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Putting Up a Fight

A day in the life of Democrat Mike Russo’s long-shot campaign for the seat of former Sen. Joe Bruno

In a political race, being the under dog means long days of campaigning and fund-raising, hitting the streets, cold-calling voters, hustling from media event to media event by yourself or with a small, tired, caffeinated staff. It’s no different for Democrat Mike Russo. He has spent the past few months charging across Rensselaer and Saratoga counties, home to the state Senate’s 43rd District that he hopes to represent, and down to New York City looking for money, interrupting the hectic schedule only briefly for sleep.

Russo started his day Tuesday at a well-attended press conference in Troy, at the offices of Rensselaer County government, to accept the endorsement of Ray Seney. Seney ran and lost in the Republican primary for the 43rd, and, in front of a collection of Russo supporters and Rensselaer County Democratic leaders, the one-time Nassau supervisor announced that he was switching his enrollment to Democrat and throwing his support behind Russo.

“I don’t bend to party politics. My special interest is to the people I represent,” Seney said. He is endorsing Russo, he continued, because “we both want to keep taxpayer money in our district, we don’t want to send it down south. And I know Mike is going to work hard to create jobs. It is a critical time in New York state and in the country, and we only need the strongest stepping forward.”

Russo, a onetime boxer, took the podium, and thanked Seney for his endorsement. “One thing that we are really suffering from is . . . how people use politics to separate us, so that we are not focused on the things that are most important to us.”

Next, Russo headed to Niskayuna to shoot a quickie interview with CBS 6 news.

“How’s the campaign?” the cameraman asked, as he tied a mic to Russo’s lapel.

“It’s going good. It’s not your typical campaign,” Russo said, explaining that it wasn’t gamed out over months of preparation, raising money and laying strategy. “It has been a blur. It is more like guerrilla warfare.”

When the titan Joe Bruno quickly vacated his seat in the 43rd earlier this year, under what many suspected to be intense pressure stemming from an FBI investigation, he stunned the political world and caused a seismic shift in alliances and ambitions. Before his retirement, the Democratic Parties in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties had endorsed Brunswick attorney Brian Premo in his second bid to unseat the majority leader in what most pundits viewed as a noble but doomed effort.

Then Bruno retired.

Russo came onto the scene and slaughtered Premo in the primary.

Bruno put his hand on Assemblyman Roy McDonald’s shoulder, killing the brief flirtations with a run from some loyal Republican insiders by, in the eyes of many, anointing his heir apparent.

Russo has had to quickly build a coalition and war chest since his primary victory, leaning heavily on his connections to organized labor, with little help coming from the Senate Democrats.

It is the assumed advantage of name recognition for McDonald (R-Saratoga), along with Bruno’s public support, that is driving Russo to the long days of campaigning, but more than that, it is the reality of money.

McDonald is receiving a substantial amount of financial support from the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, which is responsible for donating more than half of the roughly half-million dollars that he had declared by the end of September. In comparison, Russo had declared nearly $38,000 in campaign contributions during the same period, with none of the money coming from the Senate Democrats.

The Republicans are making a strong push to retain a district that they have held for more than 50 years. It is one of the top recipients of money from the Senate Republicans. It appears that the Senate Democrats are offering only tepid support, focusing instead on other races in their effort to secure a majority.

Russo’s campaign is optimistic despite its financial shortcomings. One member pointed to polling numbers from this summer that he said showed McDonald holding a narrow margin of victory over a generic Democratic candidate. With Rensselaer County seeing a historic majority of registered Democratic voters, and the phenomenal momentum surrounding the national Democratic ticket, they are predicting a surprise victory come November.

Tuesday evening, at a public forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, Russo and McDonald fielded questions on economic development, property-tax relief, home- heating costs, bloated government spending.

Both men argued that their personal experiences gave them unique ability to deal with the economic realities facing the district, and they briefly ran through their backgrounds.

Russo started his career as a union official when he was 20 years old, and rose through the ranks to become the executive officer responsible for the entire northeast in an international union. That experience, he said, gave him a full working knowledge of how not only to represent workers but also how to help businesses competing in the global marketplace. He has worked for Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Greenport) as her district director.

McDonald was born and raised in Lansingburgh, worked in a steel mill with the rest of his extended family, fought in Vietnam, came home, started a business, and spent decades as supervisor of Wilton before getting elected to the Assembly. Saratoga County, he said, is the county that everyone wants to live in due to its low taxes, high employment, and low crime numbers. “We are living in the strongest county in the state.”

Wilton had no personal property taxes for 27 years.

In a boxer’s jab, Russo pointed out Wilton had the mall to thank for its lack of taxes, and not necessarily McDonald, but the blow seemed to have little impact on the crowd.

McDonald further pointed to his early and protracted support in the Assembly for the now-probable AMD chip-fab plant.

Russo, a former union leader, pointed out that he has worked for the past two years as a staffer in the district office of Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, and, he said, has worked diligently on her behalf to help the chip-fab project move forward. He claimed that it was through his work in the congresswoman’s office, through connections at all levels of government, that the infrastructural demands that needed to be realized before AMD would agree to begin building were realized.

