elm sapling is sitting in a hole in the ground in Washington
Park, and a dozen Albany city officials and Friends of the
Park are gamely waiting in the wintry April air as Mayor
Jerry Jennings bounds out of his staff car for an Arbor
sky seems ready to dump a load of snow, and it’s so cold
that even the tree looks freezing. The coatless Jennings,
who hates to be late and who checks his Movado watch with
the same frequency that most people blink, hurries over
to the group.
reporters have come out to the tree planting, a fact that
the mayor notes with disappointment before his voice reaches
to worry: He still works the little gathering like it’s
the last hour of the campaign before Primary Day: a few
jests, a couple of friendly punches on the arm, a joking
exchange with a friend about the quality of his overcoat.
Only people with money can afford that guy,” Jennings says,
laughing and reaching to turn the man’s lapel inside out
for a closer look at the tailor’s label.
is the side of Jerry Jennings that the public sees: the
joking, the joshing, the habit of addressing everyone from
congressmen to cleaning ladies with the moniker “kiddo.”
after eight years in office, the Honorable Gerald D. Jennings
has developed a reputation for another side that too many
people in Albany who have crossed him say they have seen—a
side that wields political power to the point of making
people afraid. Afraid for their jobs, afraid for their reputations,
and, some say, afraid for their families.
is neither cerebral, as Erastus Corning was often described,
nor remote, a term that even some of Thomas Whalen’s friends
used to characterize Albany’s last mayor. But anybody who
thinks Jennings isn’t smart has never taken him on in a
mayor had no opposition to speak of in his last race, none
has appeared on the horizon since then, and still most people
pick their public remarks about Jennings very carefully.
There may be some unhappy apparatchiks in Albany politics,
but there’s no sign that anybody’s about to start a revolution.
many politicians deep into their time in office to reflect
on the things they wish they had done differently, and their
answers will likely focus on humbling lessons learned the
hard way. Long tenures carry the risk of stumbling, but
they can also humanize their subjects. Even Rudy Giuliani
had enough sobering moments in his final months in office
to make him look more like a lonely guy strapped with the
world’s toughest job than a peevish bully picking on art
Jerry Jennings what he wishes he’d done differently, and
his answer has nothing to do with somber introspection and
everything to do with personal power—a quality he views
as a natural outgrowth of his job.
don’t think I realized the amount of influence you can have
as mayor of the capital city on state government leaders,”
the mayor says, without missing a beat.
is fine. Most people don’t have a problem with influence.
It’s the other stuff they worry about—the stories of threats,
implied or stated, of yanked contracts because someone crossed
City Hall the wrong way, of petty shows of power that would
be almost funny if they weren’t true.
you can’t get the mayor to take your phone calls, if he’s
ticked off at you and has temporarily banished you (and
“temporarily” sometimes means years), then call his radio
talk show on Friday mornings.
you start swearing at him or otherwise violating FCC rules,
he pretty much has to listen to you on the air, however
much he may roll his eyes or circle his finger around his
ear in the privacy of his City Hall studio while doing so.
not a bad deal: The mayor gets an hour to promote himself
and all that he’s done lately for the city, and the callers
get Jerry Jennings—not the world’s most patient person—as
a captive audience. Paul Webster, who ran against the mayor’s
choice for school board last fall and won, takes wicked
delight in occasionally popping up unexpectedly as a caller
to the show.
has been doing his radio show almost steadily since 1994,
first on what was then known as WQBK-AM (1300 AM) and now
on WROW (590 AM). The show goes off the air during his campaigns.
He insists that the callers are not screened or prepped
in advance (“You kidding me?” he replied when asked) and
says he pretty much wings it through predictable questions
is Jennings in his element. He’s dealing with a largely
sympathetic and complimentary audience, and he comes off
as benevolent and attentive, dispensing promises over the
air that city agencies will be dispatched that same day
to correct a problem. And usually they are.
is masterful at this, at the art of reaching people and
making them feel that he really cares. Those who have watched
Jerry Jennings’ growth in office say this skill makes it
all the more difficult to understand why the mayor reacts
to reasonable opposition, much less open dissent, with such
an intensely personal response.
are enough good things, enough good ideas that Jerry Jennings
brings to the table that it always surprises me that he
is so reluctant to tolerate any disagreement,” says Shawn
Morris, alderwoman for Albany’s 7th Ward, who came on in
1994, the first year of the Jennings administration. “Any
questions, and you get accused of being negative and shot
down and shut out of the process. There’s no reason for
says his critics should consider his record.
