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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.

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June 25, 2015

Two Dans For County Executive

Plus a third Dan in the race, and a discussion of some well known political words

I’m the first to admit that I don’t keep a close watch on the government of Albany County. But despite not paying attention, my gaze keeps getting drawn in that direction so that I often surprise myself with how much I know about the County. And there’s nothing like a loudly contested election to draw everybody’s reluctant interest along with mine.

It’s the Democratic Primary in September that we’re talking about of course. All the County offices are up for election but the big race is for County Executive. One term incumbent Dan McCoy, a former County legislator, is being challenged by former City of Albany School Board President Dan Egan. For a lot of people this is a tough call, that is, for those of us voters who don’t hold grudges or have a specific axe to grind over the personalities and associations of the two candidates.

 Albany County Executive Dan McCoy And Former City Of Albany School Board President Dan Egan
Albany County Executive Dan McCoy And Former City Of Albany School Board President Dan Egan

The very interesting thing about this race is that it reflects a growing trend across the country, the movement of acceptable political discourse away from the corporatist radical right and closer to the political center where most Americans reside. Of course this is Albany, NY, not Lower Wifebeater, Texas. A strong majority of voters in Albany County have no use for the inhuman corporate centralism espoused by the rad righties in such places, most of us take it as a given that the function of government is to serve the people of the community.

Thus we are seeing both the incumbent and the challenger falling all over each other insisting that each is more Progressive than the other. A glance at Mr. McCoy’s campaign website has an entire section called Progress, on which the very first line is “Innovative approaches through smart and progressive management.” Indeed his campaign slogan on the home page is “Progress. Together.” In a recent press release he pointed to his “incredible progressive record.”

Mr. Egan also uses the word “progressive” a lot, he uses the phrase “Lifelong Progressive” prominently, so as to counter the incumbent’s claim on progress. In his official announcement, he promised to deliver “progressive leadership.” In one of his first TV interviews he declared outright that he is the more progressive candidate. On Facebook he wrote “Albany County needs real, progressive, professional leadership, and needs it now.”

Dan McCoy Announcing His Run For Reelection

Dan McCoy Announcing His Run For Reelection

Just what does this word mean? We all know it’s not the same as the old fashioned notion of Progress, or Progressivism, that “advancement in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to improve the human condition” (Wikipedia.) However the word does indeed derive from that once dominant idea, a philosophy developed in the 17th and 18th centuries that replaced a more restrictive religious basis for Western civilization.

Back in the late 20th Century (like when I was a kid) “Progress” as a notion had become a propaganda tool of “The Establishment,” that is, The Authorities who dictated policies that all the rest of us were supposed to accept without question. For many of us this amounted to helplessly watching the filthy tide of uncontrolled sprawl advance around our homes, destroying the landscape beyond repair and failing to establish a sustainable urban infrastructure in its place. The resigned phrase “You Can’t Fight City Hall” was the widespread justification for passive acceptance of this degradation.

These days most people assume that Progressive is a substitute for the word Liberal, a word which back in the 1980s was subject to a very successful campaign by the corporate media to attach a negative connotation. Liberalism is the basis upon which the American Revolution was fought, therefore Liberalism is the foundation upon which this country and this empire rests. The still ongoing campaign to vilify Liberalism is basically a campaign to undermine American sovereignty and freedom, the destruction of which is at the core of the corporate political agenda.

Dan Egan Announces His Run For County Executive

Dan Egan Announces His Run For County Executive

The best definition of the two words I can find is that “Liberalism is a set of ideals grounded in the social contract (rule by consent of the governed for mutual benefit),” while “Progressivism is a problem solving method.” The self-identified Liberal site Politicus USA Points out (perhaps not the best example):

The progressive method is not an ideology but a pragmatic search for solutions that work, grounded in a healthy skepticism. Thus, for example, Prohibition was a progressive project and was based on the social science of that era, but “The Great Experiment” of Prohibition failed in practice and progressives also worked for its repeal. The 20th century can reasonably be summarized as the rise and spread of the progressive method.

And indeed the search for pragmatic solutions is what this campaign is all about. Incumbent Dan McCoy is basically saying, Look at all the progress I’ve made these last four years identifying and solving problems. And challenger Dan Egan is telling us, A lot of problems are not being solved properly and progress can be implemented much faster than it has been. So the argument over which candidate is more progressive is all about who is the more competent and effective public servant.

