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Councilman Corey Ellis

Photo: Martin Benjamin

The Contender

 Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings faces what might prove to be the most daunting reelection campaign of his career By Chet Hardin

 

Today, as the news breaks that Albany Police Chief James Tuffey is retiring, Mayor Jerry Jennings is in the 8th Ward at a Stewart’s shop serving up a new flavor of ice cream. Named in honor of the All-America City award that Albany won this summer, the flavor is a “creamy vanilla with a tart cherry swirl and blue pop-rocks that burst in your mouth.” And while Tuffey’s September surprise might be the end of a tenure marred by controversy and scandal, there is no time to talk about that now. Now, it’s time to talk about ice cream.

“It’s not as sweet as it sounds,” a 20-something Jennings supporter assures.

This is another in a series of media stunts to promote the campaign push that the administration has concocted since winning the National Civic League award this summer. So far, the administration has thrown an All-America “pep rally,” invested in 10 new All-America City road signs, and changed the name of the annual jazz fest to All-America City Jazz Festival, in what Jennings spokesman Robert Van Amburgh says will be a yearlong celebration.

The Stewart’s at the corner of Whitehall Road and New Scotland Avenue is filled with City Hall employees, campaign staff, Jennings’ council allies John Rosenzweig and Joe Igoe, and a few out-of-place and confused shoppers. A City Hall employee is singing an impromptu serenade.

“All-America City,” Jennings shouts over the din to a woman standing at the register. “It’s on me!”

Jennings is posing for photos while operatives and allies pull at his arm. Only minutes after it began, the carefree photo-op is ending in whispered conversations.

On his way out, I catch Jennings and ask why he hasn’t been able to make any time to sit down with Metroland to discuss his candidacy, even though his campaign manager has assured for more than a week that she would try to clear the time. He responds: “Why do you want to interview me?”

He pokes at his dish of ice cream.

Maybe you could spare a few minutes to sit down to discuss the race now?

“How long do you need to ‘sit down’ to know how I operate?” he asks, and laughs, waving off the request with his plastic spoon.

Jennings was first elected mayor in 1993 in a surprising upset, defeating the onetime chair of the Albany County Democratic Party and former Albany County Executive Harold Joyce. The New York Times reported optimistically: “Albany’s fabled Democratic machine, which ruled New York’s capital city through a combination of patronage and personality for 72 years, was declared dead today after the party’s designated candidate lost Tuesday’s mayoral primary.”

“Gerald Jennings, an insurgent Alderman,” the Times continued, “narrowly defeated Harold L. Joyce, who had resigned as the county Democratic chairman to run for mayor. ‘The days of fear are over,’ Mr. Jennings declared at his victory party Tuesday night. ‘The sun is shining on this city and on this Democratic Party.’”

Jennings earned a reputation from his tenure on the common council as a fire-breathing outsider. A progressive, who maybe ranted more than he legislated, he was a very clear break from the Democratic bosses who ran the city. For more than a decade, he represented the 11th Ward, pounding away at his predecessor, Mayor Thomas Whalen, on the issues that would form his mayoral platform: property taxes, public safety, code enforcement and abandoned buildings, waste management and the preservation of the Pine Bush.

“When you used to see Jerry back when he was on the council, you never saw him in $1,500 suits, and all that stuff,” says 1st Ward Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro. “He used to be out there in jeans and flannel shirts. He came across as a regular guy. After he got that power, he stopped hanging around with us, and instead got involved in big money. When he first ran he was going to rebuild neighborhoods. He was for neighborhoods. He was living in an apartment in downtown, he wasn’t living in a quarter-million-dollar house as far outside on the city line as you can get. He was living in the inner city then, and I think he knew more what was going on.”

Now, Calsolaro says, Jennings is too busy rubbing shoulders with millionaire developers and state politicians. “He has forgotten the little guy. And the city has suffered because of it.”

This year, Jennings is facing his most formidable mayoral challenger in eight years in first-term Common Councilman Corey Ellis.

In 2005, Ellis won a stunning victory in the 3rd Ward against Jennings-backed incumbent Michael Brown. Although Brown bested Ellis in the Democratic primary, which in Albany tends to be the only election that matters, Ellis came back in the general election to win on the Working Families Party line.

Once on the council, Ellis aligned himself with fellow progressives and critics of Jennings, such as Calsolaro and Councilwoman Barbara Smith. Ellis has been a vocal critic of the administration, taking on controversial issue after issue. He developed an aggressive plan to address the hundreds of abandoned buildings that plague his ward and the city at large. He joined the fight for public-access television, opposed expansions of the landfill, and supported a charter-reform attempt that would have made the council a legitimate check to the mayor’s power. And when the Times Union reported on the use of ghost tickets—secret parking tickets issued to select citizens that carried no fines—Ellis led the charge for the investigations that have uncovered the widespread swindle that has occurred under Jennings’ watch.

