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The Workhorse

As U.S. Rep. Mike McNulty prepares to retire after 20 years in Congress, colleagues speak to a legacy of tireless toil for the district, an open door to his constituents, and a willingness to change his mind

By David King

Photos by Joe Putrock

 

Mike, are you sitting down?” demanded the voice at the other end of the phone.

Just returned from a day trip to a lake, state Assemblyman Michael McNulty was taken aback by the urgent tone of the caller, whom he recognized as Leo O’Brien, the Albany County Democratic Committee chairman.

“No,” replied McNulty, unsure of the nature of the call. “Well, sit down,” O’Brien replied.

McNulty obliged him. O’Brien told McNulty that the United States congressman for the 21st District, Sam Stratton, was retiring, and he (O’Brien) was backing McNulty to run as his replacement on the Democratic ticket.

“I thought about it for 14 seconds,” says McNulty, grinning from ear to ear, “and then told him, ‘I’d be happy to!’ ” McNulty admits he had made it well-known to the powers that be that he was interested in filling any vacancy that might arise.

McNulty said his next question was to ask whether all the chairmen from the other counties making up the district had been informed. O’Brien told McNulty that not all of them had been, and so McNulty got off the phone and began making calls.

Popular Albany political lore would tell a different story, one in which McNulty, Stratton (who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease) and O’Brien planned Stratton’s last-minute exit from the race to ensure that McNulty would not face much of a challenge in his bid for election. According to McNulty, nothing could be further from the truth. “A lot of folklore has grown up around this,” says McNulty, “but in fact I was just as surprised as anyone else.”

For the 20 years since then, McNulty has been known as a soft-spoken, honest, hard-working public servant, whose office has been open to any constituent with something to say. McNulty has played dead center to Albany’s liberal Democrats and Rensselaer’s conservative Republicans.

It was McNulty who did the surprising earlier this year, when he announced that he will not seek reelection this fall. The congressman, who was reelected last year with 78 percent of the vote, was calling it quits. But he did it in a way that ensured that any Democrat in the area who wanted to succeed him would have the chance.

“I think it’s a regret for Mike, personally, that he didn’t have the opportunity to win the seat by primary,” says state Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) of McNulty’s first run for office. “Local conspiracy buffs say it was a dirty deal, but it wasn’t. And Mike is now not prejudicing the campaign to find his successor by choosing or blackballing somebody. I think he wants a classy way to exit, to give people time to access their financial support, political support, and give them time to talk to their families.”

State Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany), who was once thought to be an inevitable contender for McNulty’s open seat, but who recently bowed out, says he is nothing but impressed by the way McNulty has decided to leave Congress.

“I think so few people leave jobs at what others view the appropriate time,” Breslin says. “I have so much admiration for Mike, because after spending his adult life in politics, to be so highly respected and to be able to say, ‘No, there are other things more important in life,’ and walk away from being a respected member of the House of Representatives. Many of us admire his ability to make his decision while not making it ourselves.”

Early speculation was that McNulty was stepping down because of post-polio syndrome, the lingering complications from a bout of polio he battled as a child. But according to McNulty, his reasons for leaving the office reflect the reasons he ran for office in the first place: family.

The son of Jack McNulty, who served both as Green Island town supervisor and as mayor, McNulty was bred and raised on Democratic politics in Green Island. According to McEneny, it could very well have been a combination of his family’s political legacy and the effects of polio that led to McNulty’s early indoctrination into politics.

“During his early years, Mike stayed home quite a bit because of polio, and he had an in-house mentor most people have forgotten, who was a real political lion of the O’Connell machine: John McNulty, his grandfather,” McEneny says. “He couldn’t play sports. He was unable to participate, and he wound up being mentored by his old grandfather.” It is no wonder that McNulty became an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America by July 1960, when he was only 12.

“I got the bug pretty early,” says McNulty about his drive to be involved in public service. Only nine years after he became an Eagle Scout, McNulty was elected to his first public office: town supervisor of Green Island, a position his father had held. At 22, McNulty became the youngest town supervisor in New York state. “The incumbent town supervisor retired. I was elected five months after graduating from college.”

In the spring of 1970, in his first term as supervisor, McNulty traveled to a congressional field hearing in Schenectady to testify against the war in Vietnam. Six months later, his brother, William McNulty, a Navy medic, was killed in the Quang Nam Province. “I can’t help but think,” says McNulty, “that had Nixon listened to the people, my brother might still be alive.”

McNulty served eight years as town supervisor and then was elected mayor of Green Island. McNulty served in that position until 1982, when he ran and was elected to represent a new State Assembly district created to represent river communities along the upper Hudson. McNulty served in that position until he got that call from Leo O’Brien at the tail end of 1987.

McEneny says that he will still find McNulty listening to debates on the state Assembly floor. “I’d say to him, ‘You belong to the legislature of the most powerful country in the world. Aren’t their debates better?’ and he would say, ‘Oh, no, they are always better in the New York Legislature.’ We have more generous debate rules,” explains McEneny.

