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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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June 2, 2013

A Revolution In City Hall

Faced with the prospect of defeat Jerry Jennings decides to retire and Kathy Sheehan is almost certainly the next mayor of Albany

Word shot around town late in the day on May 14th, Jerry Jennings had announced by email that He would not run again for Mayor of Albany. I caught the news about 20 minutes after it went up on a Hearst Times Union blog, you’d better believe I’m not on His Majesty’s mailing list. By the next morning all the politically minded people in Albany were stunned by the news, and by the sudden understanding that a new day was about to dawn for our abused and neglected City.

Jerry Jennings Sept. 14, 1993, A Few Minutes After Winning The Democratic Primary In An Upset.  His First Public Statement As Mayor-Elect Was "Why Are You All Cheering?"  (I Was There)
Jerry Jennings Sept. 14, 1993, A Few Minutes After Winning The Democratic Primary In An Upset. His First Public Statement As Mayor-Elect Was "Why Are You All Cheering?" (I Was There)

I could hear in people’s voices a strange mix of elation and fear of the future, that must be the prevailing feeling whenever oppressive dictatorships are peacefully overthrown. Actually, Jerry is still mayor until January 1st, so technically the old and repressive remnant of the O’Connell political machine that He embodies is still in control of our City. But the controlling power of that remnant, which has been steadily declining since Jennings’ last reelection in 2009, has lost most of it’s ability to repress and retaliate.

And it immediately became evident to one and all that we already have a new mayor ready to take over the City, someone who was not chosen by the outgoing mayor. City of Albany Treasurer Kathy Sheehan, who owes nothing to Jennings, has been running for mayor for a good year and a half, she has positioned herself to win the September Democratic Primary and follow through in November. It was her strong challenge that prompted Jennings to quit rather than face defeat, and it is her independence from all the old influences that cleanly puts a finish to the machine in Albany.

Let me repeat that so there is no ambiguity here. Jerry Jennings quit because Kathy Sheehan was ready and able to beat Him in the September Primary. Jerry did not want to lose His final election.

Kathy Sheehan, Probably Our Next Mayor, At The Opening Of Her Campaign Headquarters Earlier This Year
Kathy Sheehan, Probably Our Next Mayor, At The Opening Of Her Campaign Headquarters Earlier This Year

Most everyone I’ve talked to has been rocked by the news, but hey, I saw it coming. In my last blog posting on May 11 I wrote “It’s starting to look like He has decided not to run again but is concealing His decision until the last possible moment.” Yes indeed, I called that one right on, but naturally I hedged my bets by adding “who knows” several times.

It was a bunch of little things that made me think that way. Increasingly in the last year or so the man has looked tired and unengaged at public functions, as if being the center of attention wasn’t fun anymore. Over His last term I kept hearing stories about how He wasn’t keeping tight reign on His commissioners anymore, pretty much letting them do whatever they wanted. And over that last term He seemed to be accepting more and more concessions to His power, conceding autonomy to various sectors of the City, something He never willingly allowed during His first three terms.

But something else convinced me that He was ready to quit. Earlier this year I was quietly shocked by a novel development, His commissioners and top people suddenly behaved in a civil manner toward me. In fact, they became downright friendly. This was so unbelievable to me that I mostly kept it to myself. I mean, I always try to walk up to these guys, say hello and smile and shake their hands. Almost always I would be met with a cold fish stare and limp shake, or sometimes angry hostility.

At The Capital South Campus Canter Groundbreaking On May 2 Jerry Jennings Looked Distracted And Tired
At The Capital South Campus Center Groundbreaking On May 2 Jerry Jennings (At Left) Looked Distracted And Tired

My relationship with Jennings’ top minions evolved much like some of my more dysfunctional personal relationships. Back in the 1990s His people ignored me or regarded me with condescension. Of course this was hardly unique, all of us lowly citizens who were not in good with the Old Boys were pointedly excluded from the dictatorial regime. From my vantage point it seemed like the majority of the City’s population was being snubbed.

