Schenectady

Following a contentious campaign season, tensions remain on Schenectady City Council

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SCHENECTADY — A spate of racist comments made during the public comment period of City Council meetings in recent weeks can be traced back to last year’s contentious election season, according to some members on the council, who believe the racial divisions seen during the campaign persist some four months after the election.  

Council Majority Leader John Mootooveren, in an interview with The Daily Gazette this past week, said the refusal of the council’s three white members to support a slate of Black and brown candidates running for office last year has emboldened individuals to show up at public meetings and make racist remarks, which at times have been directed toward council members of color. 

The latest incident happened last Monday when a man identifying himself as “Diablo” criticized the council’s decision to form an advisory committee tasked with making recommendations regarding millions in federal aid received under the American Rescue Plan Act and said that Black people from Hamilton Hill and “anti-Americans” from the Stockade have no place on the committee. 

The same individual has made similar comments in recent weeks and has been warned that the behavior would not be tolerated by Council President Marion Porterfield. 

The remarks drew swift condemnation from Councilman Damonni Farley, Mayor Gary McCarthy and Porterfield, who called out similar remarks last year and urged her fellow council members to call out similar remarks whenever they are made during meetings. 

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Asked about the comments and how similar incidents should be addressed moving forward, Mootooveren, who is Guyanese, condemned the language, but said he is more concerned about some of his colleagues on the council, specifically the council’s three white members, John Polimeni, Carmel Patrick and Doreen Ditoro, who, last year, endorsed former councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, who ran on the Conservative ballot line after losing the Democratic primary last June.

Zalewski-Wildzunas, who is also white, ran on public safety platform that some have said had racial undertones. 

“We can’t blame people outside who are coming in and attacking us, because the very same party is attacking their own, and that’s what we see here. So, we need to fix council members that are around us,” Mootooveren said. “That’s what I’m worried about, I’m not worried about Diablo. I’m worried about the council members that I sit around that are fueling and continuing to fuel racism against the Black and brown City Council members.”

Mootooveren said the three actively worked against the four candidates of color — which included himself, Porterfield, Farley and Carl Williams — in last year’s election and continue to take issue with the results of November’s election, which resulted in the most racially diverse City Council in history.  

Porterfield, Farley and Williams, who are Black, were all successful in their bid for office, as was Mootooveren.  

Mootooveren’s remarks come just over three months after a new City Council was seated, and while members have voted in unison on nearly every piece of legislation, some on the council believe racial tensions exist. 

Mootooveren’s comments garnered a range of responses from other council members, with some pointing to larger systemic issues that must be addressed and others outright criticizing the remarks.  

Patrick, Polimeni and Ditoro called Mootooveren’s comments false and divisive and said they are focused on serving the people of Schenectady.

But Porterfield said she believes the events of last year’s election season, which she said was “clearly” divided along racial lines, have made people feel comfortable in attacking people of color who sit on the council, and that she has faced criticism during meetings that past council presidents haven’t faced, which she attributed to being an African American woman, the first to ever hold the position. 

“I think people see what happened in that race and feel much more comfortable because of what was displayed in coming out against the current city council members; the current city council members of color, I will say,” she said. 

Porterfield pointed to a number of incidents that happened during last year’s campaign season, including a campaign rally held at City Hall for a slate of candidates of color that was disrupted by Ditoro and a number of supporters, including Polimeni and Patrick. 

Ditoro, who gained the Democratic endorsement, was not invited to the event because she decided to run alongside Zalewski-Wildzunas, who failed to get the Democratic endorsement after losing in the June primary. 

Porterfield also pointed to remarks made by Zalewski-Wildzunas following her primary loss that she said had “racial undertones,” including when Zalewski-Wildzunas said she didn’t have faith in the incoming City Council during a debate on whether to allow retail marijuana dispensaries. She also questioned why the white members of the council have failed to speak out against racist comments made at meetings.  

