Inauguration Day In Albany

January 10, 2010

Our elected officials get sworn into office, and the next day the blogger meets the Governor

Welcome to Jerryville. Everything in Albany has changed but everything is the same. Jerry Jennings is now officially into His fifth term, and people are talking about Him as Mayor For Life. Some of the bodies occupying the seats in the Common Council chambers are new, but everyone I’ve talked to is sure that His Majesty has retained solid control of the City legislature.

On the last day of 2009 The Wife and I headed down to Albany City Hall to watch our elected public servants begin their new terms in office with a solemn oath. This ceremony of assumption of office was the culmination of the desperately hard-fought and all too often nasty Democratic Primary campaigns of last summer. As usual the general election served to rubber-stamp the victories of the Primary winners, there were no surprises in November this time.

And of course I had to go to City Hall for all the swearing. Goodness gracious, my very first post on this blog four years ago was all about the last City inauguration. I called that report “A Great Day For Terrorism,” a reasonable sounding title which firmly established the prevailing tone of this blog for the next four years.

Albany City Hall Lobby Ready For Action Albany City Hall Lobby Ready For Action

Jerry Jennings is not the all powerful dictator that He was back in the 1990s. Almost every regular day the Mayor for Life publicly displays His fear and weakness right at the front door of City Hall for all the world to see. But today, for a few hours, Jennings reluctantly hid His personal and political insecurity in honor of the inauguration.

You see, once again the unconstitutional search and seizure checkpoint at the entrance of City Hall was dismantled for the duration of the ceremonies. Literally anyone could have walked into City Hall with a bomb or a machine pistol or a hatchet or lord knows what else. How did the government survive the morning of the last day of the decade without harassing and humiliating the taxpayers?

At 10 AM we had the entire City government, from The Mayor on down to the assistant clerks, visiting elected dignitaries such as congressman Paul Tonko, all upstairs packed into the Common Council chambers. Spectating in front of the chamber was a tight mass composed of leading members of the community, various kinds of media and a smattering of big nobodies like me. Thanks to the Wife we were lucky to find seats in the back corner.

What a perfect opportunity for mayhem, one that happens only once every four years! A right wing terrorist or an over enthusiastic teabagger or a mentally unstable suburbanite could have murdered the entire City of Albany government and more in a matter of seconds. But gee, nothing happened. Talk about a missed opportunity by the radical right.

Entrance To The Common Council Chambers Entrance To The Common Council Chambers

During a normal work week the entire government is never gathered in one place, the elected officials are scattered around City Hall or not present. Any act of terrorism during a weekday could not possibly have the same devastating effect as on inauguration day. And yet, the weekday “security” at the front door is extremely tight… if your clothes are poor or your face is black. White guys in suits usually get waved through.

This proves that the checkpoint at the door of City Hall is nothing but theater. Indeed, this recent “underwear bomber” on an airliner acutely emphasizes the uselessness of all these checkpoints. Not only are every single one of these checkpoints by necessity as porous as a cheesecloth, this incident proved that the most effective kind of security is provided by active citizens who refuse to sit tight and wait for some “authority” to give them orders.

It’s no coincidence that up the street Republican George Pataki, the most spineless State politician of the last 20 years, was the one who introduced intrusive security theater all in and around the Capitol in 1995. In sharp contrast, Schenectady City Hall does not have checkpoints at the entrances, anyone can walk in no matter how dark skinned or badly dressed. Apparently Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton does not tremble uncontrollably with fear of the voters like Pataki and Jennings.

Carolyn McLaughlin Carolyn McLaughlin

Carolyn McLaughlin was the first to be sworn in as President of the Common Council by Justice Randolph Treece, boy did she look happy. Not only does she have that “seat at the table” that she’s been talking about all these years, now she’s sitting at the head of the table. Let’s not forget that if Jerry Jennings gets blown to bits by a suicide bomber or suddenly leaves the country hours before a financial report on the Rapp Road “Landfill” is made public, then Carolyn automatically assumes His job.

Over and over I heard expressions of relief that Carolyn was standing up there with a big grin and not Leonard Ricchiuti, her opponent in the Common Council president race last summer. The most astonishing comment along these lines I heard later that day was from a City employee who told me that he/she would have quit if Ricchiuti had won. “The more I learned during the campaign about what kind of person he is,” he/she said, “ the more I realized I couldn’t work with him.”