By the early 2000s I’d been identified as an enemy of the regime and was generally treated with pointed contempt by Jerry’s minions, and had to deal with quite a bit of retaliation to myself and to my neighborhood. Partly this was because of The Wife’s activities with Save The Pine Bush, constantly filing lawsuits to stop sprawl suburbanization of the Pine Bush ecosystem in the western part of the City. But my growing tendency throughout the last decade to speak up at public meetings certainly didn’t please the dictator or His minions.

And that has always been the big problem with the Jennings regime. They couldn’t run the City very well and they certainly couldn’t solve problems and they most certainly could not handle criticism, constructive or otherwise. In fact, they created and maintained a lot of unnecessary problems. But boy, did they know how to retaliate against their perceived enemies.

Sidewalk On My Street Carefully Bocked With Ice By A City Crew, Feb. 2007
Sidewalk On My Street Carefully Blocked With Ice By A City Crew, Feb. 2007

After I started writing this blog in 2006 their official contempt and retaliatory behavior toward me and toward my neighborhood got worse. Apparently at the beginning of summer 2010 either Jennings started reading this blog for the first time, or someone, probably a certain non-governmental agency head closely allied with Jennings, brought my blog commentaries to His attention, and he was appalled. Suddenly His top people started openly displaying seething hatred toward me when they encountered me.

This didn’t bother me at all, living in an atmosphere of disapproval and approbation is pretty much the story of my life. But when earlier this year these top Jennings people started to be nice to me I was much taken aback. I mean, it’s not like any of them were trying to sell me a vacuum cleaner or phish my passwords.

Thus I have come to the conclusion that months ago, perhaps as long ago as January, Jennings told His commissioners that he would not run again. Of course He swore them to secrecy, the story did not spread beyond the people close to the top. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this is the only plausible explanation why these people were suddenly courteous toward me, the designated enemy.

The Sign Is A Lie: Kathy Sheehan Had Just Blocked An IDA Tax Giveaway To Brighter Choice
The Sign Is A Lie: Kathy Sheehan Had Just Blocked An IDA Tax Giveaway To Brighter Choice

Nobody seriously questions Kathy Sheehan’s competency or her ability to handle the job of mayor. In her private business life she was a successful high level administrator, and as Treasurer of the City of Albany she has convincingly proven that she can reorganize a City department into unheard of levels of efficiency and profitability. It is also clear that she is not career climbing or out to make a buck, she and her husband Bob have so far had successful careers and live comfortably. She doesn’t have to do this.

Granted, Ms. Sheehan is looking for the honor and glory of being mayor, nobody runs for public office unless they enjoy being the center of attention. In Albany the mayor is the citizen who gets more attention than anybody else public or private, that is mostly because we have a “strong mayor” municipal government. Sometimes I think of the mayor of Albany as the focal point of a crowded, complex and boisterous carnival, a non-stop circus that goes wherever the mayor goes and puts on a performance whenever the mayor stands still.

What motivates Ms. Sheehan to put so much work over so much time into attaining the corner office in City Hall is the conviction that she can solve the nagging governmental problems that are plaguing our City and keeping us down. How do I know this? She told me this a long time ago when she was still thinking about running for mayor. Some incidental things you don’t forget.

Jerry's Mountain: The Rapp Road "Landfill" In April
Jerry's Mountain: The Rapp Road "Landfill" In April

A month back or so The Wife and her co-conspirators from Save the Pine Bush met with Ms. Sheehan over the fate of the Rapp Road “Landfill” in the Pine Bush. For those who don’t live around here, the “Landfill” is an enormous mountain of garbage and toxic waste located a short walk behind the Pine Bush Discovery Center, a disgusting mound of horror visible to anyone entering Albany from the west. About 90 percent of that mountain of garbage is imported from outside the City, much of it hauled hundreds of miles to be dumped on porous Pine Bush sand over an aquifer.

As Treasurer Ms. Sheehan has demonstrated keen interest in the finances of the “Landfill” and garbage policy in general. It’s an open secret that Rapp Road accepts toxic waste that most other dumps reject and daily accepts a greater volume of garbage than allowed by State law. The Dump is Jerry Jennings’ model business venture, He and His minions have repeatedly claimed that the City budget is dependent on revenue from discount “tipping fees” which allegedly generate an annual profit of $5 million.

