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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 5, 2006

County democrats divided over vote for chairman

Albany County Party Enrollment Numbers

Total of all party enrollment in Albany County — 178,589

City of Albany 36,302 3,054
City of Cohoes 5,725 779
City of Watervliet 3,694 499
City of Green Island 1,091 109
Town of Colonie 15,202 19,461
Town of Guilderland 8,235 7,057
Town of Bethlehem 8,021 7,377
Town of New Scotland 2,116 1,782
Town of Coeymans 1,563 960
Town of Bern 1,008 350
Town of Knox 756 457
Town of Westerlo 1,160 397
Town of Rensselaerville 850 287
Albany County 85,723 42,869

These numbers reflect the current enrollment figures released by the Albany County Board of Elections to The Enterprise this week. Enrollment figures can vary from month to month, and a person can remain on the enrollment list up to four years without voting before being purged.

By Jarrett Carroll

ALBANY COUNTY — County Democrats are now deeply and bitterly divided.

Last Wednesday, Albany’s Frank Commisso beat Guilderland’s David Bosworth for the county chair, meaning urban Democrats will continue to lead to the disappointment of some suburban members.

Commisso was elected chairman by a 253–to-219 committeeperson vote. There are nearly 600 committee members in the county.

With over 600 people at the Polish Community Center in Albany, Betty Barnette who stepped down as chairperson, had committee members stand to vote rather than taking a roll-call or weighted vote.

A roll-call vote, where members individually walk to the front of the room and announce their choice, was asked for, but, in accordance with the county’s bylaws, one-third of committee members had to vote on its use. The measure was defeated by a handful of votes and Barnette called for a vote where members stand for their favored candidate.

Some party members are calling the procedure "undemocratic," recommending legal action, or calling for a re-vote.

And, although critics are saying a weighted vote would have accurately shown suburban dominance, figures from the Albany County Board of Elections show that the three cities, which vote as a block, have close to 46,000 enrolled Democrats, while the suburban and rural towns in the county combined have about 40,000 enrolled Democrats.

"Was it supposed to be one-third of committee members present, or one-third of all the committee members"" asked Dick Barrett, who represents a district in suburban Colonie. "The city Democrats deliberately inserted that one-third"It’s a bogus process used to keep people in power."

Barrett is a Democratic committee member representing the 41st Legislative District in the town of Colonie who wrote to The Enterprise this week with his concerns. (See letter to the editor.)

Commisso, 60, plans on retiring from his job at the Albany Port Authority to run the county’s party "24/7," he said. Bosworth, 58, said he wanted to manage the party in a more collaborative manner and that his slate was a reflection of that.

Although both Commisso and Bosworth publicly denied any urban and suburban rivalry, both men have stated that more needs to be done to unify county Democrats.

Now, some suburban Democrats are calling on their urban colleagues to look into the legalities of last Wednesday’s election.

"I was disappointed the process didn’t allow the weighted vote"There needs to be a mechanism to allow weighted voting," Bosworth said. "We’re having a difference of opinion."

Commisso told The Enterprise earlier that he wants to unify the party under his leadership.

Barrett disagrees.

"You don’t unite a party by stealing an election and then say, ‘Let us all come together,’" Barrett said. "Bosworth and those who ran have to be encouraged to go to the Supreme Court and appeal this," he said, referring to the lowest-level court in the state’s three-tiered system.

Voting problems were two-fold, Bosworth told The Enterprise this week. A standing vote was confusing, he said, because of the number of non-committee members walking around and the physical counting involved. Secondly, proxies were not allowed — only those present could vote.

Barnette also appointed nearly 30 unfilled committee member seats at the beginning of the meeting with members mostly from the city who voted for Commisso, said Barrett.

Proxies are similar to absentee ballots in that they allow committee members not present to have their vote counted. Some are calling on Commisso to reconvene the county committee and hold a re-vote on the chair position.

"The clearest path to remedy that would be fair to all Albany County Democrats is for Mr. Commisso to reconvene the county committee for the purpose of re-voting"," writes Donald Csaposs, who works for the town of Guilderland, in a letter to The Enterprise editor this week.

Commisso and Barnette did not return multiple calls to The Enterprise this week.

Constitutional qualms

When asked if he was looking to challenge the county vote in court, Bosworth responded by saying, "Lawyers are talking."

"There is a lot of the disagreement about the counting; it was a very quick process," said Bosworth. "I don’t want to seem like a sore loser, but I see some legitimate questions here"A number of people thought the weighted vote would be the measure for the county chair."

