numero uno has the city’s political establishment by the
has her feet up on an arm of the chair piled with our coats.
She’s slumped down as far as she can go, holding her empty
wine glass up over her head, signaling. If she smoked, and
this was a different time, there’d be a Lucky Strike twitching
from her teeth, and maybe a pair of cowboy boots emerging
from the hem of her denim skirt.
can take the shitkicker out of Texas . . .
We’re sitting in the basement dining room of the University
Club on Dove Street. There’s a murmur of well-heeled conversation.
ACO gives up trying to get the waiter’s attention, as he
continues to make a point of ignoring her, brusquely sweeping
past her, without so much as a glance, to tend to the undercooked
steak that he’s just served to Richard Conti’s table. “I
give up!” she blurts, and tasks her dinner partner Nathan
Lebron with the responsibility of seeing that her offending
wine glass be replaced with a fresh pour of Cabernet Syrah.
It’s going on Lebron’s tab, anyway.
She’s teasing Conti, saying that he’s her biggest fan, while
Conti coyly pretends that he’s never read her. “Oh please,
Richard reads me constantly,” ACO says of the council president
pro tem. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s reading her
blog, she scolds, “but I know. He’s been on my blog like
255 times.” Conti chuckles and admits to reading her “from
time to time, but it’s only for the color,” he says. “Not
for the facts.”
Whether Conti is reading her for the facts or for the color,
or because her posts pop up in his Google Alerts, he’s not
alone. In the 16 months since Theresa Grafflin started posting
as Albany Citizen One, her blog has been visited by roughly
200,000 unique viewers, with 40,000 of them returning at
least once. She’s blogged nearly 800 posts, averaging 50
a month, attending more than 500 public government meetings.
This month, so far, she’s covered about 10 meetings, caucuses,
public hearings, committees, even a city court hearing.
Grafflin calls herself a member of the illegitimate press,
the legitimate press being the Times Union and others,
including this paper, she says, which actually employ people
to do what she does compulsively and for free. It’s a badge
of honor for her: Here she is, the illegitimate press, routinely
scooping the old dogs at the TU—just by going to
the trouble of showing up.
But Lebron isn’t satisfied with that label, illegitimate.
He searches for a kinder one, and lands on “organic.” He
sees her reporting, he says, as an inevitable outgrowth
that is flourishing in an untended terrain. And one day,
he believes, she, and the people like her, will grow to
overtake the legitimate press.
ACO dismisses the idea. “He also believed he was going to
Illegitimate or organic, Grafflin is a hustler. She catches
rides from county legislators after committee meetings,
waves to the chairman as he’s presiding during session,
visits the county comptroller for friendly “Irish debates,”
gets late-night e-mails from political appointees, whispers
with activists who pull her aside after meetings, and counts
Albany Common Councilmen Conti, Joe Igoe, Dan Herring and
Anton Konev and a number of state legislators among her
drinking buddies. Staffers in the county’s minority office
and the county executive’s office pull her blog up to point
out what she’s written. Her posts get e-mailed throughout
city and county departments and have been printed out and
taped to the walls in at least one union headquarters. She’s
pissed off more than a few people, including a legitimate
reporter who covers the county beat. And though they won’t
admit it, many of these politicians and political hucksters
share their dirt with her, consult with her, ply her for
information and use her as a sounding board.
Try to find a politician in Albany who doesn’t know ACO’s
Her critics dismiss her as a shill who plays favorites to
benefit her interests, that she’s angling for a job as a
political hack. They complain that she’s naive in her understanding
of the machine in Albany. They say she’s too conservative.
A sloppy writer, an unreliable reporter, a bigot. Bat-shit
crazy. But it’s hard to find anyone who’ll say anything
like that on the record. As one person who’s considering
a run for office says, “I don’t like her, but I need her
to like me.”
This isn’t Grafflin’s first foray into the realm of media.
She was a sidekick on a talk-radio show on the Dallas AM
station WBAP for a brief time before moving to the Capital
Region in 1997. She was replaced by Tammy Faye Bakker Messner.
“Pretty cool, huh? It was the Underground Shopper,
and I was like the production person, but they liked my
voice on the radio. So, I started getting on the radio.”
