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The conservative threads in Albany’s Democratic primary

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The conservative threads in Albany’s Democratic primary

For a city known for its progressive voter base, where the mayoralty is almost always decided during the Democratic primary, this year’s mayoral contest has taken on a decidedly conservative bent.

While fiscal responsibility is not solely the realm of Democrats, the city’s fiscal health has become the focal point of heated policy exchanges between Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Ward 15 Common Councilman Frank Commisso Jr., who also works as Director of Municipal Affairs at the Albany County Department of Audit and Control.

Sheehan, who has been attacked as autocratic and has been negatively compared to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has spent the summer attending community events—particularly vigils and gatherings held in defense of social justice, equality and human rights causes. Sheehans’ office has used social media to prominently tout her support of new Americans and her interactions with the immigrant community. The mayor has even won the endorsement of Citizen Action, a major local grassroots activism organization. And yet: Sheehan’s social media has also featured pictures with her alongside Bloomberg, and her staff and campaign have touted her focus on fiscal responsibility.

“In just three years, Mayor Sheehan has turned a deficit into a surplus, successfully settled 9 union contracts with City workers, and secured unprecedented new State Aid—all while reducing city spending and holding the line on taxes,” Sheehan’s Chief of Staff Brian Shea wrote to The Alt in an email Monday. “S&P recently upgraded the City’s credit outlook and Mayor Sheehan’s fiscal management has been praised by credit rating agencies, independent consultants, the New York State Comptroller, and leaders from across the State.”

McLaughlin has made her case as a local community leader, seeking the support of at-risk communities—who, her campaign site says, face regular threats of crime and an influx of drugs—as well as the right to affordable housing. She stands for youth and senior care as well as other community response programs, yet has no known endorsements at this time. She has called for the state and SUNY Polytechnic Institute to help alleviate some of the city’s financial burdens.

Commisso’s focus is undoubtedly fiscal. The councilman takes pride in data-driven planning and looks to reassess how the city creates, pockets and redistributes revenue. He has gained the endorsement of the Albany Blue Collar Workers Union (AFSCME Local 1961, Council 66–who endorsed Sheehan during her 2013 campaign) and the Albany County Independence Party.

Albany County Independence Party Chairman Paul Caputo cited Commisso’s plan to grow Albany’s economy and reduce its projected deficit as the primary reason for their endorsement of the mayoral candidate. (The party has also endorsed Commisso supporters such as Ward 10 Common Council candidate Owosu Anane and Judd Krasher who is running for reelection in Ward 11.)

“We support Commisso because of his stance on the businesses in Albany,” Caputo told The Alt. “I’ve spoken with a lot of small business owners in the area that are frustrated with the tax bracket and permit applications.”

Sheehan appears to be trying to match Commisso’s fiscal focus tit for tat while also attempting to appeal to the voters who value the social justice aspects of McLaughlin’s campaign.

When it comes to issues and policies of a more intangible, progressive nature—such as the decision to make Albany a sanctuary city—Commisso is playing the middle in his campaign, nearly teetering on the conservative edge.

In Thursday’s debate, the mayoral candidate said he wouldn’t “grandstand and call ourselves a sanctuary city when that is not the case,” specifying that if he was mayor, and a suspect was in Albany police custody for a serious crime, he would comply with a federal government detainment.

Commisso told The Alt, however, that issues of social justice are just as important as those concerning the city tax base and infrastructure. The candidate has also turned up at recent events like the Solidarity with Charlottesville vigil and offered statements against hate groups.

“There’s far too great a tendency for people to resort to violence and it’s incumbent upon us all as leaders to stand and speak out against it,” he said.

Additionally, Commisso is looking to tighten the belt on Albany finances, denouncing the current mayoral administration’s economic development policies as corporate welfare. He notes that there has been “too much regulation” on economic development, saying the city needs more taxable business. Commisso has also stated throughout his campaign that he will place a salary cap on high-ranking city employees, including his own, if he should become mayor.

It is that fiscal stance that seems to have drawn the most attention from conservative voters who are keeping an eye on the Democratic primary.

Throughout his campaign, and particularly after Thursday’s debate, Commisso seems to have won himself a following from these voter groups as well as those who identify as Democrats but exhibit more center-leaning values.

As the Times Union’s Chris Churchill said of Commisso’s initial campaign announcement at the Polish Community Center on March 9: “It was a Vandenburgh crowd, not a Chartock one.” The columnist was referring to radio hosts Paul Vandenburgh—a well known conservative political talk radio host—and Alan Chartock, the liberal host of NPR’s local radio affiliate WAMC.

The Alt visited Commisso during his door-to-door canvassing campaign on Saturday, Aug. 19 and asked about his following.

“I have some really major liberals too, people who are very committed to labor,” Commisso said of his campaign team’s politically diverse outreach. “We do pick up a full spectrum. And I think we pick off people, just off the map, that are not on the political radar. I guess we’ll find out Sept. 12, but for us, we feel like we’re in a position to win because we feel like we have people being activated… that are off the grid, and they’re gonna show up on election day.”

Commisso’s social media accounts feature an array of supporters that include disgruntled city workers, longtime followers of his work in the Common Council, Republicans and avowed Trump supporters.

“I’m not a democrat but I was impressed with @FrankCommisso15 at debate. He would be good for Albany. #AlbanyDebate,” one supporter tweeted as Thursday’s debate ended.

It appears that Commisso could—if he should choose to—run on an array of party lines if he should lose in the upcoming primary, whether it be through the Independent or Republican ticket. He may just have the voter following to see it through. However, Commisso told The Alt that he is a born-and-raised Democrat and has not considered any action past the Sept. 12 primary.

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