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Remembering our city's first female mayor

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Remembering our city's first female mayor

Karen Johnson takes over the reins in 1984
Karen Johnson takes over the reins in 1984

 

In November of 1983, Democrat Karen B. Johnson was elected mayor of Schenectady, the first female in the city's long history to serve in that office.

When she met with Schenectady's Corporation Counsel the next month, it was all Republican. We can all forgive lawyers for thinking they just might be the smartest person in the room. After four years of undergraduate study in college and usually three more in law school, they should know their stuff. And we're talking early 1980s when the Feminist Movement was for some, still defining itself. Yet, when the Radcliffe-educated Johnson entered a room, there wasn't a whole lot of "mansplaining" to do.

Bill Oliver was a young attorney in the city at the time, and the way he remembers it he might have been the only one who was a registered Democrat.

"I hadn't applied for the job, but she hired me by calling me at home on a Friday night, introducing herself as the mayor-elect, and saying that she would like me to accept that night so she could run a story in the Gazette the next day," said Oliver, who worked for Johnson for eight years and now has his own practice in New Hampshire. "I was so green I didn't know that the Republicans so controlled things before she was elected that all the other lawyers were Republican."

In those first few meetings, Johnson's intelligence became clearly evident to all those in the room, regardless of party affiliation. Along with the smarts she possessed, there was also a gentle, yet professional manner. And, there was no mistaking she was the boss.

"She was great to work with, very collegial and sharp," added Oliver. "She was also wickedly funny, and had a knack for hiring sharp people like Jim Kalohn and Kay Ackerman. I'm so sad to hear of her passing."

Before she passed away earlier this week at much too early an age, 77, Johnson had already been named a Schenectady Patroon two years ago, and earlier this year had the Schenectady County Public Library's main branch renamed in her honor. They were two fitting tributes for a woman who along with being mayor, served on both the city council and county legislature.

I wrote a number of stories using Johnson as a source, and even when the topic was painful, such as the elimination of jobs at the General Electric during her two terms, she was thoughtful and obliging.

"At a certain point, there was this feeling of inevitability about all the GE stuff," Johnson told me in September of 2017. "It was pretty discouraging. And over time, GE began taking a lot of tax-reduction actions against the city and Rotterdam. It got to the point where we realized that the city's argument was not going to stand up in court. When you realize you're not going to win, you better figure out what the next-best strategy is."

I could still hear the resignation in Johnson's voice. It certainly wasn't her fault that Jack Welch became GE's CEO and took the company in a different direction, but the 10,000 or so jobs that were eliminated during her time in office had taken a toll on her. She decided not to run for a third term, and talking to her that day in September two years ago it was clear she never regretted the decision.

Fortunately, Johnson will be remembered mostly for her positive impact on the city and county. She was one of the first female mayors of a major city in New York, a true pioneer and the kind of person we all could like and admire. I always looked forward to seeing her around downtown and enjoying a nice chat about Schenectady's history. She will be missed, but not forgotten.