Kathy Sheehan, right, and Corey Ellis participate in a debate in Albany hosted by the League of Women Voters and the local chapter of the NAACP. (Jessica Bakeman)
By Jessica Bakeman
Gerald Jennings, the 20-year incumbent who is retiring, is one of only three mayors to lead the state capital in 72 years, and the candidates vying to succeed him argue that Albany needs a big change.
Mayoral hopefuls and good-government groups question whether career politicians stifle the democratic process, their success potentially discouraging challengers and disheartening voters.
“When you have this culture where whoever is there gets to be there as long as they say they want to be there, that breeds a level of disenfranchisement, where people just don’t feel as though they have a say,” said City Treasurer Kathy Sheehan, 49, the front-runner in the race. “I’d like to see us change that in Albany.”
Sheehan will face former city councilman Corey Ellis, 42, in a Democratic primary Sept. 10.
Sheehan and Ellis both support instituting term limits, a reform that would require the Albany Common Council to amend the city’s charter and voters to subsequently approve the change.
“The longer someone stays in office, democracy suffers, and ideas suffer,” said Ellis, who gained thousands of supporters when he challenged Jennings in 2009. “Sometimes you can get complacent.”
Bob Van Amburgh, executive assistant to Jennings, said elected office carries inherent term limits; when officials aren’t performing well, voters oust them.
Van Amburgh spoke on behalf of Jennings, who was not available for an interview despite repeated requests.
“If someone’s doing a good job, and they become sort of institutionalized, as Mayor Jennings may have been,” Van Amburgh said, “[voters] have had plenty of opportunity not to re-elect him.”
Like the other cities in economically-struggling upstate New York, Albany is facing 21st century challenges.
In the absence of a once thriving manufacturing economy, the city of nearly 98,000 suffers from an eroding tax base, which limits revenue sources while state and federal aid dwindles. Because Albany is a state capital with a large public university, much of its commercial property is not taxable. Local officials also grapple with technological deficits, mediocre educational outcomes and public safety concerns.
Jennings, who first took office in 1994, announced when he ran four years ago that it would be his fifth and final term. He has not endorsed a candidate to succeed him.
Sheehan and Ellis each claim to be the modern leader Albany needs to move forward.
“The challenges have changed; the city has changed. And it’s time for a new type of leadership,” Sheehan said.
Both candidates would be younger leaders of the city—Jennings is 65—but they would also bring different perspec-tives to the office. If elected, Ellis would be the first black mayor; Sheehan would be the first woman to serve in the role.
The candidates argue that a different outlook would better serve Albany’s diverse population. About 31 percent of the city’s residents are black, and women make up 52 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A quarter of city residents live below the poverty level.
A late July poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute showed Sheehan leading Ellis, but researchers cautioned that each candidate has a strong base.
“Sheehan is overwhelmingly the choice for mayor among older, white, Catholic and male voters,” Don Levy, the institute’s director, said in a news release. “Ellis’ support is strongest and reaches a majority among African-Americans, and he has plurality support among younger and Protestant voters. In every election, but even more so in a primary in September, the candidate that succeeds in getting their faithful to turn out may very well be celebrating after the polls close.”
Bill Mahoney, a researcher with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said that Jennings gained power and renown, which made it unlikely for potential challengers to try to unseat him.
“The general sense that Albany mayors are unbeatable has made it harder for strong campaigns to mount against them,” Mahoney said.
He said there would likely be stronger turnout for this year’s contest, because it appears to be more competitive than traditional Albany elections.
In 2009 fewer than 15,000 people went to the polls for the primary election, in which Jennings received about 8,100 votes and Ellis got about 6,300. In the general election about 17,000 people voted, nearly 10,000 of them supporting Jennings. The Republican candidate, Nathan Lebron, garnered about 1,200 votes, while Ellis, running on the Working Families Party line, got 4,800.
The upcoming primary “should bring out more (voters), because they feel like there is an actual chance that their votes could help decide who wins,” Mahoney said.
The Republican candidate for mayor, Jesse Calhoun, who entered the race in May, also supports term limits. He said he decided to run partly because he wanted to give Albany voters more choices.
A Republican faces significant difficulty getting elected in Albany, as in most New York cities. Albany is home to nearly 36,000 registered Democrats and only about 3,100 registered Republicans.
Calhoun is a preschool teacher, an Internet radio host and a musician.
“A mayor shouldn’t serve longer than a president,” Calhoun said. “Once they’re elected, they have substantial momentum and coverage, and they can build this bureaucratic system that will take years to disassemble if it’s not working.”
From a historical perspective, the fact that Sheehan and Ellis will compete in a primary election is an improvement for democracy, said Ivan Steen, an associate professor at the University at Albany who is an expert in local politics.
Albany was long controlled by the Democratic political machine, in which local party members would choose a candidate, rather than allowing residents to vote for their nominee.
The Democratic candidate was likely to prevail, Steen said, and Albany residents were loyal constituents.
The city’s longest-serving mayor, Erastus Corning II, died in office in 1983 after serving more than 40 years as mayor. His successor, Thomas Whalen III, served three terms before retiring. In neither case did Albany residents reject a re-election bid.
“People in Albany like to re-elect their mayor, frankly. It’s such a tradition here,” he said. “I think it would be hard for them to turn a mayor out.”
Steen said the benefit of a mayor serving for multiple terms is that the leader gains valuable experience and develops a dense network of allies.
“If a person is in office a long time, on the positive hand, that person has learned a lot, hopefully. That person has made a lot of contacts, and that person knows how to do the job,” Steen said.
Van Amburgh said Jennings has built a strong community during his two decades in office. He is stepping down to spend more time with his family.
“The change is going to be extremely difficult for people to come to grips with,” Van Amburgh said. “Twenty years is a long period of time.”
Tags: African-American, Albany, Albany Common Council, Bill Mahoney, Bob Van Amburgh, Corey Ellis, Democrat, Don Levy, Erastus Corning II, Gerald Jennings, Jerry Jennings, Jesse Calhoun, Kathy Sheehan, Nathan Lebron, New York Public Interest Research Group, Republican, Siena College Research Institute, Term Limits, Thomas Whalen III, Working Families Party