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Citizen Pain

Albany’s numero uno has the city’s political establishment by the balls

by Chet Hardin on March 10, 2010

Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen

ACO has her feet up on an arm of the chair piled with our coats. She’s slumped down as far as she can go, holding her empty wine glass up over her head, signaling. If she smoked, and this was a different time, there’d be a Lucky Strike twitching from her teeth, and maybe a pair of cowboy boots emerging from the hem of her denim skirt.

You can take the shitkicker out of Texas . . .

We’re sitting in the basement dining room of the University Club on Dove Street. There’s a murmur of well-heeled conversation. ACO gives up trying to get the waiter’s attention, as he continues to make a point of ignoring her, brusquely sweeping past her, without so much as a glance, to tend to the undercooked steak that he’s just served to Richard Conti’s table. “I give up!” she blurts, and tasks her dinner partner Nathan Lebron with the responsibility of seeing that her offending wine glass be replaced with a fresh pour of Cabernet Syrah.

It’s going on Lebron’s tab, anyway.

She’s teasing Conti, saying that he’s her biggest fan, while Conti coyly pretends that he’s never read her. “Oh please, Richard reads me constantly,” ACO says of the council president pro tem. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s reading her blog, she scolds, “but I know. He’s been on my blog like 255 times.” Conti chuckles and admits to reading her “from time to time, but it’s only for the color,” he says. “Not for the facts.”

Whether Conti is reading her for the facts or for the color, or because her posts pop up in his Google Alerts, he’s not alone. In the 16 months since Theresa Grafflin started posting as Albany Citizen One, her blog has been visited by roughly 200,000 unique viewers, with 40,000 of them returning at least once. She’s blogged nearly 800 posts, averaging 50 a month, attending more than 500 public government meetings. This month, so far, she’s covered about 10 meetings, caucuses, public hearings, committees, even a city court hearing.

Grafflin calls herself a member of the illegitimate press, the legitimate press being the Times Union and others, including this paper, she says, which actually employ people to do what she does compulsively and for free. It’s a badge of honor for her: Here she is, the illegitimate press, routinely scooping the old dogs at the TU—just by going to the trouble of showing up.

But Lebron isn’t satisfied with that label, illegitimate. He searches for a kinder one, and lands on “organic.” He sees her reporting, he says, as an inevitable outgrowth that is flourishing in an untended terrain. And one day, he believes, she, and the people like her, will grow to overtake the legitimate press.

ACO dismisses the idea. “He also believed he was going to be mayor.”

Illegitimate or organic, Grafflin is a hustler. She catches rides from county legislators after committee meetings, waves to the chairman as he’s presiding during session, visits the county comptroller for friendly “Irish debates,” gets late-night e-mails from political appointees, whispers with activists who pull her aside after meetings, and counts Albany Common Councilmen Conti, Joe Igoe, Dan Herring and Anton Konev and a number of state legislators among her drinking buddies. Staffers in the county’s minority office and the county executive’s office pull her blog up to point out what she’s written. Her posts get e-mailed throughout city and county departments and have been printed out and taped to the walls in at least one union headquarters. She’s pissed off more than a few people, including a legitimate reporter who covers the county beat. And though they won’t admit it, many of these politicians and political hucksters share their dirt with her, consult with her, ply her for information and use her as a sounding board.

Try to find a politician in Albany who doesn’t know ACO’s name.

Her critics dismiss her as a shill who plays favorites to benefit her interests, that she’s angling for a job as a political hack. They complain that she’s naive in her understanding of the machine in Albany. They say she’s too conservative. A sloppy writer, an unreliable reporter, a bigot. Bat-shit crazy. But it’s hard to find anyone who’ll say anything like that on the record. As one person who’s considering a run for office says, “I don’t like her, but I need her to like me.”

This isn’t Grafflin’s first foray into the realm of media. She was a sidekick on a talk-radio show on the Dallas AM station WBAP for a brief time before moving to the Capital Region in 1997. She was replaced by Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. “Pretty cool, huh? It was the Underground Shopper, and I was like the production person, but they liked my voice on the radio. So, I started getting on the radio.” The show was hosted by Sue Goldstein, the author of books on bargain shopping. “She was terrible,” says Grafflin, her ghostwriter.

