Waite: Schenectady Democrats risk letting GOP steer the mayoral race 

Schenectady city hall

In the past month, Matt Nelligan’s Schenectady mayoral campaign has pumped out substantive policy proposals, one to do with ethics and another to do with affordable housing. The Republican says there’s more to come – on public safety, infrastructure, democratic engagement.

As for the city’s two Democratic mayoral candidates, incumbent Mayor Gary McCarthy and City Council President Marion Porterfield? They both need to pump the accelerator. 

When it comes to who has the most proactive campaign, Nelligan is leading the charge. At this point, it’s not even really close.

To a degree, this makes sense. As the only candidate who doesn’t hold elected office, Nelligan has to run an aggressive campaign to edge his way into the city’s conversation. He also got a head start, announcing his candidacy in December, roughly two months ahead of McCarthy and Porterfield. 

But, at some point, the Democrats have to pick up the pace. 

Even in a heavily Democratic city, where Democrats have a nearly 4-to-1 enrollment advantage over Republicans, Democrats ignore their opponents at their peril. Not only could dismissiveness put them at political disadvantage, but it could also cost them control of the discourse. 

McCarthy and Porterfield should heed the warning of the state’s 2022 gubernatorial race. Gov. Kathy Hochul ran a lackluster campaign, allowing Republican Lee Zeldin to steer the narrative around crime and affordability in a way that ultimately led to the closest gubernatorial election since Republican George Pataki won in 1994. 

Nelligan represents a similar political threat to city Democrats. Despite past missteps, such as picking a foolish fight with Black Lives Matter last summer and announcing a slate of candidates that featured a conspiracy theorist, Nelligan is now talking sense. And he has the experience, including more than 15 years in state politics and 13 years as a social studies teacher, that makes up a legitimate resume of an outsider seeking city office. 

McCarthy should have already learned the risks of downplaying political opponents after winning a 2019 primary against political neophyte Thearse McCalmon by barely more than 100 votes.

To the mayor’s credit, McCarthy’s current campaign could simply be more fledgling than foundering. He says he outlined his agenda clearly in his State of the City address in January, and that his mayoral bid, which is for a fourth term, is rooted in his record. 

“I would say that Mr. Nelligan is reacting to things that we already have in place,” McCarthy told me. “[Nelligan] has to try and create a narrative that he could be seen as being a viable candidate as opposed to a fringe Republican because [Schenectady Republicans] don’t have a party, they don’t have an organization, and they don’t have a record of really doing anything.” 

As for Porterfield, is she even in the field? Like McCarthy, she can claim she’s running on her City Council record. But during her kickoff event, she promised to hold public listening sessions. As far as we know, these haven’t happened. And if they have happened in a more private manner, that’s questionable political strategy. 

Porterfield has a chance to be a strong, progressive candidate who can run on a long history of neighborhood organizing and city leadership. But she has to shape and fine-tune her policy ideas to distinguish herself from the moderate McCarthy. So far, we haven’t really heard much about how she plans to do this. 

From a messaging standpoint, Nelligan is the one out to an early lead. This gives him a chance to drown out the Democrats.

“I think their unwillingness to engage is because they understand they have vulnerability,” Nelligan told me. “They are afraid of substantive debates on the issues. Also, it’s been a long time since there has been anyone on the other side challenging them, and I don’t think they know how to respond.” 

While this is misleading, it is true that Schenectady Republicans haven’t had a sitting representative on the City Council in nearly 20 years, though GOP-endorsed Vince Riggi was a perennial favorite on the body despite his lack of Democratic affiliation.  

Attempts to paint Nelligan as an extreme candidate who dooms his own campaign with dimwittedness would work if Nelligan were that candidate. But with these most recent policy proposals, the Republican is proving he can present ideas in a cogent, substantive and common-sense manner.

No, the Democrats don’t need to react to every little thing Nelligan puts out there – that would play too much into his hand. But they shouldn’t be afraid to punch back, either. So far, they haven’t taken their shots.

Look at ethics, for instance. Much of the recent talk stemmed from the Damonni Farley contract situation, which the Schenectady GOP helped bring to light. The fact that Farley had received sizable contracts from the city’s school district, while simultaneously being employed by the district full-time, deserves scrutiny. But McCarthy and Porterfield have been largely silent on the matter, with moves to fill out the city’s ethics board coming only after Councilman John Polimeni called for action

The recent arrest of the city’s solid waste director on drug charges and subsequent resignation only helps to serve Nelligan’s narrative that Schenectady’s moral compass is in the garbage.

Nelligan proposed a worthy ethics plan that would create an independent, bipartisan ethics oversight committee. In contrast to the council’s feet-dragging on ethics, Nelligan’s proposal helps him argue that he’s the man who knows the right steps to take. To be sure, it’s much easier to present ideas than it is to govern. 

This week, Nelligan’s topic was affordable housing. When I talked with McCarthy, he hadn’t seen the Republican proposal. Again, it would be poor strategy to dignify every Republican press release with a comprehensive response. But when I explained some points of Nelligan’s proposal – including tax abatements for owners refurbishing dilapidated properties  – McCarthy presented real challenges to implementation. The mayor also touted his own record of helping the city create roughly 1,100 affordable-housing units. 

Shouldn’t these be points McCarthy takes every opportunity to make?  

Without public pushback, Nelligan can sell whatever message he wants. And, at face value, Nelligan’s message has some merit. The housing plan, for example, offers some good ideas, such as mandating that incentivised private development include at least 20% affordable-housing units, as well as a call to establish an independent arbitration process that allows tenants and landlords to resolve disputes outside of the legal system. 

But Nelligan’s housing plan is also flawed. For instance, it helps developers based on future promises. If those promises about offering affordable housing are empty, the city could find itself scrambling to hold builders accountable. The plan also prioritizes landlords’ bottom lines ahead of tenants’ bottom lines, with no mention of any cap on rent increases. 

The Democrats should poke holes in their opponents’ plans rather than simply hope they float by unnoticed. Thus far, the Democrats don’t seem to be intent on doing this.  

Even if McCarthy and Porterfield don’t want to react to Nelligan’s proposals, they should be out there explaining their own ideas as often as they can. 

McCarthy has signaled he intends to do this, and he’ll be hosting a fundraising kickoff party this week. Porterfield’s campaigning hasn’t been widely visible. 

I know she and McCarthy are routinely in the public eye at council meetings, but at some point the Democrats also have to aggressively run campaigns to showcase their plans for the road ahead. They can’t rely solely on what’s in the rearview mirror. 

If the Democrats do, that’s exactly where they risk being left. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, Opinion, Schenectady, Schenectady County


Any Republican who has said he supports Ron DeSantis should not be taken seriously or given cover by a responsible journalist! Ask him about this Andrew!

Bill Marincic

I am wondering why an opinion writer is on the front page of the newspaper? If you’re not an opinion writer and you’re an actual reporter, then what you write should be unbiased, which it is not, you are totally biased, you are a example of the environment that you just came from in Washington state. Please go back.

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