According to McEneny, it is simply McNulty’s nature to stay involved. “He is the type of person that when he takes a job and moves on to another job on a higher level, he doesn’t forget the position he was in. From the village government to the Assembly, all of these things meant a lot to him, and he has not discarded them on the way up the ladder. And I cannot imagine him not being involved when he returns from Washington.”

Charlie Diamond, McNulty’s district chief of staff, remembers the earliest days of McNulty’s first congressional campaign. “I had just finished working on a celebration with the city of the anniversary of Watervliet and the arsenal that ended on July 15. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call. I had done campaigns in the past, and Assemblyman Mike McNulty asked if I would come over to his Troy office and chat with him about possibly running his campaign for Congress. I told him, ‘Count me in!’ I figured I would just do it and then go back to my job, but I . . . stayed on.”

Diamond has helped McNulty turn his office into the kind of place that makes constituents feel they have access to their representative, with a staff that responds to their needs. Diamond, in many respects, is seen as McNulty’s right-hand man. On the eighth floor of the Leo O’Brien Federal Building, Diamond reminisces about the off-shade of orange that once adorned the office walls. The desk he currently occupies just outside the door of the congressman’s office is actually where McNulty’s desk originally was until the staff decided to ask the building managers for more space.

“When I first started here there was no such thing as a computer,” says Diamond. “The fax machine we had was in Washington, and there were no cell phones. We had, on average, about 125 calls coming into the offices each day, and the bulk of the caseloads had to do with Social Security. Now almost all the case work is immigration.”

McNulty says that he and Diamond decided early on that the best way to represent the district was to make sure that constituents felt he was accessible. “Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t have a newsletter. And I don’t have town-hall meetings. Instead of having cattle calls like that, I meet people in smaller groups in my office, and I think people appreciate that.”

During his time as a congressman, McNulty has become known for bringing in money for his district and fighting to keep local jobs, not writing his own legislation or being a mouthpiece in Washington.

Local activists note that McNulty’s door was always open when they wanted to talk about the congressman’s support of the Iraq war, and McNulty has since made the thought process of his shift to oppose the war very clear.

“Mike is a very thoughtful person,” says Diamond. “Mike went through a lot with that decision, and it evolved, but it was so powerful. I never knew about Mike testifying in front of the congressional field hearing until Mike made that decision to staunchly oppose the war in Iraq. I was really kind of taken aback. It was one of the most powerful moments in all the years I have been with Mike.”

Although McNulty’s decision on Iraq is one large way politicos and supporters of the congressman say his thoughtfulness and open office helped build good policy and good constituent relations, McEneny remembers a more immediate way McNulty’s office helped a constituent, and perhaps even saved a life. McEneny had just recently been elected to the Assembly.

“There was a 20-year-old kid who was dying,” explains McEneny. “He needed a treatment and the only place he could get it was in Sweden. There were no flights. The only possibility was a military plane. So my wife and I thought about it, and said, ‘I guess we better call the congressman.’ Two days later, we were all out at the airport at Stratton Air Force Base, and we watched the kid come in on the stretcher. McNulty sent him over there, and he saved his life. Boy, did I learn what the power of a congressman could be!”

Elmer Streeter, who is now spokesman for St. Peter’s Hospital, was working at Albany Medical Center at the time, and he remembers working with McNulty’s office to arrange for the young man—who had only days to live—to be flown to Sweden to have a life-saving procedure completed.

“We had a young man at Albany Med who was a hemophiliac, and basically his blood was not clotting, and it needed to be sent through a filter that was only available in Sweden. McNulty and Charlie Diamond were able to basically get the Stratton Air Force Base, which has crews who practice flying on a regular basis and fly over South America, to divert their training mission to Sweden.”

If the life-saving plane ride wasn’t enough, the man’s mother needed a passport to make the trip, something McNulty’s office quickly took care of. And while the whole ordeal might sound fantastical, Streeter points out, “Death was only a few days away.”

Eight days later, the young man walked off a commercial flight onto U.S. soil.

“There is no doubt they saved his life,” Streeter says. There is no doubt he would have died.”

While some long-serving members of Congress see their approval rates decline over time and their reelection margins decrease, McNulty’s have only increased. McNulty recently ran against Warren Redlich, a man who did most of his campaigning through the Internet and who repeatedly spoke of his respect for McNulty. McNulty won that race with 78 percent of the vote.

McNulty’s toughest challenge came in 1996, when he was primaried by Lee Wasserman. McNulty had shown his stripes as a conservative Democratic in 1994 when he signed the Republican-orchestrated Contract with America. McNulty won by a too-close-for-comfort margin that seemed to spark him into action, making him more and more outspoken. That instance, and his decision to do an about-face on supporting the Iraq war, led many to think that, above all, McNulty listens to the people and knows how to change with his district.

So, if things have only gotten easier for McNulty, what made him call it a day?

“I want to spend time with my grandchildren,” says McNulty.

McNulty’s schedule has changed, thanks to the new Democratic leadership, which has mandated members be in Washington five days a week during nonelection years. McNulty says that has made his family life difficult. He also worries that the schedule will make it harder for freshman members of Congress to know their districts as well as he has come to know his.