The show was hosted by Sue Goldstein, the author of books
on bargain shopping. “She was terrible,” says Grafflin,
After she moved to New York she did a brief stint as a substitute
teacher, followed by a soul-crushing misadventure in the
cubicles of General Electric. From there she forayed into
the nonprofit world, coordinating a Web site called Choose
Your Charity with the Council of Community Services of New
York State. She wrote two books on nonprofits, the first
of which was written in coordination with Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s
office. “Then I went into communication development,” she
says, working for the Commission on Economic Opportunity
and then for Albany Community Action Partnership. “I taught
myself how to do grant writing. Pretty good with member
items. Very good with member items. With communications
development in nonprofits it’s all communicating, public
relations, schmoozing. That’s what I do. I’m pretty good
at raising money. I should show you my resume.”
She started going to common council meetings in Albany in
2006 because, “especially when you are working with community
action programs, you have to be aware of what’s going on
with your low-income community. So I started coming and
just got hooked on it. Then some of the people at the county
asked me to come over there. And I’ve always been involved
with the state, because they’re my drinking buddies. I got
this reputation for always being here, and they remember
you for that.”
She lost her job. She got the idea to start blogging. But
not just editorializing on the reporting of the legitimate
press and linking to their articles like most bloggers content
themselves with. She decided she wanted to use her blog
as a means of full-fledged reporting.
There was a confluence of motives: She was bored; she likes
to write; she wanted the attention; she is opinionated as
hell; she was going to all of the meetings anyway; she loathes
certain TU reporters, and wants to show them how
the legitimate press would get off their ass—Times Union—we
wouldn’t have the illegitimate press,” Grafflin says. “Traditional
journalists don’t like me, but I am getting it out there
and I am putting it in a language that they understand.
Unlike the newspapers, I go to every meeting that there
is. I’ve never seen Googly at one of the committee meetings
over at the county.”
Googly is her nickname for TU reporter Carol DeMare,
whom Grafflin loathes.
just doesn’t show up at meetings,” a habit Grafflin says
is all too common with the TU reporters. Back when
she started attending council meetings, “Tim O’Brien was
the reporter, and Tim would hold the news for two to three
weeks. He would come once every two or three weeks, get
news and release it after citizens would have had an opportunity
to do anything, and it was really irritating.”
She didn’t even know there is a name for it: citizen journalism.
“I just saw a need for it, so I did it.”
the beginning, I did one blog in the morning,” she says.
“And then I would hear something that I would think is important,
that people should know. And the more I did, the more it
led to other stories.”
Her first post:
don’t do the reporter role,” Grafflin says. “What I say
is that I am reporting from the citizen’s perspective. I
used to get calls, e-mails, saying that I don’t understand
what legislators are trying to do. But what I say is that
if you aren’t explaining it in a way that I understand it,
then nobody is going to understand it. Because I am a citizen,
and I am sitting in the citizen’s seat.”
She broke her second rule with the second post, and all
but one after that—though she says she still hasn’t blogged
If you want proof of ACO’s potential for impact on the local
political world, all you need to do is revisit the takedown
of Lenny Ricchiuti. Ricchiuti, an ex-cop and the head of
the Police Athletic League, was running last year for Albany
Common Council president.
Grafflin wasn’t impressed. “My issue with Lenny was that
he was running for the office, but he had never been inside
the council chambers,” she says. “I think that it is just
wrong that he say he is going to come in and be president
of something that he’d never attended. It’s disrespectful
for people who have done their time.”
Also, through her reporting on the Albany Public Library,
where Ricchiuti is a trustee, she had begun gathering rumors
of his alleged misconduct in his role at the Athletic League.
She put feelers out in her blog a little at a time, she
says, in the hopes of drawing someone out who would confirm
what she had been hearing about Ricchiuti. “I knew that
there was somebody out there—I knew that there were several
people out there,” she says. Eventually, she was connected
with Jacqueline Smith, a woman who worked for Ricchiuti
at PAL and who would go on to accuse Ricchiuti of “sexual
harassment and emotional abuse.”
The two talked on the phone, says Grafflin. “She was just
sobbing. I spoke with her for an hour.”
decided that her blog wasn’t the place for this story, so
she handed it off to Jordan Carleo-Evangelist at the TU.
She says that she knew she couldn’t do a story this
large. “It would have taken a lot of research. A lot of
calling and checking references, and that’s something that
somebody better-equipped should be doing, somebody more
legitimate. I’m not trained in this. She was crying on my
shoulder. I wanted it to be more objective. I didn’t want
it to be emotional.”
still see him,” she says of Ricchiuti. “I run into him.
