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Schenectady Mayoral Primary: McCalmon eyes ‘people-powered’ approach in bid for City Hall

Schenectady Mayoral Primary: McCalmon eyes ‘people-powered’ approach in bid for City Hall

Schenectady Mayoral Primary: McCalmon eyes ‘people-powered’ approach in bid for City Hall
Thearse McCalmon announces her candidacy for mayor of Schenectady at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.
Photographer: Marc Schultz / Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — Downtown Schenectady may be booming with luxury apartments, new restaurants and a gleaming casino.

But Thearse McCalmon doesn’t think those developments have benefitted the city’s neighborhoods and most vulnerable residents, nor does she believe the city has solicited enough public input.

McCalmon, 41, is challenging Mayor Gary McCarthy in the Democratic primary on June 25. 

Since declaring her candidacy in February, the first-time candidate thinks she’s striking a chord with residents who as if they've been left behind.

At a recent town hall meeting, a resident asked McCalmon how she would tackle the "wealth that is ultimately taking over Schenectady.” 

“First, I’m going to combat how we change thinking about our power,” McCalmon said. “We need people-power and we need to harness that power.”

For McCalmon, that doesn’t manifest itself in just marches and protesting, but rather a sustained effort to lobby lawmakers and push them to provide details on how their policymaking, economic development strategies and affordable housing projects will impact the community.

Community consensus and buy-in is paramount, said McCalmon, who works at Capital Region BOCES as an adult educator.

McCalmon believes the city should have signed a Community Benefits Agreement with Rivers Casino & Resort, which would have led to a more equitable distribution of benefits.

“Any development that comes into our city has to have the community in mind,” said the candidate, who indicated she’d take a hard line in extracting benefits packages as part of negotiations with companies who hope to do business in Schenectady.

Also: McCarthy sees city's revitalization as team effort, June 24, 2019

“You need to pay us first because you’re going to have an impact on this community” McCalmon said at the town hall. “Pay us first and maybe then we’ll think about development.”

McCalmon, a Queens native who moved to Schenectady in 2003, has been endorsed by the Working Families Party.

McCarthy, who is seeking a third-term, is waging a write-in campaign for that ballot line. If McCalmon wins either line, the race will be decided Nov. 5. If not, the campaign is effectively over on June 25.

EYE ON INEQUALITY

McCalmon has accused McCarthy of getting too cozy with the developer crowd, ignoring working class and low-income residents in the process.

Despite projects like the Electric City Barn and the new Boys & Girls Club at Quackenbush Park, both of which have been held up by McCarthy as evidence of investments in low-income neighborhoods, the city’s neighborhoods remain neglected, she said. 

People have been priced out of the affordable housing projects transforming Hamilton Hill, she said.

“I’m not saying give away housing,” she said. “But make it affordable.”

Also: McCarthy sees city's revitalization as team effort, June 24, 2019

Joining McCalmon’s focus on increased community input and a more equitable economic development strategy is a bolder emphasis on social justice issues. 

She wants the city police department to be more culturally responsive, and Schenectady to become a sanctuary city, a designation she said would protect vulnerable immigrant populations who may be victims of a crime, but are reluctant to report them over fears of being deported.

She is also focused on campaign finance reform, contending corporate cash pollutes politics. McCalmon pledged not to accept campaign contributions from LLCs, corporate donors or political action committees. 

“It’s not the money,” she said. “It’s the people.”

When it comes to fighting back against blight, the McCarthy administration has touted the HOMES Program as an innovative approach.

As part of the initiative, the city works with lending institutions and non-profits to provide incentives to first-time homebuyers to promote home ownership for city-owned properties that can be spruced up. 

Doing so helps stabilize neighborhoods, advocates believe.

The program does not engage in full-scale home repairs, and the city has accelerated demolitions under McCarthy’s tenure. 

McCalmon believes the city should instead reinvest in zombie properties to make them more appealing for reuse. 

“Do you know much revenue were losing by demolishing buildings?” she said.

EMPOWERING STAFF

McCalmon has painted her campaign as a grassroots effort seeking to harness the power of the public. 

“How would you like me to do it?” she said at the town hall when asked about how she would improve the lives of city residents. “I think the best way to help any situation is to shut up and listen.”

It’s a crowdsourcing approach she said she will also apply to running City Hall. 

The candidate described her management style as “all-inclusive” and “collaborative.”

“I don’t care how dumb you think your idea is — it may be the golden idea,” she said. “There’s always somebody out there with a better idea.”

Also: McCarthy sees city's revitalization as team effort, June 24, 2019

If elected, McCalmon said she would also foster a better sense of collaboration at City Hall in an attempt to ask staff what they need to better do their jobs.

“I would go department-by-department and weed out problems and address those things head on,” she said. “If they don’t feel happy, that’s really reflected on the city.”

To boost morale, she said she’d put seasonal workers on the full-time payroll. 

McCarthy has prioritized using technology to deliver government service as part of the Smart Cities initiative, and is working with National Grid to determine to harness which technology can be deployed as the provider replaces as many as 4,500 street lights across the city. 

McCalmon said she’s not opposed to deploying technology to deliver government services. But the city should first prioritize neighborhood stability.

“We need to work on unification before going into these initiatives,” she said.


BIO BOX

Thearse McCalmon
Age: 41
Education: Union College ‘15 (AT, History); Russell Sage College ‘14 (BS, History)
Occupation: Teacher: Capital Region BOCES
Family: Husband, Kennard McCalmon; four children and one grandchild

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