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September 30, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

UPDATE: There's a great discussion of this issue going on at the RFK site, lots of hollering and lots of talk about suing. Click here to see.

September 30 , 2006

Party Chairman Commisso

A powerful backroom politician comes out of the shadows

The Wife and I are Democratic Party Committee persons. Supposedly this means that we represent a part of our immediate neighborhood to the local Democratic Party. Other than that it doesn’t mean much of anything to anybody.

So why do we do it? Mostly to keep an eye on the neighborhood voting stations during election time. But also we are committee persons so that we can attend Democratic Party functions and keep an eye on the politicians.

At the recent Albany All-County Democratic Party meeting at the Polish Community Center out on Washington Avenue Extension in the Pine Bush, I watched Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings make the rounds among the 600 or so committee persons before the meeting started. Most everyone was standing and circulating, committee persons, politicians and corporate media content providers. There was lots of buzz, lots of anticipation.

County Chair Frank Commisso Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings
Chairman Commisso The Mayor
A practical but tenuous alliance keeps them in control

Watching a guy like The Mayor work a crowd is sort of like watching a pinball bounce off the bumpers as it moves down the table. I wondered if he would make a wide bounce around me and The Wife. After all, she has twice led succesful efforts to stop his dump from expanding, and is currently leading a third. And I’ve been known to say uncomplimentary things about him on this blog. But no, he zigzagged through the crowd toward us to score ten points.

He stopped suddenly in front of us, leaned back and spread his arms in a gesture that I could best describe as expansive mock apprehension. “Uh-oh,” he proclaimed, “At least it doesn’t stink like garbage in here.” We laughed, shook hands and he moved on. He knows better than to let The Wife start talking.

A moment later I watched The Mayor plant a kiss on the cheek of Fourth Ward Common Council member Barbara Smith, who is definitely not his political ally. He stopped kissing The Wife’s cheek a while ago.

What was it like to attend that All-County Party meeting the other day? Try this experiment at home. Don’t flush your toilet for an entire day, but use it frequently. Just before bedtime, get down on your knees and stick your head in the bowl as far as it will go, and agitate. The meeting made me feel filthier than that.

Without going into tedious details, what happened is that the Big Old Boys got together to pull a really slimy trick and managed to cling to control of the County Party. Immediately there was talk of a lawsuit and of public displays of defiance, but what good would that do? We’ll see what transpires in the next few weeks, but I suspect nothing will happen. For now.

What happened that night is that Mayor Jennings had made an alliance with Frank Commisso. As a result, Commisso has become the new Chairman (person?) of the Albany County Democratic Party. These two are the biggest personal power centers in the Party. Apparently they have come to an understanding, an alliance based on mutual interest. As long as they maintain their agreement, there is every reason to believe that they will hang on to power and freeze out their mutual enemies, The Breslin Brothers, Mike and Neil.

We all know more than enough about Jennings, but Frank Commisso... ah, Commisso. Not as flashy as Jennings and not at all used to daylight, Commisso is every bit as powerful.

He is not merely an Albany County legislator, he is the Majority Leader, a very powerful post. He is not merely the Ward Leader of the Fifteenth Ward (which includes the Pine Bush) he is the effective dictator of the Ward, having installed over the years a series of Fifteenth Ward Common Council members who are nonentities that he easily controls. Sort of the Dick Cheney of the Fifteenth.

Now he can add Party Chairman of a split Democratic Party to this impressive resume.

About halfway through the meeting a decisive procedural maneuver got approved on technical grounds. Immediately both Jennings from the front of the hall and Commisso from the back began working their ways along the center aisle taking congratulations, both smiling radiantly. The voting for chairman had not even begun, but everybody knew it was all over.

Then came a revealing moment that went almost unnoticed. Jennings and Commisso, each surrounded by a glad-handing circle of admirers, met each other in the aisle. For a moment the circles merged, and Jennings leaned over to whisper something brief into Commisso’s ear.

Neither man smiled. In fact, Commisso looked irritated. He gave a quick nod and the circles moved apart. Both men went back to happily receiving admiration. Separately.

