Schenectady mayoral candidates demonstrate similar styles

The two men campaigning for mayor have spent their lives leading others — groups of business leaders

The two men campaigning for mayor have spent their lives leading others — groups of business leaders or political parties. In a month, one of them will be elected to lead the city. But those who have been led by them already have very clear ideas of which one would be best at the job.

In Beloit, Wis., where Roger Hull, 69, was Beloit College president for nine years, colleagues remember his way of bringing people together with such devotion that they’re supporting his bid for mayor. His leadership style, they said, would be perfect to bring together bickering parties here.

And in Schenectady, where Gary McCarthy, 54, has worked in the Democratic Party since he was 19 years old, observers say he has matured and developed into exactly the sort of strong leader needed to guide the city’s neighborhoods out of a period of deterioration.

That’s not to say that the rivals are always loved.

Hull, who founded the Alliance Party and has also been endorsed by the Republicans, can be “relentless,” pushing and pushing until people agree to do things his way, colleagues said. He left that impression with many: When the city renamed a road in his honor, the City Council joked that they ought to name it “Roger Hull Way” because of his persistence.

McCarthy has a long reputation for playing hardball politics — from arguing with party members who agreed too much with the other side to, most recently, refusing to issue commissioner of deeds certificates to some residents who were working for Hull.


In McCarthy’s 33 years in politics, he’s left many enemies behind, including members of his own party. He has often said that his biggest hurdle in running for office is that people who know him either love him or hate him. Considering the fact that he lost his last bid for mayor, he said with his trademark dry humor, “Obviously more of them hated me.”

But he has changed over the years.

Schenectady Board of Education President Cathy Lewis, a Republican who worked with McCarthy on the public access television board and now must negotiate with him over school matters, said she’s seen his leadership style evolve.

“I would have at one time characterized his style as somewhat autocratic, but there’s been some moderation,” she said. “It’s a more communicative style.”

On the public access television board, SACC, she watched him lead a controversial move to create a new agency and close down the original board. He seemed to sometimes make decisions on his own there, without “fully communicating” his vision to the board, she said.

But now, he’s more willing to broker compromises and talk out problems.

“He’s reached out to us,” she said. “He’s been willing to talk to me whenever I wanted. He has listened to us. It’s not a situation in which he’s making a decision about it — he’s been helpful to facilitate [solutions].”

City Council members agreed. Two years ago, Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard was among several who said they thought McCarthy would “take over” when he became council president, presenting them with plans and expecting them to approve them. But council members didn’t say that was a bad thing — Councilwoman Denise Brucker said they picked him because he “doesn’t give up and he doesn’t back down.”

But instead of telling them what to do, he asked them to help him come up with possible solutions to city problems. After some discussion, he wrote up draft legislation, which he then amended repeatedly before the council came to a consensus.

That style changed when McCarthy became acting mayor this spring, after Brian U. Stratton resigned to become director of the state Canal Corp.

McCarthy quickly handed the council several new plans. Rather than offering to wait while council members considered the ideas, McCarthy pressed for quick decisions. He wanted, among other things, to pave streets rather than rebuilding sidewalks, and to hire a consultant who could figure out how to improve the city’s code enforcement.

Democrats said that was the leader they wanted.

“I don’t think it’s a particularly bad thing in a leader, particularly in these times,” said Sharon Jordan, who worked as Stratton’s chief of staff and has worked with McCarthy since his first run for Democratic committee as a teenager.

“He’s a very strong leader, and I think that’s what we need right now,” she said. “Sometimes you need to have someone say, ‘This is what you have to do,’ even if it’s tough. To make the tough decisions. He does that well.”

But, she acknowledged, he does push for his ideas.

“He doesn’t procrastinate or hesitate when he knows what is right to do. He makes up his mind and he does it,” she said.

McCarthy doesn’t pull punches. When asked about his leadership style, he recalled a recent night when he was riding with a police officer on the overnight shift.

They were called to a bar, where neighbors were complaining of fights and noise. The officer mentioned to McCarthy that it was the 19th call to that bar in four weeks.

“The son of the owner is there, and I tell him, we’re not sending the police there 19 times,” McCarthy said grimly. “I had him get the owner out of bed.”

He set up a meeting between the owner and managers and the police. At it, he said he had told the police to wake him up whenever they got a call about the bar. And then, he warned, he’d wake up the state Liquor Authority commissioner.

Liquor licenses are often revoked for noise and fights. There haven’t been any complaints about the bar since that meeting, McCarthy said.

“Just evaluate it and make a decision,” he said of his style.

He offers compromises, he said, but he’s willing to make the decision if no compromise seems possible.

“When you’ve got competing groups that are 180 degrees apart, you’ve got to make a decision,” he said. “You have to be able to weigh things. The bottom line still becomes common sense.”

It doesn’t make everyone happy. But McCarthy doesn’t particularly mind that.


