SCHENECTADY — Schenectady Republican leaders are confident that recent conflicts among elected city Democrats will provide a boost for insurgent bids in the 2023 city elections.
It’s expected to be an uphill battle for hopefuls for sure, as Democrats currently hold all seven seats on the City Council and they outnumber Republicans in Schenectady by a 4-1 enrollment advantage, but there’s an optimism among the GOP that hasn’t been felt in a while, according to City GOP Chairman Matt Nelligan.
“Right now the City Council is focused on personality conflicts, hatred of individual people,” said Nelligan, who has helped to resurrect the party over the past 8 months.. “And that’s got nothing to do with running the city.”
The most recent City Council meeting on Sept. 27 erupted into racially charged name-calling between the council’s white moderate wing and the progressive wing of color — the latest in a number of clashes between the two factions within the Democratic Party since last year’s elections.
The name-calling was unfortunate but doesn’t necessarily signal chaos in City Hall, Schenectady Democratic Committee Chairman Tom Bellick responded. Bellick said his committee remains unified.
“We should win,” Bellick said. “We will win.”
He referred to recent tensions among Democratic council members as “interpersonal disputes.”
Council President Marion Porterfield last week suspected internal sabotage after city Republicans released city email screenshots revealing Porterfields’ use of city email to pass along a fundraiser invite to her fellow elected officials on the council, an inappropriate use of government email.
Nelligan mentioned that he talks with council members, but declined to speak for “any of them in terms of where they might be going.” He believes at least two members of the all-Democratic council roster carry moderate values parallel with the GOP.
“We really mean it when we say that we’re interested in all people of good will,” Nelligan said. “That would include [Councilman] John [Polimeni]. That would include [Councilwoman Doreen] Ditoro.”
Nelligan didn’t mention Councilwoman Carmel Patrick, who also often votes with Polimeni and Ditoro.
Polimeni acknowledges that he spoke with Nelligan once in a constituent-relations group, but that’s it, he said. “I’ve been a Democrat my whole life,” Polimeni said. “I am a Democrat. If I was him, I would be trying to build my party, too, but you’re not going to do that in one conversation.”
Ditoro, a first-term Democrat, is also disinterested in flipping parties.
“I loved campaigning last year,” Ditoro said. “I’m doing good for the constituents of the city and so I like where I’m at.”
Last week’s animosity on the council is old news, the councilwoman added.
Responding to the council member’s disinterest in joining ranks, Nelligan said he still respects Polimeni and Ditoro for taking so-called moderate stances on issues such as rent-control and tightening nuisance violations.
“Recent events have shown that the Democratic Party that is currently construed in the city is not very hospitable to those two individuals,” Nelligan continued. “But if they like to stay in abusive relationships, I’m not going to stop them.”
Interviews for potential GOP candidates will be conducted Oct. 12 at Katie O’ Brynes Irish Pub. Nelligan expects for the committee to consider endorsements around month’s end and have a full team by January to launch campaigns for the November 2023 city elections. So far, three hopefuls have expressed interest in running for mayor, eight for council and one Schenectady County Legislature, Nelligan said.
In addition to the mayoral seat, four seats on the City Council are up for election in 2023.
Nelligan said that interest opened up in the spring when the Schenectady GOP sent out winning endorsements in the city Board of Education race for Cathy Lewis and Vivian Parsons, who favored having police in schools, an issue that became controversial in school board races across the country the past few years.
Prospective interviewees must hold a favorable view of law enforcement in order to be endorsed, committee guidelines show. This would include supporting 50 more police hires and additional department resources, including social workers for mental health crises, Nelligan explained. There are currently 154 police officers on the force of the Schenectady Police Department.
Other partywide positions include reinstating a city managerial system for the first time in nearly 30 years, incentivizing household decarbonization, creating charter schools and dismissing rent-control. The group has also petitioned to get rid of the city’s Black Lives Matter mural, which they assailed in June as an expensive representation of a “marxist organization.”
The group at the time received blowback from city officials and social justice activists, who chided the remarks as false and bigoted. Nelligan claimed he was referring to the Black Lives Matter Global Network and isn’t willing to alter the message to sway moderate voters sympathetic to the broader eponymous movement.
“The stuff I told you is the stuff I believe,” Nelligan said.
Chad Putman, a Working Families Party committee representative and former Democrat, doesn’t expect the city GOP to make much headway in a general election due its voter-enrollment disadvantage. The progressive organizer believes the best way to grab votes as a Schenectady insurgent is by grabbing a third party line endorsement while still running with the dominant party.
“They can do whatever they want to do and champion their own candidates,” Putnam said. “But I would say it’s extremely unlikely for them to pull out a win by just having somebody on the Republican line.”
In the race for mayor, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy has said that he’ll seek reelection in 2023. A Republican hasn’t held the mayor’s seat since Al Jurczynski, who served from 1996 to 2003. Jurczynski was at the tail end of an era as city Democrats increasingly outnumbered Republicans.
Cathy Lewis, who currently serves on the Board of Education, was the last Republican elected to City Council to date. She lost re-election in 2005.
Since two-term independent Vince Riggi lost re-election in 2019, the council has been in full Democratic control.
Nelligan, the GOP chair, argues that the Democrats have grown too extreme for the city’s constituency. He’s convinced Ditoro’s 2021 win and Polimeni’s past election victories since 2015 can be duplicated with GOP candidates.
“They’re looking for a moderate voice,” Nelligan said. “And with the Republican Party, since we didn’t break it, we can fix it.”
Bellick doesn’t believe the GOP can persuade any Democrats to flip parties.
“I’m not worried,” he said.