Thanks to the new City Charter which kicks in January 1st, Carolyn has more power than previous presidents. Like her predecessors she sits on the controversial Board of Estimate and Apportionment, usually called the E&A. This board controls transfers of cash within the City government that are outside the annual budget, and approves job titles, clearly a real political plum for whoever controls it.

In the past, The Mayor sat on the board and filled the rest of the seats with His own obedient supporters. He still sits on the board, but now He has one obedient and two hostile seats, the new Treasurer and the new Auditor. Carolyn McLaughlin is the swing seat, how will she behave? I have a feeling that in the next few years some interesting conflicts are going to make the obscure E&A more well known.

We will also see if President McLaughlin learns to be punctual. As her swearing-in was about to start, I turned to The Wife and said, “At least Carolyn’s on time for her first gig.” Almost everyone around us within earshot turned and said, “Uh huh.”

Common Council Chambers Before The Swearing Common Council Chambers Before The Swearing

I learned something new that morning, anybody empowered to witness a contract can swear in an elected official. Any sitting politician can swear in any other politician, as can a lawyer or a licensed notary. I always thought you needed a judge or at least a mayor.

The members of the Common Council were under a lot of pressure to agree to be sworn in by Jennings. My own representative Dominick Calsolaro told me later that originally six members were going to display their independence by choosing their own personages to administer their oaths. But in the end, four caved in to The Mayor and only Dominick and Barbara Smith chose their own.

Jennings presided heavily over the 15 oaths. I decided to attach great significance to The Mayor’s behavior toward each swearing member, and I’ve drawn up a handy chart. The names are in the order that the oaths were administered:

Common Council Member & Ward Jerry’s Physical Signals Further Observations Lester Freeman 2 Big hug Very welcoming to Lester Ron Bailey 3 Quick hug   Jackie Jenkins-Cox 5 Solid hug   Richard Conti 6 Quick pat on arm Immediately turned away and stepped back Cathy Fahey 7 Quick hug   John Rosenzwieg 8 Big long hug Actually hugged twice with a quick pause in between James Sano 9 Grabbed shoulder, shook hand warmly, long hug One of the old boys Leah Golby 10 2 handed shake, peck on cheek The only kiss Anton Konev 11 Hug followed by a handshake 2nd hug after oath Michael O’Brien 12 Shake Formal, distant Daniel Herring 13 Words of praise Absent, sworn in later Joe Igoe 14 Big hug Several back pats Frank Commisso Jr. 15 Quick formal hug Respectful Dominick Calsolaro 1 Hovered, looked left out County Legislator Chris Higgins gave oath Barabara Smith 4 Stepped back to wall Notary Beverly Pageant gave oath

All the City officials swore to uphold both the US Constitution and the NY State Constitution, but they did not swear to uphold the City Charter. But being Democrats they all looked and sounded like they really did want to uphold both constitutions. I mean, when some of these big federal politicians do a swear they often look to me like they’re suppressing a bout of giggling when they get to the part about upholding the Constitution.

Frank Commisso Jr. took the oath with Frank Sr. by his side. Father and son have the same size and build, both marched to the front with the exact same power strut. Dad beamed with pride, but after the oath both he and Jerry quickly acknowledged each with perfunctory nods and what looked to me like mutual disgust. Dad immediately went back to grinning as he and Junior sat down.

Frank Commisso Jr. Frank Commisso Jr.

Make no mistake about it, Jerry Jennings and Frank Commisso Sr. hate each other’s guts and each would love to destroy the other. But both are experienced practical power brokers swimming in the same political cesspool, an overlapping intricate network of cash disbursements and back room arrangements. Neither office holder for life is likely to let their personal grudges disturb the poop floating on the surface of the pit.

After the ceremony I found Frank Senior at the entrance to the Common Council chamber practically dancing with pride and joy. I asked him if his son would be independent on the Council, or would he follow his father’s lead? “The kid has his own mind,” Dad said, “He’s going to do things the way he wants to.”

Somewhat later I told Frank Junior what his Dad had said about him, and if it was true. He told me that of course he would follow Dad’s advice and defer to his experience, but he planned to chart his own course.

