SCHENECTADY — Mayor Gary McCarthy and City Council President Marion Porterfield were asked by a debate panelist, “What is Schenectady’s most undervalued asset and how do you build on it?”
Porterfield said that Central Park is a major asset, albeit not necessarily undervalued. McCarthy touted the city’s water, a resource he believes will bring growth for years to come.
“Well, water is very important,” said Porterfield. “I think we can all agree. I’m not sure it’s what most people think of when they think about moving some place.”
Following 11 years of overlap in Schenectady city government, the two seasoned Democrats were squaring off in a mayoral debate for the first time Thursday night at SUNY Schenectady. The showdown comes 16 days before early voting begins in the Democratic primary. (Watch the full debate below)
McCarthy, who is eyeing a fourth term as mayor, credited his nearly 12-year record with economic growth and fiscal stability.
“I’m proud to have been mayor of a city that was once down, but today is the city on the rise again,” said McCarthy, alluding to the city’s stagnation in the latter half of the 20th century.
While acknowledging development, Porterfield said that the city needs to serve a wider swath of residents and “make sure that neighborhoods are included in our progress and the progress does not stay in one part of the city.”
Full Debate Video:
She advocated for the city to address staffing shortages and put forward a comprehensive plan for the first time since Brian U. Stratton had the mayoralty — an idea McCarthy said wasn’t necessary due to the work of the city’s existing economic development team.
“People who talk about a plan are trying to divert away from their own inaction, their own inability to articulate and drive business and drive investment within this community,” McCarthy said.
“Well, that’s an interesting point because the mayor himself made use of that plan during part of his administration when that plan was in place,” Porterfield responded.
McCarthy was appointed and later elected mayor after Stratton, also a Democrat, left to lead the state Canal Corporation. Porterfield was appointed by the council and later elected to fill McCarthy’s council seat a year later.
Regardless of who wins or loses the Democratic primary, both candidates will likely have another party line to fall back on. McCarthy has the Conservative Party line and Porterfield has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, heading into a separate primary against political unknown Ed Varno.
Matt Nelligan, who was live tweeting during the debate, will hold the GOP line.
“At tonight’s Democratic debate we heard from one candidate living in an alternate reality and another that has absolutely no vision for change and no critique of her opponent,” Nelligan tweeted. “This is why neither of these two individuals can be mayor.”
Nelligan’s candidacy is something of a longshot in a city where Republican voter enrollment has eroded for decades. He hopes to win some support from moderate and independent voters, but has acknowledged that his path to victory remains an uphill battle.
The last time Schenectady voters picked a GOP mayor was in 1999 when incumbent Al Jurczynski beat then-councilman McCarthy. What’s more, City Hall has been fully Democratic since independent counciman Vince Riggi was ousted by Democrat Carmel Patrick in 2019.
In 2019, the City Council experienced an ideological shift after voters ousted moderate Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, and elected two newcomers. Since then, tensions over issues such as police spending and COVID-19 relief funding have boiled over between the council’s progressive majority of color (Porterfield, Carl Williams, Damonni Farley and John Mootooveren) and the white moderate minority (Patrick, Doreen Ditoro and John Polimeni).
“[I] try and rise above that and still have things that are a positive [message] for attracting businesses and individuals to Schenectady,” said McCarthy. “But it’s beyond my control to babysit the individual members of the City Council.”
McCarthy distanced himself from council business while pointing the blame on failed legislative efforts such as cannabis site zoning on Porterfield, who unsuccessfully attempted to modify city zoning maps to regulate retail dispensary sites.
Porterfield, who has been council president since 2022, said that she’s made strides in trying to work with each local lawmaker individually, as well as the mayor.
“So again, when I become mayor, I will make sure that I will work with the council so that together we move forward,” she continued. “We’re a team. We’re not a team of one.”
With Polimeni not seeking re-election, a win for Porterfield and Schenectady Democratic Committee-backed council candidate Joe Mancini coupled with the other Democrats winning re-election, the government would move further to the left (the Schenectady GOP has four council candidates running).
A victory for McCarthy would place the incumbent Democrat in a small group of Schenectady leaders to serve beyond three terms, sharing a list with socialist George Lunn and Republican Frank Duci.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook at Tyler A. McNeil, Daily Gazette or Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.
More on the candidates:
- McCarthy, Porterfield set to square off in Schenectady Democratic primary debate Thursday
- Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy formally announces re-election bid for fourth term, 2/28/23
- Porterfield launches Schenectady mayoral bid with people-first message at campaign kickoff, 2/17/23
- Schenectady GOP chair Nelligan declares mayoral bid, 12/27/22