Since 2006, Jennings has amassed an enormous war chest to fund his reelection. As of Sept. 1, between his two campaign committees, the mayor had raised $754,000. Much of Jennings’ financial support comes from the city’s most influential business interests: Clough, Harbour and Associates, Omni Development, BBL Construction, and so on. Last month, Jennings even traveled to New York City for a fundraiser hosted by none other than billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Jennings has secured the endorsement of every building and trade union working in the city, along with the firefighters union and the Albany County Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. New York’s newest senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, even made the time to give him her endorsement.

Ellis has secured endorsements from the Working Families Party and Citizen Action, as well as from the Public Employees Federation. His fundraising has been significantly less than Jennings’. As of Sept. 1, his campaign was showing a little more than $50,000 raised. But if Jennings’ financial powerhouse concerns Ellis, he doesn’t show it. A mayoral race, the Ellis campaign argues, is won on the ground, going door-to-door, in neighborhood association meetings and open-house get-togethers.

“There are only 16,000 voters in Albany,” says Ellis, his years as a union organizer showing. “You don’t need that much money to reach 16,000 voters.”

Instead, Ellis says that he sees the mayor’s abundant fundraising and willingness to appear in forums with a challenger (something Jennings didn’t do in 2005) as a sign that the mayor is nervous.

In 2005, Jennings won an easy victory in the Democratic primary and walked over his general-election challenger. In the primary he defeated African-American retiree Archie Goodbee by a healthy majority with 68 percent of the vote. However, what isn’t immediately clear in Goodbee’s loss, Ellis points out, is the sizeable chink it exposed in Jennings’ armor.

Take a closer look: Goodbee ran an anemic campaign. It was poorly funded and had almost no staff. Goodbee did little in the way of door-to-door campaigning, never setting foot into the upper wards. And yet, he was able to win 32 percent of the vote and beat Jennings in three of the lower wards.

To win on Sept. 15, Ellis’ campaign understands that it is going to have to do more than just secure the population that voted for Goodbee. They’re going to have to make inroads into the sizeable number of voters uptown. And Ellis is going to have to smooth over the fractious relationship between his campaign and the progressives who supported another Democratic candidate who dropped out of the race, Common Council President Shawn Morris.

Last summer, Dominick Calsolaro still considered himself to be a potential mayoral candidate. He had been considering the run since at least 2007, when Metroland ran a cover story detailing the possibility. Calsolaro is a favorite in Albany’s progressive movement, and is widely popular in his own ward. In his last run for council, a challenger didn’t even bother to step up. Along with his political ally and campaign manager, Judith Mazza, Calsolaro called for a meeting among influential members of the progressives to determine what support was out there for him in 2009.

This first meeting grew into a series of meetings drawing progressives throughout the city, and eventually this group’s aim grew in ambition. They formed the political action committee Albany Neighborhoods First and began work on writing an issues platform. The goal was to present the platform to candidates for office, to see if they would support its progressive agenda. The group was eager to find a progressive mayoral contender; the only problem was, more than one came forward.

“We always believed there ought to be only one candidate,” says Mazza, and by that time others were beginning to show interest.

At the beginning of September, Calsolaro sat down with Common Council President Shawn Morris to ask her about her intentions, he says. “I asked Shawn if she was thinking of running, because I was thinking of running. And she said she was thinking about it, but she hadn’t made a decision about it.”

Morris asked Calsolaro to postpone any announcement until she decided, and he agreed. However, the clock was ticking, and he thought that anyone who hoped to challenge Jennings ought to announce no later than November. He had planned to announce after Thanksgiving. Instead, he waited and watched as Morris mulled over the decision.

By December, Ellis had come to Calsolaro to discuss a possible run of his own.

“I met with him to see what he wanted to do,” Calsolaro says. “And he told me if I wasn’t going to run, he would run, and it didn’t matter who else ran. But if I did run he wouldn’t and instead he would support me. Two weeks later, I met with Shawn and she told me she was definitely going to run, but she wanted to wait to make her announcement.”

Albany, it’s delicious: Mayor Jerry Jennings enjoys a scoop of All-America City.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Seeing that both Ellis and Morris had set their sights on the mayor’s office, Calsolaro stepped aside.

