Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan joined editor and associate publisher David Howard King and music editor Katie Cusack on Feb. 23 at Open Stage Media’s studio in Schenectady for a wide-ranging discussion on issues facing New York’s capital city and beyond.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Check out the full, 40-minute interview on our website or Facebook page.
Why did you appear twice on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to discuss Albany’s sanctuary city policy—and what was that like?
I decided that it was worth taking on because I think it’s really important to try to have a civil conversation and to talk to the country about what we mean when we say that we’re a sancutary city, why it’s so important for Albany and, I think, for cities across the country to be welcoming to immigrants, and to try to lower the temperature on this debate.
Because it really isn’t a particularly controversial position that the city of Albany has. As a matter of fact, it’s the constitutional position—it’s the position that’s been upheld by the Supreme Court with respect to the stance that we have taken.
And it doesn’t mean that we’re hiding illegal immigrants in the basement. And It certainly doesn’t mean that we’re letting violent criminals free. If somebody breaks the law in the city of Albany, if they commit a crime in the city of Albany, they’re gonna be prosecuted regardless of their immigration status.
So I went on the show because I wanted to have the opportunity to have that dialogue, have that conversation, knowing that Tucker isn’t exactly known as a dialogue kind of guy. But I will say, after both appearances that I had, I received emails from random Republicans—one from New Jersey, another from somewhere in the middle of the country—who expressed to me that they appreciated my willingness to go on. And they said that, while they didn’t necessarily agree with all of my views, that they learned something. And that it was helpful in helping them understand the position that sanctuary cities are taking. And that was the goal.
Are you concerned that Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple’s cancelled—and Rensselaer County Sheriff Patrick Russo’s pending—application to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, could spread fear through the community or interfere with the city’s sanctuary city policy?
I think that the separate thing there is that what Albany County jail is considering doing is—and what Craig was considering at that time when he made that application but then withdrew it—is that, again, it comes down to dollars. It’s saying that, yes, we will take immigrants who are arrested by ICE, and we will hold them in detention. We get paid by the federal government to do that—not the city of Albany, this is the county jail. In order to do that, there were certain things that they needed to agree to be that location.
So, again, in that scenario, where you’re getting direct money in exchange for holding immigrants who are undocumented, then there is that direct link.
The sanctuary city argument is a little bit different because that’s the federal government and Donald Trump trying to connect federal funding that’s not even necessarily directly law enforcement-related to cities that have a policy of not asking and not being on the front line of enforcing immigration law. And those are two very different things.
But couldn’t having ICE closer, in sense, to the Capital Region than before make things more difficult?
Look, I certainly think that we don’t want to sow the seeds of confusion. You know, when I talk to folks who have different political views than I have, one of the things that I do talk about with respect to the enforcement of immigration laws is that, what the Trump administration is really asking is for local police departments to become mini ICE enforcement officers—and they’re not paying for us to do it.
It would be a different conversation in the community if we were told that the federal government wants to pay for us to hire new cops to go out and enforcement immigration laws. That would be a different conversation. But that’s not the conversation that’s occurring.
And it’s appalling to me that, as recently as yesterday, Donald Trump was saying, “I should just pull ICE out of California because of all these sanctuary cities.” That’s like saying, “We’re not going to send FEMA in when there’s a natural disaster in a state because it’s a blue state.” Reprehensible. This is the federal government’s job. It is not local law enforcement’s job.
One of the examples that I give to folks who, again, have different political views than me, is, that was why a portion of the Brady Law was found unconstitutional. There was a portion of the Brady Law that required local law enforcement to do background checks for guns. It was a mandate that was associated with a federal law. And the constitution says—and the Supreme Court found in that case—that you could not mandate and require local law enforcement to enforce what is a federal statutory requirement in a regulatory requirement. It’s the same thing with respect to what we’re doing in the city of Albany as a sanctuary city.
Would you welcome funding from the federal government for local law enforcement to enforce immigration law?
I think that that separation is really important, because local law enforcement is focused on ensuring that people on the street are safe. And for every undocumented immigrant that commits a crime that gets spread across the headlines, one thing that we know for certain is that immigrants and undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes. And we also know that, for every person who’s arrested for a crime, there are crime victims out there who haven’t reported crimes because they’re concerned about their documented status. That leaves a criminal out on the streets free to commit crimes again and again and again.
