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History in the Making

Albany’s mayoral race almost certainly will be decided in the Democratic primary—and neither candidate is a white male

by Erin Pihlaja on August 28, 2013

The two metal spikes pierce the grassy ground, and with a little wiggling and some help from the weight of her body, Meg McGinty pushes the lawn sign fully into the earth. She stands up, brushes off her hands, and just like that, another small piece of turf has been claimed. This time, the victory goes to mayoral candidate Kathy Sheehan.

Working hard: Sheehan, at center, campaigns in the Mount Hope neighborhood with Shahinfar and Applyrs. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“Albany loves their lawn signs,” says McGinty, the communications director for Sheehan’s camp. Here in the Mount Hope neighborhood of Albany, in the southernmost area of the city, these signs are as prevalent to the landscape as the flowerbeds and garden trinkets. The names of those running in local elections alternate from house to house, and the bright colors of each sign mark a definitive battleground, particularly for the mayor’s seat, which likely will be a historic election for New York’s capital city.

There have been only three elected mayors in Albany since 1941, and the most recent, Jerry Jennings, currently is serving his fifth term. The office has been held by white men since Albany was established centuries ago, in 1686. Libertarian Alexander Portelli, Conservative Joseph Sullivan and Independent Jesse Calhoun are on the ballot for this year’s election, but to most, the real race is on the Democratic line between frontrunners Kathy Sheehan and Corey Ellis. Since incumbent Jennings announced via e-mail to the press that he would not run again, it appears that for the first time ever, Albany’s mayor will be either black or female.

“‘Being black in Albany is crap,’ is what she said to me,” recalls Sheehan, referring to one Mount Hope resident as she walks down the driveway after a conversation in the resident’s doorway. “People like her—this is why I want to run for mayor—people like her.” Sheehan had already met the woman months before, in the early stages of her campaign when she focused on small meet-and-greets that her camp called “Conversations With Kathy.” This time, they discussed education, and Sheehan lamented the cost of private schools with the concerned mom. Sheehan’s son attends La Salle Institute in Troy.

There are less than two weeks left until the Sept. 10 primary, and Sheehan is in full campaign mode. She rolls from house to house, accompanied by Darius Shahinfar, who is running against Gary Domalewicz to replace Sheehan as treasurer; Dorcey Applyrs, who is running against Andres Rivera for a 1st Ward Common Council seat; and McGinty, who is busy juggling an armful of campaign signs. They tag-team the neighborhood; one runs ahead and initiates a conversation at one door as the other two chat a door or two behind. When the process is in perfect sync, they all spend a moment at the same address together.

Behind the scenes: Parvizshahi, McGinty, and Peter stand for Sheehan. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Sheehan stops to talk to people on the street, armed with a clipboard, or more important, the data provided by VoteBuilder, a must-have electronic database chock full of information on every registered voter. Ellis’ camp also uses this particular service, known in the world of Democrats as the “Cadillac of all databases.”

Armed with this knowledge, Sheehan approaches doors she knows house registered Democrats with a voting history that haven’t been approached by her camp yet, and she asks for them by their first names. She is businesslike but friendly, and she is fluid in her approach to various settings. At one house, she and her companions spend a bit more time to sit inside with a 95-year-old voter; on the next block she makes small talk with a man washing his car.

This is where, McGinty says, the true force behind elections lies: on the streets and in person. Despite all of the technology we have, a personal invite to an event sent via the postal service is more effective than an e-mail. Hence, the manic schedule of neighborhood canvassing and the piles of maps, stickers, doorknob hangers, and pamphlets.

“Polls are polls,” says Sheehan, as she works her way down the streets. “We don’t take anything for granted. We’re acting like we’re 10 points down.”

The poll that Sheehan refers to is the YNN/Siena College poll released in July that put Sheehan at a 54- to 23-percent lead over Ellis in the primary. The telephone survey reached 948 registered voters; 670 were Democrats. It put Sheehan ahead on voter issues having to do with economic development, crime, and education. Ellis polled higher only on issues that addressed neighborhood concerns. From a Siena Research Institute press release, he also was viewed more favorably by “African-Americans and a majority of women, voters under the age of 55 and Protestants.”