“While I did not have the pleasure of being involved with it early on, setting it up,” Russo said, “the timing was as such that I was brought in when the process was very vulnerable. When it came to the infrastructure needing to be in place, whether it was the Environmental Facilities Corporation funding that stopped dead in its tracks, the Army Corp [of Engineers] permits that were stopped dead in their tracks, DEC permitting issues,” Russo said, “I personally facilitated that process.”

Russo said he hoped that this experience, his claim to a piece of the anticipated AMD treasure, would highlight and amplify his abilities as a leader within the world of business to a crowd of nervous voters deeply and primarily concerned with taxes and economic development, and, at the same time, steal some of the thunder from McDonald.

—Chet Hardin

What a Week

Goof? You Call That a Goof?

You likely heard the news on the Colbert Report, on one of a plethora of national blogs, or on any number of local media: Absentee ballots issued from the Rensselaer County Board of Elections listed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama as Barack Osama. Both the Democratic and Republican election commissioners described the mistake as a “typo” (without mentioning that “b” and “s” are not exactly neighbors on the keyboard) and media reports called it a “goof.” We here at Metroland can understand typo angst, but a lot of people aren’t buying the idea that after three people “copy edited” the page they did not catch the Democratic nominee’s name combined with that of a despised terrorist. The Rensselaer BOE has done good work in ensuring its name will be associated with ignorance for some time to come.

Oh, How They Fight

It would appear that nothing can get done in Troy without a lawsuit, or, in the case of the revision of the city charter, two: one filed by Mayor Harry Tutunjian and one filed by former mayoral candidate Jim Conroy. It is possible that today (Thursday) Judge John Egan will rule which, or if both, of the charter-reform commissions’ proposals, the mayor’s and the council’s, will appear on the November ballot, putting to rest a rather tedious controversy. The fight over the commissions has been ongoing for months and spilled over into a popular downtown Troy list-serv, with Councilman Bill Dunne lamenting the fact that he can’t seem to get the Troy Record to print his op-ed and Tutunjian spokesman Jeff Buell launching a missive defending the mayor’s charter proposal. Go to Metroland’s blog as soon as possible to read the e-mail bombs launched between Dunne and Buell.

RPI Will Not Hire You—Not Now, Anyway

The economic downturn apparently has left no one, and no organization, untouched. On Tuesday, the Times Union reported that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has instituted a hiring freeze, in an effort to position the university, President Shirley Jackson was reported saying, “ahead of the game.” “We are taking these measures to assure our future,” she said. “And interestingly enough, the investments that we have made have placed us in a better position to withstand the economic downturn.”

Race in the Race

Dr. Alice Green hosts a public forum to discuss the historic candidacy of Barack Obama

Though presidential nominees Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain typically play down the issue of race, voters across the nation have been paying attention to the special implications that this election will have. While the candidates may shy away from speaking directly on the sensitive topic, cable-news commentators and analysts have cranked out so much chatter on the issue that the attentive voter has heard every pundit’s take. But how do average African-American citizens react to the issue of race in the presidential race?

The Center for Law and Justice, a nonpartisan group of lawyers, social workers, and intellectuals who advocate the improvement of social policies, held a forum on race Wednesday night in the Albany Public Library. Dr. Alice Green, founder of the center, accompanied by Drs. Frankie Bailey and Alethia Jones, led a clearly left-leaning, Obama-supporting group through the sociology of this presidential race.

“People have expressed some fears, anxiety, and frustration about this whole election, and how things played out,” said Green. “We really want to provide an opportunity to talk about that. I think we can help each other think about what’s going on and what might be the result.”

Panelists and attendees compared those frustrations and shared the aspects of the campaign they thought to be outrageous. Erroneous claims that Obama is an Arab or Muslim still infiltrate the American consciousness. Some African-Americans think he’s “not black enough,” or that he is an elitist. A lot of the discussion focused on the special language politicians use to disguise racially charged remarks. Bailey said that words like “urban” and “inner-city” are used by politicians to say “black” in an ambiguous way.

Language was also Jones’ cornerstone argument. Through her distinction between the meanings of race, racism, and racialization, she argued that carefully choosing the right words makes some political rhetoric seem less racist than it is actually is. “The question became, ‘What is Obama going to do about his race?’ I think the real question is, ‘What are those voters going to do about their racism?’ His race is not a problem that he is supposed to fix in some way,” she said. “But the entire structure of the dialogue made the fact that he’s black a problem.”

Eventually, the focus of the evening dissolved, and the discussion moved from a structured format to an open talk on slanders against Obama, the treatment of the black race, and the black voters in this election.

“One thing I noticed was [the audience was] really positive,” said Green. “It’s exciting to hear. Having this, we are letting people share those thoughts.”

“I would have liked to have had some McCain supporters,” she said. “That would’ve been better, to hear their ideas. We don’t get enough opportunities to have discussions with the other side. I want to understand, and I want them to understand how we view what’s going on.”

— Allie Garcia

Women Rally for Obama

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Women from around the region gathered Saturday at the steps of the state Capitol to voice their support for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Prominent local politicians, including Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris, former congressional candidate Tracey Brooks, and Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), were in attendance. Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, who could not make the event, sent a message of support, saying, “I learned the importance of organizing women directly from my grandmother, Polly Noonan, who organized women in Albany for decades—so I know—as well as anyone, that when women organize and women vote, women win. I am living proof of that.”




Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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