SCHENECTADY — The majority of Tuesday’s city voters gave the nod to four people of color in the primary races for City Council last week, and those candidates are poised to take office barring any change in results from absentee voting which begins Monday. One white incumbent councilperson did not make the cut.
Incumbents Marion Porterfield and John Mootooveren, along with candidate Damonni Farley, campaigned together and held off Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas in the race for full, four-year terms on the council.
Porterfield and Farley are Black; Mootooveren is Guyanese. Zalewski-Wildzunas is white.
In the three-person race for a pair of vacated seats with two years remaining, Carl Williams, a Black candidate, and Doreen Ditoro, who’s white, are leading. Candidate Haileab Samuel, who is Black, is in third place.
The uncounted absentee ballots could change the outcome after all ballots are counted. The Board of Elections said the last day they will accept ballots is Tuesday.
The Schenectady County Board of Elections reported that the city’s two-county legislative districts had issued 540 absentee ballots, of which it received 230.
Those additional votes could be crucial — 50 votes separate Williams and Ditoro, and 41 separate Samuel and Ditoro.
On top of the diverse field at the City Council level, Omar Sterling McGill, a 31-year-old Black candidate who’s a staffer in the state Senate, resoundingly defeated his white opponent, 22-year-old Siena College student Brendan Savage, in the District 1 County Legislature race here.
However, Savage held an advantage on the Working Families Party line, which resulted in sparse voter turnout.
The racial composition of the elected bodies was a recurring topic throughout the process.
In December, a month prior to resigning from the City Council to move to Saratoga Springs, Leesa Perazzo wrote an opinion piece pleading with city Democrats to appoint a person of color to her seat.
Perazzo, who works at Proctors, said time after time she sat in the room and witnessed “qualified people of color” denied in their respective bids for an endorsement from city Democrats.
The reasons varied, she said, from “it’s not your time yet” to “you need to do some more work before we endorse you.”
Specifically, Perazzo mentioned that Farley failed to garner an endorsement despite having recognition from a previous bid for council and being highly regarded in the community.
Perazzo said the committee instead chose Councilwoman Carmel Patrick, a white woman whom Perazzo said she viewed as less qualified.
“That year really made me sick to my stomach,” Perazzo said, adding that the feeling was duplicated when county Democrats endorsed Savage, “the former chair of the county legislature’s white male son.”
Perazzo said she sat at her kitchen counter and cried when Tuesday’s results were tallied.
“People supported what they knew was right and I was very touched by that and very impressed with how hard everybody worked, and it just was historic,” she said.
Schenectady NAACP branch president Rev. Nicolle Harris said Tuesday’s results appeared to suggest that voters favored the candidates they see out in the community, such as Farley’s community activism, and Porterfield, with her community cleanups among other efforts.
The early election results appear to signal a changing of the guard since voters apparently rejected at least two of the Democrats’ endorsed candidates, Zalweski-Wildzunas and Savage, Harris said.
The activist group All of Us said the advancement of the five candidates of color was a collective “no” vote for the status quo.
“The people are making their voices heard in the voting booth,” said All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles, a Black woman who was recently elected to the Schenectady City School District school board.
“If we continue at this pace, we’re looking at the potential for the greatest number of Black people to be elected in a single year ever in the city and county of Schenectady,” Miles said.
Miles challenged the characterization of “minority candidates” gaining steam.
“We are part of the global majority,” she said. “The idea that people of color in elected office end up being a numerical minority is because it’s on purpose. The Democratic Party in Schenectady has intentionally pushed out candidates of color in previous years. It has denied them endorsements in previous years to keep good the nepotism and culture of white male dominance as the norm.”
But city Democratic Committee chairman Tom Bellick said the diversity reflected in the committee’s endorsements was unprecedented. It endorsed all three incumbents, and Samuel and Williams.
“I was very proud of that,” Bellick said. “We never had that many endorsed people of color at one time. That’s a wonderful thing. The voters have spoken. We still have four candidates of color and a white woman [Ditoro], too, so I don’t think it’s a big shock.
“We have a great group of candidates that we presented to the voters and we have a great group of candidates to bring to the general election in November,” he said.
Farley, a community activist who works as director of community outreach for the Schenectady City School District, spoke of his experience talking to voters.
It would be impossible, he said, to get elected in Schenectady merely off of what he said was the Black vote.
“When they have a genuine, qualified candidate that happens to be a Black man, I think that people understand that there’s value in representation. People resonated more with my ideology than identity,” he said.
Born and raised in the city, Farley said he’s worked in the community long before he had any interest in a political position. People seemed to notice.
He was pleased to have earned votes from people who didn’t necessarily agree with all his stances, he said
For instance, Farley has been outspoken about how the city goes about revitalization. He said the approach should be to hire companies and people that are rooted in Schenectady, ensuring inhabitants are gainfully employed while money circulates in the community.
He said it troubles him to see people from outside the county here for $40- and $50-per-hour jobs while city residents use bus transfers to get to minimum-wage jobs.
But not everyone agreed, Farley said. Some hold the view that revitalization benefits the city regardless of how it occurs.
Despite the difference of opinion, Farley said many voters told him he had their vote because he appeared to be honest and would move forward with transparency.
Meantime, Mayor Gary McCarthy said he endorsed Samuel and Zalewski-Wildzunas, the only two candidates who asked for his support.
McCarthy said the candidates as a whole were well-qualified, held different strengths and weaknesses, and that he observed that the contests boiled down to personality rather than issues of policy.
He cautioned against reducing the competition to racial backgrounds.
“It’s people who are qualified to do the job and you have a good slate of candidates, good-quality individuals who were up there, and I look forward to working with them as we go forward,” McCarthy said.
The Republican party is running Kevin Hammer, Vivian Parsons and Brendan Nally. The GOP is not generally viewed as a political force in the city.