Although early in the year the race for Albany Common Council President appears to have solidified around two politically experienced candidates–both with a history of both challenging and working with incumbent Mayor Kathy Sheehan.
The contest will pit County Legislator Chris Higgins against former Councilman and former Mayoral candidate Corey Ellis. The race should be interesting, as Ellis has the backing of Sheehan despite having been her opponent in 2013; Higgins, meanwhile, was an early supporter of Sheehan’s.
The position of Council President holds very little official government power and has been used mostly as a soapbox and launching pad for the last three women who held the office.
Higgins, a county legislator representing district 5, which includes the Center Square, Washington Park, Pine Hills and Park South neighborhoods, is serving his third term on the body. He also works as Deputy Counsel to Democrats in the State Senate.
Corey Ellis is a former Common Councilman who served one term representing West Hill before launching a mayoral bid against then-Mayor Jerry Jennings in 2009.
Ellis had a strong showing in that primary, but lost. His run in the general election yielded worse returns. In 2013, Jennings announced he would not seek another term and Ellis quickly mounted another bid. He was defeated in the primary by now-Mayor Sheehan. Ellis works as a political coordinator for the New York State Nurses Union, is the president of The Capital District Black Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the New York State Democratic Committee.
While Ellis was challenging Sheehan, Higgins was supporting her mayoral bid. And yet, this year Sheehan has endorsed Ellis for Council president. Sheehan has touted her alliance with Ellis as evidence that she can work with her critics and opponents.
Both Ellis and Higgins have publicly criticized Sheehan for supporting the enactment of a trash fee on small apartment buildings as a way of recouping the costs of city trash removal. The fee of $185 on apartment buildings with between two and four units is set to expire in 2018 and is expected to be a focal point of the mayoral race. Tenant advocates say the fee is regressive, because the cost of trash removal is pushed down the line to tenants.
Higgins says that he his running as “The People’s Advocate,” and imagines using the Council presidency as a soapbox to push for the interests of city residents. The Council president has notoriously little power over policy. He said that he won’t tie himself to any of the mayoral candidates, whether Sheehan, Councilman Frank Commisso, or current Council President Carolyn McLaughlin.
“If I’m fortunate enough be elected I’ll work with anybody,” Higgins said. “I always have. Down the line there will be disagreements about certain policy, but it is all about how we can enhance and make lives better through different policy proposals. I’m happy to work with anybody that wants to work with me.”
As for the trash fee, Higgins said, “I think that’s one major issue out of a variety of issues we face. How Albany handles solid waste moving forward is an issue that is going to have to be revisited.”
Ellis said he sees the Council presidency as a way to continue his work as a community advocate on a larger level. He said his endorsement of Sheehan and her backing of his candidacy was a natural process that came about through an exchange of ideas. “Well, you know, we ran against each other in the mayoral race, but when that race ended we moved forward. I met with all three mayoral candidates because I see myself in having a role in moving this city forward. I was asking for their support because I want the city to be unified, because we are going to make hard choices. After the conversations and hearing the mayor’s vision–that’s what made it for me. She addressed the concerns I had about the city. She was able to say ‘That’s what we’re doing on this. We’re already doing this here. We’re working on these issues.’ It turns out our visions for Albany match up.”
Ellis questioned why Higgins is seeking a city-wide office when he currently holds a county-wide position. “He is a legislator who works for the state and now wants to run for city government. You already have a legislative job. How did you do there? You already have two government jobs. Why do you want another?”
Higgins points to his successful push to get the county to start a $1 million land bank as one of his signature successes, one that benefits the city of Albany today. Ellis served on the board of the land bank. Higgins was also the sponsor of the restaurant inspection and grading system that the County Department of Health debuted in 2012.
Ellis points to a bill he sponsored on the Common Council that requires city department heads to actually live in the city. Ellis also worked to end discrimination in city hiring and pushed for the creation of public-access TV in Albany.
It appears Ellis will face a fund-raising deficit against Higgins. “Friends of Corey Ellis” reported having a closing balance of $929 in January. “Friends of Chris Higgins” reported having a little over $6,500 on hand as of January.
Ellis says he put fundraising second to coalition building. “This run, I didn’t want to jump out ahead,” said Ellis. “I wanted to bring people together first, then say, ‘OK, I’m going to have a fundraiser.’ This will be the third time I run for city-wide office, so I am familiar to voters. I may not have as much money, but I believe we have a strong team and I know our supporters will be knocking on doors in every neighborhood.”
Higgins ran unsuccessfully for Assembly in 2012 and has a large coalition of support in the Center Square neighborhood. Higgins said he knows Albanians are familiar with his work. “I think I have a great track record working on the Albany County Legislature. I can point to policies and bills I sponsored that have improved the lives of people in the city and the county. I want to take that experience and put it work for the City of Albany.”
Correction: This article previously stated that Ellis “currently serves” on the landbank.