Gerald D. Jennings believes he has helped build a better Albany.
“I tried to do what was best for everyone, tried to bring this city together as one neighborhood,” Jennings said Wednesday, as he explained his decision to not seek a sixth term as mayor.
News of Jennings’ plans broke Tuesday night when a letter he wrote to city residents announcing his intentions was emailed to media outlets. The departure means city Treasurer Kathy Sheehan and former city Councilman Corey Ellis are now leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for mayor in this fall’s campaign.
The Albany County Democratic Committee met Wednesday night and endorsed Kathy Sheehan, who said she was honored to have the support. She said her understanding of finances and the leadership style she is promising resonated with the committee. Going forwad, Sheehan said she looks forward to campaigning and the Democratic Primary, with the hope of eventually becoming the city's first female mayor.
The 64-year-old Jennings, a North Albany native who was first elected to the office in 1993 and spent the 13 previous years on the Common Council, was jovial as he conducted a 15-minute news conference in City Hall. But he was also a little misty-eyed at times.
“It has been my privilege to serve as mayor of this great capital city for 20 years,” he said, dressed in dark brown suit, white shirt and red tie. “It’s about gratitude and love for the citizens, people who have worked for me. The time has come, I’ve made a decision, I’ve weighed everything very carefully.”
Jennings said he was thinking about leaving the job for weeks.
“I’ve had a lot of discussions with my close personal friends but most importantly, my family,” he said, adding he has missed parts of his grandchildren growing up. “I said, ‘Now is the time to take a step back, evaluate where you are and where you’re going and do what’s best.’ The city will be fine, I’m not going anywhere.”
Jennings will remain in office through the end of the year. He said the city has had billions of dollars in investments and new initiatives on his watch, but he said his top priority has always been the city’s young people. Jennings, who spent 21 years as a teacher and administrator in the Albany City School District, believes education remains a key to better cities.
“I keep saying the biggest challenge we have to fix in our urban centers is why are 50 percent of our kids not graduating from school?” Jennings said. “And the vast majority of those kids are minorities. It’s about time we did something about it. That rests with recommendations for people who are in positions like mine and in school districts to say, ‘Look, we have to stop this.’ Because if you educate the kids, you’re going to take away a lot of the other problems that we’re having in our cities. As far as I’ve been concerned, it’s been too long. We don’t have to evaluate anymore. We know what we have to do. Let’s do it.”
Jennings said he has no other jobs lined up — and there have been no offers from the governor’s office. He said he wouldn’t be interested anyway.
“Being in government for 20 years, I’m not sure that’s the right direction for me right now,” he said.
There are no health problems involved in the decision, either. “I’m good, babe, knock on wood,” he told a reporter. “I’m healthy.”
Jennings’ department heads and aides watched the news conference.
“I’ve just been blessed to have been the person that worked in the department that was so near and dear to him, and that’s with children,” said John D’Antonio, commissioner of the Department of Recreation. “Nobody cared more about the kids in this city than the mayor.”
Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, a Democrat, said the decision surprised her.
“So many of us across the city, myself as a citywide leader but also as a ward leader, fully intended to support the mayor going forward,” she said. “But he’s made the decision that this is what he wants to do.”
She said she was a little annoyed the mayor made his announcement so late. “It certainly weighed in on a lot of people’s decisions on what they were doing,” she said. “Who knows? The lay of the land could have been different.”
But McLaughlin said she also understands the demands of the job. As Common Council president, she must devote a great deal of time to work. “You don’t get a day off,” she said of both positions. “And the sacrifices you make on behalf of your family are great. If that’s what led to his decision, I fully understand that.”
Sheehan, who opened her campaign office in November, said she was prepared for a primary against Jennings. She did not have a problem with the mayor’s timing in announcing his decision.
“Whenever someone’s been in office for 20 years, I think it’s their prerogative to decide whether they’re going to be in or out of the race,” she said.
Sheehan said she has been actively campaigning and has already picked up both individual and group endorsements. “I believe the city is facing challenges and that I have the background and the experience and the understanding of the city’s finances to move our city forward,” she said.
Ellis ran against Jennings in a 2009 primary.
“Less people in a race is always easier for any candidate running,” he said. “Myself taking on a four-term incumbent four years ago was a heavy lift. We did very well, getting 44 percent of the vote. We don’t have that heavy lift of running against an incumbent.”
Jennings will not be a factor in November. He described how he’d like to be remembered as mayor: “Just that I’m a guy who really cared about the city and the people in the city,” he said, “and worked extremely hard.”