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Smoke-filled room: The home of the Albany City Majority Party Committee.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

A New Back Room

The emergence of the Albany City Majority Party Committee makes this election year just a little bit more complicated


Albany County Legislator Lucille McKnight (D-District 2), a 15-year incumbent, was confused. She thought that she had the endorsement of the Democratic Committee. And yet, she was told by some Albany residents that her opponent, Lester Freeman, had the backing of the Democratic Committee as well. As McKnight has come to understand it, she does have the endorsement of the Albany County Democratic Committee, while Freeman has the backing of the Albany City Majority Party Committee, a committee that has yet to officially announce its existence, structure, bylaws or membership. Although the Albany County Democratic Committee allowed the city of Albany to begin putting together its own committee, not many people involved in Albany politics seem too clear on who is actually a part of the new committee, when its meetings are held, or by what authority it is endorsing candidates.

“There is an exclusive group of people who even know that it exists,” said Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris. Morris said that as far as she knows there has not been an official election to determine the structure of the Albany City Majority Party Committee. “As far as I know, through various conversations, most people who are [Albany County] committee people were never notified of an election. So it is basically a rogue committee holding itself out as an entity.”

Meetings of the committee are said to be held at the Democratic Social Club at 901 South Pearl St., and some longtime volunteers at the county committee headquarters on Colvin Avenue are said to now spend time manning phones at the South Pearl Street location. A fund-raising letter written by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings was sent out in early June asking for donations to support committee-endorsed candidates.

Some ward leaders and committee people also have been confused and shocked to find out that a set of petitions is being circulated by fellow Democrats with different candidates than the county-endorsed ones. These petitions feature a slate of candidates endorsed by the city committee, and at the top of the list reportedly is Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners. Insiders say that some committee members who want to petition in support of the county Democratic slate of endorsed candidates instead feel they have to petition for the city-endorsed candidates, because they fear retribution from City Hall and think that their jobs with the city may be at stake.

Albany County Legislator Thomas Monjeau (D-District 7), who is likely to face a primary opponent this year, said that he was surprised by the existence of the city committee. “I heard my ward leader say the city committee is endorsing Mike Conners, and I said, ‘What city committee?’ I guess they are in the process of creating their bylaws, doing what they need to do to get up and running, but I don’t know when it is going to be official. But it will definitely make things interesting for politics in Albany.”

Although some see the tension between the city committee and the county committee as a split between city and suburban factions, in this election year, the focus of the split is more obviously the contentious race between incumbent Conners and challenger Patricia Slavick for Albany County comptroller. Conners earned the wrath of a majority of established Albany County politicians when he switched parties to run as a Republican against Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany). After his loss to Breslin, Conners returned to the Democratic Party and has since faced a Democratic primary each time he has run for re-election as comptroller. Conners tried unsuccessfully to win the endorsement of the Albany County committee this year, but now has the support of the city committee.

Conners acknowledged that the existence of the city committee has some people upset. “It is fine for the suburban towns to have committees, it is fine for Green Island, it is fine for the city of Watervliet to have a committee, it was never a problem for Cohoes, but now that the City of Albany has a committee, all of a sudden everyone is upset,” he said. “It is somewhat ironic. It is almost like how no one had problems when suburbs spent money at the airport, but when you try to start a project in the inner city, people are up in arms.”

Sen. Breslin said that he sees the city committee not as a voice for Albany but for that of one man. “The city committee is obviously Mayor Jennings, and it appears as though Jennings has decided to side with Mike Conners in a very open, direct way which I consider unfortunate, given that he is not the candidate of the Albany County Democratic Party.”

Critics of the city committee insist that in its current state, the Albany City Majority Party Committee is simply a tool of Jennings, who cannot push his agenda through the Albany County Democratic Committee, which was split by a controversial election last year that ended in a court decision that made Frank Commisso and David Bosworth committee co-chairs. Although the initial struggle between Commisso and Bosworth was seen as a fight between city and suburban factions, insiders say both are working together now for the county as a whole.

State Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) said, “I think anything that would divide Albany County is bad for the party and the people of the county themselves.”

McKnight feels she is facing a challenger sponsored by the city committee because of political retribution from Jennings. She further feels that as a longtime resident of the South End and also as the president of the New York State Association of Counties, she should have been notified about the creation of the city committee.

Conners said that he believes established politicians are worried that the existence of the city committee will increase the number of primaries, not only this year but especially “in an even-numbered election year.”

Conners said, however, that he has grown accustomed to primaries. “Primaries are good, you just run a positive campaign and talk about what you have done.”

Jennings and Commisso did not return calls for this article. Other representatives of the city committee could not be reached.

—David King

What a Week

We’re Just Sayin’

Nearly half of the country’s citizens—45 percent—want to see President George W. Bush impeached, according to a poll recently published by the New Hampshire-based American Research Group. The study asked 1,100 U.S. adults a series of questions, which included whether or not they favored the House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against Bush. ARG asked the same about Vice President Dick Cheney and found that the American public is even less impressed with him—54 percent approve of impeaching Cheney. Maybe this ill will felt toward the current administration has to do with another question the poll asked: nearly 70 percent of voters disapprove of Bush commuting Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s 30-month prison sentence.

Woe Is McCain

Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) received a couple of blows to his presidential-campaign ego Tuesday. Terry Nelson, McCain’s campaign manager, and John Weaver, a senior advisor and close friend of the senator, each announced that they were resigning from their positions on the campaign trail, leaving McCain in the dust. The hits just seem to keep coming for the Arizona senator, who was demoted to third place in the Republican presidential race after campaign funding numbers referenced the measly $11 million raised for his campaign. By comparison, the former governor of Massachusetts and Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has raised nearly twice that amount.