A weighted vote calculated by the county committee, it determines the number of enrolled party members from each party district proportionate to each committee member’s vote.

The Enterprise obtained numbers from the 2004 Albany County Democratic Committee vote for James Clancy over Karen A. Shea for Albany County Democratic commissioner.

In the first five wards of the city of Albany, 120 committee members represent 6,500 Democrats, but the same number of committee members in the town of Colonie represent 20,000 Democrats.

With the weighted vote, 43.2 percent of the vote comes from the cities and 56.8 percent of the vote comes from the towns.

Without a weighted vote, because Albany is broken up into wards along with legislative districts, the city gets more committee votes from members who represent fewer Democrats.

However, tabulating the enrollment numbers in a similar fashion, the cities of Albany, Cohoes, and Watervliet — which vote as a block in the committee — contain 45,721 enrolled Democrats compared to the rest of the county’s 40,002 enrolled Democrats.

The county’s cities contain nearly 6,000 more enrolled Democrats than the suburban and rural towns.

City Democrats have traditionally been at the helm of the county party, which is something, according to Barrett, that needs to change.

"The city leadership has always been in power," Barrett told The Enterprise. "People say, "What about Mike Burns"’ But Mike was a part of the city the whole time."

Burns lived in New Scotland but was an influential labor leader in Albany and chaired the party until his death in 2002; Barnette then became chairperson.

"What would people say if I told them, ‘My vote in the city counts as four votes from you town people,’" Barrett asked. "The Supreme Court is going to say, ‘No, that’s wrong.’"

Barrett cited the 1962 decision by the United States Supreme Court of Baker v. Carr, a case of equal protection and voting rights in the Tennessee Legislature. In a 6-to-2 ruling, the Supreme Court said that, because two-thirds of the state’s senate was elected by one-third of the state’s population, it was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In that case, more people lived in the cities and they were underrepresented in the legislature, while a smaller number lived in the county but had more representatives.

"We’re really elected officials," said Barrett. "All of those registered Democrats, we represent them."

Barrett contends that the exact opposite is happening in Albany County where the city Democrats are attempting to bring back the days of the "Democratic machine," reminiscent of politicians like Daniel O’Connell and Erastus Corning II.

"It’s obviously a throwback to the O’Connell and Corning days. They’re trying to turn the clock back," said Barrett. "When you control the chair, you control the attorney, you control the rules, you control the vote, and you control the direction of the county"We have to call their bluff."

Popular vote"

The crowded room of the Polish Community Center is where the votes were cast, as supporters of both Commisso and Bosworth filled the convention hall.

After Barnette made her decision to hold a standing vote, two people were dispatched to do the counting amidst the standing visitors and committee members.

"You had to stand for 15 or 20 minutes. It was quite a dynamic situation," said Bosworth. "It was a very tedious and difficult count."

Commisso told The Enterprise before the vote that, if he won, he would bring a strong leadership style to the chair, committing himself full-time to the position. He added that he will continue to work with the towns’ leaders and has constantly maintained a "good working relationship" with the towns.

Commisso is also an Albany ward leader and the county legislature’s majority leader. His legislative district encompasses Guilderland’s McKownville.

Bosworth said of the city contingent, referring to Barnette and Commisso, "I’m sure they were hopeful that they would win, they were close allies."

While Barnette chaired the county’s party, Commisso was the second vice chair on her slate.

"One person, one vote. That’s what the Supreme Court said," Barrett said. He added that previously, during Corning’s and O’Connell’s political reign, supervisors from each individual town were given only one vote at the county committee.

Each Hilltown, like Berne and Rensselaerville, and each suburban town, like Bethlehem and Guilderland, were given one vote, while the city of Albany had over 20 votes because of its wards.

Furthermore, Barrett contends, as city population declines and suburban population increases, a racial issue has begun to arise within the city Democrats.

"Forty percent of the city is African-American and Hispanic, and 25 percent of the city is impoverished. Generally, those people don’t vote. The mix in the city isn’t the kind it used to be," said Barrett. "Mayor Jerry Jennings has created a racial barrier.

"He has Betty Barnette, but she’s only window dressing. They don’t have proper representation," he said. "The city’s base is anchored in the more affluent white neighborhoods"People of color dominate the inner-city and the 15,000 University at Albany students are predominately white."

The college students, who are only usually active in presidential and gubernatorial elections said Barrett, coupled with Albany’s transient neighborhoods, create artificially inflated voter numbers in the city.

"There is no system for purging the enrollment lists. Transient neighborhoods are very hard to keep track of," said Barrett. "It’s hard to wrench power from people who have a vice grip on it."

