SCHENECTADY — Karen Johnson, who was Schenectady’s first female mayor and a current member of the Schenectady County Legislature, has died after a long illness.
Johnson, a Democrat whose health had been in decline, died at her home in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood early Monday morning. She was 77.
“Our mother, Karen Brown Johnson, passed away peacefully at home this morning after a long illness,” sons Kent and Eric Johnson said in a public statement. “We are heartened by the outpouring of affection and support from the community she loved.”
Johnson served as Schenectady’s mayor from 1984 to 1992, and before that served on the City Council, being elected in 1975. She has served in the County Legislature, representing the city, since 2001.
“She was really the ideal role model of an elected official,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy, a fellow Democrat who has known Johnson since the late 1970s. “She was an aggressive campaigner, she believed in good government, and was able to manage conflicting ideas while working for the greater public good.”
Johnson was honored at Monday night’s City Council meeting with a moment of silence. Her passing was also noted in the weekly invocation opening the biweekly meeting at City Hall.
Johnson was vice chairwoman of the County Legislature at the time of her passing, though she has been unable to attend legislative meetings in recent months.
“Today we lost a friend and true public servant with the passing of Legislator Karen B. Johnson,” said Anthony Jasenski, chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature. “Mrs. Johnson dedicated her life to the betterment of her community and its citizens. Her groundbreaking elections as the first female City Council member and mayor, along with her election to the Schenectady County Legislature where she served as vice chair, had a profound effect on the residents of the city and county that she loved so much. We will miss her vast experience and wisdom on this body, and send our deepest condolences to her family.”
In March, the Legislature named the Schenectady County Library System’s central branch in downtown Schenectady the Karen B. Johnson Library in her honor — she had been an advocate for the library system throughout her career. Last August, Mayor McCarthy declared Johnson a “Patroon,” the highest honor the city presents to residents for public service.
Former Daily Gazette reporter and columnist Carl Strock, who was the paper’s City Hall reporter during her first term and then became a columnist, said he was in her office daily, and on the phone as many as three times a day with her.
“If I’d had to depend on her shortcomings to keep me in business, I would have starved,” Strock said on Monday. “She was a good government person, she was educated, she was intelligent.”
Born in Buffalo and raised in Cleveland, Johnson attended Radcliffe College and came to Schenectady in 1967 after her husband was hired by General Electric, she recounted at that time. She first entered public awareness as an advocate for the public schools, then ran for and got elected to the City Council in 1975.
As a member of the council, in 1977 Johnson played an instrumental role in preserving Proctors when the theater was threatened with demolition. She later served as Proctors’ director of planned giving, as the refurbished theater became a downtown centerpiece.
She became president of the City Council in 1983, the year she ran for mayor against incumbent Republican Frank Duci, whom she defeated by 302 votes out of more than 24,000 votes cast.
Johnson’s win was also a big win for the Democratic Party, which hadn’t held the mayor’s office in more than 20 years. The last previous Democratic mayor was Samuel Stratton in the late 1950s.
Her death came only weeks after that of Duci, who bitterly resented his defeat and battled with Johnson after he was elected to a council seat the next year.
“It was a very well-publicized race, probably because I was a woman and Frank was very colorful,” Johnson recalled in a 2011 interview. “It was a very tough race. I won by a very small number of votes, and in those days the Democrats didn’t have the large edge in enrollment numbers like we do today.”
During the last two months of the campaign, things got a little heated.
“He was a scrappy campaigner, and things got pretty rough,” remembered Johnson. “In the middle of all this, I had a dispute with Frank about whether or not he would agree to a debate. It was all kind of difficult to deal with because his wife wasn’t well, and he ended up just leaving town to be with her in New York.”
Johnson defeated Duci again in the 1987 mayor election, but in 1991, she decided not to seek re-election, and Duci returned as mayor.
“Thank you Karen, for breaking down barriers & paving the way for women like me to do the same,” said current mayoral candidate Thearse McCalmon, who is challenging McCarthy in a June 25 Democratic primary. “I hope to be as much of a positive impact on our city as you have been. May you rest in power.”
McCarthy said he always admired Johnson. “She mellowed in recent years, but she was still a strong advocate for progress in the community,” he said.
McCarthy noted that Johnson never stopped working toward the public good.
“She continued to to serve with distinction as a member of the Legislature,” he said. “She was contributing right up until the end.”
Former Republican mayor Al Jurcynski was elected to his first City Council term the year Johnson was elected mayor, and despite being the “loyal opposition,” he publicly defended Johnson when people were blaming her for the massive mid-80s layoffs at General Electric.
“I dont want anyone to think I was cozy with Karen, because I wasn’t. But we were always cordial,” recalled Jurczynski, who was on the council throughout her mayorship and served as mayor from 1996-2003.
“She was in the political arena and she was tough, but she got saddled with a lot of unnecessary blame because that’s the way it was,” Jurczynski said.
Kent and Eric Johnson sons said a public celebration of her life and legacy will take place later this summer.
“I got to have a whole new relationship with mom over the past many months as she came to accept the eventual finality of her disease. ‘What are ya gonna do?’ was a common refrain. And she just kept going. I’m sure you know what I mean,” Eric Johnson wrote on Facebook.
More from the life of Karen Johnson:
- Schenectady County library named for Karen Johnson, March 12, 2019
- First female mayor of Schenectady is lauded as Patroon, August 20, 2018
- Karen Johnson to head MVP Health Care board, February 27, 2013