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So much to do: Calsolaro surveys his ward.

2009: A Mayoral Odyssey

Speculation about the 2009 Albany mayoral race has started early, and the prospect of one undecided Albany councilman filling the role has people talking

By David King

Photos by Chris Shields

 

“Nothing has changed,” says Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) on a bright June morning as he stands in front of a dilapidated brick building on Second Avenue, just feet away from his own home. The building’s broken walls curve inward, its windows are boarded up with plywood, and weeds are growing unchecked from around its foundation. It was here in front of this building six years ago that Calsolaro announced his run for a council seat in the ward he had lived in for more than 20 years.

But things have changed. The building is tilting a bit more to the right, there are fewer businesses open on Second Avenue, and, as Calsolaro points out: “Every house on that block now has some type of fence in front of it. It wasn’t there five or six years ago, but they all have them now. And that is not a good sign.” A number of the houses now have “No Trespassing” signs, and shootings in the neighborhood are getting to be an all-too-regular occurrence. Fourteen years ago there were 400 abandoned buildings in Albany, Calsolaro notes. Today he estimates there are at least 1,000.

Calsolaro himself has changed. No longer simply a respected, lifelong member of the community, Calsolaro now has six years of experience on Albany’s Common Council, where he has spoken out without regard for the feathers he might ruffle—six years of discovering the realities that impinge on efforts to improve a neighborhood: money, influence, power . . . and money again.

The stocky, sometimes awkward Calsolaro, whose passionate, occasionally stuttering speeches at the council meetings draw applause from the crowd and make less-interested council members quietly leave, has won more recognition and public support than most of his peers, who do not speak out of turn.

If a number of public figures and constituents have their way, Calsolaro will soon be facing an even bigger change. They want him to consider changing jobs—to run for mayor of Albany. Calsolaro has a decision to make. It is a question put to him by radio-show hosts, constituents, journalists and politicians alike: “Will you run for mayor of Albany?”

“People on the street ask me,” says Calsolaro. “[New York Post columnist and WROW radio host] Fred Dicker asked me, people from groups around the city ask, and I think part of it is because I say what I think is right. I speak my mind, and I think that’s part of it. People like to hear somebody actually come out and say something that may not be agreeable, or at least say something at all. I think that’s a lot of it. They want someone who is not afraid to speak up.”

Calsolaro is not power-hungry or extremely ambitious. In fact, when on his radio show Dicker asked Calsolaro if he would run for mayor, Calsolaro told Dicker he wasn’t sure he has the energy. And he harbors far less contempt for Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings than their sometimes contentious relationship might suggest.

Calsolaro told Metroland that he is unsure about his political future. He may not run again for his council seat because he feels that politicians get stale, and there is a need for new ideas. But by the same token, he says he feels that “it is time for a change” when it comes to the position of Albany’s mayor. “A lot of people have come to me about that. I mean, it is always a possibility. I haven’t made my mind up on that either, but if there is enough support, it’s possible.”

“It never changes in Albany. Politics is its primary spectator sport,” says Common Council President Shawn Morris. “The conversation [about the 2009 race] really started six years ago or seven years ago. The political scene in Albany is kind of like fantasy football.”

“It’s obvious a lot of people are speculating about the 2009 election,” says Helen Desfosses, former council president and professor of Public Administration and Policy at the University at Albany. “The fact Jennings already announced he is running in 2009, after he made the statement that he wasn’t going to run again, clearly indicates he wants to run again but that he wants to scare off potential contenders.”

Some pundits insist that Jennings has “circled the wagons” since a defeat last year to State Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany) in a race for a position on the Albany Democratic Committee, and the loss of his two close allies, former Gov. George Pataki and former Congressman John Sweeney.

“Jerry has insulated himself some,” says Calsolaro. “His circle of power, to my mind, has shrunk. A lot of it is the people have been expecting more. He’s been in 14 years, and that is a long time to wait for change.”