McNulty tells a story about a Republican congressman who was assigned to help orient him during his first day in Washington. McNulty says he will always be indebted to the man, because of the advice he gave him about his schedule. “ ‘When you are in Washington,’ he told me, ‘get everything done. Let your staff control your schedule, and you do what you need to do. But when you are home, your family comes first, and nothing should be on your schedule that you don’t approve.’ ”

Rep. Kristen Gillibrand (D-Greenport) says McNulty has mentored her on that issue, and thanks to his advice and the current congressional schedule, she moved her family to Washington so that she could take care of her young son. “I decided to bring my family to Washington. We all go down on Monday and come back on Friday. I take care of Theo all week. I cook his dinner, and that is something I like. But that change is not something Mike could do. One of Mike’s greatest passions is his grandchildren, and he can’t bring them with him. I was a bit more portable.”

Gillibrand says that McNulty has been ceaselessly valuable to her as a colleague, advisor and friend. “Mike has been an extremely valuable mentor and colleague. We talk through issues together. He has been serving for so long that he knows his district intimately, and we talk about issues like Iraq, immigration, the economy, and we talk about the differences in our region and what is best for the constituencies in our region.”

Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton has had a personal relationship with McNulty for decades, and McNulty’s retirement means a lot of different things to him. Stratton, a Democrat, is now thought to be one of the top contenders in a Democratic primary to fill McNulty’s seat, the seat that once belonged to his father, Sam Stratton. While Stratton has yet to announce, he admits, “I have been looking at it more aggressively in the past few weeks than since he made his announcement in late October.”

But regarding McNulty’s retirement itself, Stratton says it certainly makes him reflect on his father’s time in Congress. “I wish my father had done the same thing so that he had had more time to spend with his family.”

In 2009, when his successor has been sworn in, what is it likely that McNulty will be doing? If his father, Jack, is any indication, McNulty will still be right in the thick of it. “Mike McNulty—the entire McNulty family for that matter,” says Diamond, “is about the politics of public service as opposed to those who are about the politics of self-service.”

Ask Breslin, Stratton, or McEneny, and they will tell you that Jack McNulty has been Mike’s stand-in around the district when Mike has been off in Washington. And Mike McNulty will tell you with a smile that some area politicos have indicated to him that they actually prefer Jack, the elder statesman.

Neil Breslin’s father was friends with Jack McNulty, so Neil has known Jack for some time. “During the week, his father is the surrogate congressman,” says Breslin. “You always saw a McNulty at an event.”

“Jack is a tremendous asset,” says Stratton. “Everyone wishes they had someone like Jack to cover events for them during any given night. If I do go on and decide to run, I know Jack would like to keep the seat in the family, but I think he might be available for hire too.”

So after 20 years of service in the House of Representatives, stints on the Armed Services Committee, the Ways and Means Committee and the House Subcommittee on Social Security, what is it that McNulty will be remembered for locally?

According to Gillibrand, it’s his integrity. “He will most be remembered for his honesty and integrity, and his wholehearted desire to serve the public trust. Whatever he tells you, he means, and that makes him a great leader.”

According to Breslin, it is his bipartisan drive to serve the people. “I think he has always risen above politics. I watched him at the State of the State Address, and he was greeted equally by Republicans and Democrats. Some in my party might not respect that, because things can get so partisan, but Mike continually rises above that.”

Stratton says McNulty has always been a great advisor to him, but his legacy will be his willingness to fight for the district. “Mike has his own personal touch, but no one can doubt his commitment. He has been a formidable force, and no one should underestimate his resolve and ability to be a true fighter for our district. I don’t think he will fade into the woodwork by any stretch of the imagination.”

McEneny says McNulty’s legacy will be that of a “straight shooter who didn’t double-talk, who describes himself as a workhorse rather than a show horse, someone who everyone felt was approachable with a problem . . . a legacy of perfect constituent service and accessibility.”

For Diamond, things are much more personal. “A lot of people can get up each morning and say they genuinely like what they do for work. I do. But not a lot of people can say they work for one of their best friends. Our relationship has evolved over the years from Mike being my supervisor to where I feel he is like a brother; he is my confidant. It’s the end of the day now, and we are going to turn off the lights that we haven’t turned off since 1988.”

Diamond was touted as a possible replacement for McNulty, but says he plans on returning to private life. “I still have to get my resume together,” says Diamond, “and I haven’t had to do that in I don’t know how long.”

Meanwhile, the race for McNulty’s seat is still shaping up. With only one candidate officially announced in Albany County, county legislator Phil Steck, things are surely soon to heat up, and McNulty says that all the names he has heard pitched as possible candidates are his friends. “I will offer whoever is elected my wholehearted support,” says McNulty.

So, in the end, what is it that McNulty feels he can hang his hat on? What is it the generally reserved soft-spoken politician wants people to remember him for?

“I’ve thought about that question a lot lately,” he says, “and I think that in the U.S. in 2008, in the richest country in the world, nobody should be hungry, no one should go without a doctor, nobody should be without a home, and I am proud of everything I have done as a public servant to make sure of that.”

dking@metroland.net


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