Arriving in Albany in 1970, I became a committeeman and ward leader’s sidekick. Albany was ruled by the famous old O’Connell Machine (in ’73 I authored a book about it). No city Republican had won an election since 1921; but a newly combative county chairman, Joe Frangella, was trying. My own ward, full of students, state workers, and yuppies, was the hotbed of machine opposition. This wasn’t just politics, but a moral crusade.
In 1972 our ward leader quit and wanted me as successor. The county chiefs had their own candidate, and sent three stooges to our meeting to browbeat us. Bridling against this, the committeemen unanimously elected me. No longer the clown – now the other guys were.
But my initiation was harrowing. First walking the circuit of my eight polling stations was to go from one fight to another. Each had two election inspectors from each party, yet the Democrats hogged all the chairmanships (which should have been decided by coin tosses). These intimidating tyrants let their committeemen get away with nonsense like “assisting” voters inside the booth.
I needed better election workers – and set about recruiting anti-machine reform Democrats. Yes, they could legally serve as Republican inspectors. I drilled them to be more assertive, especially about those chairmanships. And when next I walked that circuit, all was calm – with Republican chairmen in seven of eight districts! We might not win elections, but we’d won a big battle over their conduct.
In 1973, I was responsible for my ward’s candidates for alderman and county legislator. For the latter I recruited a presentable-seeming preppy fellow. A reform Democrat was running for alderman, a woman I knew; I made a deal to back her while she’d back my legislature candidate. Which she didn’t really do; she was a flake; and relations with my own guy soured when he bizarrely accused me of touching his repellent wife. Anyhow, both lost. So did our mayoral candidate, in a close race.
In 1975, another county legislator election. The machine put up a nothingburger. I found a great candidate: community activist Rezsin Adams. But most of her left-wing Dem pals wanted nothing to do with Republicans, while the GOP hierarchy gave me hell over allying with any Democrats. However, I had the backing of City Chairman Fred Hershey, and we did finally manage to maneuver Rezsin onto the ballot as a Republican. I worked my heart out to get her elected.
Meantime, city Republicans were chafing under feudal treatment by the county leadership. At a ward leader meeting, I mused that we could ignore the nominating petitions sent from the county and put up our own slate of party functionaries.
So we did – a primary fight. Tense negotiations ensued; I and others met with Frangella, and got agreement for more city autonomy, including choosing our own city chairman. But I couldn’t persuade my colleagues to withdraw the primary slate, so I actually wound up voting against the candidates whose run I myself had instigated.
Also in 1975, Albany’s first county executive was elected. We had another great candidate, Theresa Cooke, an intrepid crusader, our Joan of Arc, who’d just been elected county treasurer. But due to some petty spat about her running mate, Republicans stupidly put up a third candidate instead. That killed the GOP as an effective force in Albany county. With the anti-machine vote split, the Democrat won. (He later went to prison.)
Rezsin Adams lost too. And so did I, as a sacrificial candidate for city court judge.
Then to replace Fred Hershey as city chairman, the county sachems decided on Andy Capoccia, a reptilian opportunist. Frangella was also now gone, along with his pledge about picking our own chairman. At the big 1976 county meeting, Capoccia’s annointment should have been a formality, but I got up and cheekily nominated someone else. When, in my speech, I mentioned Theresa Cooke, her name was booed. Ouch. Of course Capoccia won. (He later went to prison.)
So I was back to being the outsider provocateur. I was disillusioned that the Republican party didn’t appreciate me. In truth, while my academic knowledge of politics was legion, I had no aptitude for its human relations aspect. I resigned, my political career over at age 28. It had been quite a ride. (At least I didn’t go to prison.)
A few years later, I moved to a different ward, and some GOP leading lights actually begged me to run there against one of the machine’s major slimeballs. Winning might not have been impossible. But after careful thought, I declined. I guess I was now cured.
The political machine eventually faded away. But to this day, no Republican has won any election in the city.
Tags: O'Connell Machine