In fact, Calsolaro says, the Albany Democratic machine as a whole is slowly being eroded. “I’m not afraid to speak up. A lot of people would like to speak up, but there is such a long tradition of political punishment I guess people are still afraid. But more and more people are getting to that point. More and more people haven’t grown up under the system, they aren’t intimidated by party politics or machine politics anymore, and I don’t think the system works for them. When I was a kid, everything went through the ward leaders. You didn’t go to the assessment officer; you went to the ward leader. People have learned now that the government agency is supposed to work for me.”

McEneny says he sees an interesting parallel between Jennings before his initial run for mayor and the position Calsolaro is currently in.

“Dominick serves a fitting role in the City Council. It’s the same role Jerry Jennings had when everyone was following Mayor [Thomas] Whalen in lock-step. There are a lot of parallels between them. Jerry was the one person openly speaking up on the issue of the Pine Bush. That role is now occupied by a City Council person, and this time it is Dominick. People respect him. He does not talk for the sake of talking. There is true passion in the issues he espouses.”

“In a city as old as Albany, yesterday’s outsiders become today’s insiders,” says Desfosses. “You may remember Jerry Jennings ran as an outsider. He ran to challenge the system. He has now been in for four terms. He announced he wants to run again in 2009, and now he is an insider, and other people will be presented as outsiders.”

Calsolaro says neighborhood revitalization efforts such as the Arbor Hill Plan and the ReCapitalize Albany Committee were needed before Jerry Jennings was elected mayor, but should have been instituted much earlier under his watch.

As a lifetime resident of Albany, Calsolaro says he watched as the construction of the Empire State Plaza and I-787 uprooted neighborhoods, drove the middle class to the suburbs and fractured the city. “When the city got broken up by the plaza, it might have started problems with the uptown-downtown thing. You have a shooting at the South End the other day, and then an hour later you have someone shot in the North End. Maybe that’s because the city got cut up by highways and the plaza. You have to go around streets where you used to be able to go all the way from the South End to the North End. I’m not a planner or anything, but it just seemed like all that stuff happened around the same time. The highways, the plaza . . . and it put the poor people in one part of the city, and everybody else is separate, and it wasn’t that way before.”

Morris adds that there has never been a citywide effort to counteract the sectioning off of Albany and the departure of the middle class from the city.

“There really has not been a concerted effort, citywide,” she says. “People are actively addressing the issue on a neighborhood level, in neighborhood associations, trying to keep people in the city, to hold on to the middle class we have. But we are losing the middle class of all races and all color. Poverty levels in the city are increasing, and that’s what is gonna make it hard for Albany in the long run. There just is not that focus citywide. What neighborhoods end up doing is chasing people from one neighborhood to the next, and when urban issues pop up, people leave again.”

Working together: Jennings and Calsolaro announce Saint Rose's plans for Hoffman Park.

Some pundits say that they feel Jennings’ decision to run again for mayor after announcing he would not seek another term was fueled by his desire to see the Albany Convention Center project through to completion. Calsolaro has been a harsh critic of the project from day one. In fact, according to Calsolaro, before the convention-center authority ever existed, he was pressing for an alternative way to spend money in Albany that would restore and rehab existing infrastructure to ensure that, rather than attracting tourists with a convention center, Albany could attract new residents with building-rehab programs and incentives to home buyers. But Calsolaro says he was told “that it was not ‘sexy enough’ to be able to get through the state Legislature.”

But Calsolaro insists convention centers do nothing to repopulate a city.

“Convention centers may be sexy, but how many people are moving into a city because of a convention center?” asks Calsolaro. “I’ve yet to hear someone tell me they are moving into a city because of a convention center. I’ve asked people this, ‘Have you moved cause of a convention center?’ and they look at me like I’m nuts. But they may move in if the block has no vacant buildings, and the three that were vacant have been rehabbed, and the street looks great because the sidewalks have been done, the streets are paved, and the street looks livable. And now as a result we have 10 more people living in Albany. And I’m not done with that argument.”