“I would have loved to run against Jerry one-on-one,” he says. “But one of the reasons I stepped down was because I thought it should only be one person. I was hoping that if I dropped out maybe the other two would get together and come to some kind of agreement. Sorry to say that didn’t work.”

Ellis announced in February. Morris announced in March.

“I think we lost a big opportunity there, with the other two announcing so late, after the State of the City address. That put a lot of people off. I think it was disconcerting to a lot of people,” Calsolaro says.

Why they waited so long, he continues, was likely due to their trying to figure out how to raise the money. Morris has connections to the state Assembly through her husband, a top aide to Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, and, in theory, that might give her access to fundraising through that powerful body. “They were talking about how they could raise $150,000 or $200,000. That didn’t happen.”

Now pitted against each other as well as Jennings, Ellis and Morris struggled to secure the small pool of money and resources available in the progressive community. Albany Neighborhoods First decided to make no endorsement in the race. Members of the progressive movement in Albany chose their sides and began to mount their campaigns.

By July, it had become clear to Morris that a three-way race would doom both progressive candidates and hand the election to Jennings—exactly what Calsolaro and Mazza had been saying all along. So on the day Morris would have filed her petitions for candidacy, she announced that she would instead drop out of the race. By that point, Morris had raised less money than Ellis, gathered fewer signatures, and had lost critical endorsements from the Working Families Party and Citizen Actions to Ellis.

Morris’ supporters took her quitting hard. For weeks after the announcement, in off-the-record laments and anonymously in blog comments, many of her volunteers and supporters blasted Ellis for pushing out who they believed was the stronger candidate. They painted the first-term councilman as a superficial, ambitious neophyte who had no one’s interest in mind but his own.

Ellis dismisses the idea that he somehow drove Morris out of the race. The two made their pitches to the progressive movement, he says, and there was simply more support for him.

“I don’t think you can push out an elected official of 16 years,” Ellis says. “With her history and background, I don’t think that I could have pushed her out. I don’t see it that way.”

Mazza offers her own stark analysis of Morris’ campaign: “Her heart wasn’t in it. If her heart had been in it, she would have announced in January. What took her so long?” Mazza asks. “Because she didn’t get the hundreds of thousands of dollars she expected out of the Assembly. And I didn’t see the support for her out on the streets, either.”

“As a progressive,” Mazza continues, “I see it as this: This is where we are, and this is who we have. Shawn Morris made a decision, for whatever reason, to drop out of this race. And now, do we want change?”

“Because of how everything worked out, there is still a contingent of people who absolutely refuse to help him out,” says Pine Hills Neighborhood Association president Dan Curtis. Curtis was an ardent supporter and organizer for Morris, and has since turned his attention to other city races. He says that he has seen some of Morris’ supporters go over to the Ellis campaign; however, he calls their support “lukewarm.”

Curtis says he isn’t actively working against Ellis, nor are any of the Morris supporters he knows. “The sentiment from myself and Shawn and other organizers in her campaign is that, if people come to us and say that they are going to help out Corey, we’ve told them to do so. We haven’t steered anyone away from helping him.”

Curtis is focusing on helping other candidates, such as Kathy Sheehan in her bid to oust treasurer Betty Barnette.

“You have a lot of competitive council races that are taking up a lot of progressive resources. It’s a tough year to be a progressive,” Curtis says. However, even Curtis will admit that if the progressive movement isn’t able to take the corner office at City Hall this year, just adding one or two more-progressive members to the council will do little to shift power in City Hall, thanks to the current city charter.

“We need real charter reform, to make the council a meaningful body,” Curtis says. “If there were more checks and balances put in place, maybe Jerry Jennings would be a better leader.”

Ellis says that he hopes Morris’ supporters will rally behind him in these last two weeks. It is essential, he says, if the progressive movement wants to unseat Jennings and effect real change in Albany.

“We have to get the people who supported the Common Council president to support me,” Ellis says. “We’d like them to support me aggressively, by coming onto the campaign. If it happens, it will really be people coming together and making something happen. Come share your knowledge with me, share your body and your effort. I welcome it. But don’t sit on the sidelines and criticize me when I am the candidate. People continue to talk about change, and they want a different city government, and I am the only one running against Jerry Jennings.”

“A leader can see things that other people can’t see, and their job is to push until other people begin to see it and follow,” says Ellis. “That’s what a leader is. So, when I got on the council, and I began to see how the council is structured through its charter, how the council operates, I knew one thing: I can’t treat this body as a legislative body that can broker deals. I can’t treat this body as a body that can proactively, progressively get things done that it needs to get done. It is not a legislative body that can function and push for the citizens in their wards.”

