facility. And despite data to the contrary, he engages in bail reform fearmongering.

Such rhetoric from Democratic leaders feeds into the right’s hostility of minorities. This seems of no concern to Bello. In May, he issued an emergency order to prevent hotels and shelters from providing emergency shelter to migrants while hollowly declaring that “Monroe County welcomes people from all over the world.” When refugees arrived in August, he invoked “buses of people … just coming here in the middle of the night and being dropped off in a parking lot,” an image frequently deployed as Fox News propaganda.

Bello stands unabashedly on the side of capital. In 2021, his administration granted over $100 million in tax exemptions to Amazon. Currently, he is on the board for the Partnership for Downtown Rochester—a group behind the business improvement district that would remove democratic control over downtown Rochester in favor of wealthy business owners. 

Adam Bello’s myopic vision is all we can expect from a second term. Despite doling out money to police and withholding the resources to fund a public utility study, Bello, “facing an election challenge,” has pledged to freeze property taxes in 2024—a move praised by Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew.

The Monroe County Democratic Committee, backing Bello in his bid for a second term, has also demonstrated a commitment to more of the same. In the recent primary election, MCDC designated candidates with a track record of supporting landlords and police over working people. For City Court Judge, MCDC designated a prosecutor over an experienced public defender.  And Legislature President Sabrina LaMar received MCDC’s designation despite caucusing with Republicans to ensure their majority in the Legislature! In a statement released after the election, City Councilmember Mary Lupien hinted at further favoritism even among designated candidates.

Another post-election statement—a mailer received by voters the day after the election—further revealed the incompetence and duplicity of MCDC. Among other attacks, the MCDC funded mailer denounced County Legislator Rachel Barnhart for “defunding the police” (despite her unprincipled votes for funding), and invoked racist dog whistling against countywide schools (a sensible solution to addressing the County’s segregated districts).

A separate mailer supporting MCDC designated candidates Nate Salzman and Chris Werner for Brighton Town Board (this one arriving on time), accused progressive candidate Rachel Rosner of antisemitism for standing in solidarity with Palestine. Though these mailers were disowned by Salzman and Werner, their source—the wealthy PAC “Voters of NY”—illustrates the kind of company MCDC invites.

As Bello and MCDC continue to stifle progressive action, they alienate and disengage voters. The 2023 Democratic Primary continued a trend of dismal turnout among voters. By offering little more than the status quo, Democratic leaders are contributing to the erosion of faith in the political process.

Monroe County residents face exorbitant rent increases, food insecurity, and other symptoms of precarity. Yet beyond lip service, Democratic leaders seem largely unprepared to address these concerns. Instead of challenging inequality and justifying redistributive policies, Democratic leaders continue to make unwarranted concessions to the repressive structures of policing and capital. 

Such overtures echo the failed policy of triangulation, and are unlikely to win over voters on the right who disagree with Democrats on other issues. Meanwhile, the “other swing voters”—those who do not regularly vote—are deactivated by politicians who offer no real hope for improving their material conditions. Despite grand pronouncements, Bello’s “vision of opportunity” rings hollow when it is not backed by transformative policies that will bring it into being. 

We are often instructed to “vote blue no matter who.” Yet the tepid reforms of Bello and MCDC will not achieve the changes necessary to uplift those in poverty, stem the rise of fascism, or adapt to a warming planet. That is why Rochester DSA is building a mass organization capable of using the levers of power to meet the needs of all, rather than continuing to maximize profit for the few.

Only two of Rochester DSA’s endorsed candidates won their races in the 2023 Democratic primary. But campaigning is organizing. While we may not have achieved electoral victory, these efforts grew our numbers and strengthened our cohesion. We coordinated with activists across the City, spoke to voters, and got our message out—that a better world is possible. Because of these efforts, Rochester DSA is stronger. 

We must remember that electoralism is only a tactic, not the basis of our strategy. In the spaces of housing, labor, health justice, and feminism, Rochester DSA continues organizing to achieve our vision. A vision of true opportunity—a life free from exploitation and oppression.

We will continue to grow externally and build internally through political education and a focus on issues that resonate with the public. In this way the views represented by Rochester DSA will overcome the limited vision represented by Bello and MCDC.

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