Calsolaro’s Reconstruct Albany Authority would have taken a smaller amount of money than the $200 million figure planned for the convention center—around $25 million to focus on fixing the city itself.

“It would be a 20-year project,” says Calsolaro. “The unions would have work—electricians, plumbers, etc. We would target, say, 20 houses a year to rehab. And we could keep doing it for 20 years. The unions would be working all the time, rather than working on one big building that is done in 18 months. Now what do you do? Now instead you have a 20-year plan.”

While both McEneny and Desfosses say that Calsolaro’s plan is not truly a realistic alternative to the current situation with the convention center, both note his interest and criticism of the project has led to real results.

“I think Dominick’s persistent questioning of the scale and process of the convention center has helped result in a number of changes,” says Defosses. “Dominick, by asking questions from the very beginning, helped make sure the human impact on the neighborhoods surrounding it is going to be taken into account.”

Calsolaro’s appearance on Dicker’s radio show last month led to accusations from City Hall that Calsolaro was the man behind the popular political blog Democracy in Albany, a charge that both Calsolaro and the anonymous DIA deny. But Calsolaro has been met with accusations and criticism from City Hall whenever he chooses to speak his mind. However, Calsolaro says other city politicians have their own reasons to keep quiet. “They don’t want to lose Jerry’s support. They don’t want to be threatened by a primary if they speak out, or if they don’t vote the right way. It still goes on; people still get phone calls and get told they can’t vote this way.”

But the public criticism Calsolaro receives from the mayor only seems to increase Calsolaro’s popularity. According to DIA, the mayor’s flippant reactions are simply fueling his opposition.

“The mayor blames others,” says DIA in an e-mail interview. “Calsolaro steps ups and tries to help solve the problems. It’s very simple. And it’s what Albany needs. This is why people would like someone like Calsolaro as mayor. This is why there is a void in City Hall. The mayor operates in a black box, and once a year he sends us the bill. I feel City Hall’s refusal to engage has grown my audience. Criticism only works if you are making legitimate arguments. So when the mayor criticizes Dominick by saying that Dominick doesn’t understand the issue of gun violence and that the streets are perfectly safe, that only makes him sound out of touch.”

Some pundits suggest that the buzz around Calsolaro may be growing because his supporters are more accustomed to modern politics and communication than the Jennings administration.

“I find it very interesting that the city announced its new Web site,” says Desfosses. “The city is way behind many of its residents in terms with its familiarity with techniques of communicating.”

Calsolaro says he constantly hears from constituents who have tried to contact City Hall by letter or phone and have not heard back about their problems.

“Anybody that writes or calls should get their letter returned. I have called and nobody calls me back. That has been a constant for years now, even when I was president of the neighborhood association, and it’s still going on.” Calsolaro insists that the city needs a 311 phone system to make sure residents can access the information they need and have their concerns registered. He says he hears from constituents who claim that they have called about a problem multiple times, and when he checks in with the proper department, he is told over and over again, “We never got any calls about that.”

Morris says that Albany has entered a new era of citizen participation in government, that people are more willing than ever to show up at a meeting on planning or neighborhoods. But, she notes, the one frustration that inhibits further citizen participation is that City Hall rations information.

“Technology is not just the issue,” she says. “It’s the old way of doing business, where City Hall doesn’t want information available for the public. That hoarding of information . . . Information is piecemealed out to people as a favor rather than an expectation. You have to earn the right to receive information rather than have it available because you are a taxpayer. We are still at the point where they don’t want to share information that they have. More than anything else, that is a critical issue that the current administration has. And it is a big vulnerability. People just don’t want to put up with that.”

Communication and an ability to access generally under-represented communities may very well determine the next election. Pundits assert that one of the most defining factors in the race may come one year early, during the campaign for Albany district attorney.