After she moved to New York she did a brief stint as a substitute teacher, followed by a soul-crushing misadventure in the cubicles of General Electric. From there she forayed into the nonprofit world, coordinating a Web site called Choose Your Charity with the Council of Community Services of New York State. She wrote two books on nonprofits, the first of which was written in coordination with Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s office. “Then I went into communication development,” she says, working for the Commission on Economic Opportunity and then for Albany Community Action Partnership. “I taught myself how to do grant writing. Pretty good with member items. Very good with member items. With communications development in nonprofits it’s all communicating, public relations, schmoozing. That’s what I do. I’m pretty good at raising money. I should show you my resume.”

She started going to common council meetings in Albany in 2006 because, “especially when you are working with community action programs, you have to be aware of what’s going on with your low-income community. So I started coming and just got hooked on it. Then some of the people at the county asked me to come over there. And I’ve always been involved with the state, because they’re my drinking buddies. I got this reputation for always being here, and they remember you for that.”

She lost her job. She got the idea to start blogging. But not just editorializing on the reporting of the legitimate press and linking to their articles like most bloggers content themselves with. She decided she wanted to use her blog as a means of full-fledged reporting.

There was a confluence of motives: She was bored; she likes to write; she wanted the attention; she is opinionated as hell; she was going to all of the meetings anyway; she loathes certain TU reporters, and wants to show them how it’s done.

“If the legitimate press would get off their ass—Times Union—we wouldn’t have the illegitimate press,” Grafflin says. “Traditional journalists don’t like me, but I am getting it out there and I am putting it in a language that they understand. Unlike the newspapers, I go to every meeting that there is. I’ve never seen Googly at one of the committee meetings over at the county.”

Googly is her nickname for TU reporter Carol DeMare, whom Grafflin loathes.

“Googly just doesn’t show up at meetings,” a habit Grafflin says is all too common with the TU reporters. Back when she started attending council meetings, “Tim O’Brien was the reporter, and Tim would hold the news for two to three weeks. He would come once every two or three weeks, get news and release it after citizens would have had an opportunity to do anything, and it was really irritating.”

She didn’t even know there is a name for it: citizen journalism. “I just saw a need for it, so I did it.”

“In the beginning, I did one blog in the morning,” she says. “And then I would hear something that I would think is important, that people should know. And the more I did, the more it led to other stories.”

Her first post:

“I don’t do the reporter role,” Grafflin says. “What I say is that I am reporting from the citizen’s perspective. I used to get calls, e-mails, saying that I don’t understand what legislators are trying to do. But what I say is that if you aren’t explaining it in a way that I understand it, then nobody is going to understand it. Because I am a citizen, and I am sitting in the citizen’s seat.”

She broke her second rule with the second post, and all but one after that—though she says she still hasn’t blogged drunk.

If you want proof of ACO’s potential for impact on the local political world, all you need to do is revisit the takedown of Lenny Ricchiuti. Ricchiuti, an ex-cop and the head of the Police Athletic League, was running last year for Albany Common Council president.

Grafflin wasn’t impressed. “My issue with Lenny was that he was running for the office, but he had never been inside the council chambers,” she says. “I think that it is just wrong that he say he is going to come in and be president of something that he’d never attended. It’s disrespectful for people who have done their time.”

Also, through her reporting on the Albany Public Library, where Ricchiuti is a trustee, she had begun gathering rumors of his alleged misconduct in his role at the Athletic League.

She put feelers out in her blog a little at a time, she says, in the hopes of drawing someone out who would confirm what she had been hearing about Ricchiuti. “I knew that there was somebody out there—I knew that there were several people out there,” she says. Eventually, she was connected with Jacqueline Smith, a woman who worked for Ricchiuti at PAL and who would go on to accuse Ricchiuti of “sexual harassment and emotional abuse.”

The two talked on the phone, says Grafflin. “She was just sobbing. I spoke with her for an hour.”

She decided that her blog wasn’t the place for this story, so she handed it off to Jordan Carleo-Evangelist at the TU. She says that she knew she couldn’t do a story this large. “It would have taken a lot of research. A lot of calling and checking references, and that’s something that somebody better-equipped should be doing, somebody more legitimate. I’m not trained in this. She was crying on my shoulder. I wanted it to be more objective. I didn’t want it to be emotional.”