Local law enforcement has said—and the people who do this on a day-in, day-out basis say—we are all safer when people come forward, when they cooperate with law enforcement, when they report crimes, if they’re a witness to a crime when they’re willing to come forward and talk to law enforcement about what they’ve seen and what they know.
So are you saying that more of that federal funding would make things worse?
I think that having local law enforcement play a federal role—I think that that money would be better spent on increasing and on having—first of all, we need to fix immigration policy. And mayors across the country, Democrat and Republican, are saying to Congress: Fix this.
There’s a Republican mayor—he and I both went on PBS NewsHour. Here’s this Republican mayor saying, “I support making these DACA kids legal.” So this isn’t particularly controversial among the mayors. We want federal immigration laws fixed.
And then: I do support ensuring that federal enforcement is there to enforce immigration laws. We want immigrants who shouldn’t be here, immigrants who have committed crimes and should be deported, to be deported.
But you want it clearly separate.
But I want it clearly separate, and I want the federal government to do their job, and I want the local law enforcement to be allowed to do their job.
I also think that aggressively going after people who are here who are not documented, who have committed no crimes and no serious crimes, is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and that we really need to be focused on, what can we do to ensure that we’re working on a pathway to some sort of legal status for the immigrants who are here, who are working, and who are here because they want to provide better lives for their families.
Last year you announced your reelection campaign just after securing $12.5 million in state aid. Point a finger at someone and tell us why we’re always waiting and why this hasn’t been addressed in a more permanent way.
I think it just speaks to the challenge of putting together a budget in a state with tremendous diversity and tremendous need. And sort of parsing through the noise of how do you bring all of that together into a budget in a budget year that is a difficult budget year.
I believe firmly and passionately that we’ve made our case. I’ve had conversations with the governor, with the governor’s office, and with the state budget department and I think that we’re going to be able to get there.
We will then be proposing legislation this year so that it becomes a permanent part of the state budget. We’re looking to move that forward.
When I speak now to the Senate and Assembly—the joint finance committee that meets—I don’t get any pushback. That’s not to say that there aren’t skeptics out there. But I think that we have made the case. And I want to thank the assembly members and the senators who do see that there is this inherent inequity in the way the city of Albany is treated.
And I think the other piece of this is that, we have demonstrated—I’ve really embraced this governor’s call for municipalities to find ways to save money. And I think that if you look at what we’ve been able to do in the city of Albany, it is a demonstration of, when you really focus on being more effective and efficient, when you pull together your employees and your leadership team and say, “We need to do better,” that we’re able to do that. We’ve been able to find those savings.
When you look at the budget that I proposed in 2015 and the budget that I proposed in 2018, it’s a .02 percent increase over four years. A little over $100,000. And we’ve had to absorb a multimillion-dollar interest arbitration award. We’ve been able to settle all of our union contracts with the exception of our police department, who we’re in negotiations with, and we want to be able to settle that contract. We’ve had to absorb increased insurance costs.
We’ve looked at where we can save, and we’ve been able to drive a lot of savings into this budget over the course of those four years. We’re going to continue to do it.
The other interesting thing is: the $12.5 million hasn’t changed. It was $12.5 million in 2015 and it’s $12.5 million in 2018. I think that that speaks to what I’ve been saying. This is structural gap that is driven by, whether you call it our tax-exempt burden, or the AIM formula not really working properly anymore, but it is a structural deficit that exists.
Recently 24 county legislators signed a letter urging Gov. Cuomo to halt the proposed microgrid in Sheridan Hollow. Have you been in communication with the New York Power Authority regarding the project?
Yeah, I’ve been in conversations with NYPA and NYSERDA from the very beginning. I made it very clear that this is a community where there’s still a lot of pain over the burn plant that was there. When I talk to people that live in that neighborhood, they talk about their aunt or their sister who, they believe, died because of, or had diseases that were caused by, the burn plant. And that pain is very real.
I really want to commend NYPA, NYSERDA, DEC, and OGS because they’ve done tremendous outreach in that community. When I talk to people who live in Sheridan Hollow, when I talk to the head of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association—they have been consulted from the very beginning. They’ve been given tours of the plant, they’ve been talked to about the project.
I want to commend the state for saying, “We’re gonna go back and we’re gonna see whether it is viable to have a renewable option—whether it’s a geothermal option or what that option might be.”
But one of the things that I want to speak to is this: No one wants to move to renewable energy more than mayors like myself or Gov. Cuomo. He has stated this as one of his goals with respect to energy and renewable and fighting global climate change.