For his part, Hull has left behind associates who think highly of him decades later. Partly, that’s because he was involved with two programs that led to wide-ranging success, both in Beloit and Schenectady.

In both places, he was part of a small group that pushed for a plan to revitalize the city’s downtown. The first was called Beloit 2000.

When Hull came here to become president of Union College, he brought Beloit’s plan with him, and local business leaders used it to form Schenectady 2000.

In Schenectady, the group lobbied the county to create the Metroplex Development Authority, a new agency funded by taxes that could issue grants and loans to bring in new businesses. It took years, and much of the original plan for parking garages and other amenities never occurred, but Metroplex turned the downtown into a bustling commercial zone.

In Beloit, the group accomplished the same success, also with a special corporation overseeing the effort.

“It is because of the people involved with Beloit 2000 that the city is what it is,” said Chamber of Commerce President Randall Upton. “It is probably THE organization that turned Beloit around as a municipality. It’s just amazing.”

Hull did not come up with the innovative ideas that Beloit 2000 proposed. He was the champion, lobbying for funds and persuading others to support the group’s plans.

Similarly, although he brought the Beloit plan to Schenectady, he did not craft the details here.

“He was supportive and receptive to the new ideas for change,” said Wally Graham, former CEO of Schenectady International, who worked with Hull on Schenectady 2000.

But, Graham said, Hull was a “driving force” in getting the ideas accomplished. He was a fundraiser and an organizer.

Beloit economics professor Jeff Adams, who worked with Hull on Beloit 2000 and is still working on the project now, said Hull was the Beloit group’s main fundraiser.

“When a set of plans were brought to him, he said, ‘This is it! Let’s do it!’ ” Adams said. “Once he’s convinced, it becomes his idea and then he champions it relentlessly. It’s kind of remarkable — and tiring. You want him on your side.”

At both Beloit and Union colleges, Hull also become the chief fundraiser, increasing the colleges’ endowment.

“Roger is a fantastic fundraiser,” Adams said. “I think that speaks to his ability to convince people that his ideas are good ones.”

For Schenectady 2000, Hull also handled the fundraising, recalled assistant Kim Perone. She also saw Hull push hard to get Schenectady 2000, and Metroplex, approved in a city where some dismissed revitalization as an impossible dream, she said.

“People may say that he was pushing, but we really achieved a lot,” she said. “I learned you could really achieve great things.”

Hull, she said, would offer a vision, such as painting four railroad bridges rather than one during a community service day. She would call the business leaders whose job it was to figure out the logistics, and they would make it happen.

“Definitely, he was someone who said, ‘We can do this,’ ” she recalled. “I would deliver the message — four railroad bridges rather than one — and I watched them take the idea, think about how it would work and put it together. We were surrounded by people who made it work.”

Hull said that’s how he leads — by delegating to experts.

“Make sure you have people around you who are good, so you can delegate,” he said.

But those to whom he delegated said he was never hands-off.

“What would define Roger’s character is, when you bring him an idea or a proposal, you need to be prepared to be grilled,” Adams said. “And he’s a tightwad. He’s cheap — well, I should say frugal.”

Adams remembered having to convince Hull of the value of any idea — both its potential to improve Beloit and its value for the money.

Hull said his technique was simply to listen to the experts and moderate the debate if the experts didn’t agree: “When there’s an issue, you bring in the people who have different expertise, and if you have people who are at opposite ends of the spectrum, you keep hammering them until you find common ground.”

Boots on the ground

Both Hull and McCarthy share one habit in their leadership styles: visiting their employees.

McCarthy, an investigator for the district attorney’s office who is now on leave as acting mayor, has spent his short tenure working with each of the departments in the city. His goals is to determine the causes — and thus, solutions — of the main problems facing each department.

Recently, he rode an entire shift with the recycling crew, heaving pounds of material onto a city truck. He wanted to figure out how to get more residents to recycle.

A few hours after his shift, he didn’t have any answers yet, but he said he was astounded by the amount of recyclable material being thrown away as trash. The city pays far more to bring trash to the landfill than it does to recycle material.

“When you look at this stuff, we are missing so much,” McCarthy said, describing houses with two cans full of garbage bags, sometimes obviously full of paper, bottles and even returnable cans.

Hull, who led two colleges and is now running a nonprofit after-school program for children, Help Yourself, calls his management style “managing by wandering around.” It’s a technique he picked up after he found that his open-door policy wasn’t working.

“When I found people weren’t walking in the door, I went to them,” he said. “I suspect in part people feel somewhat intimidated. In other cases, they probably want to duck and cover.”

As a college president, he said, he went to faculty members as soon as he heard they had a problem with him.

“I never let it fester,” he said. “I wouldn’t call them to my office, I’d go see them in theirs. I don’t believe in letting things develop into bigger problems.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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