When Don Ackerman decided to write a book about the history of Schenectady politics, he knew trying to hide the fact that he is a self-described “pragmatic liberal” would be impossible.
“I bring my own biases into the book and they’re pretty clear,” said Ackerman, who hopes to see “Who Runs This Town: A Political History of Schenectady and its Governments” out in area bookstores sometime later this month. “I’ve been involved politically in Schenectady for the last 60 years, so I can’t hide anything anymore.”
A retired social studies teacher in the Niskayuna Central School District, Ackerman was also a member of the Schenectady County Legislature (1984-2000). He has also served as a long-time leader of the Democratic party in Schenectady County and as a member of the state Democratic Committee for 40 years.
While he has a wealth of personal experience in the political realm to draw upon, no single time period is dominant in the book. He wanted to make sure he drew a complete picture of Schenectady’s political past.
“It’s a modest scope, from 1661 through 2020,” said Ackerman, laughing. “I could have maybe started when the city was incorporated, but when I was thinking about the book there wasn’t a clear place to start other than the very beginning. It just made sense to start there.”
Ackerman, who is self-publishing through The Troy Book Makers, spent plenty of time researching his book at the Schenectady County Historical Society in the Stockade and the Schenectady County Board of Elections.
“I went to a variety of places and used a lot of sources, including the county Board of Elections, which was great,” he said. “Anything prior to 1917, however, I had to look elsewhere. So I went to the Historical Society, did some things online, reading old Schenectady newspapers, and I also talked to a lot of people, like Charles Merriam, who has a great memory. His family was heavily involved in politics. Talking to him and other people like him was very helpful.”
Ackerman was born in the small central New York town of New Berlin, spent some time in the U.S. Army, then got his college degree from SUNY Oneonta in 1960. He moved to Niskayuna to begin teaching fifth grade at Rosendale Elementary School, but after three years became a social studies teacher at Van Antwerp Middle School. There wasn’t a particular time period in history he enjoyed looking into more than others.
“I like them all,” he said. “The Colonial period fascinated me. I loved the Civil War period and our own local Schenectady history. All of it was fascinating.”
The cover on Ackerman’s book shows Schenectady City Hall along with images of four prominent politicians in Schenectady County history: William North, Karen B. Johnson, George Lunn and Izetta Jewel. North was a general for the American Army during the Revolution and ended up in the town of Duanesburg as son-in-law to the town’s founder, James Duane. Johnson was the first and only woman mayor of the city. Lunn was a socialist mayor in Schenectady in 1911, and a decade later Jewel was a nationally known actress-turned-activist/politician.
“I didn’t pick those four, Troy Book Makers did, but if I had to select four of the most interesting individuals in the book it might be those four,” said Ackerman. “North was probably more consequential on the national and statewide level than locally. Jewel was a remarkable woman; the first woman to address a national convention in 1924. And Lunn, probably my favorite politician, was a socialist mayor.”
History of his own
Ackerman developed a close working relationship with Johnson, who was mayor from 1983 to 1991 and died just three years ago. In the book, Ackerman recounts how Johnson, Dave Roberts, Howard Carpenter and Joe Notar turned around the fortunes of the Democratic Party in Schenectady County in the 1970s. It was Roberts who grabbed most of the headlines during those days and nearly defeated Republican incumbent Frank Duci in the mayoral race in 1976. Johnson, Carpenter and Notar, however, all won their City Council races and helped ignite a progressive Democratic surge that continues to control much of Schenectady County politics today. And Ackerman, Roberts will tell you, was just as important as anyone back then in turning things around for the Democrats.
“Don has been tried and true right from the very beginning,” said Roberts, who first met Ackerman in 1968 when they were working on Eugene McCarthy’s campaign. “If he personally wasn’t serving or seeking political office himself, he was a very good foot soldier in the whole process. I was the front guy and got all the attention, but we all helped build a successful Democratic Party in Schenectady, and Don was right at the center of it.”
