Halfway into our interview last week with Albany Democratic mayoral candidate Carolyn McLaughlin, who is currently Common Council President, we asked if she was reluctant to criticize Mayor Kathy Sheehan—and also asked how, as mayor, she might distinguish herself from the incumbent.
The other candidate in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Common Councilman Frank Commisso, Jr., has captured media attention with sharp critiques of Mayor Sheehan’s fiscal stewardship. In June, Commisso held a press conference in front of a luxury condominium complex that may have received erroneous tax breaks. (The project developer’s attorney has since told the Albany Business Review that he believes the project is entitled to the abatements.) And last week, Commisso unveiled an email between a budget consultant and the city’s former chief of staff that, he said, reflects the city’s perilous financial state. (The mayor’s spokesman disputed Commisso’s characterization.)
Twice during the first Democratic debate, the mayor took time to challenge claims made by Commisso. Sheehan is an admitted policy wonk, seemingly comfortable explaining the difference between an audit and a management report, and Commisso has made the activities of the city’s quasi-public economic development agencies—undoubtedly consequential, but rather abstruse—a focus of his campaign.
McLaughlin seemed slightly irked by our question. “First and foremost the key for me is: People come before policy,” she said. “Let that be clear….The reason I’m running is because I believe that there have been some policies that were initiated by the mayor that did not put people first.”
“When we make any financial decision in the city of Albany, we have to put people first,” McLaughlin went on. “You can come and shut down everything, you can cut everything, you can cut jobs everywhere—that’s not putting people first.”
Take the red-light cameras, for instance, which have been installed by a third-party vendor at nearly three-dozen intersections since 2015. That initiative, according to McLaughlin, “did not put people first. It put dollars first. And then the dollars didn’t come,” she said. “I hear from folks [who] work for the city. They feel like they work for the vendor. Everything they do is to get money in the vendor’s pocket.” (Sheehan has emphasized that the cameras have improved safety and, at minimum, pay for themselves.)
At the first debate, McLaughlin voiced support for the sale of the city-owned Palace Theatre to an affiliated nonprofit, which will allow the board to pursue funding sources like historic tax credits for extensive renovations. But she hastened to add that there ought to be some sort of community benefits agreement to provide jobs for locals.
“Look where it sits,” McLaughlin said, when we asked why the complex seemed so important to her. “You’ve got people coming into the city right off of 787 right there. You go north you’re going into North Albany. You go west you’re going into Arbor Hill and West Hill. All roads lead to the Palace Theatre, and everybody in the city should have access…There should be an offering there for everybody and every community.”
McLaughlin raised a similar type of concern about SUNY Polytechnic Institute and its connection to Albany. At the first debate, she proposed that the school could help to pay in some fashion for the city’s infrastructure. In our coverage of the debate, we noted that the nanotechnology hub, still perhaps reeling from the ouster of its longtime president last fall, had received a nine-figure, state-funded bailout earlier this year.
McLaughlin acknowledges this skepticism. “Someone says to me, ‘Well, you know they’re in trouble.’ No—$12.5 million is not gonna break them,” she said, referring to the amount of aid the city obtained from the state this year. “There’s no sign of [SUNY Poly] closing down.” We mentioned the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement—a three-year, $1.5 million concession—that Mayor Sheehan secured from one of the school’s affiliated nonprofits in early 2015. “I think they can do more,” McLaughlin replied.
“It’s a little town,” she added. “And yet I can’t tell you 10 people I know that live in the city limits that work there.”
And with respect to The PFM Group’s recent management report, a state-backed study on potential budget cuts that Councilman Commisso has painted as a kind of fiscal-related clarion call, at least one of the consultant’s suggestions particularly bothered McLaughlin: the prospective elimination of 10 payroll clerk positions. “You’re talking about 10 families!” she exclaimed. (At the debate, Mayor Sheehan emphasized that the report’s recommendations were not compulsory.)
“She listens. She cares about people,” Wendell Brown, 53, a McLaughlin campaign volunteer who lives in the Ten Broeck Triangle neighborhood, told The Alt over the phone. “I’ve watched her do it time and time and time again. I think that’s refreshing.”
West Hill resident Sandra McKinley, another volunteer, echoed that sentiment. “[McLaughlin] has been more than willing to sit down with me talk about things that are needed in the community,” McKinley, who is in the process of creating a charity, told The Alt.
And supporter DeSean Moore, owner of Moore Than Vision, a media production company, praised McLaughlin’s interest in increasing the employment of people of color in city government, a priority the Council President also mentioned during our interview.
McLaughlin’s evident focus on local employment as a candidate and legislator notwithstanding—a 2014 Times Union story observed that she “has fought for jobs access for those in the city’s minority communities”—it remains to be seen if this commitment will translate to votes in the Democratic primary, the city’s de facto general election. A recent Siena College Research Institute poll found that just 13 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported her. (Commisso garnered 20 percent, and Sheehan got 50.)
“I’ve got to address that,” McLaughlin said of the unflattering poll results. “Because polls have been known to be wrong. We know that all too clearly.” She pointed to a 2013 poll conducted by the same institute that appeared to dramatically understate the support of Rochester’s then-City Council President, Lovely Warren, who roundly defeated the incumbent mayor.
“I know what a likely voter is,” McLaughlin went on. “And everybody has told me, ‘Carolyn, if you’re gonna win, you’ve got to get your base out.’ A lot of my base is not that ‘likely voter’ that they called,” she asserted.
“I want people to not be discouraged by that,” she added. “There is a buzz out in the community with that unlikely voter [who] is excited about my candidacy.” Many of those supporters are “people who have been underestimated, marginalized, and devalued,” she said.
Before she was elected Council President in 2009, McLaughlin served three terms representing the 2nd Ward. But despite her long political career (“I’ve been working longer than Frank Commisso has even been talking,” she joked), McLaughlin has no plans, if elected mayor, to serve a Corning- or even Jennings-esque term.
“I’m not looking for…a long-term job,” McLaughlin said. “I want to be that change agent that comes in—you get the job done and you move on, and leave it better than you found it.”
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