Kathy Sheehan
Kathy Sheehan

In 2010 the Treasurer’s office issued a report that called into question the profitability of the Rapp Road Dump, suggesting that it may actually be losing money, but the report was admittedly inconclusive because of the nonexistent data and secrecy. Ms.Sheehan looks at garbage primarily as a money matter. “I want Albany to get out of the garbage business,” I’ve heard her say, “and our least expensive option may be to send our trash elsewhere.”

After the meeting The Wife asked Ms. Sheehan about another nagging, festering problem created by Jerry Jennings, lame or nonexistent code enforcement of residential properties. Right now code enforcement is an ineffective nightmare spread over four or five City departments that don’t communicate with each other and operates at about 30 percent of the budget of most other similar sized communities nationwide. Ms. Sheehan looked at The Wife deadpan and said, “I can fix code enforcement in three months.”

From what I’ve heard from Ms. Sheehan, she is almost dismissive of the task of carrying out the necessary administrative changes to code enforcement, for her that is the easy part. Apparently the challenging part for her is making it easy for citizens to report problems. For that she plans to utilize 21st Century communication technology so that essential data about the conditions of buildings can be collected and handled quickly and efficiently. We shall see.

The biggest problem that Kathy Sheehan will encounter as mayor has nothing to do with fixing financial screwups or unraveling administrative tangles and has everything to do with public perception. You see, the ultimate source of Jerry Jennings’ hold over the City has been His patriarchal grandeur, He is the father figure of the community. It’s an image that He has carefully cultivated, for example how many times over the years have I heard Him remind former public school students that he was their principal at Albany High School before He entered politics.

This may be Kathy Sheehan’s achilles heel, that she is a short slender woman more interested in solving financial and administrative problems than cutting ribbons for the TV cameras. Perhaps people still instinctively expect a publicly dominant male father figure with a deep voice and a patronizing manner to make them feel secure even as He is pissing away their future. I think it almost certain that Ms. Sheehan will sooner or later find herself being mindlessly attacked by people who miss the dominating daddy.

Boss Dan O'Connell And "The Mayor" Erastus Corning III: Dead And Gone
Boss Dan O'Connell And
"The Mayor" Erastus Corning III: Dead And Gone

Can Albany handle having a mayor who isn’t a father figure? Old time Albanians, the descendants of the people who established the old political machine back in the first half of the 20th Century, have traditionally fully expected such a figure to preside over their lives. Meanwhile many if not most members of the Baby Boomer generation, who spend their entire lives obsessing over parental authority, were plenty satisfied these last 20 years with an unyielding father figure for mayor who treated them as children.

But the Old Time Albanians have been abandoning the City for decades, leaving their homes behind and moving to the sterile but heavily subsidized suburbs. As Albany neighborhoods disintegrated under the Jennings administration this exodus of the natives accelerated. This was always Jennings’ ultimate power base, as these folks quietly abandoned their homes over the last 20 years Jennings’ power quietly lessened.

As for the Baby Boomers, their once vast political power is rapidly declining everywhere. The beginning of the end of their domination was the rise of the Occupy Movement in the Autumn of 2011, which will be looked back upon as the first national flexing of the muscles of the grandchildren of the Boomers, the political awakening of the so-called Millennial Generation. It is exceedingly strange to me that of all the babbling blowhard attempts to explain the significance of Occupy no one seems to be talking about this obvious point, but whatever.

Outdoor Kitchen At Occupy Albany Encampment In Front Of City Hall, Oct. 2011
Outdoor Kitchen At Occupy Albany Encampment In Front Of City Hall, Oct. 2011

The 2011 encampment of Occupy in front of Albany City Hall exposed the declining power of Jerry Jennings for all to see. Jennings stood by helpless as Albany police Chief Krokoff refused to attack the camp without a direct order, and Albany County District Attorney Soares refused to prosecute the citizens in the camp without a good reason. Of course, neither Mr. Krokoff or Mr. Soares are Baby Boomers, they had no reason to suppress legal dissent against an obviously corrupt Old Boy regime.