Corey Ellis is swaying slightly, back and forth, with his hands hanging crossed in front of him. His head is lowered, so much so that it looks like his eyes are shut, as though he might be catching a quick nap. He isn’t sleeping, though, he is gathering his energy. He is being introduced to a small gathering of his supporters and curious neighbors in a quaint home on a quiet street off of New Scotland Avenue lined with Jerry Jennings lawn signs. He is in the 9th Ward for his second open house of the night.

“I thought that I would leave Albany as soon as I finished school,” says Karen Anderson, a recent Albany Law grad. “But I have really grown to love my neighborhood, my neighbors. I didn’t know if I had much reason to stay, considering the job market, but working with the Corey Ellis campaign has given me that reason. And I think that we are at a turning point.”

She turns the floor over to Ellis.

“Thank you all for being here,” Ellis begins his stump in a thin rasp. He’s on the verge of losing his voice. “When people ask why I am running for mayor. I tell them that it’s because I can no longer sit in that chair and watch it happen.”

He launches into a story: Early into his term as councilman, he submitted a FOIL request for information on the 330 abandoned buildings in the 3rd Ward.

“There were 330 abandoned buildings in your ward?” an older woman asks.

“Yes.”

“Wow, really? In one ward?”

“Yes, and it took them eight months to get my FOIL request,” Ellis continues. “I wanted to know who the owners were. I wanted to get all the information on code enforcement fines, and so on. I wanted to put together a plan,” he says, which he did for Lexington Avenue and Orange Street.

Ellis says that he was able to bring in a developer “who had an agreement with the city that he would help build homes on vacant lots.” Ellis and the city threw a press conference. “Mike Yevoli, the city planner, met with us on Orange Street.” But that press conference was as far as it got. “And not because the developer wasn’t ready. Not because we couldn’t acquire properties.” The city failed to move on the project and it stalled.

The moral of that story, Ellis says: even as a councilman, “I couldn’t even be effective in my own ward. I didn’t need the city to do it, I just needed the city to help me, and they wouldn’t do it.”

“If we are going to save this city, that vacant buildings issue is key. People need to see their city turn around. The majority of where we have the vacant buildings is where we have the majority of crime. The individuals who live in those neighborhoods don’t feel that those neighborhoods are growing. They don’t see the hope, and it is not coincidence. The highest poverty is where there is the highest crime.”

“So when people ask how do we cut down on crime? How do we help the kids? We help them by revitalizing their neighborhoods, so that they have pride in their neighborhoods. So when they walk out the door and go to school they feel like they are somebody and are ready to learn. I hear it all the time, “What can I do when I live in the ghetto?’ And the whole city pays for it. We can no longer look at the city separated into good and bad neighborhoods. No. We are paying for this.”

Later, sitting in the upstairs offices of Citizen Action on Central Avenue, Ellis’ campaign headquarters, he continues to enumerate what he says are the failures of the Jennings administration.

“When we talk about crime and statistics,” Ellis says, “what matters is that people don’t feel safe. They don’t feel safe letting their kids play outside. They don’t feel safe walking the streets, and telling someone that crime is down 9 percent doesn’t help.”

On property taxes: “When we look at this, and I continue to tell people, they tout development. We have all this development, $6 billion in development. So, why are people’s property taxes continuing to go up? I thought development was supposed to lower some of those burdens on taxpayers, and we need to know why.”

According to the city’s projections, next year the budget gap could reach as high as $8 million. In 2011, thanks to a cut in state funding, the gap could reach $16.6 million, and in 2012 it is estimated that the city will face a shortfall of $20.8 million.

Ellis pauses and waits for another question, but then interrupts: “No one believes that things can change here, and no matter how many times things changed, people’s eyes are closed. They can’t see what needs to be seen. Things have changed in this city. When it comes to politics, ask someone if 20 years ago a Barbara Smith or a Corey Ellis, or a Dominick Calsolaro could run against the machine and win, then get on the council and get things done. That’s a change.”

“Do you think that the council would have investigated the ghost tickets under the Corning administration? That’s a change,” he continues. “Council members have been saying constantly that we need a gun-violence task force. The mayor originally said that they were crazy—fast forward, now we have a gun-violence task force. That’s a change. I run for office in the 3rd Ward, lose in the primary, everyone tells me that I won’t win in the general election, because people just vote Democrat. But I win in the general election. That’s a change.”

“Change is here—people just haven’t noticed,” Ellis says. “But with this election, people will see, and then the city will breathe again and grow.”

chardin@metroland.net


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