Ackerman’s political resume is lengthy and impressive. Along with his 16 years as a county legislator, he was a member of the New York State Democratic Committee for four decades, representing the 107th Assembly District; was co-chair of Schenectady’s New Democratic Coalition in 1971; and in 1996 was county chair of President Bill Clinton’s campaign for re-election.
“He loved the state party apparatus and he loved going to meetings,” Roberts said of Ackerman. “He was my confidant, and he loved going and knocking on doors. He was a great guy to have on your side.”
Al Jurczynski, Schenectady’s Republican mayor from 1996 to 2003, usually disagreed with Ackerman’s politics, but he had a good working relationship with Ackerman’s wife, Kay, who was Schenectady’s director of development during Jurczynski’s two terms. And every now and then, he and Don Ackerman found themselves in agreement.
“Don was always a hardcore Democrat, but to his credit he was one of the Democrats who supported our initiative to create Metroplex,” said Jurczynski. “We didn’t often agree on that much, but he was somebody you could work with for the good of the city.”
For nearly four decades, Ackerman worked hard to unseat Niskayuna Republican Hugh T. Farley from his state Senate seat. Farley, however, who retired from politics in 2016 after 40 years representing Schenectady County, holds no grudge against Ackerman.
“I’m the kind of guy who generally gets along with people,” said Farley, 88. “He was of the opposite party, usually part of the leadership of that party, and I ran a lot of campaigns. But I have no quarrel with Don Ackerman. I wish him well with the book. I’m sure I’ll read it.”
In the book, Ackerman chronicles the rise and fall of a number of Schenectady politicians. While he counts Lunn, Mordecai Myers (mayor) and Elizabeth Gillette (state Assembly) among his favorites, there were others whose stories didn’t end well.
“There’s a lot of interesting characters in Schenectady’s history and many of them weren’t caught or prosecuted,” said Ackerman. “But we did have a county clerk, George Bradt, who decided to help himself to some of the revenue that came in during the 1930s, and Jimmy Constantino, who succeeded John Kirvin in the town of Rotterdam and really was a rising star, who got involved in a scandal, and it ruined his career and sent him off to jail in the 1990s. Those are the two most prominent, but there’s also a sense that some things were swept under the rug.”
Ackerman enjoyed putting together the book, although he says the writing was easier than the research.
“Well, I’m not saying the writing was easy. It’s not, but it is a lot more fun than the research,” he said. “The research can get tedious because you start looking into something and you have to go back and check things, and figure out who won what office and when. That can get tiring. Writing is the interesting and fun part.”
Losing political office, said Ackerman, is never easy. He learned that in November of 1999 when, after serving four terms (16 years) in the Schenectady County Legislature, he lost his seat to first-time candidate Susan A. Lazzari, a Conservative also running on the Republican ticket.
Ackerman was just 23 votes behind Lazzari on election night, but seven days later, after a recount showed Lazzari had collected 3,823 votes to Ackerman’s 3,766, she was declared the winner.
Ackerman conceded gracefully that day, telling The Gazette, “I had a great time. It was a pleasure and honor serving the district. I wish all the best to Susan and the County Legislature.”
He admits, however, it was a tough pill to swallow at the time.
“Outwardly, I was gracious,” said Ackerman, laughing as he looked back on that night 22 years ago. “What I remember is disbelief. I had done well before, and I had no reason to believe that this time would be different. I knew how to run a campaign and I was certain I was going to win.”
Correction 10/10/21: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ackerman as a former chairman of the Schenectady County Democratic Party. He is a long-time leader of the county Democrats and also served as a member of the New York State Democratic Executive Committee for 40 years.
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In today’s hard copy of this article was a picture of Bobby Kennedy and Don Ackerman. The man in the middle of them in the same photo – who was he? George Palmer maybe, an attorney and active in the Democratic Party locally?