thing you learn in this job is you better have thick skin,”
the mayor says. “All I want people to do is look at what
I’ve done as mayor. I can’t please everyone all the time,
and I learned that early on in this game.”
attorney Jerry Weiss, a Jennings political ally, is suspicious
of personal attacks on the mayor’s character, especially
in view of Jennings’ record.
a city of 100,000 people, there are always going to be people
who are dissatisfied,” Weiss says. “Things can always be
better. But when people cast personal stones and talk about
personalities, I tend to doubt their complaints. I then
look beyond the complaint and ask myself, ‘Does this person
have an agenda?’ And I usually find that someone willing
to make a personal complaint is someone with an agenda.”
the good things that Morris—and almost anyone else—would
list to Jennings’ credit: He struck a deal with the state
that guarantees hundreds of millions of dollars to the city
as payments in lieu of taxes for Empire State Plaza over
the next 30 years. He has helped make Albany’s downtown
far livelier, backing the construction of several new buildings.
He has connected the riverfront to the city; a long-awaited
pedestrian walkway linking downtown to the river is expected
to open in June.
mayor has backed a number of civic projects, such as the
Citizens’ Police Review Board and the revitalization of
Grand Street, that wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate
without his support. He has forged solid relationships with
minority leaders in the city, too. Jestin Williams, a longtime
Arbor Hill activist and committee member in the 3rd Ward,
praises Jennings’ accessibility and genuine concern for
the city’s poorer residents, a trait that Williams traces
to Jennings’ days on the Common Council.
these achievements, no one’s trying to shoot down Jennings’
reputation. It’s difficult to make a case against him on
what he’s done for Albany. So why the spiteful streak?
not like he doesn’t know what it feels like to be punished.
This is the guy who was so shut out of his own party as
a Common Council member in 1989 (for opposing a Pine Bush
development issue backed by Democratic Party regulars) that
he had to conduct a write-in campaign—a desperate measure,
by any standard—to retain his own council seat.
think that might give him a better understanding of people
who try to buck the system (which in Albany means bucking
Jerry himself), but the mayor shows little tolerance for
such antics, as he demonstrated when Albany comptroller
Nancy Burton quit in early 2001.
had a long history as a political independent, and was never
exactly the mayor’s philosophical kindred spirit. Burton
joined the staff of state Comptroller H. Carl McCall after
quitting, and declined to speak for this story, saying that
she had moved on and didn’t want to revisit the past. But
before she left City Hall, Burton said that Jennings and
his ally, city Treasurer Betty Barnette, engaged in a systematic
effort to isolate her to the point that she could no longer
function as comptroller because she no longer had access
to essential information.
was one of the few people approached who was willing to
discuss, however diplomatically, the mayor’s penchant for
payback. More than a half-dozen other people queried about
this side of Jerry Jennings declined to comment, with several
stating a concern about retribution.
mayor must know his own reputation for payback; he’s been
heard making jokes about it. At a public meeting last winter
on his proposal to move an $800,000 federal transportation
grant from Lark Street to New Scotland Avenue—a proposal
that triggered a storm of protest by Center Square residents—one
resident stood to ask a tough question of the mayor. Before
he answered, Jennings turned to Public Safety Commissioner
Jack Nielsen, seated at the table with him, and said, “Jack,
follow him home.”
laughed, but in Albany, that kind of joke isn’t always funny.
he’s not being jocular at public meetings, the mayor adamantly
rejects the suggestion that people don’t want to get on
his bad side.
are some people out there who do not like my style,” he
says. “I’m aggressive. I’m impatient. I like to see things
accomplished. I don’t have time, number one, nor is it my
style, to be vindictive. I don’t have a problem letting
people know I have a problem with their position.”
may be the only point on which Jerry Jennings and Elda Abate,
owner of Elda’s restaurant on Lark Street, will ever agree.
2000, Abate bought the crumbling but historic St. Joseph’s
Church in Arbor Hill for $1 from the Roman Catholic Diocese.
