City Court Judge Tom Keefe (photo by Craig T. Warga);
Mayor Jerry Jennings (photo by Leif Zurmuhlen); former
Councilman Keith St. John (photo by Martin Benjamin);
Family Court Judge Margaret Walsh (photo by Shannon DeCelle).
By Darryl McGrath
may seem like the timeworn politics of Albany have been turned
upside down this year—but the changes have actually been long
Albany politics, what goes around comes around. So it is with
patience and no small irony that political activists whose
memory stretches back 40 years tell the following tale to
newcomers on the political scene, especially newcomers who
are dazzled by the against-all-odds election of David Soares
as Albany County district attorney last fall.
upon a time, the Albany Democratic machine bosses routinely
paid the city’s poor people $5 each to vote for machine candidates.
The $5 payments had been in place for so long that they were
as accepted as any of the other methods of the machine, which
treated whole sections of the city’s population like serfs
on a manor.
But in the mid-1960s, a group of young black Albany activists,
all of them members of a social-justice and civil-rights group
known as the Brothers, decided they were fed up with this
demeaning practice reminiscent of Reconstruction.
So the Brothers staged a one-day protest at a polling place
on Clinton Avenue on Election Day in 1966. Albany police arrested
them by the dozens, but hundreds of students, clergy and residents
also turned out in support on Clinton Avenue and throughout
the city. And aided by a growing public reaction against similar
practices elsewhere in the country, the Brothers achieved
the end of the $5 payments for votes.
Buoyed by their victory, the Brothers gathered enough petition
signatures to put up a slate of Common Council candidates
on the ballot the following fall. All three of the Brothers’
candidates got trounced, but that wasn’t as important as the
fact that they got on the ballot at all, which at that time
in the machine’s prominence was something of a miracle.
was a life-changing period,” recalls Leon Van Dyke, a founding
member of the Brothers who participated in those early insurgency
efforts. “You did things because you thought that it was right,
and then you became part of a movement that was larger than
Van Dyke’s words have been a creed for a generation of political
reformers in Albany, some of whom are now well into their
60s or older. Theirs is a story of people who showed up at
community-organizing meetings to see if they could stuff envelopes,
and emerged a few hours later as candidates against entrenched
incumbents who had inherited their political seats like fiefs.
As these pioneers would tell their successors, the election
six months ago was just the latest and most visible chapter
in the history of insurgency movements in Albany, and the
fresh group of candidates hoping to ride those victories in
the coming Common Council races are merely the newest heirs
to an established tradition of challenging the loyalty-above-all-else
status quo inherited from the formal machine days.
The election of 2004 didn’t happen out of the blue; Albany
had been building toward it for more than a generation.
Harry F. Maikels was buried on a bright spring morning two
weeks ago, and a large part of the old way of doing things
in Albany went with him. A founding member of the Albany County
Legislature and a longtime leader of Albany’s 1st Ward, Maikels
epitomized a political system that had boiled its mission
statement down to the simplest message possible: Albany Is
Us. For a good 60 years, the Democratic Party rewarded loyal
people and punished disloyal people, and the process of deciding
who fell into which category could have been an early model
for the One Minute Manager.
The Albany County Democratic Committee defined the Democratic
Party, and the committee had a very long reach. County politics
were so entangled with city politics that in any neighborhood
in Albany you could find people who worked as committeemen
in their ward, held day jobs in City Hall that came about
through the largesse of the Democratic Party, and had children,
spouses or in-laws working patronage jobs through the county.
At the height of the rule of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning
2nd (mayor from 1942 until his death in 1983) and Albany County
Democratic Chairman Dan O’Connell, the party controlled the
police department, the school system and the union jobs, as
well as many of the essential services needed to run a business
in the city, such as insurance and beer vending. Former Albany
Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen has told how, as
a college student suddenly called upon to help support his
family some 35 years ago, he was advised to go talk to so-and-so
in his ward. He did as instructed, and a couple of days later
found himself standing on an Albany street corner in a police-issue
raincoat, directing traffic, an overnight member of the force
before he had even gone through the training academy. He needed
a job and the party provided one, as it had for countless
others before him.
As with any political machine, the flip side of this feudal
system was an iron-clad grip on the political process itself.