Dan McCoy At The Vigil for The Lac Magnetic Bomb Train Victims On South Pearl Street Last Year

Dan McCoy At The Vigil for The Lac Magnetic Bomb Train Victims On South Pearl Street Last Year

Leaving aside all other issues, the big thing l have liked about Mr. McCoy is his direct interest in the South End of Albany where I live. The incumbent grew up here on Second Avenue and has taken a strong interest in his old neighborhood. This is not a small thing for those of us who live here, all too many elected officials have either ignored us or coasted along making no attempt to deal with our multitude of problems.

For example, he jumped right into the community effort to revive Giffen Public School at the bottom of Morton Avenue, which was deliberately and horribly degraded by past City governments. His effort to regulate the Bomb Trains that carry Bakken crude oil, calling for basic accountability by Global Corporation down at the Port of Albany, has been very politically risky. He was very central to the negotiations to bring the first community college to Albany County, which is located here in my neighborhood on Warren Street.

As for the challenger, the big thing I have liked about Dan Egan has been his enthusiastic advocacy for Albany public schools during his six years on the school board, which includes 3 years as president and one as vice president. Along with that has been his unyielding opposition to the scam operation known as “charter” schools, even back when opposing charters was considered very politically incorrect by the corporate media. This principled stand has served him well as the pendulum of public opinion has swung away from approval of this corrupt and wasteful privatization of public schools.

Dan Egan At A Rally To Oppose The Bomb Trains This Past May

Dan Egan At A Rally To Oppose The Bomb Trains This Past May

Despite the Albany public schools losing millions in State aid since the end of the last decade, and despite the constant enforced skimming of local school taxes to line the pockets of charter school operators, under Mr. Egan’s watch the district did not close any elementary schools and managed to balance the budget consistently. Most impressively, Mr. Egan managed to successfully negotiate with the unions to freeze wages temporarily and to reduce positions without a knockdown battle. That is something the last two County Executives ought to admire, although admittedly the public school system and the County are much different entities.

The issue of unions in County government is centered around the Albany County Nursing Home. In the last half-decade some 15 Counties in NY State have closed their nursing homes, yet somehow the Albany County facility has remained open while managing to balance the books and renovate the facility in which it is located. And despite being forced to make concessions, the workers of the nursing home have stayed unionized and thus remain professional and decently compensated.

The problem is that nursing homes are expensive to run. This cost problem has little to do with union contracts and everything to do with bloated healthcare bureaucracies that are making all health facilities expensive to run. Rich folks can afford to pay for fancy facilities for their discarded elderly or disabled family members or to hire live in care for them. But for a lot of poor and working class folks the County-run nursing home is their only option, if it didn’t exist then most of these folks would be neglected or die on the street.

Albany County Residential Health Care Facility

Albany County Residential Health Care Facility

Mr. McCoy’s predecessor as County Executive, Mike Breslin, tried to simply shut down the nursing home and ostensibly replace it with home visits by nursing practitioners. But the Legislature fought him every inch of the way, partly because of the unending need for the facility but mainly because if the facility closed then about 450 workers would be unemployed. Mr. Breslin then became entangled in a constant battle with the Legislature over closing the facility, he finally left office branded as an unsuccessful union buster and job destroyer.

In the last two years of Mr. Breslin’s time in office, Dan McCoy was a rising young star legislator who opposed closing the nursing home, and he ran for the executive job effectively unopposed. Upon attaining office he almost immediately tried to privatize the nursing home, a potential disaster that thankfully was shot down by the Legislature. Eventually a solution of sorts was worked out, where the management and some of the functions of the facility were privatized but the staff remained intact and unionized without substantial cuts in benefits.

Despite having ultimately solved the problem, Mr. McCoy’s initial attempt at total privatization left a bad taste in a lot of mouths and continues to be seen by many as a betrayal. To his credit, under his administration Albany County is financially healthy and delivering essential services at a time when most Counties in NY State are struggling to stay alive. But as the long nursing home battle made clear, Albany County’s successful management ultimately derives from having a large, diverse and thus powerful Legislature that can challenge the executive.

Albany County Legislature In Session

Albany County Legislature In Session

Which is why I am terribly baffled by the ongoing efforts to reduce the size of the County Legislature and reduce representation by the voters. Despite the obvious advantages of having a large Legislature that emerged in the nursing home fight, the County power brokers want less opposition to their decrees. Dan McCoy is on record fully supporting reduction of representation, while challenger Dan Egan ignored my inquiry as to whether or not he supports reducing voter representation, which I take as an ominous sign.

