SCHENECTADY — As she prepares to leave office, city Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo has ripped the city’s Democratic Party as a hidebound institution beset with infighting and outsized egos.
In a guest op-ed submitted to The Daily Gazette, the third-term lawmaker sketched out a portrait of a Democratic Party that “rules over good sense and progress” and one in which “petty squabbles impede the right thing” and “pet projects have gotten in the way of more urgent matters.”
Perazzo said she has strived to be an independent voice on the City Council since she was first elected in 2011.
Yet she said she’s been labeled as an “insurgent” and a “maverick” because she was unwilling to “follow the sometimes silly dictates of my party.”
“I was personally demeaned with one male colleague dismissively calling me ‘young lady,’” Perazzo wrote. “Others practiced outright legislative thuggery.
“Conformity is not in the interest of residents of Schenectady.”
Perazzo, 55, confirmed last week she will resign her City Council seat once the sale of her home in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood is final, at which point she’ll move to Saratoga Springs with her fiancé.
The lawmaker, who was the top vote-getter upon her re-election last year, has often crossed swords with the mayor and her colleagues on the City Council, most recently on transparency issues (she referred to last year’s budget process as a pre-ordained “dog and pony show”) and treatment of city employees, highlighting grievances filed by the workforce as sign of low morale and broader workforce issues. City Hall has denied those claims.
“Politics is a rough and tumble affair, but there’s a difference between good governance and bad behavior by grownups who should know better,” Perazzo wrote.
Council members can appoint a replacement to fill the vacancy for the following year.
The appointee would then have to run in November for the final two years of Perazzo’s unexpired term.
Perazzo urged her colleagues to appoint a person of color, contending the current make-up of City Council doesn’t represent the city’s diversity.
City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, who is Black, didn’t directly address Perazzo’s broader criticisms of the Democratic Party, but echoed Perazzo’s calls for diversity and said the city Democratic Committee is slow in embracing candidates of color.
The Democratic Committee, she said, hasn’t endorsed a new candidate of color seeking office since City Council President John Mootooveren ran and was elected in 2013.
“We’ve had numerous openings since then, but a person of color has not been selected to run for any of the seats,” Porterfield said.
Mootooveren said as a first-generation Guyanese immigrant he shares Perazzo’s commitment to diversity.
Mootooveren, who made history in January as the first Guyanese-American to lead City Council, noted he was endorsed by the City Democratic Committee in his first bid for election in 2011. While he fell short, he was endorsed again and won in 2013.
He also pointed at the city Democratic Committee’s support of Porterfield, who was appointed by the City Council in 2012 to fill then-City Council President Gary McCarthy’s council seat after he was elected mayor the previous year.
Porterfield was endorsed by the city Democratic Committee in 2012, which spent over $10,000 to help her win a Democratic Primary, Mootooveren said.
“I am confident that the City Council and the city Democratic Committee in the coming days will appoint and nominate a ticket which will be the most diverse in city history,” Mootooveren said.
McCarthy pointed out the seven-member body also contains four women.
“The City Council is the most diverse legislative body in the Capital Region,” McCarthy said. “Generally, the voters of the city have chosen some fairly qualified people to lead them.”
McCarthy didn’t directly address Perazzo’s criticisms of the Democratic Party, noting he no longer sits on the Democratic Committee and isn’t attuned to the current dynamics.
“She’s frustrated with her own ineffectiveness,” McCarthy said. “She routinely discounted the advice of paid staff on the Finance Department and staff and the outside consultants we pay for bond ratings and fiscal advice.”
City Democratic Committee Chairman Tom Bellick brushed back Perazzo’s criticisms on the lack of diversity, noting he worked on the campaigns to elect Porterfield and Mootooveren, as well as county Legislator Philip Fields.
Bellick also said he cast an executive committee vote for City Council hopeful Damonni Farley, who was knocked off the ballot in a 2017 primary.
“I don’t see any racism, and I wouldn’t function that way,” Bellick said. “I don’t know what in particular she’s talking about with any of those things.”
Vice Chairman Dave Bouck called Perazzo “misguided,” and cycled through a list of successful trailblazing candidates the Democratic Committee has supported, including Joseph Allen, the city’s first Black councilman, Karen Johnson, the city’s first female mayor, and Peggy King, the current county legislator who served as the first female City Council president, as well as others.
“Our committee finds the best candidates regardless of race, color and creed, and we’ve been successful in doing so,” Bouck said.
Porterfield was the lone lawmaker Perazzo singled out for praise in her signoff, calling her “everything a good legislator should be” and her work of the “highest quality and integrity.”
“It’s been great working with her,” Porterfield said. “She’s been a wonderful colleague. And I’m certainly going to miss her presence on the council.”
Perazzo’s departure has set off speculation as to her replacement.
While the lawmaker hasn’t publicly endorsed a successor, she highlighted several “strong voices” who are already making a mark in the city, including Carl Williams, Will Rivas, Omar McGill, Damonni Farley and Rosa Rivera, among other unnamed residents.
McGill flatly said he wasn’t interested in the position, and instead wants to take another run at the county Legislature after falling short in his bid last year.
“I’ve always been a proponent of leadership representing the community for which it serves,” McGill said.
And with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris making history as the first woman and first woman of color to hold the position, McGill said now is a particularly opportune time to diversify the party’s ranks.
“It’s a good time for diverse leaders who are young and also persons of color,” McGill said.
Rivas, a community activist who was unsuccessful at a previous run for a school board seat, said all representative bodies should reflect their constituencies, and the City Council “hasn’t really represented the community as a whole for a long time.”
“People are no longer asking for a seat at the table,” Rivas said. “We’re demanding to be a part of the table and our work reflects that.”