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Letter of the Law

It’s Albany, what do you want? It’s a common enough line, given Albany’s long and storied history of machine politics, retribution, mutual back-scratching, and. . . . There are even those who, while they’d never condone the practice in the present, are perversely proud of the ugliness, or should we say messiness, of Albany’s political history. William Kennedy is certainly one. At times, I find myself being one as well. It makes for good stories to tell to people who don’t know anything about your city except that it’s cold in the winter. (“42 years?!” “Yep, 42 years. Amazing, isn’t it? And we’ve only had two mayors since then.”)

It’s even become popular, ironically, among Albany city Republicans to speak longingly of the days of Dan O’Connell.

But then there’s the present. And anyone who’s had a run-in with a vindictive or controlling political administration while trying to run for office, do their job, or organize for some sort of betterment in the community is not likely to be nostalgic for a time when the party in power wielded its power in an even more overwhelming way.

One longtime political observer told me going into this Albany municipal election season that it was going to be about process and attitude more than about issues. That seems to be the case—and the question is, is that a good thing or not?

There are absolutely issues facing the city about which there are differing positions among the candidates—convention center, school performance, historic preservation, gangs, police accountability, parking. These are all crucial questions for the city. But the lines in the sand aren’t all that clearly drawn on most of them, and it’s rare that any of them gets politically active Albanians as worked up as questions of process, power, attitude, style, accountability, and integrity.

So far the headlines of the election season have been emblematic of this latter focus: Mayor Jennings making a big deal over possibly invalid signatures on Archie Goodbee’s petitions (though Jennings never claimed there were enough to actually disqualify Goodbee, making his claim that he wasn’t pursuing it because he wanted to focus on issues disingenuous). Charter-reform petitions, and the responding commission. The campaigns of Ward 4 candidate Barbara Smith and Ward 2 Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin challenging the petitions of their opponents for violating an agreement in last year’s county special-election lawsuit. And on.

In this vein, there’s been some lively discussion in the Albany political blogosphere recently about the propriety of obsessing over the minutiae of election rules. Matt Glassman at his blog O, SmAlbany makes a strong argument for differentiating between the grand crime of actual voter fraud—tampering with someone’s ballot, buying votes, etc.—and technical violations of election rules, like having a Housing Authority worker (or board chair) possibly ask for petition signatures on housing authority grounds.

The latter is not a good thing, Glassman argues, but it’s surely not as important as actual issues. He adds that anything that has the net effect of having fewer people on the ballot—i.e., challenging the validity of petition signatures—is counter to the spirit of democracy. This latter, at least, makes sense to me. I’d rather someone gets mistakenly put on the ballot than mistakenly left off.

But some of the commenters over at political hotspot Democracy in Albany counter that after what happened in the special election last year, fair elections have become the central issue. Similar arguments were made on a national level after the past two presidential elections, and I find them compelling, though I don’t think making fair elections the issue requires conflating voter fraud (like last year’s case) and smaller election-law violations (like petition-gathering problems).

Still, the petition-gathering problems that Smith’s and McLaughlin’s campaigns were alleging had to do with violating a court agreement that was put in place in response to what is alleged to be much bigger violations. Pushing the very envelope that you’re being sued for having pushed way too hard last year implies something very different—a sort of willful disregard for the justice system as a whole—than does having gathered signatures from people who aren’t actually qualified to sign for one reason or another (which happens to every campaign to a greater or lesser extent).

When people lose faith in the political system, not to mention when they are explicitly excluded from it by cronyism or fear of retribution, issue discussions mean a lot less: They will be followed by a tiny fraction of people, joined by a tinier fraction, and influenced by even fewer.

Not only that, but process—not just fair elections, but how a city is run on a day-to-day basis—is a pretty important thing for an electorate to consider in municipal officials. City officials deal with minutiae, with the relationship of government to its citizens, as least as much as “issues.” We want to know how they are going to respond to crises, whether they will try to cover it up when they screw up, how they will react when one of their employees breaks the law, how they will respond when faced with a citizen outcry over an issue, how well they keep their personal interests and the interests of the city separate, how much energy they will put into involving citizens in planning processes for major city projects.

These are hard things to measure or quantify, but behavior with respect to election rules, and attitude toward the spirit of democracy they are supposed to protect, is at least one window in. We should be at least taking a peek.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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