The machine worked well in some ways
Yes, Albany County Democrats did dish up free pizza (thick crust) and wings on election night, but it just ain’t like it used to be. Let the editorial writers scream all they want, give me the smoke-filled rooms and the wheeler-dealers from half a century ago, and I guarantee you’ll do no worse, probably even better, when the votes are counted (or quietly recounted, as legend has it).
The only gratis refreshments at “75 State,” shorthand for Democratic headquarters back then, was a water cooler in the narrow hallway outside the office with its three crowded rooms where they got the phone calls from anxious-to-please ward leaders. Their election night tallies had to be within a small margin of the predictions they made to party bosses on the Sunday before, or else.
There was tension. The Dems hated the newspapers, the TU and the Knick News, and barred their reporters. I recall election night in 1966 when Rutledge Carter, a Knick reporter with an especially grating personality, tried to sneak in only to be streeted by Don Lynch, a party hoo-hah related by marriage to Boss Daniel Peter O’Connell. Lynch, a Humphrey Bogart look-alike with a not-so-pleasant personality himself, grabbed Carter by the collar and the seat of his pants, the best heave-ho of that type I’ve seen executed outside a Three Stooges movie.
Heave-hos aside, Tuesday’s election highlighted some pluses lost from the wheeler-dealer era. For instance, two very talented, incumbent Supreme Court justices in the 3rd Judicial District — seven counties stretching from Rensselaer County to the Pennsylvania border — got bounced by the voters. Voters who, for the most part, had no clue about the two, Republicans Bernard “Bud” Malone of Delmar and Mike Kavanagh from Ulster County. They both got top, “highly qualified” ratings from the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission; their opponents were rated as just “qualified.” Who knows, maybe the two victorious Democrats will turn into second comings of Louis Brandeis. Point remains that the people of those seven counties unwittingly lost two good judges who, back in those bad old days, might well have been cross-endorsed by the party bosses. The cross-endorsements took place in “smoke-filled rooms” and were not popular with good government folks. True, they did hand-pick some bum jurists back then, but a bunch of good ones as well.
But surely I jest in suggesting Albany Democrats might look back on the days of the “machine” as good times? Not necessarily, Bob. Something can be said for a “machine” that, by definition, demanded discipline and automatically turned out victory after victory.
Tuesday, of course, was a victory sweep for Albany Dems, but some of those candidates won despite the party, not because of it. Take, for instance, Sen. Neil Breslin, who won a ninth term uncontested. Uncontested, that is, except for his fellow Democrats, County Executive Dan McCoy, who had earlier been party chairman, and his henchman, Shawn Morse, who had struck this weird alliance with the so-called “independent” Democrats in the state Senate, led by Jeff Klein, who had his own ethical questions back home in Gotham. The old-time machine, for all its faults, would have crushed the Morse challenge like a tiny little, itsy-bitsy ant and punished anyone dealing with the Gothamites. How sweet it must have been for Breslin to sink his Democratic buddies in the primary and then get 90 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
And what kind of party allows the stuff that happened between Cohoes Mayor John McDonald and Carolyn McLaughlin, the Albany Common Council president?
McDonald defeated McLaughlin in the primary for the Assembly seat being vacated by Ron Canestrari. She still had the Working Families Party line but surely, having just been re-elected secretary of the party committee, McLaughlin would step aside and back McDonald. Kind of like what Roy McDonald did after he lost to Kathy Marchione. No way.
McLaughlin told a reporter that she was upset with McDonald for something he said in a TV interview with me on the day before the primary. McDonald told me that McLaughlin was interested in just poor people or the elderly, not the middle class. Upset enough that she staged a mini-surge on the weekend before Election Day, complete with robo-calls and many emails to supporters, saying she was still in the race.
She also listed all the party people who backed her in the primary which, intentionally or not, made it appear they still backed her. McDonald hollered “foul.” Imagine: A high-ranking official of the party challenging one of its nominees.
Turns out, McDonald probably owed more to Rensselaer County Democrats, who gave him their endorsement, than to his own Albany County buddies.
Old Dan and Erastus would have choked on the pizza.
John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.