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Endorse me! Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin gets support in her bid for council president from current president, Shawn Morris.

Photo: Chet Hardin

Middle Management

Candidate for Albany Common Council president Lenny Ricchiuti wants to be the bridge missing at City Hall

Councilwoman Carolyn Mc Laughlin (Ward 2), sat in the shady park in front of City Hall and said that she got into politics to be an advocate for the people of the South End. “And I have lived up to that. I have reached out to the people who don’t have the resources to do something about their situation, and for those people, I have spoken up.”

From advocating for affordable housing to securing money for her ward, she said, “I have been there so that when we talked about doing projects in the city, we did not leave the South End out. They were part of the conversation.” She pointed to affordable housing on Clinton Street and also to Eagle Court on Morton Avenue. “That was a project that was long overdue. But that changed that corner. Those are apartments that anyone would be proud to live in, that you or I would be proud to live in. Is there a lot more we can do? Oh absolutely,” she said, but there is always a question of resources.

The 12-year veteran of the common council had held a press conference earlier in the afternoon Tuesday to announce the endorsement of her candidacy for council president by Shawn Morris, the current president and former mayoral candidate. Councilwomen Barbara Smith and Catherine Fahey, along with councilman Dominick Calsolaro, were also there to show their support for McLaughlin. Former president Helen Desfosses, who was not present, has also endorsed McLaughlin.

The next day, McLaughlin’s only opponent in the race, fellow Democrat Lenny Ricchiuti, sent out a press release blasting the councilwoman’s record.

“For the past 12 years, I’ve watched as the Presidents of the Common Council have presided over the deterioration of Albany. It seems fitting that the two people who served as council president during this time have joined together to endorse my opponent, Carolyn McLaughlin,” the release read. “McLaughlin’s do-nothing attitude during her 12 year tenure as a member of the common council represents a continuation of their failed leadership and a continuation of politics as usual on the council.”

A retired Albany Police sergeant, Ricchiuti is best known for his work with the Police Athletic League, an organization he joined back in 1989 when it was just one year old. Today, he is the executive director of PAL.

He said that he is running for the president’s seat “to be the bridge between the common council and the mayor, to get stuff done.”

Politics, he said, should be removed from the equation.

“In the past year it seems more and more that our electeds don’t want to work together,” Ricchiuti said. “I don’t know if it is because they don’t like each other, or if it’s politics, as I’m learning. I like to think that politics should be removed from the equation because it’s about providing services to the people who put you there. And they aren’t providing the resources.”

“I have no agenda,” he continued. “My agenda will be to see that the people’s business gets done.”

Ricchiuti’s critics have focused mainly on two criticisms. One is that Ricchiuti’s run might be in violation of the Hatch Act, since PAL receives federal money. This, Ricchiuti claimed, has been settled. An attorney from the Hatch Division ruled that there is no violation, and that the letter is “in the mail.”

And second, Ricchiuti’s critics have dismissed him as just being one of Jerry’s Boys, a hand-picked candidate of the mayor’s office—someone who has spent almost no time in attendance at council meetings and will answer solely to the mayor.

According to financial filings, Ricchiuti hasn’t received money from Jennings, but since 2006 he has donated more than $1,100 to the mayor’s primary and political action committees. He has also been able to draw water from the mayor’s well, receiving nearly a third of his $30,000-plus campaign contributions from Jennings backers. Further, he was endorsed, along with Albany city treasurer and Jennings ally Betty Barnette, by the Conservative Party.

But as Ricchiuti put it, he has been doing “good work” at a successful nonprofit in the city for more than 20 years and has the reputation in his community as someone who can get things done—is it any wonder that the mayor would want to be associated with him?

In other words: Who, exactly, is whose boy?

Ricchiuti argued that when he disagrees with the mayor, he will speak out. His main criticisms of Jennings’ tenure are common among the mayor’s critics: the lack of community policing; the lack of serious code enforcement and the expansion of abandoned and neglected housing stock. Yet it is for the common council that Ricchiuti reserves his sharpest criticism.

“Something like a nine-month investigation into a parking-tickets scandal, or whatever you want to call it, would not have lasted nine months,” he said, had he been on the council. “And we still have the same results that we knew nine months ago. So what got done in the past nine months for the people? Are they better off? We have spent all this time looking for scandal and no scandal has been produced.”

