By Nick DAngelo
The race for Schenectady mayor this season has been anything but predictable. The race became the talk of politicos back in January 2010 when Roger Hull, Union College’s 17th President, announced the formation of his new Alliance Party: a political party comprised of Republicans, Democrats and “blanks,” individuals not associated with either of the major parties, or any minor ones, like Hull himself. The plan then was to run four candidates on a ticket for City Council in 2011. That soon changed when the members of the Alliance Party coerced Hull into leading the charge at the top of ticket—or that’s at least how Hull tells the story.
Hull announced his candidacy for mayor in December 2010, almost a year before the election. With no major party backing, he was avoiding being labeled the election spoiler for Republicans, who had just barely lost the race for City Hall in 2003. The Democrat nominee at the time was expected to be incumbent Mayor Brian Stratton. But the tides changed again in February 2011 when Stratton announced his resignation in order to accept an appointment from Governor Andrew Cuomo as State Director of Canals. City Council President Gary McCarthy was thrust into the spotlight as Acting Mayor, and nudged by City Democrats to fight for a full term as the party’s nominee—or that’s at least how McCarthy tells the story.
Both of our candidates like to pretend they were thrown into the race for the city’s top post by exterior forces, merely bending to the wishes of their close friends and supporters. But the narrative of both men’s careers may suggest different motives. Anyone who worked at Union College during Hull’s tenure as president will tell you that the 69-year-old former-Naval litigator has been eyeing a run for mayor for years. His involvement in the greater Schenectady community, beginning most visibly with Metroplex and Schenectady 2000, could clearly be seen as laying a solid foundation for a future political run.
McCarthy, credited with building the city’s Democrat Party to its current strength during his tenure as chairman in the 1990s, has always had his sights on the number one post. In 1999, McCarthy, then a City Council member, lost to incumbent Republican Albert P. Jurczynski by double-digits. McCarthy lost by an even wider margin in 2006 in his run for the New York State Senate, versus incumbent Hugh Farley, by some 15,000 votes. 2011 was yet another chance for McCarthy to achieve higher political office.
The Nov. 8 mayoral election was deemed competitive by local onlookers and party insiders with both sides confident of victory. But no polling is done for local races, and so the outcome was anything but predictable. However, because Schenectady is a solidly blue city (thanks in part to McCarthy’s efforts a decade ago), with Democrats holding 48% of enrolled voters, dwarfing all other parties, McCarthy clearly had the best chance of winning. What was a solid indicator of the race’s contentiousness though was the money raised by both candidates. Hull took in nearly $128,000, 25 percent more than McCarthy. An impressive haul for a non-incumbent.
The race should have been a done deal because McCarthy also appeared on three minor party lines—the Independent, Conservative and Working Families parties. While the second-tier political parties have become increasingly corrupt (only in New York can a Democrat be given the Conservative endorsement without question) they can play a deciding role in elections with their “block votes”: votes that are guaranteed from their members. Because the three parties are run by city unions, McCarthy easily walked away with their endorsement, money and votes.
And this is what makes Hull’s efforts all the more impressive. From an electoral standpoint Hull should not have stood a chance. Appearing on four party lines, with a financial war chest laden with union cash, and a huge Party enrollment advantage, the election should have, mathematically, been decided shortly after the polls closed. But that’s not what happened. With the backing of the Republicans (a dwindling force in Schenectady politics) and his own infant party line, Hull was able to compete against a well-oiled city machine. The outcome was remarkable, rivaling the political strategy of George Pataki in 1994, or even Barack Obama’s 2008 primary victory.
By 9:30 p.m., Tuesday night, McCarthy seemed to have a clean sweep. With 40 percent of voter precincts reporting, Hull was down 55 percent to 45 percent. A half-hour later it was a virtual dead heat. That’s how it has remained for the past week: McCarthy just barely holding on to victory by a mere 77 votes out of nearly 9,000 cast. This was, by far, and without question, the most exciting election in Schenectady city history. And it shows no sign of ending soon. There remain over 500 absentee ballots to be counted, and after that there will almost definitely be a recount. The Electric City could be without a new mayor until December.
But what is even more exhilarating is the fact that the 29 Union College students who voted in Schenectady may have made the difference in this razor thin election. Every vote truly counts.