“There are the county legislative races in 2007, and the Soares reelection campaign in 2008,” says Desfosses, “which is relevant here because last time he mobilized an extraordinary number of minority voters in the city that had never voted before. Lists are all-important in politics. If you know who you brought out and have their names and recent phone numbers, you can tap these people. The fact they will be mobilized again for a re-election campaign means there will be lots of live dynamism, if you will. And that could spill over into the mayoral race.”

Calsolaro is not the only person pundits are watching closely when it comes to the 2009 race. Other people who are considered possible contenders are Morris, Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2), Councilman Richard Conti (Ward 6) and Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3).

“If you go around the city, you will hear the names of many potential contenders from all segments of the city,” says Desfosses, “from all ethnic and racial groups, from a variety of different neighborhoods. It all could lead to nothing, because the mayor is perceived to be too strong as an incumbent. Very few might fill out papers to run against him, or all this smoke and discussion might lead to some fire.”

Morris says that in Albany, speculation is simply the name of the game. “It’s like fantasy football. People pick up players and drop them again. That is very much where we are right now. But the best thing that can happen is that there will be 15 people out there all saying, ‘This is what I’m thinking about, this is why, and these are the issues that are important.’ ”

Desfosses and Morris say any number of things might play into the coming election, the reassessment that has some residents none too pleased, the state of crime and gun violence in Albany, what stage of development the convention center is in by 2008, and how initiatives like the ReCapitalize Albany committee and the comprehensive plan are perceived.

When asked if she might have an interest in throwing herself into the mix of a future mayoral race, Desfosses responded: “I continue to be actively interested in Albany politics.”

At two years away from election year, Calsolaro is unsure whether he would really run for mayor. In fact, there are other possibilities. McEneny suggests that Calsolaro might one day, thanks to his long involvement with the state Legislature, consider running for the Assembly seat McEneny currently occupies. And that is also something Calsolaro says he has given some thought to.

Having just come from the an nouncement of a partnership between Albany and the College of Saint Rose to revitalize Hoffman Park, the field where he played Little League as a child, Calsolaro should feel a bit of satisfaction, as he had successfully worked with the city to improve a part of his ward. Jennings even quipped to Calsolaro at the announcement: “I’ll even lobby for you on this one, babe.”

But now, here in his own neighborhood, the good feelings have slipped away. The same building he stood in front of six years ago remains empty, growing ever closer to collapse. Down the street, a laundry and a bar that once served this South End community are shuttered.

“This is where it all stems from,” Calsolaro laments as he points out other abandoned properties on Second Street. But during his time on the council, Calsolaro has learned that, as a councilman, he has neither the power, the influence, nor the funds necessary to reconstruct the city where he has spent all his 52 years.

Calsolaro says he knows it is hard to be the executive, and he has been told it takes time to adjust to being the head of the city before a mayor can accomplish real work. He says he respects Jennings and thinks Jennings is “finally making some progress now, with the South End Plan and the Arbor Hill Plan. We have all these plans now. I just wish that stuff was done 14 years ago. I think we are finally moving in the direction to fix some of these things. But I have to wonder if we had started 14 years ago, how farther advanced we would be from where we are now? It got me a little bit upset looking around and saying, ‘Wait a minute, I went to school here 34 years ago and nothing is getting better.’ ”

Suddenly something catches his eye. A teen rides a blue bike down Second Avenue.

“Go to school!” Calsolaro shouts to the teen as he glides past. The teen stops as Calsolaro motions toward school with his thumb. The teen mumbles something about not needing to be there yet and Calsolaro, visibly frustrated, responds. “I don’t want to hear it! You should be in school!”

He then confides that, a few months earlier, while doing a report with a TV news station in the area, the same teen, who plays on a soccer team with Calsolaro’s son, had ridden by on the same bike at the same time of day, and at that time, too, Calsolaro had scolded him for not being in school. The teen smiles and rides away. Calsolaro, shaking his head, tries to compose himself. “Nothing changes,” he says.

dking@metroland.net


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