Sheehan, whose previous work experience before winning the city treasurer’s office in 2010 includes corporate law, and Ellis, a community organizer and former councilman, both boast roots deep in Albany’s communities—although Ellis holds the distinction of being born and raised in the city, and often reminds voters that he is Albany’s “native son.” Both sides are running on a platform of change, distancing their policies and leadership styles from Jennings, although interestingly enough, the YNN/Siena poll said: “Current Mayor Jerry Jennings is viewed favorably by 71 percent of city voters and two-thirds say that he has done either an excellent (20%) or good (46%) job.” Both Sheehan and Ellis have also suffered personal setbacks during their campaigns—Sheehan lost both of her parents this summer, and Ellis’ aunt, a mother figure to him, is currently hospitalized.

Mayoral candidate Corey Ellis. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Despite similarities, it was Sheehan who made a distinctive and noteworthy entrance when she came out early and aggressively in the race. The stirrings of her candidacy began in the fall of 2012, and she officially announced in November, long before anyone else, including Ellis, whose official announcement came the following April.

By then the Sheehan camp was running at full speed, and to date she has scored endorsements ranging from unions to activist Gloria Steinem to high-profile politicians like U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). She also gained the support of many of Jennings’ supporters—a bonus with campaign contributions for sure, but a pro or a con depending on whether you see an affiliation with the past politics of Albany a good or bad thing. In contrast, Ellis’ campaign lacks the big names, but claims the support of multiple ward leaders and county legislators.

In the money arena, Sheehan is also the clear leader. “Campaigns are expensive,” she says. “It pales in comparison to what Jerry Jennings is able to raise.” By July, Sheehan’s filings showed that her fundraising efforts had procured over $140,000, although her camp acknowledges that she personally loaned the campaign $35,000 in its early days.

By comparison, by the same point in time, Ellis’ filings indicated that his efforts totaled at just over $13,000, less than he raised in his 2009 mayoral race against Jennings. However, in that contest, he still managed to grab 44 percent of the vote despite being up against Jennings’ war chest of well over $300,000.

Volunteering: Common council (10th Ward) candidate Owusu Anane, rear, and Diana Klementowski, front, make phone calls for Ellis. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Sheehan’s resources also include her three full-time staff members, one part-time staffer, and a volunteer pool of between 250 and 300 people, says Matt Peter, Sheehan’s campaign manager. He, McGinty, and field director Brian Parvizshahi make up the full-timers. They all come from impressive political backgrounds and resumes, even though the oldest of the three is just 30 years old.

Ellis’ campaign manager is Ben Young, who is 27 years old and has been working on campaigns since he graduated from college. He is also the only full-time staff member, but is able to draw from, he says, a volunteer base of around 212 people. Young joined the campaign recently in July, and says that it’s been “a full-on sprint” since.

Young employs many of the same strategies that the Sheehan camp does. At the Central Avenue headquarters, the walls are lined with district maps, and inspirational quotes. One sign reads: “We can, we will.”

Young is happy with feedback from neighborhood canvassing assignments, and he scoffs at the latest poll results. “The Siena poll was flawed 100 percent,” he laughs. Young maintains that the survey undersampled “African-Americans and voters in the 18-34 year old group.”

“What’s today?” Ellis laughs as he sits down to talk at headquarters. He’s in a whirlwind of activity, but says he’s not feeling the same stress that he did around this time in the 2009 race.

“The first time I remember thinking I can’t wait until this is over—maybe it was anxiety—this time around I don’t have that feeling,” he says.

He’s made some changes to his tactics this year, he adds. “Last time I didn’t campaign in the upper wards.”

Young chimes in: “You still got 4,000 votes there.”

Young knows this is a big race. “It’s a battle for the future, in a way.”

Everyone working this campaign is tired by this point. Young says he works 20 hours a day. McGinty jokes that she “is married to the campaign.” Ellis and Sheehan are positive but looking forward to the finish line. And it’s very near.

To look at the campaign milestones thus far—endorsements, money raised, poll results—it is clear that Sheehan has the upper hand. But politics is a volatile game. There are still two televised debates coming up, many more public appearances, and even more doors to knock on. With time winding down to primary day, neither side is ready to celebrate or admit defeat.