I don’t have a problem with it, though, ’cause I believe
that it happened. There’s no doubt in my mind. She described
bruises,” says Grafflin. She recognizes that she is often
very close to libel, and never closer than in her comments
about Ricchiuti, but it doesn’t concern her. “Not with Lenny.
I feel confident that he can’t disprove it.”
Insiders from Ricchiuti’s campaign won’t dispute that the
TU article effectively killed his chances, which
certainly pleases ACO. Bolsters her, in fact. If she wants
to bring down a politician, she says, she can, and will.
Grafflin sees her role as something of political ombudsman,
the intermediary between the politicians and political hires
who run government, and we, the People, whom she represents.
She points to the baffling snow emergency that the city
called at the end of February. The city instituted the snow
emergency at 8 PM on a Wednesday, stating that it would
remain in place until the following Friday at 8 PM, even
though the predictions of snow on Wednesday gave way to
a torrential downpour of rain on Thursday. It infuriated
her that the city would leave this unnecessary snow emergency
in place—and continue to tow cars. “We were getting smacked
down in Center Square,” she says, “they’re just towing like
crazy. And the sidewalks are rivers—I know because I went
through a bunch of boots that day.”
She was getting phone calls and e-mails from people who
were frustrated by the snow emergency. But none of these
people had actually called the city about it. She called
Conti, her councilman, who didn’t seem to be taking her
very seriously, she says. “He just kept saying, ‘Yes, ma’am,
yes ma’am, yes ma’am.’ ”
So, she fired up her Dell Inspiron and blogged a post chastising
the city’s disregard for the residents of Center Square
and businesses by continuing the “farce.”
She followed her afternoon blog post with a call to the
Department of General Services and updated the post after
speaking with DGS representatives. The next morning, the
snow emergency was retracted—only 354 cars towed, she reported.
were a lot of people reading my blog in the middle of the
night, so it may have gotten through to a few places—even
people in Washington, D.C.,” she says, adding the boast
that Nick D’Antonio, the head of DGS, told her that she
was the reason it was lifted.
first said that Nicky couldn’t remove it,” she says, “that
they hadn’t done it ever before.”
Now, she is trying to broker a meeting between D’Antonio
and Center Square business owners. “I want to develop some
trust between the citizens and the staff of the city, who
seem like they want to work with us. We have things that
need to happen, and they seem to want to bring business
down here,” ACO says. “I am trying to create more trust.”
Grafflin is a hustler. She’s a registered lobbyist looking
for a contract. She has two book ideas brewing, a real-estate
deal for Ballinger’s she’s trying to arrange with a downstate
developer and job applications on the desk of every politician
with any pull in the city. While she enjoys the influence
that her blog seems to wield, it isn’t paying the bills.
“I’m broke,” she says. “It’s like the starving artist syndrome.”
She says that she hopes this article will help land her
As far as her impact on the local media landscape, she says
that she’s never really thought about it. Does she represent
a new wave in organic media that will rise to meet the gaping
void left by the schizophrenic corporate media? “Nah,” she
says. She knows better than anyone that she is a bizarre
phenomenon. That she will one day burn out, broke, and be
forced to scale back her blogging for more legitimate pursuits—like
making money. Following in her footsteps would just be too
hard for most people. “Nobody’s as determined that the citizens
have the information as I am.”
Even if she could, Grafflin says, creating a new kind of
journalism isn’t on her agenda. At best, she thinks that
she might shame the legitimate press into hiring better
reporters to focus on the minutiae of government, which
is her niche, and which she believes is so damn important.
could replace me?” she asks, as modest as ever. “I go to
almost every meeting I can.” It’s an enormous time commitment,
a full-time job. “People say how dull it is to go to meetings,
and it is, I guess,” she says. Government moves at an agonizing
pace. It is a progression of tiny, unspectacular steps.
“But it’s like, remember back in college? Everybody at some
point got hooked on All My Children. You watch one
episode and you say, ‘What the hell are these people doing?’
It’s just dull. But if you watch every episode every day,
It’s a soap opera.
become my entertainment. And a lot of people rely on it.”
And, at the very least, she says, “I’ve become famous.”