Mayor Jerry Jennings faces what might prove to be the most
daunting reelection campaign of his career By Chet Hardin
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.
not as sweet as it sounds,” a 20-something Jennings supporter
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.
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?
long do you need to ‘sit down’ to know how I operate?” he
asks, and laughs, waving off the request with his plastic
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
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
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.
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
This year, Jennings is facing his most formidable mayoral
challenger in eight years in first-term Common Councilman
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
it’s delicious: Mayor Jerry Jennings enjoys a scoop
of All-America City.
that both Ellis and Morris had set their sights on the mayor’s
office, Calsolaro stepped aside.
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.”
announced in February. Morris announced in March.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
were 330 abandoned buildings in your ward?” an older woman
really? In one ward?”
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
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.”