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On the campaign trail with Schenectady candidates, quality-of-life issues dominate

On the campaign trail with Schenectady candidates, quality-of-life issues dominate

Going door to door and talking to constituents
On the campaign trail with Schenectady candidates, quality-of-life issues dominate
Schenectady County Legislature candidate Omar Sterling McGill and Schenectady Councilman Vincent Riggi campaign in Bellevue.
Photographer: Peter Barber/Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — Officials seeking re-election have checked in regularly at William Zagata’s Central Parkway home over the years.

Each time, they ask how they can help. And each time, he tells them about the cotton tree on city-owned land that regularly casts dead limbs down onto his roof. 

“Every time candidates come around, they constantly say they’ll look into it,” Zagata said.

Recently, a 10-foot-long branch fell and landed next to a piece of backyard playground equipment. 

“Now I’m getting concerned,” Zagata told the City Council on Monday.

Vote 2019: Your guide to Tuesday's elections

While politics at the national level is a virulent vortex of political “whataboutism” fueled by partisan rancor, city voters simply want their local government to provide basic government services while keeping the empty promises to a minimum. 

“The little things,” said Woodlawn resident Sally Newton. “Roads, potholes.”

Newton told a clump of city lawmakers who materialized on her doorstep that she was pleased with how things were going in the city.

PETE DEMOLA
City resident Sally Newton chats with Mayor Gary McCarthy, City Council candidate Carmel Patrick, Councilman John Polimeni and City Council President Ed Kosiur on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.PETE DEMOLA/GAZETTE REPORTER
City resident Sally Newton chats with Mayor Gary McCarthy, City Council candidate Carmel Patrick, Councilman John Polimeni and City Council President Ed Kosiur on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

But escalating property taxes pose a perennial threat, particularly for senior citizens on fixed incomes. 

“It really does make a difference the older you get,” Newton said.

Across the city, Leola Sykes lives next door to a vacant house that burned down last month.

She said she reported intrusions by drug addicts for 18 months.

While her home was spared, the early-morning blaze terrified her family and melted the plastic on the home on the other side. 

Sykes scoffed at the city’s decision to deploy solar-powered devices in vacant structures to monitor them for squatters.

“Hire more people on the force to walk the beat like they used to,” she said. 

DEMOCRATIC PACK

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

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.

Mayor Gary McCarthy is running unopposed for a third four-year term, and City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico is running in an uncontested race for the city judge seat being vacated by Judge Guido Loyola.

The Democratic bloc canvassed in Woodlawn the morning after hammering together a budget deal that contained a 1.5-percent property tax cut and increased funding for the work crews that maintain city-owned property and parks.

Lawmakers also socked away an additional $2 million into the mayor’s Smart Cities initiative, which is designed to use technology to make government more responsive, from using apps to track snow plows routes and pothole locations to the aforementioned detection devices. 

“People are supportive and are impressed with the turnaround in the community,” McCarthy said. “The expectations in the community are changing. People didn’t think we could solve problems.”

Polimeni agreed quality-of-life issues remain a chief concern for constituents. 

“People are expecting better and more,” Polimeni said.

In previous years, the idea of property tax cuts wasn’t even an option, McCarthy said. 

And while downtown is now surging, it took 12 years of a sustained and coordinated effort to get to that point. 

McCarthy envisions a similar timeframe will be needed course-correct issues in the city’s neighborhoods, including wrangling city-owned distressed property into control.

The team moved with precision through Woodlawn on a golden autumn morning, banging on doors and trying to catch the attention of voters engaged in weekend pursuits.

Kosiur acknowledged the group was formidable.

“You don’t want 15 people on your doorstep — it’s overwhelming,” he said. “You have to be careful not to overwhelm individuals when you’re going door-to-door.” 

Many weren’t home. But those who were and were willing to talk peppered the group with questions over hiccups in the services underpinning daily life: 

A property with a raccoon problem, a lack of clarity on trash services — phalanxes of adolescent bicyclists harassing motorists. 

“Don’t hesitate to call the police,” McCarthy told a resident. “We index those and piece them together.”

Vote 2019: Your guide to Tuesday's elections

Lead-footed motorists remain a chronic problem, from Mont Pleasant to Woodlawn. 

Kosiur told a man in a pick-up truck next year’s budget will allow for the purchase of 32 traffic speed sign cameras equipped with license plate readers.

The City Council president, himself a Woodlawn resident, said one of his top concerns is ensuring the city’s neighborhoods remain owner-occupied as the population ages. 

“We’ve got to keep a strong neighborhood strong,” he said. 

The group marched along before Perazzo peeled away to drum up support in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood.

“I’m having a good time,” she said. “It’s nice to meet people and talk to people.”

CROSSING PARTY LINES

Riggi fell into an animated discussion with a 12th Street resident about the condition of city streets.

“I’ve been trying to put the street on the paving schedule,” Riggi said. “There are more patches than road.”

The minority leader wasn’t traveling with a large retinue, but rather with Omar McGill, who is challenging incumbent county Legislator Peggy King for a District 1 seat. 

“I’m working across party lines, as you can see,” Riggi said. 

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Schenectady County Legislature candidate Omar Sterling McGill approaches Matt March on Eleventh Street in Bellevue Wednesday, October 23, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Schenectady County Legislature candidate Omar Sterling McGill approaches Matt March on Eleventh Street in Bellevue Wednesday, October 23, 2019.

Both McGill and King are Democrats, but McGill is running on the Working Families Party line after failing to secure the city Democratic Committee’s nomination this summer.

“This is a good man,” Riggi told Elaine Pickett. “That’s why I’m going door-to-door with him.”

