Activist seeks to challenge Schenectady mayor in primary

Candidate calls for more public input, sanctuary city status
Thearse McCalmon announces her candidacy for mayor of Schenectady at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.
Thearse McCalmon announces her candidacy for mayor of Schenectady at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.

Categories: News, Schenectady County


SCHENECTADY — Thearse McCalmon believes recent waves of economic activity and downtown revitalization have not reached the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“Neighborhoods like where we are now today have not seen much benefit,” McCalmon said Monday at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center while formally announcing her campaign against incumbent Mayor Gary McCarthy. Hamilton Hill is among the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

McCalmon, 41, said her campaign will focus on three key issues: equitable economic development, improved community policing and campaign finance.

The spate of new housing in Schenectady isn’t affordable for working-class families, she said, and city officials have not solicited enough public input for community development projects, including Rivers Casino & Resort and downtown housing projects.

“Instead of partnering with the people of the city, this mayor has partnered with commercial and luxury real estate developers and failed to sufficiently — sufficiently — make sure that the community benefits from those agreements,” McCalmon said.

She applauded the defeat of the Amazon deal last week that would have resulted in a second Amazon corporate headquarters being built in Queens. She cited the failure of that deal as evidence of what happens when a city doesn’t solicit input from its residents.

“If we don’t learn from what happened in New York City, we’re doomed,” she said.


McCalmon and McCarthy are both Democrats.

McCarthy has not formally announced plans to seek a third four-year term, though the city Democratic Committee endorsed him recently as part of its slate of candidates for the fall election.

“We’ll be doing an announcement in the future,” McCarthy said on Monday afternoon.

McCarthy said he was proud of his economic development record.

“More economic development is happening in Hamilton Hill than has happened in over a half-century,” he said.

McCalmon, an educator and activist, pledged not to accept campaign contributions from LLCs, corporate donors or political action committees, calling her candidacy a “people-powered movement.”

McCarthy has accepted $110,000 in contributions “directly from business interests,” contributions McCalmon claims have steered policy decisions.

“We see this influence and action where we see where our city’s priorities and services are, and where they are not,” McCalmon said.

She pointed at the slick city streets left behind by a snow storm that hit the region overnight.

“It took me forever to get here. Downtown and Erie Boulevard — those look better. Working communities do not see the same timely service.”

Following passage by the state Legislature, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill closing the so-called “LLC loophole” last month. The loophole allowed campaign donors to pump virtually unlimited funds into campaigns.

Despite the practice being legal at the time, McCalmon called on the mayor to donate $38,975 in past campaign contributions — dating back to 2011 — from LLCs to charity.

“But accepting it [LLC money] has always been wrong,” McCalmon said.

McCarthy said he did not intend to give back the donations.  McCalmon’s campaign highlighted a total of 87 gifts from LLCs, ranging in size from $100 to $2,000, over the years.

“All my fundraising has been done in accordance with New York state election law,” McCarthy said.


McCalmon also painted her candidacy as an antidote to a federal government taken over by a “fanatical and extreme” right wing, and she called for Schenectady to be a sanctuary city for immigrants.

“With attacks both rhetorical and actual taking place in our immigrant communities, it is long past time for Schenectady to join the ranks of cities that are standing up to this administration,” said McCalmon, surrounded by her four children and a clutch of supporters. “It is time for our city to be that sanctuary city, not only by action, but by name.”

McCarthy questioned what would change under that designation.

“It’s all rhetoric,” he said of McCalmon’s remarks.

She also cited health care, more equitable public education funding and crime reduction as important campaign issues.

The Schenectady Police Department must also be more inclusive in its hiring practices, she said, calling for the department to recruit from minority neighborhoods earlier and engage in more “culturally responsible” training.

And she said it is “deplorable” that the department had not yet received state accreditation, following the death of a man in custody in 2017.

Officials with the Schenectady Police Department did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Monday.


McCalmon, a Queens native who moved to Schenectady in 2003, needs to have signatures from 5 percent of enrolled Democrats in order to get on the ballot.

That amounts to 750 to 800 valid signatures, said Patrick Nelson, campaign manager.

Candidates can begin circulating petitions Feb. 26; they must be turned in the first week of April.

The primary election is on June 25.

Gerald Plante, former Democratic committeeman, said he supports McCalmon’s candidacy.

Some homes in Hamilton Hill have been vacant for 25 to 30 years, he said.

“It really is a neighborhood with too much blight for too long,” he said. “I hope a lot of people get out and vote for someone different for a change.”

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