The idea of going before a Democratic selection committee
as an unknown candidate seeking the party’s backing was laughable;
people worked low-level jobs for years before being deemed
ready to run for even a committeeman’s seat. Elective positions
passed from father to son, to in-laws or sometimes even to
By the 1970s, after decades of this system, the wards were
becoming fertile breeding grounds of discontent. For every
grateful job holder, there was an Albany resident frustrated
at being shut out of the political process, or simply curious
about what it would take to break into politics without the
blessing of the ward leader. The outsiders wanted access to
the system, not a revolution. But they couldn’t get into the
system without the mainstream party’s backing, and the Albany
County Democratic Committee wasn’t about to start handing
candidacies out to upstarts who had never so much as stuffed
an envelope for the party.
So the neighborhood associations and community organizing
groups started churning out their own candidates. The neighborhood
association in what is now Albany’s 6th Ward was a training
ground for Nancy Burton; she was a winning candidate for the
Albany Common Council in 1977, a year that also saw independent
Democrats David Sawyer and Nebraska Brace land on the council
in the 11th and 3rd wards, respectively.
The Common Council races of 1989 loosened the party’s grip
even more. It was no accident that Citizen Action, an activist
organization involved in housing issues, education and health-care
as well as politics, and which backed a number of insurgent
candidates in 1989, labeled that effort the “Pro-Democracy
Movement.” Totalitarian regimes were crumbling all over Europe;
why not in Albany, too?
Sharon Ward and James Scalzo won in 1989 in the 6th and 10th
wards, respectively; Keith St. John won national notice as
one of the first openly gay, black elected public officials
in the country.
Although Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings has come to epitomize
the Albany County Democratic Party at its bullying worst,
complete with a pattern of political paybacks against perceived
enemies, Jennings has a checkered history that has mixed insurgency
with party loyalty, and he defies easy categorization. He
got his start the old-fashioned way, as a committeeman in
the 11th Ward in 1976, and Corning appointed him to fill the
Common Council vacancy in the ward in 1980 when insurgent
David Sawyer resigned his seat. But as a council member, Jennings
often clashed with the party—and especially with Thomas Whalen
III, who succeeded Corning as mayor—and resorted to insurgent
tactics by running his write-in campaign in 1989. He went
on win the mayoral seat in 1993.
As the 1993 Common Council races approached, a tiny good-government
group variously known as the First Ward Improvement Committee
and the First Ward Committee for Responsible Government started
meeting in Harry Maikels’ corner of the city, where change
came more slowly.
represented the party at its zenith,” recalls Carol Wallace,
the former 1st Ward councilwoman and one of those newcomers
who walked into a meeting of the First Ward Committee for
Responsible Government as a volunteer, and walked out as a
candidate. “He was just an old-time politician. Everybody
knew the rules. And it just gradually fell apart. What Harry
didn’t realize was that if there was a viable [opposition]
candidate out there, that his candidate could be beaten. That
was part of the changing scene that the party didn’t take
Wallace won her seat as an opposition candidate in a 1993
primary by beating the Democratic Party’s pick, Jerry Signer.
Signer’s brother-in-law, Leonard Fox, had retired the year
before, and Signer had filled the vacancy with the expectation
of an easy victory in the regular election. That same year
saw several other surprises, including newcomer Tom Nitido
defeating the 23-year incumbent Peter Horan for the council
seat in the 9th Ward, and community activist Shawn Morris
winning a seat in the 7th Ward.
The 1993 victories sent a firm message that insurgencies were
no longer flukes.
That was the beginning of the end for some of the longtime
ward leaders who had ruled with absolute power, and Harry
Maikels retired shortly after the election. Judith Mazza,
one of the founding members of the neighborhood activist movement
that helped elect Wallace, became the 1st Ward leader in 1994,
remained so until 2002, and is still a committeewoman.
Mazza and Maikels, the newcomer and the machine regular, also
became friends, which wasn’t really so surprising, considering
that both were devotees of old-fashioned party politics and
loyalty within the system. Their differences lay in conflicting
views of how you got started, not what you did once you arrived.