The church is walking distance from a number of Albany nightspots
that have opened under a renewed focus on downtown during
the Jennings years—the Big House Brewing Co. and Jillian’s,
on North Pearl Street, and an enhanced McGeary’s Restaurant
on Clinton Square. Abate and her husband Mario envisioned
the renovated church as a reception site for weddings and
private parties that would fit in well with the downtown
is now fighting more than $70,000 in city fines for safety
violations at the site, and has accused the city of using
the fines as a backhanded effort to seize the church. Last
fall, the city also shut down Bliss Lounge, a lounge/nightspot
that Abate opened adjacent to her Lark Street restaurant,
saying that she was operating it without a permit.
a recent interview, Abate accused Public Safety Commissioner
Nielsen of offering a quid pro quo: Her lounge could stay
open if she ceded the church to the city.
administration wants St. Joseph’s,’ ” Abate says that Nielsen
told her. “ ‘If you don’t give up St. Joseph Church, you’re
going to be shut down.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, this
administration? Do you mean the mayor?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’
denies the accusation, saying he never stated or implied
that a deal could be struck. He insists all city agencies
treated Abate properly.
going to be polite about this: She skews things to sound
like other than they were,” Nielsen says. “I was very clear
to tell her we have two issues here. My responsibility is
to the citizens here. In both cases, I had citizen groups
who came forward and had concerns about what she was doing.
As for the church—we never wanted the church. By ‘we’ I
mean the city.”
Abate remains convinced that Jennings has applied undue
are going out of our mind to find out why this guy is doing
this to us,” she says. “He’s a very powerful man. People
you’re running for city of fice in Albany and you aren’t
on the mayor’s team, you can pretty much count on him putting
up a candidate against you to force a primary. The Jennings
candidates don’t always win—but maybe winning isn’t the
whole point of this exercise.
was very intimidating,” says Common Council member Dominick
Calsolaro, who was elected last fall after a primary against
Kathleen Myers, a 1st Ward committee member who was backed—some
said pushed—by Jennings.
had the blessing of the ward’s committee, but he had also
been a leader in the neighborhood movement that opposed
and then blocked the reconstruction of the Lincoln Park
Pool, a Jennings pet project. A neighborhood group called
Friends of Lincoln Park pool was created to protect the
unique, lake-like structure as part of the city’s historic
fabric. They helped postpone the mayor’s proposal to replace
the structure with a smaller, modern pool. Then, Myers appeared
as a candidate in the 1st Ward, less than two weeks before
petitioning for the race started.
mayor’s people did all the petition work,” says Calsolaro,
who has since worked cooperatively with the Jennings administration
on several projects.
is the argument that rough primaries are only to be expected
in a city like Albany, where down-and-dirty politics have
been part of the landscape longer than anyone can remember.
Given that history, it’s hardly surprising that Jerry Jennings
is well-schooled in the art of primaries, says one Albany
veteran of ward politics.
stepping into his arena and spitting in his eye, and what
do you expect—‘Well, I thought it would be a real clean
process’?” asked the veteran, who spoke on the condition
that he not be named. “Well, put down your civics book and
get a reality check. A primary is nasty shit. I’ve run some
politicians schooled in the Albany way of doing things can
accept rough and nasty. But one memorable Albany primary
raised questions about whether the usual tactics crossed
a line that sent a disturbing, even frightening, message.
1998, Jennings backed Albany County legislator Gary Domalewicz
in a primary against Jack McEneny for McEneny’s state Assembly
seat. The move was said to be payback for McEneny, who had
run for mayor against Jennings in 1997 and gotten trounced.
the only part of this story that’s even remotely funny,
McEneny likes to tell how the city paved all the streets
around his Colonial Avenue neighborhood during the ’97 mayoral
campaign, but skipped McEneny’s street and another nearby
street that had a bumper crop of “McEneny for Mayor” signs
on the front lawns.
the 1998 Assembly primary, McEneny kept his seat, beating
Domalewicz three-to-one in the primary. McEneny’s daughter
Rachel managed her father’s Assembly campaign, as she had
his mayoral race.
Domalewicz-McEneny primary then took a weird twist: In the
early morning hours after McEneny’s victory, an Albany cop
pulled Rachel McEneny over on her way home from an election-night
celebration and arrested her on a drunken-driving charge.
case ended up becoming an embarrassing debacle for both
the cops and the prosecutor’s office. McEneny secured a
blood-alcohol reading for his daughter through a blood test
at a local hospital. The test results suggested that she
would have needed a superhuman metabolism to produce the
reading that Albany cops said they got on the Breathalyzer
test. The court threw out the results, and a jury acquitted
been three years for Rachel since going through that very
traumatic and degrading experience, and since the jury has
found her not guilty, and no one has had enough class to
offer her an apology,” McEneny said.
says he has never had any evidence that suggests Jennings
was in any way behind Rachel’s arrest. He endorsed Jennings
in the mayor’s bid for reelection last year. He talks convincingly
about how Jennings has been a good mayor for the city, about
how he has responded to many of the problems that McEneny
noted in his own campaign. But McEneny has also never forgotten
what happened to his daughter, and he says such incidents
can have a chilling effect in a city.
think there was a climate that would bring about that vindictive
action; there was a climate in the city,” he says.
asked if he thinks that climate still exists, McEneny replies,
“I don’t think it matters if it exists, if people think
it exists. It’s not necessary that law enforcement will
go after your children; it’s necessary that people think
you’ll go after their children. Perception.”
of people in Albany still think of Mayor Jennings as Mr.