Asked if she felt the council was divided along racial lines, Porterfield said, “it appears that it is.”

“I don’t know if every single person is there, but I do believe there are at least a couple of people who feel that having a majority of people of color on the council is problematic for them,” she said. 

Porterfield declined to name anyone specifically, but noted that personal feelings will not prevent the council from doing the work members have been elected to do.

“That’s just my opinion so I’m not going to name names, but just based on some of the things that have happened — the fact that I send out emails and people don’t respond to them and I call people and they don’t respond — that’s how I came to that,” she said. 

Zalewski-Wildzunas said her campaign was focused on her qualifications and public safety and had nothing to do with race. She added that her comments regarding the incoming City Council were also not race-related, but referred to the lack of experience of the incoming council and the importance of addressing a number of important issues in the coming months.

“I’m not racist. I didn’t run a racist campaign. I ran a campaign on public safety and I don’t want to defund the police,” she said. “I stand by that to this day.”

McCarthy, when asked about Mootooveren’s comments, said an endorsement of Zalewski-Wildzunas doesn’t necessarily equate with racism, noting her past experiences on the council, but said he encourages everyone to support those who have received the Democratic endorsement. 

He also noted that the current council, in his view, is divided along personality lines and not race or politics, noting that nearly every piece of legislation approved by council members has passed unanimously. 

Reached for comment, Patrick said she regrets not calling out the most recent racist comments, which she characterized as “disgusting,” and said that she was stunned to learn of Mootooveren’s comments. 

She stood by her endorsement of Zalewski-Wildzunas, which she said had nothing to do with race, but rather her years of experience on City Council and background in finance and real estate, and that she believes Porterfield has been treated fairly since she was appointed council president. 

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“I find it incredibly sad that he (Mootooveren) is focused on being divisive and being negative,” Patrick said. “It’s unfortunate because I think the rest of us are trying to invest energy in moving forward in a unified way.” 

Asked if she felt the council was divided along racial lines, Patrick said no and believes members are working well together in serving the people of Schenectady. 

Ditoro echoed similar sentiments, calling Mootooveren’s comments “absurd.”

“We’ve been working very well together,” she said. “So I just need to think we need to continue to move forward with how we’re going. We owe it to the constituents, to the folks that elected us.”  

Polimeni also dismissed the remarks, but declined to comment further saying he didn’t want to discuss past history. He said racism has “no place in a civilized society” and that it’s the council president’s job to interject whenever such comments are made during meetings. 

Meanwhile, Farley said he can see the correlation between the recent spate of racist comments and last year’s election season, but noted that there is a “larger systemic issue” that must be addressed. 

“It’s definitely all connected and you can certainly trace it back further than that, but I think some of the dog whistles we heard during the campaign season definitely can embolden people to take such positions publicly,” he said. 

Farley said the entire city, including the City Council, have been impacted by events that have inflamed racial tensions over the last two years and members must be honest with one another and find common ground and continue to build their relationships from there. 

“It’s a larger issue and the council, or any governing body, by any means is not new to that,” he said. “We are all part of that process. It’s not something that we can hope happens. We have to be intentional about it.”

Williams, meanwhile, said last year was “an eye-opening experience,” but said he stayed focused on running his campaign and is hopeful that council members can work together to serve the people of Schenectady.

“We each have our own lived experiences, which attributes to how we all internalize the events that happened over the last few months,” he said. “I think everyone ran on platforms of collectively working together, understanding this is not a council of one, we’re not individuals, we’re a collective that’s put forth to invoke change. It’s imperative that we are able to have productive conversations.” 

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold. 

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3 Comments

Mr. Elton, that is an absolute lie. President Trump responded over 30 times about racism. He has done more for the Black community than any President since Lincoln. Please post your proof.

Diablo is probably also a flat-earther and believes that there’s a micro-chip embedded in the covid vaccine. Stop allowing this nutcase to hijack a city council meeting and off-load his toxicity into the running our our city. Appreciated William’s comments.

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