He shrugged off the suggestion that Albany follow Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi’s lead; Suozzi fired six people after a similar, yet much more limited, swindle was uncovered in his county.

“People just don’t care about this anymore,” he argued. “They just want it to be over. They want to hear what is going to be done to correct the problem, not who’s going to get a spanking. What, you want a pound of flesh or something? And why do you want that pound of flesh at this particular time?” he said, echoing the trope that the investigation has been politically motivated.

“I beg to differ with Mr. Ricchiuti,” said McLaughlin. “The work done on the council in relation to the ghost tickets was some good work. The first time in history that the council exercised its subpoena power, that was not a waste. We set an example of what the council can do, moving a discussion forward so that the people of this city can get answers to their questions.”

It isn’t as though McLaughlin is known to be a fierce critic of Jennings. Her early support for Jennings’ convention center dreams and her recent vote to allow the expansion of the Rapp Road landfill broke with the more ardent progressives. Her silence on the mayor’s race, in a year when the progressive movement boasted two viable candidates, has been especially contentious.

Yet she is sticking by her choice to not endorse in that race. As she said, if she wins the president’s seat, she will work with whoever occupies City Hall’s corner office. “I would hope that the relationship could be such that there would be open dialogue.”

—Chet Hardin

Investing in Community

Candidates in the race for Albany’s Third Ward council seat say they want to reverse years of neglect

Policing and a lack of city services are the main issues shaping the race in Albany’s 3rd Ward of the Common Council. The position, which is being vacated by Councilman Corey Ellis in his mayoral bid, represents Arbor Hill and part of West Hill. Three candidates will face off in September’s Democratic primary: political newcomers Lisa Feaster and LaSone Garland-Bryan, and Democratic Party operative and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings ally, Ronald Bailey.

Feaster is also running on the Working Families Party line, and said that she sees herself as part of a progressive movement within the Democratic Party in Albany. She supported David Soares in his 2004 upset victory and Ellis in his council win. However, she said that she recognizes the distinction between politics and serving the people.

“I don’t care who you are,” Feaster said. “I’ll be there to do the work.”

Both Feaster and Garland-Bryan think that much of this work must focus on a return to community policing.

“You cannot observe what’s happening by slow-rolling through the neighborhood,” said Feaster. “We need local police stations. We need police on the beat.”

Garland-Bryan cited incidents dating as far back as 1992 that she said could have been avoided if the police had been familiar with the community in Arbor Hill. One such incident was the shooting of a mentally ill man in his home, who was described as harmless by Garland-Bryan.

“There is a fear of officers,” Garland-Bryan said, particularly among young black males. Garland-Bryan, who is African-American, referred to her own encounters with the police, stating that there is a lack of training in the department, which comes through in the way they talk to members of the community.

Feaster claims that this attitude is a result of indifference. “They come in and do their job, but when they’re done they leave,” Feaster said. Feaster would like to see a push to recruit from within the community.

Bailey, who did not respond to multiple phone calls, has also stated that he was opposed to the Jennings administration’s closing of the North Station in 2006. Bailey has been sure in the past to assert his distance from Jennings’ political establishment, however many of his critics view this as simple posturing. While petitioning for a place on the Democratic ballot, Bailey gathered signatures for Jennings, as well as for city treasurer Betty Barnette.

Bailey also supported incumbent Micheal Brown, a Jennings ally, in 2004. In a contentious election, Ellis ran and won in the 3rd Ward on the Working Families Party line after losing the Democratic primary to Brown.

Bailey also has the Conservative Party’s support, along with Jennings and Barnette.

Garland-Bryan stresses that the race is not just about policing, it’s about finally bringing needed services to Albany’s 3rd Ward.

“If you do things the same way, you’re going to get the same results,” Garland-Bryan said. She believes that many on the Common Council aren’t connected to their community and have become more interested in their own agendas.

Garland-Bryan called attention to roads that have gone unpaved for years and roads that have been paved right before the coming election.

“We need lighting on his own block,” said Garland-Bryan in reference to Bailey, a ward leader and executive committeeperson of the Albany County Democratic Committee. A women’s shelter a few blocks away from Garland-Bryan’s house still does not have a street lamp, and a building on Ten Broeck Avenue remains just a façade after a fire gutted it a number of years ago.

