Posts Tagged ‘O’Connell Machine’

My So-Called Political Career – Rage Against the Machine

December 20, 2014

UnknownWhen young, I was mad for politics; active in both campus and local Republican politics in Queens, NY – generally playing the outsider-provocateur-clown. Yet I dreamed of a serious political career.

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.

Unknown-1In 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.Unknown

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.

Rezsin Adams (2007)

Rezsin Adams (2007)

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.

images-2So 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. Unknown-3But 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. Unknown-4When, 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.

Democracy in Albany

July 3, 2013

images-1The other night I attended a “meet-the-candidate” at a private home, for Albany mayoral hopeful Kathy Sheehan. (I’d already been to one, but this second invitation was from the estimable Bob Ward, so I couldn’t say no.)

Four years ago, the city treasurer, a political operative, was embroiled in a smarmy scandal. Sheehan, an outsider with a nonpolitical background in law and industry, ran and beat her in the Democratic primary. This year, Sheehan’s mayoral bid was probably a long-shot until the 20-year incumbent suddenly bowed out.

Kathy Sheehan is clearly a sincere, intelligent, serious-minded person who’s been attending many meet-and-greets like this, not just to get votes but also as a preparation for governing the city (I don’t think her primary opponents can win, and Albany’s Republicans are on the endangered species list).

Darius Shahinfar

Darius Shahinfar

Also present was Darius Shahinfar, another good guy, running for Treasurer. In conversation, he stressed how too often his fellow Democrats fail to understand how their policies undermine businesses, which we need for people to have good jobs. (One might almost think he reads this blog – but actually, his opponent is a conspicuous offender in this regard.)

Neighborly gatherings like this are fairly unique to American politics, and viewing it from the standpoint of an Olympian observer, I was frankly moved. Sheehan will be running a not-unimportant city, and here she was interacting unpretentiously, as equals, with fairly ordinary folks, interested in what they had to say. This shouldn’t be taken for granted even in today’s democratized world – indeed, especially today when cynicism about politics is so rampant.

Cover art by Jenness Cortez

Cover art by Jenness Cortez

In fact, the scene had special resonance for me. I told Ms. Sheehan I’m gratified that we’ll at last have a “normal” mayor. When I arrived in 1970, the city was ruled – and that’s the right word – by Erastus Corning, in the midst of a 41-year tenure, stalwart of an entrenched old-fashioned political machine. I spent several years battling hard against it and, in 1973, also wrote the book chronicling and dissecting that political machine. It weathered those efforts at the time. But I like to think I did make a contribution to the long historical process that ultimately disabled the machine and normalized Albany politics.

The individual making a difference is something of cliché. Well, maybe sometimes one can; but while almost no election is ever decided by a single vote, it’s the true essence of democracy that citizens collectively always make the difference. Blaming everything on “the politicians” is mistaken. It’s really we the people who have the responsibility.