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Foss: Schenectady's City Council loses valuable voice

Foss: Schenectady's City Council loses valuable voice

Foss: Schenectady's City Council loses valuable voice
Vince Riggi, right, campaigning on Eleventh Street in Bellevue with Legislature candidate Omar Sterling McGill last month
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

I often wonder why people put themselves through the grind of running for office. 

The petty political fights, the rigors of campaigning, the long hours in meetings -- it all sounds quite draining. But some people truly seem to thrive on public service, and bring great energy and passion to local politics. 

When I asked Vince Riggi, the maverick Schenectady city councilman who lost his seat Tuesday night, what he enjoyed about being on the City Council, he didn't hesitate. 

"Being able to help when people had city issues and didn't know who to talk to," Riggi told me. "I thought what people liked about me is that I was readily available." 

Indeed, responding to citizen complaints is one of the things Riggi is known for, and it's why his defeat came as such a shock.

His independence -- he is the only non-Democrat on the council -- appealed to voters who appreciated his willingness to challenge Mayor Gary McCarthy and ask questions that might otherwise have gone unasked. He played an important role on the council, and his defeat leaves a void, at least in the short-term. 

"I feel like I let my supporters down, but what could I have done differently?" Riggi said. "I don't know." 

He added, "I'm disappointed and shocked and disappointed." 

Riggi was the top vote-getter for the council four years ago, and was widely presumed to be a shoo-in for a third term. 

Instead, he finds himself facing a return to a quieter, less public life 

Sometimes incumbents lose because they get lazy, but that wasn't the case here: Riggi put up a lot of signs and knocked on a lot of doors. In the final days of the campaign, he pounded the pavement with Omar Sterling McGill, the Working Families Party candidate challenging Democrat Margaret King for the District 1 seat on the Schenectady County Legislature. 

That said, Riggi was essentially a one-man operation, running on the Conservative, Republican and Independence parties lines but without much in the way of formal party support. 

This put him at an organizational disadvantage to candidates backed by the Schenectady County Democratic Committee, a well-oiled, battle-tested machine that threw its support behind City Council candidates Leesa Perazzo, Carmel Patrick, John Polimeni and Ed Kosiur, all of whom won. 

This was a strong slate of candidates -- perhaps stronger than I initially gave it credit for. 

Still, most of the people I spoke with on Wednesday seemed surprised and even a little bit mystified by Riggi's loss.

Some wondered whether Riggi was hurt by his position on the ballot -- he was the fifth candidate listed, and one person told me they meant to vote for him but didn't notice his name until after he'd selected four other candidates. 

Ballot position might not seem like a big deal, but the research suggests it matters: Candidates listed first are more likely to win, especially in races where name recognition is lower. (Riggi was listed first four years ago.) 

Another theory is that the lack of a mayoral challenger on the ballot hurt Riggi.

Mayor Gary McCarthy ran unopposed, and voters who might have turned out had there been a credible opponent -- voters who might also have been inclined to support Riggi -- might have stayed home. 

Whatever the reason for Riggi's loss, it represents the last step in Schenectady's transformation into a true one-party town.

If you believe the City Council should act as a check on mayoral power, this isn't a healthy development, though perhaps new voices of dissent and independence will arise. Perhaps we'll see more fighting within the Democratic Party, and more primary contests. Riggi's ouster doesn't negate the need for a Riggi-like figure on the council. Maybe one will emerge. 

Riggi was elected to two terms, but he was a voice in Schenectady politics long before he joined the council: He was known for attending City Council meetings and speaking out about city issues. Some might dismiss him as a complainer or a crank, but those characterizations are unfair.  Riggi is quite sharp, with a keen grasp of how city government works and a desire to improve services for city residents. Most of his criticisms were valid, and remain so. 

Riggi is 73, and when I asked him what was in store -- will he return to his old gadfly role at City Council meetings? - he said he wasn't sure. 

"What the future holds, I don't know," said Riggi, who spent a good chunk of election night at the emergency room after his wife of 54 four years, Donna, broke her foot. "It's really too early in the game for me to make a decision." 

Whatever Riggi does next, he can be proud of his years of service. 

He held true to himself and his conscience, and that's not easy to do.  

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.    

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