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(l-r) 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).

Albany Is Us
By Darryl McGrath

It may seem like the timeworn politics of Albany have been turned upside down this year—but the changes have actually been long in coming

In 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.

Once 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.

“It 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 you.”

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 the missus.

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.

“He 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 into account.”

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 common ground.

“Harry 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.

“My 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 and discussion.”

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 earned it.

“I 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.

“I 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,” Commisso says.

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 the city.

What 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.

“There 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.

“Look 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 changed.”

Others also credit demographic shifts.

“I’ve 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.

“Now, 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 party.

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.

“Harold [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.

“I 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 handlers intended.

“I 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 the numbers.”

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.

“The 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 is voting.

“The 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 people voted.

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 1,938.

“You 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.

“It’s 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 appears.

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 envisions.

Albany County Democratic chair Betty Barnette is black, but Barrett dismisses her ability to pull in votes for Jennings.

“She 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.

“The 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 together.”

And, as Barrett would say, someone who can read the numbers. And maybe a little history, too—say, about 40 years’ worth.


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