I got the impression that Frank Jr. is surprisingly strong willed for a 25 year old, he is certainly appears capable of defying Dad. The Wife managed to corner him in the hallway outside the chamber and harangue him about the Pine Bush and the Rapp Road Dump, both which are inside his 15th ward. And yes, he promised The Wife on the spot to meet with Save the Pine Bush at the first opportunity to learn about the issues. [Update: Junior kept his promise to The Wife.]

I wonder how this will play out. Frank Jr.’s predecessor in the Common Council, a zero not even worth naming, had been placed in the seat by Dad (as had her predecessor.) But in four years I don’t believe she ever voted against The Mayor on anything. Will Frank Jr. defy Jennings, and if he does will he do it on his own initiative or because his old man wants him to? I think "the kid" is worth watching, we’ll see.

The Book Waiting On The Podium The Book Waiting On The Podium

At Noontime we went downstairs to watch the inauguration of the Citywide officials other than Carolyn. State Appellate Presiding Justice Anthony Cardona, a former Albany City judge performed his fourth City swearing ceremony for his old crony Jennings. Justice Cardona, wearing his black robes, sat on the fancy chairs behind the podium before the swearing began, the three Citywide officials sitting next to him in descending order of importance.

First to swear was Auditor Lief Engstrom, whose new office is on the first floor directly across from The Mayor’s office. As a well dressed white guy he could waltz through the front door checkpoint with a hand held rocket launcher, fire it from his office door and take out Jennings and his receptionist. I’m surprised the new Auditor’s office is not up in the carillon tower or deep in the basement at the end of a corridor like Judge Tom Keefe’s office was for a while.

I forgot to mention The Book which was sitting on the podium. Apparently, in order to become a City elected official you not only have to swear but you then have to sign The Book. All throughout the morning Jerry Jennings treated The Book as His own possession, opening and holding and hovering over The Book as each newly sworn public servant signed.

Justice Anthony Cardona Justice Anthony Cardona

Something very interesting happened immediately after Justice Cardona administered the oath to our new Treasurer, Kathy Sheehan, and then sat down, leaving Ms. Sheehan alone at the podium to give a speech. But first Ms. Sheehan picked up The Book on her own initiative and started flipping through the pages.

Jennings shot out of His chair and charged the podium. Justice Cardona, black robes flowing, was right behind His Majesty’s shoulder. Auditor Engstrom, who could not possibly have known at that moment why the other two were so alarmed and upset, also jumped up so as to be part of the emergency.

Newly anointed Treasurer Sheehan was taken aback by this three man attack and let Jennings deftly pull The Book from her hands and place it carefully back down on the podium. It was time for her to sign but apparently it was not her Book to touch. (Unfortunately at this crucial moment Joe Cunniff, who was standing next to me by the elevators operating the camera for Albany Community Television (ACT) decided that this would be a great moment to pan the crowd. So except for my description the moment is mostly lost to history.)

What I like about this incident is how Ms. Sheehan simply as a matter of course grabbed The Book without waiting for permission. And instead of sitting quietly, Auditor Engstrom instantly barreled into the “crisis” without stopping to wonder if he had any business doing so. Jerry has plenty to worry about these next four years.

Treasurer Sheehan Holds And Signs The Book With Three Supervisors (From ACT) Treasurer Sheehan Holds And Signs The Book With Three Supervisors (From ACT)

At last The Mayor got up and swore, then He signed “His” book. And at that point He asked Carolyn McLaughlin to come up to the podium and speak “a few words” before He did. Oh boy, is He trying to rope her in or what. She pledged cooperation etc. while His Majesty solemnly hovered.

The only remarkable thing to come out of The Mayor’s mouth that day was His announcement that the money that had been set aside for refreshments during the inauguration (there were none this time) had been at His direction donated to Albany High School to buy “Smart Boards” for the classrooms. This is the mayor who has done so much to undermine Albany’s public schools, who tried to sabotage the school facilities plan, who has diverted so much taxpayer money into the dirty pockets of “charter” school operators.

