What Happened to the Machine?

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Eye from Albany
October 2004

What Happened to the Machine?
by Paul M. Bray

Looking at Albany it can appear that nothing much changes. Locally, Albany has been a bastion of Democratic party control forever or at least since before the 1920s when the Republican Billy Barnes machine controlled things. Albany is a city prone to being run by political machines.

State politics also seems stuck in the mud, the same three men in a room for more than a decade and so on.

But things are changing. The burbs are no longer a lock for the Republicans. Suffolk and Nassau counties have Democratic County Executives. Democratic strong hold New York City has its second consecutive Republican Mayor. Democratic Mayors from Albany and Buffalo supported Republican Pataki in the last Governor’s race and even rock solid Republican upstate New York has been friendly to Senator Clinton.

What does this all mean, if it means anything? Are the political parties going to realign? Are we moving to control by one party of both houses of the legislature as well as the governorship, complete control as the Republicans have in Washington? Might we be seeing signs that the urban – suburban divide can be bridged?

I am more of the policy wonk than a political fortune teller, so I thought it would be interesting to share with you this month the thoughts of Dominick Casolaro, a maverick Democratic member of the City Council in Albany, on the unexpected, landslide defeat of the incumbent Democratic District Attorney in Albany County by progressive forces.

What Happened to the Machine?
By Dominick Calsolaro

Common Council Member – First Ward, First elected official to endorse David Soares in the Albany County District Attorney’s race.

The victory by Albany County District Attorney candidate David Soares in the Democratic Primary in September sent shock waves through the local democratic establishment. Here we had an unknown, African-born immigrant, who had never run for political office before, challenging an incumbent whose family has been linked to the Albany county democratic machine for decades. The unknown won. What happened? Is the machine dead?

What Happened?

The landslide primary win by Soares was the result of many factors: David Soares campaigning the old fashioned way, door-to-door seven days a week; a relentless group of volunteers who walked the streets, dropped literature, made phone call after phone call until the voter finally said yes, just to get the calls to stop. There are many reasons for the Soares victory: the “Drop the Rock” campaign; the feeling that Soares represented traditional democratic values while his opponent sounded and acted more like a Republican; the general movement for reform on all levels of elected government; the lack of any effort by incumbent District Attorney Paul Clyne and the machine that backed him to reach out to the rank-and-file Democrats; the leftover backlash from four years ago when then D.A. Sol Greenberg retired and Paul Clyne was chosen by the Party leadership to replace him with no primary election or input from Party members; and perhaps the biggest reason of all – we’re not our fathers’ democrats anymore.

Many of the people who make up the Democratic Party in Albany county are “new” Democrats – people who have moved to the area over the past fifteen to twenty years. These “new” Democrats did not grow up under the machine. They were not weaned on a system where a “good” Democrat was a person who did what he/she was told, voted the way the ward leader said, and never, ever questioned the Party leadership or the candidate put forth by the Party. The “new” Democrats come from areas of the state and country where a “good” voter is an informed voter; where primaries are the norm, not the exception; and where a person can put a political sign up on their lawn for the candidate of their choice, and not have the ward leader knock on their door and tell them to remove the sign, for it’s the wrong sign.

In addition to the “new” Democrats, many life-long Albany County Democrats feel disenfranchised by the machine. Over the past few years these older Democrats have experienced a lack of concern for them and their problems by government officials and political leaders. These older Democrats are from a time when the machine was always there to lend a helping hand in times of need. That is no longer the case.

The present-day machine has forgotten its roots, and it is paying the price for losing its way. Therefore, when you combine these two groups – the “new” Democrats and the disenfranchised old Democrats – and throw in a new face, a person who was not manufactured by the machine, you have the makings of an electoral result of historic proportions. The Soares win was just that.

Does this win presage the end of the machine as we know it?

I believe so. The primary victory by David Soares may be the death knell of the machine in its current form. The Soares win was the latest in a string of defeats for the machine and Albany’s Mayor Jerry Jennings over the past few years. Each defeat has been bigger than the one before. Earlier this year, Albany County Legislator Lucille McKnight (Second Legislative District – City of Albany) won re-election, not as a Democrat but on the Working Families Party line (the Democratic candidate finished third in the balloting). In 2002, Tom Keefe was elected to the Albany City Court without the machine’s support. In 2001, Michael O’Brien and I won Democratic primaries for the Albany Common Council despite strong opposition to our candidacies by Mayor Jerry Jennings (who backed both primary losers). During the late nineties and early in this century, numerous school board elections were won by candidates not endorsed by Mayor Jennings.

Furthermore, the strength of the machine has traditionally been based in the City of Albany. The migration of city residents to the suburbs has led to a weakening of the core of the machine. The suburbs of Albany County are gaining in population and increasing their numbers of enrolled Democrats (witness Albany’s suburban towns of Bethlehem and Guilderland electing Democratic leadership in the past couple of years), while the City of Albany is losing population. This shifting of political power manifested itself at the recent Albany County Democratic Committee meeting, where, if it was not for the intervention of long time political leader and father of Albany’s Congressman, Jack McNulty, city treasurer Betty Barnette, the current Chairperson of the Party and a Jennings’ ally, would have been voted out of power. But, even though Jack McNulty held the Party together and forestalled the election of a new Chairperson, he warned the Party leadership that if things did not change, and change soon, new people would be voted into leadership positions. Mr. McNulty’s efforts, however, have only delayed the inevitable. It won’t be long before the suburban-based Democrats will exert their power and assume control of the Party. When this happens, whatever remnants of the old machine remain will be laid to rest.

The Democratic machine in Albany is rusting away. As the David Soares primary win showed, the machine can no longer guarantee victory for its favorite sons and daughters. The “new” Democrats do not fear the machine, and fear is a necessary component for a smooth running political machine. A further sign that the machine is on life support was the near coup by the suburban-based Democrats to topple the city-based leadership of the county committee. The city Democrats had to circle the wagons to fend off last month’s coup attempt, and it is only a matter of time before the machine crumbles and the new order takes over.

The Soares victory has opened up the electoral process in Albany. Many Democrats who felt oppressed by the machine have become invigorated. These newly empowered Democrats are already planning the final assault on the machine next year when all City of Albany public offices are up for election. Whatever strength the machine has left will be sorely tested in next September’s primary. The 2005 local election cycle could very well be the machine’s last stand.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.