Theresa Cooke: Joan of Arc

She gave me this photo for my book

Theresa Cooke (like me) came to Albany in 1970. She was shocked by the misfeasance and non-transparency of local government, controlled for 50 years by the storied O’Connell Democratic machine. As an engaged citizen, she would take it on.

I first encountered her, must have been in ’71, at some civic meeting at Chancellor’s Hall, and vividly recall her dynamic speech on her fight to open Albany’s books. I too was battling the machine, in the trenches, as a Republican ward leader (I’ve written about that), and published a book dissecting the machine. This was when the local GOP was on the side of the angels, under a combative county chairman, Joe Frangella. We stood for truth. justice, reform, and the American way.

Theresa Cooke became a key figure in our moral crusade. A  fiercely intelligent and committed young woman, indefatigable, undeterrable, I saw her as though on a white horse as our Joan of Arc. How thrilling it felt to join in a standing ovation for Theresa Cooke at a Republican dinner.

After narrowly losing a city election in 1973, the following year Cooke won a squeaker, after a long recount, as County Treasurer. In ’75 the county government was being reorganized, with our first county executive, and she was running. But the GOP, with Frangella now gone, balked at backing her and nominated a third candidate. That split the anti-machine vote, enabling the Democrat, Jim Coyne, to get in. (He wound up in prison.)

That was the end of the Albany Republican party as a moral force. At the following year’s county meeting, they wanted to install as city chairman a guy I considered a creep. I spoke in opposition. When I mentioned Theresa Cooke’s name, it was booed. That was when I knew I had to quit. (The creep wound up in prison too.)

Theresa Cooke likewise exited the political scene. Thirty-odd years later, at a music festival, I spotted an elderly woman. Not sure I recognized her, I had to ask, “Are you Theresa?” But she still had that sparkle in her eye. We had a nice chat.

When I saw on Tuesday’s local front page a piece by ace columnist Chris Churchill about Theresa Cooke, I realized it must be because she’d died. On Saturday, at 82.

I recently wrote that as I age, the world seems populated by ghosts. During research for my O’Connell book, I interviewed a very old man, John Boos, who’d opposed the machine at its beginnings. It seemed like hoary ancient history, with Boos a living mummy. My own political career, I soberingly realize, is now as far in the past as his was then.

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