The position of Albany County chair became effective immediately following the vote. With Commisso as chairman, his slate includes: Bruce Shultis as first vice chairman; Peter Cannon as second vice chairman; Robert D. Carlson as treasurer; and Carolyn McLaughlin as secretary.

Politicking from the pulpit

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Politicians answered questions from the pulpit on Tuesday night.

A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment, ARISE, made up of 38 area congregations and community groups, held its sixth annual public meeting, packing Christ the King Church in Guilderland. ARISE aimed to get politicians to commit themselves publicly to support six initiatives.

Selecting voting machines for Albany County was at the top of the agenda on Tuesday. Dennis Karius spoke on the importance of implementing a reliable voting system in Albany County that would comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.

He favors an optical-scan system; he likened it to the way SAT tests are graded. A voter fills out a paper ballot, which is submitted to a scanner that reads and records the vote and the paper remains as a hard copy that can then be hand-counted later.

Seventy percent of New York State counties will likely opt for the Direct Recording Electronic, DRE, machines, said Karius. Unlike most states, New York is leaving the choice of machines up to individual counties.

"Electronic equipment is really not appropriate for voting because it needs to be programmed," he said. The companies that sell the machines have their own political interests, and programming in the machines can easily be rigged.

"Analysis of the machine, in light of real election procedures, shows that it is vulnerable to extremely serious attacks," according to a recent Princeton University study. "For example, an attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates," the study said.

A more long-term issue was second on the list; with big construction projects like the Albany convention center and rebuilding the Harriman office complex coming to the region, ARISE wants to ensure that low-income people in the region will get the job training necessary to work on those projects. Tom McPheeters, who spoke on the issue, asked that the state fund the job-training program.

"Don’t you think the Empire State could do that"" he asked.

In the same vein, ARISE president, Dick Dana, addressed the Tech Valley initiative and the jobs it will bring in his opening statement. He cited Austin, Texas, and the Silicon Valley in California as two examples of high tech industry gone wrong. In both of those places, he said, when the new jobs came, they went to people from out of the area who moved in, adding development pressure to the suburbs and further widening the gap between rich and poor.

Dana hopes to see a "pipeline" between local schools and job training centers to jobs in Tech Valley. "The jobs are going to be there, why not prepare our kids for them"" he asked.

The Liberty Partnership Program, LPP, supports kids who are at risk of dropping out of middle or high school. LPP reported a 97 percent graduation rate, with 84 percent of those kids going on to college, Paula Simpson said during her presentation, the third on the agenda. She wants an increase in funds from $12 million to $19 million so that the program can expand past Schenectady and Albany to Troy, Lansingburgh, and Cohoes.

"This is a program we should be investing in," said Dana. "This could be a pipeline."

For the fourth item, Deborah Dewey called for a New York State housing summit. The University at Albany has identified 840 abandoned buildings in Albany, she said. She asked candidates to commit to holding a housing summit before February of 2007, to developing a 10-year strategic plan for housing, and to sponsoring a regional compact bill to offer incentives for cities and suburbs to work together on housing issues.

Most of the candidates present — echoing the words of John McEneny, a Democratic state assemblyman who spoke first — said that the idea was good but the time line was unrealistic. Peter Lavenia, though, who was representing the Green party, asked that people remember all that Franklin Delano Roosevelt got done in his first 100 days in office. "A housing summit in 30 days is not unrealistic," he said.

ARISE has been pushing for the fifth issue on the list for years, a reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, which impose stiff penalties for small-time dealers. But Dana said on Wednesday that, even though it was on the agenda, drug-law reform is not considered one of the more pressing issues this year since the legislature hasn’t shown much support for it.

"The political winds right now just aren’t blowing in that direction," he said. Albany County’s district attorney, David Soares, has been very supportive of the reforms though, Dana said.

On Tuesday night, when asked for his continued support Soares said, "On this, you have my word."

The last issue on the list is one of the newest task forces that ARISE has put together, Dana said; it’s also the first federal issue that the group will take on.

"Immigration is a humanitarian crisis," said Lucia Gutierrez. She asked politicians to support legislation that provides a clear path to citizenship for immigrants and to oppose punitive legislation for immigrants.

In the six years that ARISE has been holding an annual public meeting, Dana said that this year had the biggest turnout of politicians, although earlier years have yielded a higher head count of citizens than this year’s 350. While he was pleased with the overall event, when asked if he was satisfied with the politicians’ responses, Dana said, "We’re never satisfied."

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