The Two Month Debate – Jennings and McEneny In A Death-Grip
The Two Month Debate
Jennings and McEneny In A Death-Grip
By Daniel Van Riper
Part 1: The Challenger
State Assemblyman and Albany mayoral candidate Jack McEneny found himself being interviewed by the editors of the local media outlet for the Hearst Corporation, the Times Union. After the usual questions they asked him, "How do you get along with the business community?" " Well," said McEneny, "I have a number of ideas for encouraging the growth of small business, and I’ve gotten a pretty good response from small business people."
The editors looked uncomfortable. "I guess what you mean," continued Mr. McEneny, "is how do I get along with big business?" The editors indicated that was what they meant. "Look," said Mr. McEneny, "It doesn’t matter to those guys who wins the mayor’s race. To them we’re just puppets and they pull the strings."
Over the next few weeks Mr. McEneny was the subject of several negative editorials in the Times Union.
With this story Jack McEneny began his presentation at the June Save the Pine Bush lasagna dinner at 1st Presbyterian Church in Albany. Accompanied by his daughter and campaign manager Rachel, he spoke and answered questions for almost two hours before his pager called him back for a roll call at the Assembly.
He was quick to bring up the infamous water-slide park episode, which SPB President Rezsin Adams called "A very good turn by Jack McEneny for Save the Pine Bush." Mr. McEneny’s opponent, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, attempted to take Pine Bush land around Rensselaer Lake out of preserve and turn it into a privately owned "Family Recreation and Aquatic Center." Fortunately, such a clear violation of the public trust needs to pass both houses of the state legislature, and must be introduced by the local representatives in both houses which is a procedure known as "home rule." Mr. McEneny, at our request, tabled the motion for the legislative session, effectively killing the project.
Briefly, here are some of the main points Mr. McEneny raised:
Police Effectiveness Mr. McEneny believes that many of the problems Albany has with crime come from the fact that more than 75% of the police do not live in the city of Albany. Suburban police do not understand the needs of Albany, nor do they care to try. He proposes big incentives for police and fire fighters to take up residency in the city, but not a requirement to do so.
Abandoned Buildings There are currently 400 boarded up buildings and 4.5 thousand empty apartments in Albany. "Central Ave. and Delaware Ave. are heading the way of Pearl Street," he said. Mr. McEneny feels we need a comprehensive plan with tax breaks and other incentives that encourage people to live downtown. Also, he feels that the mayor’s office can do much to pressure land speculators who sit on abandoned buildings to fix or tear them down.
Neighborhoods The main streets are the spines and the side streets are the ribs. The spines are the showcase streets that people judge a neighborhood by. When they decay, the ribs follow, according to Mr. McEneny. So then, the place to concentrate neighborhood money and policies are on the main streets. "Neighbor-hoods are interconnected," he said. " What you do in one affects the other."
Colleges He called for a downtown community college, pointing out the absurdity of expecting low income youth and adults in Albany to commute to Hudson Valley CC in Troy, when few can afford reliable transportation and the bus service is so dismal. Also, he proposed encouraging SUNY students to locate downtown, which is mostly abandoned at night and on weekends. "Undergraduates spend money and party all night, they belong downtown," he said. "They are not an uptown asset." He proposed creation of a downtown dormitory.
Reapportionment Perhaps his most controversial stand, he called for drawing legislative districts according to the boundaries of neighborhoods, not according to demographics or expediency. He strongly feels that if people are not represented by their neighborhoods then they are misrepresented, no matter what the reason. "If you can’t quickly describe your district," he said, "you’re gerrymandered."
Mr. McEneny felt the need to explain why he is running for mayor of Albany. "After a 30 year apprentiship I’m running for mayor," he said. He enjoys his present job as State Assemblyman, which gives him "pride and satisfaction." However, Mr. McEneny sees Albany decaying because of a lack of long-term vision and planning which he feels that he can best provide for the city.
Part 2: The Incumbent
In January 1995, newly elected Mayor of Albany Jerry Jennings sat down at a luncheon with former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo. Outside, freshly fallen snow covered the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion, which in turn was covered with a layer of ash spewed from the deadly Sheridan Avenue garbage burning plant.
"How’s it going, Mr. Mayor?" said the governor amiably. "Well," said Mr. Jennings, "we need a lot less soot on our snow."
Only seventeen days after assuming office, the Mayor announced that the evil "ANSWERS" plant would be shut down forever, and that the State would buyout the contract with the City of Albany for $18 million. No one will ever know how many people were maimed and killed by the incinerator smoke, or how many thousands of tons of toxic waste were scraped out of the plant’s hellish bowels and dumped in the Pine Bush, where the waste continues to pollute the groundwater. Neither of Mr. Jennings’ predecessors had the courage to confront the issue as he did.
Mr. Jennings is not the kind of guy to run from a confrontation, even with the press in attendance. The July Save the Pine Bush lasagna dinner at 1st Presbyterian Church in Albany was on a sweltering summer day, but the Mayor seemed to be sweating from more than the heat. Certainly Mr. Jennings realized he would be answering a lot of tough questions about the last four years.
Mr. Jennings began by reminding all of us of his strong commitment to Pine Bush issues before he became mayor, and at the beginning of his term. As an alderman and chairman of the Common Council Zoning Committee he often disagreed with the City on Pine Bush issues, often as the lone voice for preservation. "There was too much activity out there," he told us about that period. It was his attempt to block an illegal zoning approval in the Pine Bush that caused the cold and distant former mayor Whalen to oust him from the Common Council. Mr. Jennings’ comeback write-in election and stunning underdog victory over Harold Joyce in the 1993 mayoral election are well known (see the SPB website for details).
