A deeply divided Albany County Democratic Committee Wednesday night endorsed Phil Steck as its candidate for the 21st Congressional District.
Three Democrats vied for the endorsement: Steck, Tracey Brooks and Paul Tonko.
The endorsement of the Albany County committee will provide important support going into the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, said Steck spokesman Tom Nardacci. Albany County represents 55 percent of the primary vote in the district. The district also consists of all of Schenectady, Montgomery and Schoharie counties and part of Saratoga, Fulton and Rensselaer counties.
Steck is chairman of the Colonie Democratic Committee and an attorney practicing civil rights and labor law. Brooks is a former aide to U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Tonko is a former assemblyman and chairman of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
A total of 10 candidates — eight Democrats and two Republicans — are seeking the seat of U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island. McNulty will retire at the end of his term this year after 20 years in Congress.
The night was not without drama. Prior to the final vote, a faction supporting Brooks, led by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, walked out of the meeting. The faction consisted primarily of city Democratic Committee members.
Jennings said he believed the committee should not endorse any candidate prior to the Sept. 9 primary. “There was never a recommendation as far as I am concerned,” he said, referring to the lack of a recommendation from the candidate screening committee.
Albany 4th Ward Chairman Paul Mancino said he left because the “committee did not have a clear-cut candidate. This just splinters the county committee.”
He said all the Democratic candidates for the seat “should have a fair shot at it on primary day.”
Jennings said Brooks and Tonko had agreed earlier to ask the committee not to make an endorsement. Steck pushed for one, however. He said he had the support of the party’s candidate screening committee, which had voted several weeks ago to support him with 10 votes. Tonko received nine votes from the committee and Brooks, two votes.
The party’s executive committee was supposed to convene prior to Wednesday night’s meeting and make a recommendation to the full committee. It never did, leaving the membership to decide the issue.
John McNulty, the congressman’s father, asked the committee not to make any endorsement, saying such a vote would divide the party. Steck asked the committee to oppose the elder McNulty’s proposal. The committee rejected McNulty’s proposal, opening the meeting to a floor vote, which then went to Steck on a weighted basis.
The highly competitive race has caused rifts elsewhere in the congressional district, not just in Albany.
In Montgomery County, the Democratic Committee, led by former Tonko aide Bethany Schumann-McGhee, voted to endorse Tonko. But Steck picked up the support of Amsterdam Supervisor Tom DiMezza and former city of Amsterdam mayor John Duchessi.
Both the Schenectady County and city of Schenectady Democratic committees will or already have endorsed Tonko. Tonko is expected to pick up the committee endorsements from Fulton, Saratoga and Schoharie counties.
Republicans have apparently rallied behind Jim Buhrmaster as their candidate in the race, ignoring Steven Vasquez, of Ballston Lake.
Buhrmaster has picked up the endorsements of the Republican committees in Albany and Schenectady counties and the Albany County Conservative Committee. A campaign spokesman said Buhrmaster expects to pick up additional county committee endorsements in the coming weeks.
The other Democrats in the race are Craig Burridge, executive director of the Pharmacists Society of New York; John Aretakis, an attorney from North Greenbush; Lester Freeman, the city of Albany’s equal employment opportunity officer; Darius Shahinfar, an Albany attorney and former aide to Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand; and Arthur Welser, a licensed broker with Real Property Enterprises in North Greenbush.