In the end, Democrats like Mazza and Maikels were perfectly
capable of sitting down over the figurative beer and finding
was a Democrat,” explains Mazza, who grew up in an active
Democratic family outside of Syracuse and was schooled in
the old-fashioned party system of county politics. “Once you
won, you were Democrats. For me, I believe strongly in party
politics. That’s important. As a ward leader, I really felt
when the party elected somebody, I had an obligation to be
there. And not everybody today believes that.”
Mazza’s comments touch on a key debate in Albany politics
nowadays. There are insurgents, and there are progressives,
and the two groups do not consider themselves interchangeable.
The earlier challengers to the Democratic machine defined
themselves as insurgents. Once they got elected, they often—not
always, but often—adhered to the party’s belief in loyalty,
rewards and punishment. There are some truly committed Democratic
Party regulars who have been around for decades and will tell
you with straight faces that they, too, started as insurgents,
a claim that would surprise anyone who’s been at the receiving
end of their classically old-style tactics.
Progressives, however, say they want to change the way the
electoral system operates, by building coalitions that reach
across differences in race and economic class. They also speak
of changing the way government operates, by challenging certain
time-honored customs in the Albany County Democratic Committee
that have survived the upheavals of the last few decades.
The party is still capable of punishing people who stray out
of line. Another holdover is the selection of judicial candidates
or the appointment of judges to fill vacancies, which in theory
is an open process before an impartial committee, but in reality
is often decided ahead of time. (Albany County doesn’t have
the market cornered on judicial selections; reform groups
have lambasted similar systems throughout the state.)
The late Mayor Whalen, who served from 1983 until 1993, is
credited with loosening some of the machine’s grip in City
Hall. Under his administration, Albany ended the practice
of no-bid contracts, had its first black police chief and
demonstrated a generally more open atmosphere. But Whalen
also was a product of the Democratic Party’s system of rewards
and punishment, who favored party candidates over insurgents
and was capable of nasty paybacks to troublemakers.
Karen Scharff, co-executive director of the Capital District
office of Citizen Action of New York—which backed the David
Soares campaign through its political affiliate, the Working
Families Party—says her group isn’t always looking for different
people so much as a different way of doing things.
Says Scharff, “We don’t care if someone is a long-term incumbent
or a challenger, as long as they’re committed to running the
city and the county a certain way.”
It’s been slow perhaps, but things have been changing in Albany.
“Ever look on this common council? How many natives do we
have? I think only three or four of these people are natives.
Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case,” says
Tom Nitido, the former 9th Ward councilman who went on to
become Albany city comptroller. Nitido wasn’t a native on
the council, either; he grew up in Connecticut and moved to
the Capital Region as a student at Union College in Schenectady.
Arguments go both ways on how much the Albany Democratic Party
has learned from its newer members. Nitido cites Frank Commisso,
majority leader of the Albany County Legislature and the leader
of Albany’s 15th Ward, as one longtime party member who has
adapted successful insurgent techniques: a stronger grass-roots
effort to reach out to residents, and more campaign literature.
Commisso responds that he is just running his ward the way
he always has.
approach to politics is a grass-roots representation of the
people,” Commisso says. “To say I watch what the other side
is doing—I don’t think that’s an accurate read of myself.
I believe the Democratic Party is open to all. I foresee some
day the factions coming together, for many reasons. I’d say
a majority of the goals are the same. There’s room for compromise
Commisso is quick to point out that his ward has advanced
women and minority candidates, and says he keeps an open mind
when interviewing people for seats, but he also makes no secret
of the fact that candidates who want his backing need to have
believe in rewarding from within,” he says. “If someone has
been with me a long time, I want them to move up.”
The 15th Ward was one of the few places in the city and the
county that carried incumbent Paul Clyne in the primary, Commisso
notes. But that was last fall, and David Soares, the assistant
DA who came out of seemingly nowhere to beat Clyne, is now
sitting in Clyne’s old office.
wouldn’t call David a Democrat from a different faction; he’s
a Democrat, and I believe he’s an Albany County Democrat,
and I don’t think his intentions are any except good government,”
What goes without saying is that 20 years ago, 10 years ago,
possibly even five years ago, it would have been unthinkable
for a longtime party leader to even be reflecting on the victory
of an insurgent over the party-backed incumbent in a major
countywide race, a feat far more difficult in terms of money,
name recognition and sheer effort than winning one ward in
happened? That question, or variations of it, resounded in
local political circles in the aftermath of the Albany County
2004 elections. Two seats that should have gone to the party-backed
candidates instead went to insurgents, and suddenly David
Soares was the newly elected district attorney, Margaret Walsh
was the newly elected family court judge, and the Democratic
Party acted as though it never knew what hit it.
was a statewide issue that Mr. Soares was able to capitalize
on—the Rockefeller drug laws—that was a good launching point,
and he was able to coalesce people around,” says Betty Barnette,
the Albany County Democratic Party chair, referring to Soares’
campaign platform that advocated drug-law reform. “I think
it was the issue.”