Pickett said Riggi has been responsive to quality-of-life issues in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood, including linking her up with the city Police Department’s community engagement staff to snuff out a brewing problem. 

“He supports the whole neighborhood,” Pickett said. “We love him.”

At another house, a woman banged on a window and told her son to come say hello.

“I think he’s for the people, and I would trust him with my life,” said Patricia Lazzari.

Riggi agreed quality-of-life issues dominate interactions with voters. 

“Potholes, road conditions, maintenance and sidewalks,” he said.

Riggi has long said the city needs more “boots on the ground” when it comes to staffing levels. 

“Are you getting the most bang for your buck?” Riggi asked voters at a forum last week. “I don’t believe we are, and our workforce has been decimated.” 

But Kosiur is more skeptical, noting the city is having trouble attracting workers who will work for $12 an hour.

“We have money in line items not being utilized because we can’t get people to work for that amount of money,” he said.

And Perazzo has said the city is sitting on too much savings and should redistribute some of that $20 million back to taxpayers. 

Riggi also believes the city needs to focus more on job creation for its own residents, even if means boosting spending.

McGill wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with an image of the ballot.  

“Vote for McGrill in the middle,” it said, a red circle enclosing his name located dead-center in the ballot.

“We’re getting a lot of good response,” McGill said. “The word is out — people really want to see a change.” 

McGill cast a ballot with his 91-year-old grandmother earlier that morning, the first day of early voting.

“For her to vote for her grandson, it was very important for her,” he said.

King spent the morning making the rounds on Glenwood Boulevard with help from incumbent District 1 legislators Richard Ruzzo and Richard Patierne. 

She went to each door, offered a brief introduction of her background — which included a 16-year stint on the City Council — before asking for their consideration.

At one point, the group ran into Working Families Party members canvassing for McGill moving in the opposite direction. 

The group exchanged awkward small talk before departing. 

Like her colleagues running for City Council seats, King got an earful about speeding motorists.

“I’ve been hit twice and it took the front end of my car off,” said Kate Clifford. 

Motorists often can hit 60 miles per hour by the time they reach the intersection of Glenwood Boulevard and The Plaza, she said. 

“I’ve called everyone I can think of,” Clifford said.

THE NEWCOMERS

Patrick has been beating down the pavement since entering the race — literally.

“We’re both on our second pair of sneakers,” she said while knocking on a door with Polimeni.

Patrick, who works as vice president of development at miSci, said she’s learned a lot about the city while campaigning, including details on the city’s paving schedules, potholes and the city’s new sidewalk program that allows homeowners to circulate petitions for repairs.

Drugs and blight have topped lists of voter concerns, she said.

“We’ve heard positive comments about the presence of the police,” Patrick said. “They see sincerity in fixing these issues.”

Moments later on Rugby Road, Cerrone glanced at a list of voters with Robert “Bar” Porter and Bella, a seven-year-old epileptic chihuahua.

“People remember her, but don’t remember me,” Cerrone said. 

Like her opponents, the candidate said the morning was slow-going, but did contain memorable conversations with voters.

“Do you want me to go through my spiel?” she asked a voter.

The spiel includes 23 years working as a budget manager for the Albany County Airport Authority, serving as president of the 12309 Neighborhood Association, and volunteer work with numerous charitable and veterans groups. 

Cerrone agreed the city needs to do more to revitalize neighborhoods and boost staffing levels for city workers. 

“The neighborhoods are being neglected,” she said. 

Democrats hold a 3-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans in the city, and Cerrone acknowledges that can present institutional roadblocks. 

Cerrone was displeased the decision by several neighborhood associations to host candidates from opposing parties at different events. 

“Being a city of diversity, why would they separate us?” she said. 

Nally, her running mate and fellow Republican, said he hadn’t had a chance to do much door-to-door campaigning, but told a reporter he would learn more about him by visiting his renovation projects in the city’s Goose Hill neighborhood. 

“They say more about me than you will learn knocking on doors,” Nally said.

The CFO of Good Clean Living, a property management company, is in the midst of carving out his own renaissance one block at a time.

“I’m running because I want to try to have an impact on rebuilding Schenectady,” Nally said. 

The locus of this movement is the corner of Avenue A and Mason Street, where he has renovated several buildings, including his company’s offices and rental units for single women and the temporarily homeless. 

His next project is renovating a former pharmacy into a hair salon, which he and his wife will co-operate.

The Burnt Hills native, who is 26, moved to the neighborhood five years ago and started purchasing distressed properties, including trap houses and the pharmacy, which was long-vacant and filled with pigeons. 

“This place was the center of negativity on the block,” he said.

Nally stood outside on a rainy Sunday afternoon and seemed to know everyone, issuing good-natured comments of positive affirmation to each passerby.

To a man carrying a bag of vegetables: “Wow! Those are some giant collard greens!”

Another passerby wandered over and asked when the salon will open. 

“I told [my girlfriend] it was a hair salon and she did a jig,” he said, noting she had to go across town for hair appointments.

If elected, Nally envisions leveraging his experience in neighborhood revitalization to help link people with programming that will allow them to do the same. 

For now, he’s just trying to lead by example.

He is also guided by faith. A clapboard sign outside of the salon offers a quote from Jeremiah 29:7, a passage detailing when a group of people were exiled to a ruined city.

Over time, they eventually transformed the place, which ultimately thrived. 

Nally said the passage reminds him of Schenectady’s long road back.

“It’s in the context of a desolate and dark city,” he said. “This is the heartbeat of trying to take the city back one block at a time.”

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