King of the Ring

No one ever accused State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) of not being feisty. If old Joltin’ Joe knows anything it is how to go on the offensive. In response to the accusations made by Gov. Eliot Spitzer about Bruno’s overuse of state-funded transportation, Bruno has demanded that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigate Spitzer’s alleged misuse of the New York State Police, because he says Spitzer had the police spy on him. Furthermore, Bruno has accused the Times Union of trying to get him to pay for equal coverage, and canceled his subscription. Perhaps the Brunswick Bruiser can settle his score with the Manhattan Mauler, and everyone else, with a few rounds at the Joe.

Too Little, Way Too Late

Recent legislation rectifies a decade-long exploitation of prison families—but some activists say it is still not enough

Alison Coleman spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on phone bills during the 25 years her husband was in a New York state prison. She had her phone blocked despite timely payments; she spent days following unclear directions, trying to renew contact with her husband. Coleman saw money set aside for food spent to maintain a relationship between herself and her husband as well as between her husband and their children.

“Our children needed their dad, and to allow that to happen, I had to accept collect calls,” said Coleman, director of Prison Families of New York, an organization dedicated to providing support to the loved ones of incarcerated men and women. All phone contact between prisoners and the outside world must be made through collect calls initiated from inside the prison.

Since 1996, the state has maintained an exclusive contract with MCI/Verizon that allowed the company to charge a $3 connection fee, plus 16 cents per minute, for all calls made from state prisons—a 630-percent markup from regular calls—with the state itself collecting a profitable kickback of 57.5 percent of those fees.

Legislation signed last month by Gov. Eliot Spitzer orders that the state must actively seek the lowest market prices for phone service and provide billing options for families. This legislation, the Family Connections Bill, also solidifies the governor’s January decision to eliminate the state’s cut.

“As a family member, [the legislation] has definitely allowed for greater opportunities for communication between me and my loved ones, as the phone bills are now less than half of what they were,” said Denise Barnes, an administrator for Prison Families Community Forum in an online conversation. Barnes’ husband currently is serving a 15-to-life term in a New York state prison; she used to pay approximately $10 a day to speak with him.

“Now that the legislature has passed the Family Connections Bill, my calls are back to approximately $3 to $5 for 30 minutes,” she said, “which is much more feasible.”

Although the changes have been well received, some activists say that they will continue the struggle with the state Department of Correctional Services to recoup losses from the decade of what they call “unconstitutional taxation.”

A day after Gov. Spitzer eliminated the state’s percentage, the Center for Constitutional Rights went before the state Court of Appeals to argue the case of Ivey Walton vs. NYSDOCS, on behalf of a woman affected by the exorbitant rates for years.

“The most important part of this case is getting the state to recognize that what it did was unconstitutional,” said Rachel Meeropol, an attorney with the CCR. “My clients had to use money that should have gone towards groceries. Compensation is important.”

CCR has asked the courts to allow the suit to become classified as a class action, which will allow the organization to represent multiple parties affected by these fees.

Many prison activists, in the meantime, are excited by the prospects of continuing to work with Spitzer.

“When Gov. Spitzer came in, the doors not only opened, they fell down. All it took was a governor that didn’t see us as cash cows,” said Coleman, who is working to make the DOCS the most pro-family organization it can be. Ideally, she would like to see a New York State Office of Prison Family Affairs created, though realistically, and despite the recent legislation, Coleman realizes there is a long way to go.

“For me, it’s an unfolding landscape,” she said. “It’s just a piece of a huge puzzle we have to put together.”

—Carlene Willsie

Approved With Force

The Albany Common Council’s Public Safety Committee votes to recommend the creation of a gun-violence task force

If you had asked Dominick Calsolaro (D-Ward 1) a month ago whether the gun-violence task force he had been pushing for years would make it out of the Albany Common Council’s Public Safety Committee anytime soon, he would have told you not to hold your breath. And yet this Tuesday (July 10), the committee voted unanimously to recommend its passage.

If approved by the Common Council Monday (July 15), the Albany mayor would appoint six members to the task force and the council would appoint seven, with the council naming the chair. According to Calsolaro, the task force would be a center to focus on gun-violence statistics and to communicate with those affected by it. It would last for one year.

The crowd that gathered to watch the vote overflowed the four court benches. Albany Police Chief James Tuffey, who had previously been against the task force, spoke at the beginning of the meeting about the causes of violence in the home. Then Common Councilman and Public Safety Committee Chairman James Scalzo (D-Ward 10) assured the crowd that the committee needed no convincing to vote positively for the task force.

The crowd was not deterred, and nearly every audience member took their turn to speak. Allison Banks, a gun-violence activist, and Robin Ringler, an activist who took care of former President Ronald Reagan when he was shot, lent their support to the task force and announced they were reviving the upstate chapter of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.

Norbert Quezner of Delmar, who is the Capital Region director of the National Rifle Association, told the Public Safety Committee that salad forks could be used as weapons just as well as guns could, informed the crowd that the issue they are facing is one of social and moral decay and suggested: “Why not form an Urban Violence Task Force?”

—David King

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Cleaning House

The Troy Food Co-op, according to its board of directors, is still a few months away from a planned opening in October. In the meantime, volunteers are keeping themselves busy spreading the word, looking for members, and cleaning out the former Pioneer Market at 77-81 Congress St. This Friday (June 30), the co-op hosted a flea market to sell off all of the clothes, records, and other assorted knick-knacks in the backrooms and basement.

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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