Mr. Jennings emphasized future commitment to Pine Bush land acquisition. "We will continue to access every available dollar out there," he said. "I will continue to work for Pine Bush preservation."
In response to questions, Mr. Jennings sidestepped responsibility for the attempt to take land out of the Pine Bush Preserve around Rensselaer Lake and give it to a private developer to build a "Family Recreation and Aquatic Center" i.e. a waterslide park. He even claimed to be hazy on some of the details of the project, on which he pushed vigorously for some five months before his future oppenent in the mayoral campaign, Assemblyman Jack McEneny brought it to a halt.
A number of outraged residents of the Dunes housing development, led by Marybeth D’Alessandro confronted the Mayor on the scurrillous tricks played by developer Charles Touhey and his political ally Frank Commisso, who is an overly powerful County Legislator and Ward leader in the 15th Ward, which encompasses the Pine Bush. (Details of the nasty confrontation between Commisso and the Dunes residents he is supposed to be representing will be detailed in the next newsletter.)
Apparently Mr. Jennings had spoken favorably of a planned office park by Touhey, which SPB has successfully been fighting for almost a decade. In a private conversation with Ms. D’Allesandro, Mr. Jennings said the Touhey development was "a done deal", and that he would abide by a bogus and twisted survey of nearby residents, in which some two thirds of the respondents, who called for the parcel to be forever wild, were simply discounted in the final results.
"The survey was a stealth attack," said Ms. D"Allesandro. "Our first choice is forever wild. Touhey is being abusive." Mr. Jennings backed down from his earlier positions and said he would meet with City Planner Mike Morelli about the results of the survey.
Mr. Jennings pointed out correctly that Albany has been the leader in land acquisition in the Pine Bush. "Why aren’t you working on other municipalities that contain Pine Bush, like Guilderland and Colonie?" he asked the crowd, apparently unaware that we have been doing just that for the past couple of years.
To his credit, Mr. Jennings in the last year has switched from promoting Pine Bush development to a much needed attempt to revitalize downtown Albany which has had some success. He has had much to do with the moving of State offices downtown, including the Comptroller’s Office and other departments from the strange and decrepit State Office Campus, the new WMHT TV station on Broadway, and the new FBI building next to Thruway exit 23, although this last appears to have come about largely because of 1st Ward Alderwoman Carol Wallace’s efforts.
As for the Dormitory Authority fiasco on Broadway, under which was discovered a rich treasure trove of Dutch artifacts from the 1600’s which were mostly destroyed by the building process, Mr. Jennings said that the City "will carefully look at sites on future downtown buildings. There are areas that need to be looked at."
For the future, Mr. Jennings revealed that he has taken it upon himself to discuss transportation issues with other regional leaders. "There is no reason why we can’t have a light rail between the cities of the Capital District," he said. He tied the parking problem to mass transportation, saying "CDTA has to take a higher profile." His support for a new main library is well known, and repeated the idea of taking over the Armory next door for expansion. He also talked about regional consolidation, such as sharing bulk parchases and health palans with other municipalities to cut costs.
The press attended in force, which was unusual, including several photographers. Notable was an excellent report of the dinner that appeared in the July 17th Daily Gazette written by reporter Jill Bryce, which was noted by many people, including State Senator Neil Breslin as well-written and inciteful.
Editorial: Make Your Own Choice
Opinion by Daniel Van Riper
Something happens to candidates once they get into office. Perhaps the air is rarer up high, the temptations greater, or maybe the perspective is distorted. Often politicians do things that are against their own principles, always in the name of "trying to do what’s best for everybody."
After incumbent Albany mayoral candidate Jerry Jennings avoided responsibility for attempting to take Pine Bush land out of preserve to build a private waterslide park, Save the Pine Bush president Rezsin Adams was furious, almost stamping her feet with anger. "How could he say that?", she said. "How could he think we would believe that? We saw the home rule message."
Yes, Mr. Jennings worked hard to get this waterslide park built. There was ample newspaper coverage of his efforts, and SPB has obtained documents pertaining to his efforts, including a loony legal opinion to Comptroller McCall from the Mayor’s office written by Vincent McArdle claiming that charging people fees to use public parks does not "alienate" the public from use of the land. Right. There are papers stating that there will be no environmental impact. And of course, DEC and Willie Janeway of the Pine Bush Commision were expected to approve.
Best of all was a nonsense survey which cost who knows how many tax dollars that asked the question, "Do you agree or disagree with the statement: A family recreation and aquatic center would be a welcome addition to the community." Is that a biased leading question, or are we just being cynical? Naturally 83.6% of respondents said yeah, sure. How many folks would have answered positively if the question were phrased, "Do you think parkland should be sold off to private developers who will charge $12 a head to use said land?"
As for Assemblyman McEneny, who put a stop to this nonsense, were his motives pure and altruistic, or was he just looking to get in a shot at his future opponent? Certainly he is a passionate preservationist, which is a point of view that overlaps much with environmentalism. His own explanation for tabling the motion is interesting, that it was the end of the legislative session and there was no time to consider the bill. "Sometimes when a bill arrives late, it deserves to die a quick death." This is hardly an inspiring commitment.
Four years ago, the choice was clear. Candidate Jennings was our old friend, and his mayoral opponent Harold Joyce was a proven disaster. Now things are not so clear. Both candidates have plusses and minuses. Would Mr. McEneny make a better mayor than Mr. Jennings? We don’t know.