Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy is likely to face a serious battle for his seat this year.
No one on the Democratic side has yet officially announced a bid for mayor, but McCarthy’s intentions to seek a fourth term are clear. And, this past week, we learned that Council President Marion Porterfield submitted her name to the city’s Democratic Party leaders seeking an endorsement to run for the city’s top post.
No matter what comes of that endorsement decision, which is expected to be finalized in the next couple of weeks after interviews with candidates on Saturday, it appears Porterfield, a 67-year-old Black woman, is poised to challenge McCarthy, a 66-year-old white man, for the Democratic line on the ballot on Election Day.
If she does, she will enter the race as a very serious candidate. In addition, her candidacy would almost inherently ensure that some very serious issues currently facing the city continue to be discussed. In the end, a Porterfield primary attempt, coupled with an already announced Republican mayoral bid by city GOP Chairman Matt Nelligan, will tell us a lot about where Schenectady stands on issues of class and race. It’ll also tell us whether progressives have officially supplanted the old-guard moderate Democrats, or – though it seems very unlikely taking into account Schenectady’s heavily Democratic enrollment – whether the city is open to non-Democratic leadership after not having elected a non-Democrat since longtime Councilman Vince Riggi, an independent, was knocked off in 2019.
Porterfield is about as strong a primary challenger as exists in the city. She’s served on the council since 2012, she’s been council president since 2021, and she has deep roots in community advocacy.
Consider that McCarthy barely squeaked by a far-less politically experienced candidate in Thearse McCalmon in 2019, winning 940 to 835 in a primary with pitiful turnout, and it’s easy to see how Porterfield’s candidacy packs a powerful punch.
Some may question whether a forcefully fought primary campaign could weaken the city’s Democratic party and continue to fuel controversies that have been seen as impeding progress.
In fact, Marva Isaacs, the 79-year-old Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association president, confirmed to reporter Tyler A. McNeil her plans to run for a City Council seat because she’s frustrated by the infighting. Meanwhile, the all-Democratic council’s division is exactly the dynamic Nelligan wants to exploit as leader of a recently woken-from-the-dead Republican Party hoping to shake up Schenectady politics.
But a tough fight could be a good thing.
There’s no doubt that race has risen to the forefront of city politics since a slate of candidates of color came into office in 2021. Tensions started simmering during that campaign, when an announcement hosted by candidates of that slate was disrupted by a white candidate, Doreen Ditoro, and her supporters. During the event, David Ditoro, Doreen Ditoro’s former husband, shoved a sign into the face of former Schenectady County Democratic Chairman Joe Landry.
Since then, tensions have boiled over.
Before you dismiss the council’s ongoing arguments about race as a distraction, reflect for a moment on the very real impact it’s having on city leaders.
During this last week’s council meeting, Councilman Carl Williams, who is Black, said, “I remain optimistic despite my wife receiving a piece of hate mail at our house this evening while tending to a 19-month-old daughter.”
At the same meeting, Councilman Damonni Farley, who is also Black, said he and Porterfield have also received hate mail.
That’s incredibly serious.
It’s also important to note that people aren’t bringing up race for the sake of talking about it. Race has come up in city politics because of the ways in which it contributes to inequities throughout a city like Schenectady, which is roughly 55% white and 19% Black, according to U.S. Census data. That also deserves serious consideration. Going forward, it’s critical that city leaders recognize and address the ways in which issues like race and poverty factor into all their decisions, whether it be affordable housing, sidewalks or police reform.
For her part, Porterfield says her candidacy won’t be about race, but instead will focus on her deep ties to the city.
“The difference between Gary [McCarthy] and I is the close connection to the community and the community that is most greatly impacted by not having that generational wealth,” Porterfield said, emphasizing these connections go beyond race.
But it’s not hard to read between the lines.
Union College political science professor Zoe Oxley said, “I could imagine her [campaign] focusing on her work before she was a city councilmember, her work in the neighborhoods, as well as the constituencies she has tried to serve in office and would continue to serve going forward. And those conversations are likely to be race linked.”
Plus, as Porterfield recognizes, it’ll be hard to completely ignore race in a campaign that pits a Black woman against a white man in a primary to lead a city that has recently dealt so openly with the issue.
“It’s going to be just because of what I look like, who I am. That’s going to come out,” Porterfield said. “But that will not be what I am beating the drum for.”
In reality, race being at the forefront of the mayoral campaign could be a net positive for the city that, when it comes to race, clearly has a lot to work out.
Either way, the mayoral campaign we’re likely in for should tell us a lot about the current makeup of Schenectady. Have its Democrats embraced the more progressive wings of the party, which tend to prioritize addressing social justice and other generational inequities? Or do the Democrats largely continue to embrace the more traditional moderate approach?
McCarthy is very much a moderate Democrat. In his campaign, he’ll be able to make fair points about how the relationships he’s cultivated over three terms — relationships with county, state and business leaders — have helped lead to real development in the city, particularly downtown. He’ll legitimately be able to argue a change in leadership could hamper further progress.
“How do you rise above and address some of these shortcomings and create opportunities for everybody? I would articulate my record,” McCarthy said. “I’d like to think everybody is going to say what a great job I’m doing, but that’s not the reality of politics. So I look forward to the opportunity to take my case to the voters.”
Both McCarthy and Porterfield will have to figure out how to complete the delicate dance of claiming credit for the city’s successes while distancing themselves from its deficits due to the fact they’ve each held leadership positions for more than a decade.
Nelligan, who turns 50 this week, will be all too happy to sell Schenectady as a dysfunctioning city and sow division among his rivals.
Particularly of McCarthy, Nelligan likes to say, “You don’t get to be a ringmaster and say you’re not a part of the circus.”
Over the last year, the Nelligan-led city GOP has engaged in several stunts dressed up as legitimate concerns. However, for all Nelligan’s bluster and divisive rhetoric, he is a serious person who has worked roughly 15 years as a GOP political operative in state politics. He’s likely to wage a populist campaign I could see gaining traction.
“I’m someone who strongly believes in our neighborhoods, and that includes every minority neighborhood in the city. I’m appalled that we’re spending so much money on lofts and condos and sidewalks and casinos downtown while neighborhoods atrophy,” Nelligan said. “Everybody cares about public safety, everybody cares about infrastructure, everybody cares about making sure that we have affordable housing. I think there are a lot of things we can rally around together.”
The City Council has been lampooned recently as a result of its arguing, its perceived lack of accomplishments, its haphazard approach to doling out American Rescue Plan Act funding. But the campaign ahead actually shows signs of seriousness, in which residents could be in for substantive debates about which policies and approaches would best address the city’s issues.
Hopefully, this increases engagement in city politics and leads to significant improvements in voter turnout. If it does, whichever candidate comes out on top in the mayoral election will be in a strong position to lead. Nelligan, who arguably faces the longest odds, makes that point.
“Whoever wins, that’s great for that person, because that demonstrates they’ve got a mandate to govern,” Nelligan said. “That’s what overcomes a fractious council. I think the council comes in line if you can see that there has been a really strong verdict in favor of one candidate or the other.”
In other words?
Schenectady will benefit from a serious campaign.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.