O Albany! Let the Jockeying Begin!

Posted November 16, 2007 at 6:01pm

In “O Albany!,” his acclaimed political history of New York’s capital city, author William Kennedy referred to the “Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels” who run the town.

Now that Rep. Mike McNulty (D-N.Y.) is retiring after 10 terms, it appears that each of those groups will have a say in selecting his successor — who is almost certain to be a Democrat.

Three weeks after McNulty stunned the capital region with his retirement announcement, no one has formally entered the race to succeed him. But an operative from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was in Albany late last week interviewing potential candidates, and some of the names that were first mentioned when McNulty disclosed his plans appear to be falling off the board.

“It’s still sort of playing out and it’s still going to play out for a while,” said a leading Albany-based Democratic strategist. “I think everybody’s anticipating a primary.”

According to a range of sources in New York and Washington, D.C., the two officials mentioned most frequently as potential candidates are Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton (D) and state Sen. Neil Breslin (D), who are both actively exploring bids.

Both come from political families: Stratton’s father, the late Rep. Sam Stratton (D), was McNulty’s predecessor and served in Congress for 30 years. One of Breslin’s brothers is the Albany County executive and another is a prominent local judge.

But the DCCC recruiter also apparently met with Susan Savage, chairwoman of the Schenectady County Legislature, sources said. Tracey Brooks, director of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) Albany office, has been reaching out to party leaders about a possible run. Liberal activists in the district mention Albany County District Attorney David Soares as a potential contender. And Roll Call has learned that Benita Zahn, the popular anchorwoman of the WNYT-TV evening news in Albany, also is talking to Democrats about a possible bid.

Zahn, who said she was mentioned for a state Senate vacancy a dozen years ago, was coy during an interview Friday.

“I’m flattered that someone would mention me,” she said. “It’s interesting. Maybe I should be thinking about it.”

Meanwhile, two prominent local powerbrokers are now seen as unlikely to run at this point, despite their initial interest in the seat: Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings (D) and state Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari (D). Despite Canestrari’s apparent desire to stay in the Legislature, where he just assumed his leadership post in January, a group of local activists last week set up a committee to draft him into the Congressional race.

Another local official who has decided against a run is Charles Diamond, a Watervliet city councilman who is McNulty’s district director and has worked for the Congressman since his first House campaign 20 years ago.

“I’m not going to do it,” Diamond said in an interview. “I’ve been doing it since 1988, so when Mike steps down, I think I’m going to step down. Take a deep breath.”

How Democrats sort out their field is not altogether clear.

The Albany Democratic machine is one of the strongest in the state, but it no longer has the power to anoint a candidate the way it did when leaders tapped McNulty to succeed the elder Stratton two decades ago. For one thing, the party organization is now more factionalized than it used to be. What’s more, the Congressional district, while still centered in the capital city, now radiates out into seven counties.

Equally significant, political reform groups have begun to assert themselves in local elections and could attempt to field a candidate for Congress if another contender emerges with significant support from Democratic bosses. Soares, a high-profile prosecutor who won his office four years ago by running against the political establishment, is seen as a possible favorite of the reformers.

“We’re definitely paying close attention to” the Congressional race, said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, a statewide grass-roots organization that operates a federal political action committee. “We think it’s very important that the person who is going to replace Mike McNulty has very strong progressive positions.”

Of the two leading potential contenders, Breslin did not respond to a message left at his state Senate office late last week, but Stratton sounded very much like a candidate. He said local political leaders were caught off-guard by McNulty’s announcement because “we all thought he’d be going out feet-first in a horizontal position,” and they have been scrambling to respond ever since.

Stratton pointed to his record of success in Schenectady — it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and wracked by corruption when he became mayor four years ago — and said his name recognition, gained in part by his father’s service, would ensure that the district remains in Democratic hands.

“If I’m not in, the Republicans may look to put some money in this district,” he warned. “I think I’d be the most formidable and the most competitive of any candidate in a final general election race.”

Although two Republican state Assemblymen are mentioned as possible candidates for McNulty’s seat, the district gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a 12-point edge over President Bush in 2004 and is widely expected to remain in Democratic hands.

Stratton may also have his relative youth going for him. If history is any guide — only two Members have held the seat during the past half-century — Albany voters like their Representatives to accrue seniority, and Stratton, at 50, could have a long Congressional career if he’s elected. Breslin, by contrast, is 65 (Jennings and Canestrari are also in their 60s).

On the other hand, Brooks, the Clinton aide, is about a decade younger than Stratton. Some New York insiders have compared her to freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who represents the adjoining 20th district. Although she comes from a well-connected Albany political family, Gillibrand burst on the scene last cycle and was a tireless campaigner who used her ties to Clinton to good political effect.

Brooks did not respond to a phone message left last week at Clinton’s Albany office.