Make no mistake about it, Frank Commisso is not controlled by anyone. His predecessor as Party Chairman, Betty Barnette was widely seen (quite correctly) as an obedient appendage of Jerry Jennings. Barnette and Jennings were wildly unpopular outside the City, having managed over the past few years to alienate large sections of the County Party and spawn rebellion among the committee persons. Having become politically isolated, Barnette knew better than to try for re-election.

In a sense this is a comedown for Jennings. True, Commisso could not have eked out his win without Jenning’s support. His winning slate of candidates included Second Ward Common Council member Carolyn McLaughlin as secretary, sort of the tail end job. But, as Carolyn is fond of saying, it’s a seat at the table.

Carolyn is a close ally of Jennings, so she will now function as Jennings’ conduit to the Party leadership. The corporate media called her “diversity” because she is a) black and b) female. I guess that is part of her job, to provide “diversity.” The rest of Commisso’s slate consisted of old timers like Bruce Shultis as First Vice Chair, who represents short fat balding white guys everywhere.

More important than her appearance, Carolyn brought in key votes in a close race, probably the winning factor. You see, we voted in the auditorium by standing, which allowed everybody to see who voted for what and for whom. I gazed with amazement and grudging admiration as Carolyn’s 20 or so Second Ward committee people stood or sat at her command. (I’m in the First Ward, we sat in the back row right behind them.) In the close vote, Carolyn’s committee people were responsible for Commisso’s win.

Commisso’s rival for Party Chairman was Dave Bosworth, who recently led the Town of Guilderland Democratic Party to electoral success. His more “diverse” slate included Common Council President Shawn Morris, recently graduated from the Seventh Ward, and Barbara Smith, who is newly elected to the Fourth. But neither Shawn nor Barbara control their committees like Carolyn does hers. Most of their people stood for Commisso.

The majority of my own First Ward voted for Commisso. I asked a fellow committee member, a guy who I knew had no ties or axes to grind, why he voted the way he did. “Frank’s been in there a long time,” he told me. “I don’t know this guy Bosworth, who he is or if he can do a good job. I just think that the guy who knows the job can do it best.”

Really, it all came down to familiarity. That was the edge that gave Commisso the job, not the “City versus suburbs” crapola blathered by the corporate media. Indeed, both slates included members from both the City and the suburbs. As for Commisso, he lives in the Fifteenth Ward, which geographically is a panhandle inserted into the suburbs. He may reside inside the city limits, but he definitely does not represent the needs and interests of downtown Albany.

After the voting, Commisso gave a standard acceptance speech, in which he took pains to say that he would “be inclusive” and “form committees that would represent all factions.” Almost half the auditorium sat sullen, unimpressed.

Chairman Commisso is indeed a local master of political manipulation, as was stunningly demonstrated at the Polish Club meeting. I have no doubt that he can continue to outmaneuver his rivals and retain control of The Party for as long as he wants to. As we can see, even Jennings has learned to never turn his back on this guy.

But the new Chairman is not accustomed to declaiming on the stage, he is used to directing the show from behind the curtains. He is now going to be scrutinized in a way that he has never experienced before. And quite a few of the people monitoring him from up close are going to be hostile.

Once upon a time, the position Chairman of the Albany County Democratic Party was indeed a job that operated in the shadows, but not any more. Betty Barnette found this out the hard way. Nothing has changed, if anything the resentments among committee persons have deepened.

Starting immediately, the new Chairman is going to have to factor public exposure into his political calculations. He’d better learn how to do that fast. Can the Old Boy learn new tricks?

I strongly suspect that Commisso believes that he can move the job of Chairman back into the shadows. If he does think that, then he is going to become rudely distressed. Just like his predecessor.

Jerry Jennings could give him some acting lessons. But judging by that quick exchange in the aisle at the Polish Club, I don’t think Commisso has any intention of taking advice from The Mayor, or anyone else for that matter. A new job does not automatically confer a new personality.

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