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Staying the Course


‘We don’t get a lot of sympathy.” Shawn Morris, Albany’s Common Council president, was referring to legislators, and she was commiserating with the Albany County Legislature. Of course this was a week ago Monday (May 8), and Morris was one of about 20 speakers who had shown up, along with supporters spilling out into the halls, to speak up on behalf of Albany County District Attorney David Soares as part of the political firestorm that followed his remarks on U.S. drug policy on May 2 at a Vancouver, B.C., conference on drug use and harm reduction.

The real subject of Soares’ remarks, said Morris, was lawmakers are afraid of change, and while she understood personally the difficulties of being a lawmaker (hence the sympathy comment), resolutions like the one proposed by Loudonville Republican Ann Comella calling on Soares to apologize for his remarks prevented useful dialogue on the matter at hand from taking place.

She might as well have said lawmakers are afraid of offending law enforcement (who, interestingly, get far more sympathy in general than they themselves do). Although the call that went around that generated the crowd had said that the legislature was considering a “no confidence” vote in Soares, it was actually specifically a call for him to apologize for small parts of his remarks that were perceived to criticize the police.

For those who missed the hullabaloo, in the process of critiquing U.S. drug laws, Soares said that one of the motivations for keeping them in place was that they provided many lucrative jobs for top law-enforcement officials like himself. That he referred to top officials like himself, did not in any way criticize the work or dedication of the officers themselves, nor implied that street-level officers were in some way impeding reform was all missed entirely—well, at least by representatives of local law enforcement with a bone to pick with Soares. They took a critique of a nationwide system personally, and like a parent rewarding a spoiled child with what they asked for, Comella was right there to back up their right to pout over it.

Of course Soares had clarified his remarks earlier in the day, reiterating what is obvious to anyone who has spoken with him about crime and policing—that he deeply respects police work—and by the time the meeting had rolled around, Comella had accepted this as an apology and withdrawn her resolution.

This gave an unusually buoyant feel to the room (not to mention the admirable situation of people passing on their turns when their point had been covered by another and nearly everyone staying well within time limits). Still, a broad cross-section of the coalition that elected Soares took the opportunity to scold those legislators who might have considered the resolution, and call on them to use their time more productively in investigations of the costs and benefits of the drug laws themselves.

Sadly, this seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as Comella insisted her resolution had nothing to do with the drug laws themselves, and even the Times Union wrote “The County Legislature has no authority to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws . . . yet speaker after speaker slammed the laws,” as if there were no measures that could be taken on a county level on the topic. This after speaker Michael Roona had specifically referred to studies undertaken by Syracuse and Hartford, Conn., in this vein, and speaker after speaker had called for more county support for programs that work, like drug court and the community accountability boards.

But of course, the whole thing was political, not practical, as Soares himself, in a perhaps-too-candid rebuttal to the original criticism, made clear, with phrases like “They want me? They’ll have to go after me,” and saying he’s glad the behind-the-scenes resistance he’s been facing since he took office came out in the open “before 2008.” Fred LeBrun’s observation in response was that being cocky is a political-survival no-no is not out of place.

But Soares’ return shots at the mayor and police chief and sheriff don’t strike me as cocky so much as frustrated. That doesn’t mean they were politically wise, but being an unpopular (with your colleagues, that is) reformer in a closed, old-boy political system is a very tricky thing.

Much as in a dysfunctional relationship that most of the family is trying to hide from the rest of the world, those who outnumber Soares can easily conspire to make the status quo seem fine, and him like the troublemaker for trying to say there is a problem. “I thought he was part of the team” (Jennings) and “When he comes back, he really needs to meet with us to explain” (Tuffey), are terribly patronizing things to say about your peer who just got a standing ovation at an international conference for saying things that had nothing to do with you. But they nonetheless managed to paint themselves as the aggrieved parties who were trying to make the relationship work until Soares spoiled it, instead of the other way around. It’s a classic passive-aggressive stance, and they should be called on it.

Of course since Soares can’t walk away from the relationship, as it were, he will still have to pick his words carefully, taking pains to stay on an “I meant what I said” moral high ground. He needs to find a way to remind the public that he is prosecuting drug dealers—not to mention other criminals—without sounding defensive about it, and a way to balance modesty with the honesty and loyalty to his campaign promises that have made it possible for people who supported him during the election to still be enthusiastic about him now.

It must be galling to be asked for these things in the face of false accusations and pettiness, but a larger portion of the public cares about his stance on drug reform than cares about the mundane backbiting of Albany County politics, so if he is looking ahead to 2008, that’s the message to stick to.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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