Meanwhile Governor Cuomo, a typical Baby Boomer, lost patience with fellow Boomer Jennings for allowing such embarrassing public displays of patriotism so close to the State Capital. In the end the federal administration of Baby Boomer Barack Obama sent the FBI to coordinate attacks against Occupy across the country as well as in Albany, and finally with the secret police urging Him on Jennings found the courage to order Chief Krokoff to attack the encampment. Thus because of outside involvement Occupy in Albany was suppressed and passed into history.

But the effects of Occupy are permanent. The established elected leaders of the Baby Boomers lost legitimacy in the eyes of the younger generation and this will be reflected in future elections. This cannot be emphasized enough. Jennings, who is very much a prescient politician who knows the game better than most, could not help but see the simmering resentment left by the attack on Occupy. Personally, I don’t know a single person under the age of 40 living in Albany who would ever vote for Jerry Jennings for anything.

Feeding Frenzy: Day After A City Crew Demolished An Entire Block Of Buildings On Lexington Avenue In Arbor Hill, May 7
Feeding Frenzy: Day After A City Crew Demolished An Entire Block Of Buildings On Lexington Avenue In Arbor Hill, May 7

One more way that Jennings has kept Himself in office has been by the old trick of creating and maintaining political division among the voters. This of course is a widespread method among politicians, particularly among administrators such as presidents, governors and mayors. The idea is that if the voters can be manipulated into forming competing factions then the voters can waste their energy with hating each other and can never form coalitions against the guy in office.

Jerry Jennings has always been the representative of the interests of “Uptown Albany” against “Downtown Albany.” These designations have always been code for the Newer Suburbanized Albany versus the Older Urban Albany. But let’s not mince words or beat around the bush here, for many people this has meant White Albany versus Black Albany.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but Rich White Uptown versus Poor Black Downtown is utterly and completely bogus. Plenty of rich white people live downtown, poor black people can be found living uptown. Demographics aside, the carefully nurtured rot in downtown neighborhoods negatively impacts the supposedly stable uptown neighborhoods. Try as they might, Old Boy politicians like Jerry Jennings can’t separate Uptown from the rest of the City and marry it to the suburbs. Not gonna happen.

Sandstone Steps Deliberately Wrecked By A City Crew At Bathhouse #2
Sandstone Steps Deliberately Wrecked By A City Crew At Bathhouse #2

But for many people this bogus division is more real than reality, and back in 1994 when Jennings first became mayor this divide was even more widely believed. It has always appeared to me that Jennings Himself has not merely used this imagined division inside the City of Albany to His political advantage, I think He sincerely believes in it and sees Himself as serving the best interests of all by representing Uptown against Downtown as mayor.

Having lived in downtown Albany throughout the Jennings years, I’ve had a ringside seat to His war against our neighborhoods. Police denial of service and the resulting encouragement of criminal activity, middle of the night teardowns of architectural treasures and even whole blocks of residences, politically motivated retribution directed at entire neighborhoods, refusal to perform basic maintenance of streets and sidewalks, shutting down of public services, encouraging slumlords and speculators to buy up property and neglect it, all of this and much more. These are the elements of the war against downtown.

In 2009 this Uptown versus Downtown divide translated into a split electoral opposition to the reelection of the incumbent Jennings. Then Common Council President Shawn Morris ended up representing Uptown, and then Common Council member Corey Ellis ended up representing Downtown. The two could not come to an agreement, and the split vote translated into an easy victory for Jennings, a masterful political manipulation on His part.

Corey Ellis And Shawn Morris In 2009
Corey Ellis And Shawn Morris In 2009

Ms. Morris quit during the summer and refused to endorse Mr. Ellis, whose campaign limped to a miserable end at the Primary in September. I was one of those downtown people who supported Corey Ellis, I did my damnedest to convince myself and other people that he had a chance to win and would make a great mayor. Like his other supporters, I kept hoping and encouraging Mr. Ellis to fire up and run a campaign, but the sad fact is that the man simply does not have what it takes.

Quite a few times this year I’ve heard people whisper and mutter that Corey Ellis ran that campaign at Jennings’ request and with His secret support to undermine Shawn Morris’ bid. The whisperers are also saying that he was recruited to repeat his services to Jennings again this year. I’ve seen no evidence to support any of that, but then again I’ve seen nothing compelling to disprove it.