Several political observers say that the mainstream Democratic
Party in Albany County has also missed or ignored shifts in
the county’s population. Voters who would have elected insurgents
to the Albany Common Council, had they stayed in the city,
have instead started to spread their progressive leanings
through suburbs such as Bethlehem.
at their peace movement out there,” says Judith Mazza. “You
don’t pull together 200 people on a Monday night for a peace
rally unless you’ve got a coalition out there. Bethlehem has
Others also credit demographic shifts.
been waiting 20 years for this to happen, for some power to
leave the city,” says political commentator and strategist
Libby Post, who has managed several insurgent campaigns in
past years, including Helen Desfosses’ 1997 victory as Albany
Common Council president.
people are moving out of the city—Democrats with kids—and
more Democrats are enrolling in the suburbs,” Post says. “You
see it in Guilderland; you see it in Bethlehem. This is 30
years’ worth of work, if not more. You know, Nancy [Burton]
ran in 1977 and won by what, three votes? That’s when the
idea of sending poll watchers was treason, and getting a list
of people who voted was a capital offense.”
Observers say that this shift means that successful insurgents
in future races in the city and county will be those who can
appeal to progressive voters across the board—both white and
black—who identify with coalitions rather than a single dominant
The Soares race was the first time that a candidate had so
completely brought together white and black progressives in
Albany County, says Scharff of Citizen Action.
[Joyce] was a turning point; he did try to change the party
structure and open up the party, but it didn’t take hold in
a long-term way,” Scharff says, referring to the late chairman
of the Albany County Democratic Committee, who ran the party
from 1990 to 1993.
think the success of David’s campaign really opened people
up to the possibility that new people in Albany can run for
office and win,” Scharff says.
Citizen Action already is playing a visible role in the upcoming
Albany Common Council races. The group announced earlier this
month that it is endorsing 7th Ward Council member Shawn Morris
for council president and 1st Ward Council member Dominick
Calsolaro for reelection, and also backing Barbara Smith and
Cathy Fahey as first-timers seeking council seats in the 4th
and 7th wards, respectively.
Slightly overshadowed by the dramatics of the DA’s race, but
no less noteworthy, was Walsh’s victory in the Albany County
Family Court judgeship race.
Walsh was one of a long line of hopefuls who interviewed with
the party’s selection committee when Judge Beverly Tobin retired.
Unlike the other hopefuls, however, she started gathering
signatures for a primary when the committee went with the
far more predictable choice of John Reilly. It was the first
primary ever in Albany County Family Court.
Both Walsh and Reilly had worked in Family Court, although
in different capacities (Walsh as a court-appointed law guardian
for children; Reilly as an administrator hearing child-support
cases). Neither was a household name, but both had also worked
within the party. Both came across as sincere and thoughtful.
If Walsh had any advantage, it was that Tobin’s seat on the
three-judge court had come to be regarded as the “woman’s
seat” and the remaining incumbents were white men. Still,
Walsh had her work cut out for her: Democratic primaries in
Albany County often have turned nasty, with court battles,
recounts and hair-splitting over absentee ballots.
This time around, the most memorable part of the race was
Reilly’s campaign slogan, “A family man for Family Court,”
which accompanied photographs of Reilly and his smiling family.
The unmarried Walsh was photographed solo for her campaign
materials. People could almost be heard thinking, “OK, so
he has kids and I don’t. Does that mean I could never be a
Family Court Judge?” which probably was not the result Reilly’s
think the slogan really conveyed something you didn’t want
conveyed,” says Nancy Burton, who is now an assistant state
comptroller and who worked for the Soares campaign. “Both
these guys [Reilly and Clyne] were the party nominees. In
neither case did they really understand there was a lot of
work going on out there. What was especially difficult in
John’s case was that it was Beverly Tobin’s seat that was
being vacated. A lot of people other than white Irish males
come through the courts.”