I don’t think anyone would prefer more to be standing at a ribbon cutting at a microgrid that is run by geothermal than Gov. Cuomo. The question is whether it’s possible, whether it is feasible. And if it’s not feasible, what has been proposed is going to result in cleaner air for the neighborhood that’s impacted. It is going to result in less noise than the current diesel backup engines that are there.
So we need to make sure that, if we’re saying that we really care about this community, that we come to a solution that really is going to be better for the community. Instead of saying, we’re going to leave everything exactly the way that it is because we can’t use renewables, and continue to run these diesel engines that have more emissions and that are louder and disruptive in the neighborhood.
I want to make it clear: I represent the residents of the city of Albany. And I want to ensure that if there is an opportunity to have cleaner air and cleaner emissions in that neighborhood, that’s what I’m gonna fight for and that’s what I’m gonna support. That said: That has to be proven. That has been what’s on the table, and what NYSERDA and NYPA are saying, but clearly there needs to be a validation of that in the air emissions permits that they ultimately would put forward and receive.
This is one of the challenges. I have these passionate progressive values, and I also have to recognize that there are feasibility and reality issues. How do we move that ball forward while also fighting for those progressive values.
Before we started filming, you mentioned exploring solar and geothermal for your new home in Arbor Hill. What do you think the feasibility of that is?
The unique thing about the townhouse that we’re purchasing is that there is an empty lot next door. We’re in the process of acquiring that as well. That would provide, potentially, for the space to do geothermal. But you’d still probably have to dig down rather than laterally. The question is, with the hard-clay soil, what is the feasibility going to be? We certainly are going to have that explored and determined.
Geothermal—just, back of the envelope—is still really expensive. You start with the potential of it costing between $40-50,000, and there are some tax credits which can help to reduce that. I really want to look at this from, again, that what’s feasible. What could an average homeowner really do in that environment? Whether it’s a combination of geothermal and solar, whether we ultimately say, “OK, we can’t do geothermal but we could do solar for our hot water.” We’re really exploring that.
But I want to go through the process, just as anybody would, if they’re making this decision, so we can demonstrate that these investments are financially feasible. Because ultimately, we can’t expect people to spend tens of thousands of dollars and not have there be an ability to have there be a return on that investment.
I would love to see more tax credits and more incentives—which is what’s so disappointing about the position of the current White House, because I thought that that’s what I thought we were going to be moving toward. Let’s provide the incentives, let’s build the industry, because we know that once you build the industry and bring it to scale, the costs then go down.
I’m excited about learning a lot more about it than I ever thought possible. That Sheridan Hollow plant is really in my new neighborhood, so I also am looking at that from the standpoint of being a neighborhood that’s impacted by it.
There’s the new Albany Capital Center. Part of the Times Union Center was just refurbished. And now, there are big plans for the Palace Theatre. What are your thoughts on Albany’s capacity for entertainment?
I think that what we’re creating is really a city that can provide venues that are meeting a demand that’s there but that we didn’t have the right venues for. You look at the Capital Center—it’s a perfect example. It’s a venue that can bring in entertainment that, there’s no way they’re going to be able to fill the Times Union Center, and they might even not be able to fill the Palace, but the Capital Center is the perfect-sized venue for them.
When you look at what the Palace is thinking about with their expansion—and my understanding is that they’re looking at a phased approach to the expansion—the first piece of that is really expanding the stage so that you can bring in the equipment that we’ve come to know and understanding, and create green rooms that aren’t disgusting so that bands who come actually want to come back. Sorry, Palace—I’m ex officio member of the board. I should say sub-par. I’ll correct myself. They’re clean, but they’re just not—I mean, you’ve been back there.
But they are also talking about a smaller venue. I think the important thing is that the arts work together. You look at the Broadway and other productions that happen at Proctors in Schenectady. And, full disclosure, I’m on the board of Proctors, so I’m in Schenectady quite a bit. [Editor’s note: Proctors is one of three partners behind The Alt.] And Proctors also manages Cap Rep. I’m really excited about Cap Rep’s move and its new space that it’s in the process of refurbishing.
These are really exciting things, and I think they create more opportunities for a broader variety of venues. We need to continue to grow the population, we need to continue to create more good paying jobs so that people have the ability to go out and spend those entertainment dollars. But I think that we’re actually in a place where it’s not more for the sake of more, it’s the right-size venues for an ability to expand the variety of entertainment that we have.