“The signal it sends to residents is ‘We don’t care about you,’ ” said Garland-Bryan. Garland-Bryan also recalled the community beautification projects in Arbor Hill during the mayoral administration of Erastus Corning, such as window boxes for flowers. “I haven’t known Jennings to participate in it.”

“Albany should be a beautiful city,” said Feaster. In order for this to happen, Feaster continued that residents have to be engaged, something that can’t happen in areas where fear of crime prevails.

“Neighbors don’t talk to neighbors,” Feaster said. “There’s hardly any interaction.” In places where there is a strong community engagement with the police, people are more willing to speak and aid investigations, Feaster claimed.

“When you live in the community,” said Feaster, “when you’re invested, I think you care more.”

—Matthew Connolly

A Different Kind of Race

Both candidates for Albany city auditor stress independence and qualifications, not politics

Earlier this year, the Albany Common Council approved legislation altering the City Charter, creating the position of city auditor. The position replaces that of the comptroller, but in ways is very different.

“I would have had no interest whatsoever in the comptroller’s office, because of its role in investing and bonding,” said city auditor candidate Leif Engstrom. “When I read what was designated for city auditor, it was something that I really was interested in and felt qualified for.”

The city auditor is responsible for performance reviews and analyzing different areas of city government to check for abuse and efficiency. Candidate Darius Shahinfar described the position as being a “taxpayer advocate and mayoral watchdog” and said that, as an attorney, he is someone who can “part through the legal issues in ways that others can’t.”

Shahinfar said that having an independent candidate in the role of city auditor is “vital to this position.” He said that for this reason he is not accepting any endorsements from any politicians in the city, unlike Engstrom who has been endorsed by city and county politicians like county comptroller Mike Connors, Albany Common Council members Dominick Calsolaro and Carolyn McLaughlin and county legislators Dan McCoy and Doug Bullock.

“What Darius isn’t clear on is that the charter says that the common council, in effect, can instruct the auditor to conduct investigations, and that the opinion of the common council towards a city auditor is important,” Engstrom said. “You don’t investigate a legislative body.”

Engstrom has also been endorsed by the Albany Professional Firefighters Union and the Albany County Central Federation of Labor, while Shahinfar has received an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, for whom he previously worked as a regional representative.

Both candidates have run into issues with third-party nominations. Shahinfar, according to Engstrom, received an endorsement from the Conservative Party, along with Mayor Jerry Jennings and treasurer Betty Barnette, but it was rejected by the New York Board of Elections because the certificate of acceptance was not signed or notarized. Engstrom is in jeopardy of losing his Independence Party nomination—along with all other Independence Party candidates—after Republican mayoral candidate Nathan Lebron challenged the petitions filed over questions of whether or not signatories swore an oath.

“What it boils down to is a conflict between the 2nd and 4th appellate divisions of the New York State courts,” said Engstrom. He explained that the 4th division found that signing your name constitutes an oath, while the 2nd division found that the oath must be verbalized. The issue is currently in the 3rd division court awaiting decision, meaning that both candidates may be without a ballot backup in November, making the democratic primary the final vote.

“This is a race that is going to be won on the ground,” said Shahinfar, who said that the biggest aspect of his campaign is talking to people on an individual basis. He said that a large part of the interactions involves educating people about the new position and the roles of the city auditor. Shahinfar, who ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress representing the 21st District in 2008, said that while there are differences between the two campaigns, his experience with his 2008 run has “absolutely” helped to prepare him for the city auditor race.

Engstrom also said that door-to-door interaction is a large part of his campaign, but that he is running a full campaign include mailings and literature drops. “We have a lot of volunteers for a low-profile race,” Engstrom said.

Engstrom stressed that the position of city auditor, although elected, is one that should have very little to do with politics.

“This is a professional job that should not be politicized,” Engstrom said. “It’s not about the issues, it’s about the qualifications and skills.”

Engstrom said that he feels his background as an industrial engineer gives him specific qualifications needed for the job. He said that industrial engineering involves a lot of cost-benefit analysis, performance reviews and applying scientific methods to management. “We make the trains run on time, and we organize things in a way that allows organizations to thrive.”

Shahinfar and Engstrom will both participate in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters held September 8 at 6:30 PM at the Albany Public Library.

—Cecelia Martinez

Loose Ends

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