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In race for Schenectady City Council, Democratic unity belies more complicated tensions

In race for Schenectady City Council, Democratic unity belies more complicated tensions

Seven candidates campaign for four seats
In race for Schenectady City Council, Democratic unity belies more complicated tensions
Top Row: Rima Cerrone, Ed Kosiur, Brandan Nally, Carmel Patrick; Bottom Row: Leesa Perazzo, John Polimeni and Vince Riggi.
Photographer: Gazette file photos

SCHENECTADY — Should the city be a smart one or a more deliberative one? 

Does it need a bolstered workforce or a more efficient one?

These are some of the questions underpinning the citywide debate as seven candidates campaign for four seats on the City Council. 

This year’s slate sets up what several candidates agree is an awkward dynamic: 

With one non-Democrat appearing to be a shoe-in paired with the 3-to-1 voter registration edge Democrats enjoy in the city, the tension isn’t as much as if the body will tilt to one-party control, but rather if a Democrat will bump off one of their running mates while slugging it out for the three remaining seats. 

Early voting started last week, and voters head to the polls on Tuesday.

City Council President Ed Kosiur, Leesa Perazzo, John Polimeni and Vince Riggi, all incumbents, are running for re-election. 

All are Democrats, except for Riggi, the body’s lone independent. 

Republican challengers Rima Cerrone and Brendan Nally are aiming to secure a seat on the seven-member body, as is Democrat Carmel Patrick.

Seats are at-large, which means candidates are not directly running against anyone, but rather the top four vote-getters citywide win. 

Riggi took the top slot in 2015, besting Kosiur by a single vote: 4,567 to 4,566.

UNITED BODY?

Polimeni acknowledged one of them may be picked off.

“That’s certainly a possibility,” Polimeni said.

Kosiur said the bloc, which have all been endorsed by the city Democratic Committee, is unified despite competing for the same pot of votes. 

“We’re together as a team competing against Mr. Riggi,” Kosiur said. “We hope all four are elected.”

Riggi responded: “It’s nice to hear the Democrats hold me in such high regard, but the main thing is if the voters hold me in the same regard, I may be able to retain my seat.”

Democratic Committee Chairman Dick Naylor said the goal is for all four Democrats to be elected. But one Democrat dislodging another is a possibility that has happened before, he said.

“Vince Riggi is very strong,” Naylor said. “In the last couple of elections, his numbers were huge.”

Vote 2019: Your guide to Tuesday's elections

Despite the unified front — campaign literature features the Democratic candidates smiling together in front of City Hall alongside Mayor Gary McCarthy, who is running unopposed for a third term — tensions have flared in recent months, particularly between Perazzo and Polimeni, who serves as finance committee chairman. 

Perazzo and Riggi, who technically carries the title of minority leader, often provide streaks of independence during policymaking. 

But it’s not always enough to counter a relatively-sturdy four-person voting bloc of Polimeni and Kosiur paired with Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas and Councilman John Mootooveren.

Perazzo dismissed a city budget meeting last week as a “dog and pony show,” contending the process was opaque, and the bloc ensured amendments — including those designed to offer homeowners a bigger property tax cut and place more checks and balances on the mayor’s Smart Cities initiative  — weren’t thoroughly considered. 

Polimeni countered the final spending plan was a compromise, with the final package containing 75 percent of amendments offered, which further drove down property taxes by rooting out additional savings. 

City Republican Committee Chairman Philip Aydinian said the four-member bloc runs the risk of being inattentive to chronic quality-of-life issues like potholes and paving concerns. 

“Their feet are not held to the fire,” Aydinian said. “They give themselves a pass.”

Local government watchdog David Giacalone contends the bloc serves as a “rubber stamp” for the mayor. 

Breaking up the group and denying a four-vote majority would prod lawmakers into more responsible policy-making by forcing them to seek public input earlier in the legislative process, encourage probing questions and slow down what he believes is “nearly instant” passage of resolutions without evaluating and explaining options and thoughtful criticism.

“The next best thing to a new mayor is a mayor who can no longer count on getting all his desires rubber-stamped,” Giacalone said.

However, that bloc isn’t always an automatic stamp for the mayor — the City Council overrode a mayoral veto to reduce the number of City Court judges earlier this year — and some legislation proposed by Polimeni and Zalewski-Wildzunas has failed, including their attempt to ban plastic straws earlier this year. 

Despite the internal tensions, the Democratic candidates gathered at the Ancient Order of Hibernians the morning after the rancorous budget meeting and fanned out across the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood with congenial alacrity.

Asked about the internal dynamics of the City Council, Polimeni was circumspect. 

“The communications and collaboration could be better,” he said. 

But rifts have blown out into the open in recent years.

Perazzo, a former City Council president, endorsed Working Families candidate Damonni Farley in 2017, angering party brass in the process. 

“It was highly controversial and the party was very angry with me,” Perazzo said at a forum sponsored by the Schenectady NAACP on Tuesday. 

While campaigning, Perazzo quickly peeled off from the group and headed to Bellevue — Riggi territory. 

”I don't agree we're running as a team,” Perazzo said on Monday. “It was the first time we were out together all season."

MOOD OF THE PUBLIC

Aydinian said discussions with the electorate reveals a desire for change. 

“The sense is everything is one-sided,” he said. “People appreciate Vince, he’s outspoken - the last to know, but first to tell the people.”

Nally and Cerrone have those same characteristics, he said. 

Naylor expressed a sunnier outlook about the public mood. 

“They’re very upbeat about the city,” he said. “They want more things happening in the neighborhoods, which is what they’re trying to do.”

McCarthy is also running for re-election, but was nearly upset by a Democratic grassroots challenger in June’s primary, winning by 105 votes. 

Naylor said he didn’t think the results were a true representation of the electorate: 

Rainy weather paired with the compressed primary schedule depressed primary turnout, he said.

“Even though they really liked the mayor, they didn’t get out,” he said. “I think we’ll see a different reaction this time.”

The number of registered voters in the city is 22,958, according to the county Board of Elections: 15,311 Democrats compared to 4,839 Republicans.

Vote 2019: Your guide to Tuesday's elections

City Council candidates need to clear around 3,500 votes for a comfortable margin, Naylor said, and winning could be a matter of 400 to 500 votes.

Being part of a Democratic coalition that falls short of having everyone elected may yield results further down the road, he said, whether in another race or if an incumbent leaves office.

“If someone is fortunate, there could be appointments down the line if someone quits,” Naylor said. “Being positive and a team player still works really well for the candidates.”

City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico will also be on the ballot, running unopposed for the city judge seat being vacated by Judge Guido Loyola, who is retiring at the end of the year.

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