But the probably unanticipated longterm result of the 2009 Primary was that a lot of people saw the Uptown versus Downtown divide for themselves and felt really silly about it. Like, embarrassed. Supporters of both Ms Morris and Mr. Ellis quietly decided that they did not want to see a repeat of this fiasco. That’s what I’ve been hearing these last four years.

Jerry Jennings Explains His Decision To Not Run Again, May 15
Jerry Jennings Explains His Decision To Not Run Again, May 15

So when Kathy Sheehan started running for mayor in 2012 before anybody else had even begun to think about running, she quickly managed to scoop up a lot of key supporters from both 2009 challengers without much fuss. Only a handful of Corey Ellis’ supporters from 2009 have followed him to 2013, but most have gone to Ms. Sheehan with what seems to me a sense of relief. Mr. Ellis’ supporters tend to be fierce and committed, but they are few in number and have even fewer resources than last time.

I was correct in my prediction that Jennings would wait until the absolute last minute to announce His decision to not run, but I thought that last moment would be the time to circulate qualifying petitions the first week of June. It turned out that the absolute last moment for Him to make His decision was the Albany County Democratic Party meeting on May 15, the one where candidates for the Primary are officially announced and endorsed by the party. Jennings announced His decision late in the day by email on May 14.

Suddenly faced with no incumbent, the County Democratic Party endorsed the only viable candidate, Kathy Sheehan. Corey Ellis vied for the endorsement at that meeting and was thoroughly rejected by the membership, his claims that the process was unfair and that Ms. Sheehan was not committed to the Democratic Party impressed no one. Finally he was reduced to charging racism, which was more an admission of impotency than anything.

Ms. Sheehan operates from a position of strength, that is why Jennings quit and that is why the party endorsed her for mayor. A few days after the meeting she announced that she did not want her name on the official Party qualifying petitions, which sent the party leadership into paroxysms of fury. She could do this because in anticipation of fighting an officially endorsed incumbent she had already gathered together her own team of petition carriers, ready to go door to door and cover the entire City.

Jery Jennings And Gary Domalewicz At his Campaign kickoff, May 17
Jerry Jennings At Gary Domalewicz' Campaign Kickoff, May 17

Ms. Sheehan refused to have her name on the official ballot because the officially endorsed Party candidate for her her own current office of Treasurer is long time Albany County Legislator Gary Domalewicz, an old Jennings supporter. Her endorsed choice to succeed her in the Treasurer’s office is Darius Shahinfar, whom you might recall in recent years has run for Congress and for City Auditor. Mr. Shahinfar is a lawyer in his mid 40s, and is married to County Legislator Noelle Kinsch.

This was an important moment. By refusing to have her name on the official ballot, Kathy Sheehan demonstrated that the party needed her more than she needed them, and that she was going to call the shots if they wanted her to play their game. Such early decisions can have a lasting effect on a political career both good and bad, she may very well have made some key enemies. How well she handles these ruffled feathers in the near future will be the real test of her political skills.

Gary Domalewicz’ official biography on the Albany County Legislature site is full of startling negatives, sponsoring legislation “imposing residency restrictions,” “approving GPS tracking” “initiated a law requiring fingerprint and background checks” “eliminating parole” ”outlawing body piercing for minors” “mandatory testing” and “requiring price posting.”. This is not to say that a few of these are not useful or necessary restrictions, but I can’t help but notice the dominant tendency toward curtailing rights in his legislative career. I don’t see much building or improvement, just restrictions.

Darius Shahinfar
Darius Shahinfar

Darius Shahinfar has yet to hold public office, but has worked in various levels of government in his career. He recently told Metroland that the City needs “a technological overhaul,” and about the City’s financial crisis he said “We can’t tax our way out of it, we can’t just make spending cuts to get out of it. We’ve got to bring in new business.” On the downside he seems enamored of the idea of combining and thus eliminating police departments and school districts, which makes sense to a bookkeeper but these days tends to repel voters who are tired of having local access to services eliminated in the name of cost cutting.