“I still see him,” she says of Ricchiuti. “I run into him. I don’t have a problem with it, though, ’cause I believe that it happened. There’s no doubt in my mind. She described bruises,” says Grafflin. She recognizes that she is often very close to libel, and never closer than in her comments about Ricchiuti, but it doesn’t concern her. “Not with Lenny. I feel confident that he can’t disprove it.”

Insiders from Ricchiuti’s campaign won’t dispute that the TU article effectively killed his chances, which certainly pleases ACO. Bolsters her, in fact. If she wants to bring down a politician, she says, she can, and will. Grafflin sees her role as something of political ombudsman, the intermediary between the politicians and political hires who run government, and we, the People, whom she represents.

She points to the baffling snow emergency that the city called at the end of February. The city instituted the snow emergency at 8 PM on a Wednesday, stating that it would remain in place until the following Friday at 8 PM, even though the predictions of snow on Wednesday gave way to a torrential downpour of rain on Thursday. It infuriated her that the city would leave this unnecessary snow emergency in place—and continue to tow cars. “We were getting smacked down in Center Square,” she says, “they’re just towing like crazy. And the sidewalks are rivers—I know because I went through a bunch of boots that day.”

She was getting phone calls and e-mails from people who were frustrated by the snow emergency. But none of these people had actually called the city about it. She called Conti, her councilman, who didn’t seem to be taking her very seriously, she says. “He just kept saying, ‘Yes, ma’am, yes ma’am, yes ma’am.’ ”

So, she fired up her Dell Inspiron and blogged a post chastising the city’s disregard for the residents of Center Square and businesses by continuing the “farce.”

She followed her afternoon blog post with a call to the Department of General Services and updated the post after speaking with DGS representatives. The next morning, the snow emergency was retracted—only 354 cars towed, she reported.“There were a lot of people reading my blog in the middle of the night, so it may have gotten through to a few places—even people in Washington, D.C.,” she says, adding the boast that Nick D’Antonio, the head of DGS, told her that she was the reason it was lifted.

“They first said that Nicky couldn’t remove it,” she says, “that they hadn’t done it ever before.”

Now, she is trying to broker a meeting between D’Antonio and Center Square business owners. “I want to develop some trust between the citizens and the staff of the city, who seem like they want to work with us. We have things that need to happen, and they seem to want to bring business down here,” ACO says. “I am trying to create more trust.”

Grafflin is a hustler. She’s a registered lobbyist looking for a contract. She has two book ideas brewing, a real-estate deal for Ballinger’s she’s trying to arrange with a downstate developer and job applications on the desk of every politician with any pull in the city. While she enjoys the influence that her blog seems to wield, it isn’t paying the bills. “I’m broke,” she says. “It’s like the starving artist syndrome.”

She says that she hopes this article will help land her a job.

As far as her impact on the local media landscape, she says that she’s never really thought about it. Does she represent a new wave in organic media that will rise to meet the gaping void left by the schizophrenic corporate media? “Nah,” she says. She knows better than anyone that she is a bizarre phenomenon. That she will one day burn out, broke, and be forced to scale back her blogging for more legitimate pursuits—like making money. Following in her footsteps would just be too hard for most people. “Nobody’s as determined that the citizens have the information as I am.”

Even if she could, Grafflin says, creating a new kind of journalism isn’t on her agenda. At best, she thinks that she might shame the legitimate press into hiring better reporters to focus on the minutiae of government, which is her niche, and which she believes is so damn important.

“Who could replace me?” she asks, as modest as ever. “I go to almost every meeting I can.” It’s an enormous time commitment, a full-time job. “People say how dull it is to go to meetings, and it is, I guess,” she says. Government moves at an agonizing pace. It is a progression of tiny, unspectacular steps. “But it’s like, remember back in college? Everybody at some point got hooked on All My Children. You watch one episode and you say, ‘What the hell are these people doing?’ It’s just dull. But if you watch every episode every day, it’s exciting.”

It’s a soap opera.

“It’s become my entertainment. And a lot of people rely on it.” And, at the very least, she says, “I’ve become famous.”