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Representing Contrasts

108th Assembly District candidates Carolyn McLaughlin and John MacDonald have contrasting visions for a diverse constituency

by Darryl McGrath on September 7, 2012

Cohoes Mayor John McDonald suggested the privately owned Professor Java’s Coffee Sanctuary on Wolf Road for a recent chat about his candidacy for the 108th New York State Assembly District. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, talked about her race at the recently renovated John A. Howe Library in Albany’s South End.

Both places were emblematic of the candidates’ views, as they talked about small businesses, beneficial local and regional partnerships, and the importance of giving a voice to the overlooked.

As is common in the Capital Region, there is no Republican challenger. So the winner of the Democratic primary Sept. 13 will be the presumptive winner in November of what is now known as the 106th District seat, but which will become the 108th District seat when that winner takes office. For simplicity’s sake in the post-redistricting changes, the soon-to-be 108th District is still most often referred to simply as “the Canestrari seat,” which denotes its popular and progressive 24-year-incumbent—Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari, who is retiring. The 108th District will no longer represent East Greenbush and will expand its coverage of Albany.

McDonald, who has been Cohoes mayor for 12 years, also owns and operates Marra’s Pharmacy & Medical Equipment in that city. He says that his experience overseeing 40 employees in that business, and 140 in the city’s administration, is good preparation for representing the 108th District, which contains a number of separate and very distinct components: Albany’s South End, Delaware Avenue and Hudson/Park neighborhoods; the cities of Rensselaer, Cohoes, Watervliet and Green Island; and North Greenbush. McDonald has known Canestrari—a former Cohoes mayor—for years through politics and proximity; the two are neighbors.

“I’m well prepared with good experience, especially in making day-to-day decisions that are made with day-to-day dialogue and thoughtful discussion,” McDonald says. The city was in the red by $1.5 million when he took office; now, he notes, “We are almost two and a half million to $3 million to the positive.”

McDonald describes himself as a fiscal conservative—Cohoes has had no tax increases in the last two years—and says his experience on a number of regional boards and commissions has given him both experience in consensus-building and the belief that communities in the region could use more guidance in developing that quality.

But it is his primary challenger who has the backing of Albany County Democrats and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. The serious, soft-spoken McLaughlin has already proven her appeal in the city beyond the South End by winning the citywide Common Council president’s seat in 2009 after representing the council’s 2nd Ward for a dozen years. A native of Albany and a chemist by training, McLaughlin is an assistant manager at the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System; before that, she was an administrator with the New York State Division of Budget.

She says she sees parallels between the new sections of the district and the South End, a section of the city that has many vibrant and stable residential streets and has seen strong development in recent years as well as a housing boom. The Albany Housing Authority is building and renovating dozens of apartments in the South End. Habitat for Humanity has built several new homes, and construction is under way on the South End Campus Center—an educational complex in partnership with several regional colleges and universities. McLaughlin had a lead role in the revitalization plan for the South End that led to these projects, but the neighborhood still has persistent pockets of poverty and stretches of abandoned housing.

In these challenges, McLaughlin sees contrasts between the 108th district and the better-heeled 109th Assembly District, from which longtime incumbent Jack McEneny is also retiring and which is becoming one of the most hotly contested races in the region.

“When I looked at the (108th) District from one end to the other, I thought, ‘What do these people have in common?’” McLaughlin said as she sat in a small meeting room at the Howe Library, which does double duty as a community center and gathering place for South End residents. “The problems that the people have are quite similar. When I see how often people have said that Albany was the tale of two cities, I see the 108th and 109th—that’s the tale of two districts.

“This district begs the attention of somebody like me, who lives in the midst of it. The preponderance of the residents—they are the 99 percent,” McLaughlin said.

Whatever perceptions the two candidates have about the district, one thing is certain: The winner will also have to deal with hot-button national policy issues—think last year’s gay-marriage vote—as well as statewide concerns. And if the victor is not already familiar with education funding and policy, a crash course will be necessary. Canestrari, who chaired the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, said education will be a pressing issue.

“I don’t think anyone looking at my seat can ignore it, not only because we’re in the state capital, and what happens here on the educational front gets noticed, but also every municipality in the district has a school district,” Canestrari said. “And so to ignore education and not push for it—an individual would do so at their peril.”