Deep Throat’s advice to a young Bob Woodward during the Washington
Post’s coverage of the Watergate story was: “Follow the
money.” Dick Barrett’s advice to anyone hoping to challenge
Jerry Jennings in the Albany mayoral race would be, “Follow
Jennings can be beaten, Barrett says; it’s just that no one
has read the numbers on voting results in the city carefully
enough to realize that.
road map is there,” Barrett says. “If you get a tremendous
politician in the city, a black candidate doesn’t have to
win the uptown vote. In my opinion, the only candidate right
now who could beat Jerry Jennings is a black candidate.”
In retirement, Dick Barrett has retained his title as the
unofficial statistician of the Albany County Democratic Party.
He has also retained a vitriolic view of Jerry Jennings, who
forced Barrett—a holdover from the pre-Jennings years as the
city’s parks commissioner—into early retirement in 1997. (Efforts
to interview Jennings and Soares for this story were unsuccessful.)
Personal feelings aside, Barrett says the numbers speak for
themselves, and that even diehard Jennings loyalists would
have to sit up and take note of them. He bases his belief
that Jennings can be beaten not on the fact that it’s getting
difficult to remember the last time a Jennings-backed candidate
won an election, but on changes in the way the city’s population
Soares election and defeat of Paul Clyne is very much mirrored
by the McNulty-Wasserman race,” Barrett says, referring to
the 1996 primary in which incumbent Rep. Michael McNulty beat
Democratic challenger Lee Wasserman.
In that race, 2,141 voters turned out in the city’s primarily
black wards: the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th. In the city’s uptown
white, middle-class wards—the 8th, 9th, 13th and 14th—7,023
But eight years later, in the Clyne-Soares primary, 2,698
voters turned out in the mainly black wards—an increase of
557—while the vote in the uptown white wards decreased by
see what an African-American candidate who identifies with
the city is able to do?” Barrett says of the columns representing
the city’s minority vote last fall. “See what’s happening
to Paul Clyne? He’s not getting that McNulty vote. The Soares
punch comes in the inner city, and the inner city with a full
turnout in a primary represents 40 percent [of the city’s
vote], and Soares gets three-quarters of that.
the monolithic black vote that’s now killing the Jennings-backed
candidates in the city,” Barrett adds.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Barrett’s assessment,
and even moderates such as Tom Nitido say that a good number
of people in Albany still have the perception that Jennings
is overwhelmingly popular and cannot be beaten, no matter
what the numbers say. Pure party loyalists such as Frank Commisso
point to Jennings’ long record of accomplishments, including
his revitalization of downtown, as validation for their belief
that he is unbeatable. And in past mayoral races, especially
Jennings’ defeat of Harold Joyce in 1993, the city’s black
vote was key to Jennings’ victory.
But Barrett predicts that Jennings’ endorsement of George
Pataki over Carl McCall in the last gubernatorial race will
cost him dearly in black wards, if the right black candidate
Two challengers have announced their candidacy for the Democratic
primary against Jennings, both of them black—Archie Goodbee
and Benzie Johnson—but little has been heard from either since
their announcements. Although people pick their words carefully
when discussing Goodbee and Johnson, you get the feeling that
schooled observers don’t see either one as the powerful candidate
capable of capturing the 40-percent black vote that Barrett
Albany County Democratic chair Betty Barnette is black, but
Barrett dismisses her ability to pull in votes for Jennings.
has no draw in the inner city; she’s always endorsing the
white power structure,” he says.
Barrett is not the only one skeptical about how much help
Barnette can be to Jennings; mutterings about her ineffectiveness
are heard often in the city, and the tone has gotten sharper
since the February meeting of the party’s countywide executive
committee at which Barnette could not muster enough votes
to secure the Democratic elections commissioner’s slot for
the party’s mainstream candidate.
chair of a party needs to be an ambassador, needs to be a
spokeswoman,” says Libby Post. “And in order for the Albany
Democratic Committee to come back, that’s what they need.
They need someone who’s not polarizing and can bring people
And, as Barrett would say, someone who can read the numbers.
And maybe a little history, too—say, about 40 years’ worth.