If you know one thing about Albany Common Councilman Frank Commisso you probably know that he was born and married in Albany. As Commisso kicked off his campaign for mayor this month he launched a social media blitz leading with the fact that he was “Born, raised and married here in Albany.”
Why does that bit of information matter?
If you’ve dealt with Commisso for any length of time he’s probably mentioned to you that his opponent Mayor Kathy Sheehan “is not from here.” Sheehan was born in Chicago and her law studies brought her to Albany Law School.
Commisso’s insistence in making hay of where he was born seems a lot like a dog whistle aimed at low-information voters swayed by personality politics, worried that “outsiders” are influencing the direction of “their” city.
It should be troubling to progressives that Commisso has made this such a focal point of his campaign. President Donald Trump won office utilizing these sorts of dog whistles–by pitting ‘real Americans’ versus outsiders.
Sheehan certainly may be vulnerable to this sort of attack thanks to her trouble connecting with residents and the perception that she is lecturing the city rather than listening.
While it may be effective against Sheehan it might also cause Commisso some problems.
Commisso’s focus on his credentials as a lifelong Albanian conflicts with his efforts to paint Sheehan as a political insider indebted to special interests.
It is Commisso of course who was born to a father who has run the Albany County Legislature for two decades. It is Commisso who holds a position on the City Council and in the Albany County Comptroller’s Office. Commisso is like Gov. Andrew Cuomo–the ultimate insider–someone born into and raised by the political system that voters are tired of.
Commisso has countered that Sheehan is tied to Albany County Executive Dan McCoy. There is no disputing this but it seems perhaps a bit shallow compared to Commisso’s deep connections.
Make no mistake, Sheehan has failed to do enough to separate herself from Albany’s old ways–a swollen workforce remains and it’s a workforce that lacks diversity. She’s also decided to distance herself from major issues facing Albany City Schools. Sure, she has no official power over them but her political weight could be used.
Commisso’s focus on his credentials as a lifelong Albanian may appeal to long-time residents and old Albany but it could very well be alienating to those like Sheehan who discovered the area thanks to the city’s many educational institutions, or because of growing opportunities in tech. It could also send up warning signals to the city’s growing immigrant community that Commisso is more concerned with where you are from than what you have to offer.
Of course, Commisso’s calculation may be that old Albany will get him elected. Sheehan may split the progressive vote with Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin and he will take the more conservative section of Democratic voters.
In the end though, none of the three major mayoral candidates can claim to be truly independent, or outsiders. Would we really want to elect someone with no experience, with no connection to politics? But if we want change would we really vote for candidates who have been responsible for, or are tied to those who are responsible for the system that brought Albany to the brink of financial collapse?
McLaughlin is a career politician who has served on the Common Council since 1997. She’s made it clear she is running on her years served.
Sheehan is aligned with McCoy and has Rachel McEneny, daughter of Assemblyman Jack McEneny a legend of Albany politics, on her staff.
Commisso meanwhile has his father and his many years of service backing him as well as his boss Albany County Comptroller MIke Conners. That isn’t to mention the fact that Sen. Neil Breslin is also fully behind Commisso after having been alienated by Sheehan.
Clearly this race is going to get ugly. In fact it has been ugly for quite some time as Commisso and his sidekick Councilman Judd Krasher have upped their theatrics at council meetings lashing into the mayor for one affront or another.
Sheehan, meanwhile has looked to put herself above the fray–putting herself shoulder to shoulder with major electeds like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Paul Tonko. Her proxies have done the dirty work against Commisso.
When Sheehan was elected in 2013 she represented a shift away from the machine-style politics of her predecessors like Jerry Jennings. That move hasn’t happened fast enough. Old Albany still has a hold on City Hall. A Commisso win could mean a more direct return to the past–one where power is consolidated under a few politicians. Or, perhaps Commisso really is interested in reform–if he is, he should do a better job of communicating it.