An important detail that can’t be passed over is that much of the power of the Legislature is centered on the majority leader, Democrat Frank Commisso Sr. (his son Frank Jr. is an elected member of the City of Albany Common Council, which often causes confusion.) Mr. Commisso Sr., who runs an airtight political machine in the City’s westernmost 15th Ward, derives much of his power on the Legislature from a dedicated advocacy of union issues and concerns. His political style is a complete throwback to the dying machine era, but his strong representation of union interests has lately made him appear downright progressive.

Four years ago Mr. McCoy was unchallenged in the executive race because of strong union support, and thus received Mr. Commisso Sr.’s blessing. The thinking, as I understand it, was to pry Mr. Breslin out of the job and put in somebody who would preserve the union jobs at the nursing home. But that almost backfired, and now Mr. McCoy no longer enjoys Mr. Commisso Sr.’s support.

Majority Leader Frank Commisso Sr. At The County Legislature

Majority Leader Frank Commisso Sr. At The County Legislature

However... Mr. Commisso Sr. and indeed many of the Democratic Legislators who are disenchanted with Mr. McCoy are not coming out publicly for Mr. Egan, at least not yet. Some of these folks are waiting until the end of petitioning, which is going on right now until early July, to declare their support for Mr. Egan. (These petitions, for those who don’t know the process, are a requirement for running for public office. The candidate has to demonstrate with the petitions that enough voters wish to see that candidate on the ballot, usually five percent of the voters.)

The problem, as one Legislator who wishes to remain anonymous told me, is that his/her fellow Legislators “Don’t see much of a campaign from Egan.” The incumbent started this campaign with over three quarters of a million dollars and an impressive list of endorsements from other elected officials. Meanwhile Mr. Egan, who started with almost no money, has been running mostly on social media and, interestingly, some good exposure in the local corporate media.

It looks like most of the support for Mr. Egan on the Legislature comes not from love of the man and his positions, which are not terribly different from the incumbent’s, but from the fact that he is not Mr. McCoy. I asked that same anonymous Legislator, “Would it be correct to say that Frank Commisso Sr. would nominally support a chimpanzee if it was the only challenger circulating petitions?” The reply from that Legislator was simply, “Yes that would be correct.”

Recent Postal Mailing From Dan Egan, Arrived Father’s Day Weekend

Recent Postal Mailing From Dan Egan, Arrived Father’s Day Weekend

But right now Mr. Egan appears to be gaining ground. Since I’m a “frequent voter” in primaries, I received one of those big cardboard mailings from Mr. Egan’s campaign, rather unusual to get one during petitioning. And the other day rising political star Zephyr Teachout, who last year ran a losing but highly influential challenge to governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic Primary, has descended upon Albany to endorse Mr. Egan. We’ll see if more endorsements follow soon.

Of course the September Democratic Primary is not the final election, the winner has to face minor party candidates in November. I understand that the irresponsible obstructionist radical corporatist Republican Party has several of it’s supporters circulating petitions, so it looks like on of those people will get on the ballot. But so far most voters are unaware that there is a third Dan planning to run in this County executive race in November.

The Green Party made it clear early on that one way or another they intended to field a candidate in this race and make their presence known. Throughout the month of May party activists trolled around looking for a candidate to run. One of those potential candidates that they asked was The Wife, who was quite flattered but outright declared, “I have no time for a campaign that I cannot win.”

Dan Plaat, Green Party Candidate For Albany County Executive

Dan Plaat, Green Party Candidate For Albany County Executive

What the Green Party really needed was someone young, enthusiastic and imbued with a point of view that makes the two big Democrats look like old school conservatives. That candidate is Dan Plaat, an alumni of the Occupy Movement and lifelong Albany resident. He is currently 26 years old and running his first campaign, going for a top executive office to start his political career.

One thing did puzzle me about Mr. Plaat’s association with the Green Party. He has always described himself to me as a Libertarian, a word which has been appropriated by the corporate media (and thus the public consciousness) to mean radical corporatism, or in other words, supporting the rights of corporations at the expense of human beings. In past conversations with him I’ve noted that Mr. Plaat has always been very uncomfortable with that definition of the word.