Jennings. They’re the children and parents of children who
went to Albany High School under him, first during his tenure
as a teacher, then as an administrator.
has been out of the city’s public school system for almost
a decade now, but his criticisms of how those schools are
run have become one of the most contentious issues of his
administration. He wants to appoint a couple of members
to the school board, an idea that is not unique to Albany.
Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello has been trying for years to
get a special bill through the Legislature that would allow
him to have two school-board appointments in his city, but
there has been little evidence that the Legislature is going
to budge on the request.
started in the Albany school system in 1970, first at Philip
Schuyler High School, then at Albany High as a social studies
teacher. His ex-wife, Gracia Chicorelli, was part of a powerful
Democratic family; her aunt, Regina Chicorelli, was a longtime
member of the Albany School Board. (Jennings’ second wife,
Mary Ann Severino, is a secretary at the high school.) The
Albany school system was a bastion of political patronage
back then—as was just about every other urban school district—but
Jennings bristles indignantly at any mention of family connections
in his first career. Slogging through night school got him
his job, he says, not political pull.
taught for five and a half years, and then became an assistant
housemaster. By all accounts, he was exceptionally popular
with parents and students. He ended up as the school’s vice
principal, and it could be argued that those years provided
formative lessons in the art of building a power base.
no point did he ever become the principal of the school,
but there was an acknowledgment among the employees that
he was one of the most powerful people in the building,
if not the most powerful person in the building,” says Bill
Ritchie, president of the Albany Public School Teachers’
Association and a guidance counselor at Albany High in the
middle years of the Jennings era there.
Superintendent Lonnie Palmer nor school board president
Theresa Swidorski would comment on Jennings’ interest in
the school system.
Webster, elected to the board last fall, decided to talk,
and says the mayor’s interest in seeing the schools improve
is understandable. Webster disagrees with Jennings on how
that interest should be applied. If the mayor wants to influence
the school system, Webster says, he should do so by continuing
his laudable record of obtaining state and federal aid for
the city, and then channel as much of that aid as he can
into reducing Albany’s poverty level.
agree with his concerns that the schools must do better,
that the schools could be better managed from an administrative
and academic standpoint,” Webster says. “Jerry and I just
differ on who should have control of the schools. No one
wants to deal with the fact that the parent of the average
child in the Albany school district is a single minority
mom who is living at or below poverty.
mayor alone can’t fix the school ills.”
isn’t the first time Webster and Jennings have disagreed.
1994, Webster recalls, his public opposition of the mayor
cost him a contract. At the time, Webster was the owner
and publisher of the Sojourner Herald, a monthly
newspaper geared toward the city’s minority community. At
the time, the city regularly published a quarter-page ad
in the paper, touting Albany’s home-ownership incentive
joined forces with a group of community activists protesting
a proposal backed by Jennings that would have removed $90,000
in community development block grant funds from six community
groups, and given the money to the Albany Police Department
for use in departmental antipoverty programs.
were like, ‘You know, the police department is not an antipoverty
group, and it’s not a community-development group,’” Webster
recalls. The protest pressured the administration into restoring
the funds to the community groups. A month later, the city
yanked its regular quarter-page ad from the Sojourner
Herald. The ad cost $100 a month, not an inconsequential
amount to a small paper, Webster said. Webster has never
had any indication that the mayor personally ordered the
ad to stop, but he also fully expected that the ad would
be the cost of his stance on the block-grant money.
considered it a victory,” he says, adding that he gets along
fine with the mayor these days.
can disagree with the mayor and still work with him, and
I think people have to learn that,” Webster says. “And I
think the mayor could do a better job working with those
who don’t necessarily share his view.”
Berry, who worked as a strategist and media advisor on Jennings’
first mayoral campaign in 1993, gives a harsher assessment.
Berry had a falling out with Jennings shortly after Jennings
took office in 1994; Berry says the mayor inexplicably cut
him off, and later severed ties with several other people
who gave him early support.
man had so much potential,” Berry said. “I believed in him
with my heart and soul. I believed in him as a brother,
and to see how many people have been hurt and ignored is
difficult. Nobody is willing to stand up to Jerry, because
there’s this fear factor. And arrogance will be his downfall.”