Nice of Him to throw a little bone to His former employers. But then, I understand that some of His stalwart minions on the Common Council are kicking off the new year by calling for a “cap” on new “charter” schools in Albany. Did Jennings have a falling out with Tom Caroll, the CEO of Brighter Choice? Or is this a political dig at Carolyn McLaughlin, who is known as a big supporter of “charter” schools?

Well, we didn’t miss the refreshments. I ended up at two celebratory house parties that afternoon, one at Bob and Kathy Sheehan’s house, and the other at Carolyn’s. Both parties had very impressive spreads for the guests. And of course I kept running into the same herd of politicians and political junkies moving from one party to the next.

Rolling Out The Security Theater Apparatus While Officers Carefully Watch Kathy Sheehan, The Wife And Jack McEneny For Suspicious Behavior Rolling Out The Security Theater Apparatus While Officers Carefully Watch Kathy Sheehan, The Wife And Jack McEneny For Suspicious Behavior

The next day was New Years, thanks to The Wife she and I were two of only three hundred people who won a lottery to tour the Governor’s Mansion over on Eagle Street. She’d been applying for several years now, this year we got lucky.

Actually, we didn’t tour the mansion, we got herded quickly through the first floor. I’ve been hearing crazy rumors for many years about police surveillance equipment piled up in the upper floors of the Mansion. After experiencing this tour I’m more inclined to believe these stories.

The State Police set up an illegal search and seizure checkpoint at the gate on Eagle Street. We lined up on the sidewalk like obedient Soviet Citizens while a couple of plainclothes “security” personnel smiled and made friends with us and asked intrusive questions. And they demanded that we produce photo ID to gain entrance.

Governor's Mansion On Eagle Street Governor’s Mansion On Eagle Street

Yeah, nothing puts me in a holiday mood better than being threatened and humiliated. Do you know those goons made The Wife walk through their scanner three times? Like, what is she going to do to The Mansion, pee on the carpet? That’s been known to happen, but so what?

Then we had to go through a second checkpoint at the doorway. Every inch of the way we were monitored by goons. And of course they paid special attention to me. Understand that real cops rarely bother to glance at me, but glorified security guards tend to jump all over me an give me a hard time. That’s how I can tell ‘em apart, the experienced professionals from the phonies.

The Wife neglected to mention to me that we would be meeting… Michelle and David Paterson, in that order! Yes, there they stood, greeting and shaking hands with all of us untrustworthy common scum who need to be watched by dozens of “security personnel” at all times.

Unfortunately I was taken by surprise and had nothing to say to the Governor. Later I thought I would have thanked him for keeping the urban housing money flowing into our South End despite the budget crisis. Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Paterson puts rebuilding Cities like Albany as a priority.

Fortunately The Wife started chattering about how we live in the neighborhood and walked over, which got a positive response, especially from the First Lady. And while we spoke to them a woman snapped photos, which were sent to us by email free of charge. All very nice, since for some completely unexplained “security” reason we proles were not allowed to bring cameras into The Mansion.

The Wife Chats Up David And Michelle Paterson While The Blogger Goes Duh Behind Her.  Note All The Security Goons In The Background The Wife Chats Up David And Michelle Paterson While The Blogger Goes Duh Behind Her. Note All The Security Goons In The Background

Actually, I went on this tour because I wanted to look over the building, but we could do very little of that. We stopped to admire an old painting near the back entrance as we were being herded out. While we studied it, out of the corner of my eye I could see all the nearby “security personnel” tightening up their bladders and fidgeting.

In the back yard a row of nervous goons sporting headsets stared at us in a threatening manner. Undaunted, The Wife peppered them with questions about the grounds, forcing them to behave like tour guides. Ain’t she somethin’. Did you know that The Mansion covers some 9 acres, has two swimming pools, and an unused golfing green?

We finally strolled down past several antique oversized security cameras pointed straight at my armpits. At the exit gate was a ranking plainclothes goon and a Trooper in full smoky regalia, hat and all. They looked at us and spoke to us with a tone like we were lucky they didn’t detain us indefinitely under an unconstitutional “terrorism” statute right then and there. I pointedly ignored them both.

Such a display of weakness. Our politicians at every level of government are shaking with fear and uncertainty, hiding behind these illegal phony baloney checkpoints. And no, of course they’re not scared of “terrorists” or even criminals. They’re scared half to death of us plain folks, you and me. As well they should be.

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