Peter LaVenia, who is a member of the Green Party Executive Committee, explained to me that there is no contradiction in his party’s sponsorship of Mr. Plaat’s campaign:

Left-wing libertarianism has a long history with direct-democracy movements around the world, and you can often see it applied to many who describe themselves as grassroots democrats, anarchists, socialists, or a host of other disparate ideas. What they have in common is that they promote democratic power over that of a bureaucracy, and that unlike their right-wing colleagues are able to see that businesses are in league with the government in controlling government power and expanding their reach into our lives. Left-wing libertarian solutions are not to worship a fiction like the "free market" but to promote democratic control over government, the economy, and our daily lives.

Okay. sure, but it seems to me that the problem with all these terms, Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian and Conservative is that all of us have been trained to try and jam them into that meaningless Left/Right spectrum. In these days when a more realistic description of politics in the US would be Corporate Absolutism versus Representative Democracy, this old bogus spectrum merely causes confusion and acts as an effective diversion. Indeed, that is why the elites and their corporate media continue to promote the Left/Right spectrum exclusively as a description of politics.

So if you abandon that unrealistic spectrum then there is no contradiction between Mr. Plaat’s professed Libertarianism and the Green Party. The key point is that Corporate Absolutism, the ideology which the official so-called Libertarian Party espouses, is an ideology that Mr. Plaat decisively rejects. As he puts it, “Libertarian means the opposite of Authoritarian” and laments that people don’t understand it as such. (Read a short interview with the Green Party candidate for County executive here.)

Albany County Courthouse Where The County Legislature Meets, Photo From The 1920s

Albany County Courthouse Where The County Legislature Meets, Photo From The 1920s


Despite the impression usually given by the local media, Albany County is one of the best run and best managed Counties in New York State. The well publicized disputes, the constant interaction between various interests both special and personal, and the popular activism that propels much of County policy are all signs of a healthy and vigorous government. Despite unfunded mandates handed down by the State and constant pressure to downsize, Albany County still manages to deliver necessary services and balance the budget, something that most Counties in the State can’t quite do as well.

What makes Albany County different from those other less well run Counties is that we have a large and very representative Legislature. Within recent memory the County leadership has been competent and engaged, but that is because the large Legislature allows a diversity of opinion that keeps the leaders on their toes at all times. In reply to the shadowy drive to downsize the Legislature, I would offer the old adage, If It Ain’t Broke Don’t “Fix” It.

What we have is a local government that is in such good shape that we can seriously contemplate building on what we have, doing an even better job. Under current executive Dan McCoy a number of nagging problems have been solved and new initiatives have been forwarded, but challenger Dan Egan is certain that there are better ways to run the County and move forward. So for myself I have to say that at this moment I am undecided about the Democratic Primary not because I am looking at choosing the lesser of two evils, but rather which candidate can do the better job. Too bad we don’t have that choice in more elections.

Permalink for Two Dans For County Executive

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Posted by:Roger Green
Posted on:06/26/2015
I attended a "meet Dan Egan" event a few weeks ago at the home of the city auditor, my friend Leif Engstrom (who I know you don't love). So far, I've signed no one's petition, which is to say that no one has asked me.

Posted by:Dan Van Riper
Posted on:06/26/2015
Nonsense Roger, Leif and I get along just fine, although we had a few rocky moments early on.

Posted by:GH
Posted on:06/26/2015
I think you should refer to County Executives as "Counts."

Posted by:Leo
Posted on:06/29/2015
Dan, your summary makes no mention of the years-long litigation over the revised boundaries for Albany County's legislative districts and of the current County Executive's involvement earlier this year in efforts to reach a resolution before one was imposed by a judge. Do you think that matter has a bearing on the assessment for reelection of the incumbent County Executive? Also not mentioned in your summary are questions raised about the basis for the local Conservative Party's failure to run a candidate against Dan McCoy in 2011 and Dan McCoy's subsequent appointment (over the objections of many in the "progressive" community) of a Conservative Party (and prior Republican Party) stalwart as County Attorney (an individual who had a record of supporting causes and litigation at the far right [if I may use that descriptive shorthand] of the political spectrum).

Posted by:Dan Van Riper
Posted on:06/29/2015
Hey Leo - I wanted to keep it simple and talk about power relationships, so I left out a lot of issues. I think both of those issues will be remembered particularly by certain constituencies at the polling station, and that is certainly to the incumbent's disadvantage. The question is how much those constituencies will support the challenger. So far the challenger's endorsements have been very slim compared to the incumbent's endorsements, but that may change.

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