Among all the power seekers and power brokers in the state Legislature, there are a few class acts — and their number will be one fewer come January.
Assemblyman Jack McEneny’s retirement will deprive the Assembly of perhaps its best historian, as well as one of the senior Democrats.
Throughout a political career that began when giants walked the earth — Dan O’Connell was Albany County Democratic chairman, and Erastus Corning 2nd was mayor — the Albany native has had a passion for the complex 400-year history of New York’s capital city.
His book “Albany: Capital City on the Hudson” is an accessible recounting of the industrial and political forces that have shaped what was once Fort Orange, a fur-trading post in the wilderness. He was the Albany County historian for a time.
McEneny was always a gentleman and accessible to reporters — even those of us who wandered into his Legislative Office Building suite while he sipped soup at his desk. He understood and could talk about the great historic trends that shape cities, regions and countries, how the middle class grew from the college educations the GI Bill provided after World War II or how the resistance to and then acceptance of successive waves of European immigrants changed East Coast cities. It was happening almost continuously from the nation’s founding through the second world war. Those patterns are still visible today, in ways both subtle and not.
It was the great Irish immigration and Irish-American politics that shaped McEneny, who was born in 1943 and grew up in Pine Hills.
His parents were John Horan McEneny and the former Margaret Glennon Gaffie — you couldn’t get more Irish, four generations into this country.
He woke to political consciousness admiring Jack Kennedy, the first and still only Irish Catholic president. Like thousands of idealistic young people inspired to improve the world, he joined Kennedy’s Peace Corps and served in rural Colombia.
O’Connell and Corning spotted him as someone good-looking, smart and Irish enough for their kind of politics. A series of jobs in city and county government (he was once assistant to Albany County Executive Jim Coyne, if you can picture that thankless task) led to his working for Albany Assemblyman Richard J. Conners, a fellow Christian Brothers Academy graduate.
Conners retired in 1992. His district lines had been rejiggered after the 1990 census. It was an effort to show him the door, and it worked. McEneny ran and won.
Conners stuck around the Assembly into his 80s and was known as “The Dean of the Assembly.” That title might fit McEneny now, except he’s
always been a more relaxed man than the courtly Conners and he’s bowing out at the relatively young age of 68, making way for the next generation.
There are already more ambitious aspirants than there are bartenders on North Pearl Street. It’s very possible someone with a different ethnic history will join the ranks of Conners, Breslins, McEnenys and McNultys, who have been the faces of Albany politics for a century. Clan politics aren’t what they used to be.