Both candidates for Treasurer appear to be perfectly capable of handling the City department. The difference is that Mr. Domalewicz is very much one of the Old Boys, thus his legislative career full of promoting restrictions. Meanwhile, Mr. Shahinfar speaks of confronting Albany’s financial problems and looking to build the City’s economy, but of course having never held office he is untested. Details aside, this is a race about attitude and willingness to embrace innovation to solve problems, the old versus the new.

Jerry Jennings At The Season Opening Of Lincoln Park Pool In 2003, Shortly After South End Neighbors Stopped Him From Closing It
Jerry Jennings At The Season Opening Of Lincoln Park Pool In 2003, Shortly After South End Neighbors Stopped Him From Closing The Pool And Selling It

Some of us haven’t forgotten that when Jerry Jennings first ran for mayor in 1993 He was an underdog who was supported by an underdog constituency that wanted to see fundamental change to the way Albany is governed. Almost immediately upon attaining office Jennings very publicly sold out to the money men and initiated a dictatorial reign of terror over the City. Instead of reform we got political and economic repression and the old problems got a lot worse.

When Kathy Sheehan moves into the mayor’s corner office will she do the same thing that Jennings did? Will Ms. Sheehan become a monster? As a “strong mayor” she will have the opportunity to become an oppressive dictator. Will she succumb to temptation, reject the people who put her in office and start backslapping the money men like her predecessor did?

I think it unlikely for two reasons. First, a successful dictator mayor in Albany needs to be male, and second, the Old Boys and Girls who would support another oppressive dictatorship are no longer around. Back in 1994 Jennings pulled together the stray elements of the old O’Connell Machine who were leaderless after Erastus Corning III (“The Mayor”) died on The Wife’s birthday in 1983. Those Old Boy supporters are no longer there, and if they were still around they wouldn’t follow the likes of Kathy Sheehan anyway. She’s clearly not one of them.

Kathy Sheehan Officially Announcing Her Candidacy For Mayor, Nov. 2012
Kathy Sheehan Officially Announcing Her Candidacy For Mayor,
Nov. 2012

Utilizing the amazing power of hindsight it shouldn’t be surprising at all that Jennings decided not to run for one more term. His constituencies have faded or left town, He no longer controls the Treasurer’s office (money) or the police department (violence) and His enemies are united against Him behind a very strong candidate. I think He would have been crazy to run and break His record of never having lost an election.

Is Albany ready for a competent mayor, is Albany even capable of accepting a female mayor? I think these questions depend on how well the citizens, particularly the remaining Old Albanians and fading but still dominant Baby Boomers, want to have a working community that they can be proud of. The big question is whether or not the people of Albany are ready to grow up and start taking care of themselves and their City. We shall see.

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Posted by:PK Miller
Posted on:06/02/2013
Bravo--well said, Dan. I've grown weary of Jennings. The infrastructure is crumbling underneath us as "Nero" Jennings fiddles. This IS still SMALLbany. Tom Whalen did much to drag the city into the 20th century kicking & screaming. Now, it seems, we've regressed. And it's the VISION THING, dammit--or lack thereof.
You know, I listen to his show on Talk 1300 every Friday. Jennings sounds tired. he sounds like he no longer has any zest for the Mayoral business. When it's no longer fun it's time to call the calling off, off! There is a 3rd person running, another African American & I'm embarrassed I don't remember his name. He and Corey will split the minority vote. At least these are serious candidates unlike Jose Lopez.

Posted by:GAH
Posted on:06/09/2013
Grand slam, as always, Dan. Keep up the good work!

Posted by:jf
Posted on:06/15/2013
Just wanted to say that I received the postal mailing for Gary Domalewicz. It had a grand total of *seven* typos, misspellings, wrong punctuation, etc. As an editor, sure I'm looking for this (or not looking for it, but it hits me when it happens). But as a voter--c'mon! "Buckingham Pound Conversancy"? Doesn't he have enough literate staff (or enough Dems to pay them) to read over copy before it goes out to those whose votes he is asking for? I thought about volunteering as campaign editor--then I though, nah. I'm voting for Darius anyway.

Posted by:Online Vegas
Posted on:06/28/2013
Sheehan sounds like the perfect ticket for Albany. I wish you luck.

Posted by:Alligatorman
Posted on:09/29/2013

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