Dominick Calsolaro

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Winning Through Intimidation

This September, Current Mayor Jennings may try to defend himself from Corey Ellis by scaring the voters away from the polls

Published on 7/21/2009 by the www.albanyweblog.com written by Daniel W. Van Riper

I voted for the first time in my neighborhood polling station on Morton Avenue in 1986. As I stood in the booth studying the then unfamiliar selections, the Democratic committeeman, a suburbanite named Cummerford, pulled back the curtain to watch how I voted. I was so shocked that I just stood staring at him with my mouth open. Cummerford sneered at me through the curtain and demanded to know what was my problem.
Current Mayor Jennings
Current Mayor Jennings

That’s why The Wife and I are the committee persons in our neighborhood today, to do what we can to prevent this crap from happening again. Crap such as opening up absentee ballots at the end of the night and reading out loud how people voted, which I watched Cummerford do. At the next election, The Wife stared down Cummerford and delayed the vote tally in our district for an hour and a half, forcing this clown to keep his dirty machine paws off the ballots.

So it was because of my long time involvement with the neighborhood Democratic committee, for six months in 2002 the other committee persons elected me to the post of Democratic Party ward leader for the First Ward in the City of Albany. I won’t bother to explain here how such a ridiculous thing happened. Suffice to say that my short occupation of this office was a convergence of bizarre circumstances that are not likely to happen to me again. Hopefully.

As ward leader I got to run the 2002 primary election in the First Ward. It’s not an easy job if you do it properly, finding election inspectors to cover all shifts at all the polls (there were nine) supervising the committee persons who are supposed to be bringing voters to the polls, and dealing with any ridiculous nonsense that arises during the day.

You see, a peculiar characteristic of the City of Albany for the past eighty years (more or less) is that the Democratic ward leaders and committee persons effectively run the City elections, both the primary and the general election. Of course this ensures that the Democrats, or rather, the dominant faction inside the City Democratic Party controls the electoral process, which today could best be called the Jennings Machine.

This is the story of how I ran afoul of the dominant Jennings Machine faction, losing my job as ward leader. It is also the story of how Jerry Jennings and His minions will behave on Primary Day in September... that is, if we let Him.
Hoffman Park Teen Recreation Center As Seen From Across The Street (Snow Has Been Temporarily Removed)
Hoffman Park Teen Recreation Center As Seen From Across The Street (Snow Has Been Temporarily Removed)

Back in 2002, the Hoffman Park polling station off Second Avenue was (and still is) the busiest in the ward, serving what was then the two largest of the First Ward election districts (or e.d.) The larger of the two election district tables set up inside Hoffman Park was controlled by a committee person named Kathy Myers, a long time personal friend of Jerry Jennings. As was her custom, Kathy sat at the registration table as an election inspector, thus securing Jennings’ control of her e.d.

On primary day the polls opened as usual at Noon. About 12:30 I parked my vehicle across the street at what was then the parking lot of Cavaleri’s Restaurant. I got out and stood for several minutes staring at an almost unbelievable scene.

Occupying the parking lot in front of the Hoffman Park Recreation Center were a couple of dozen men loitering inside the distance marker. (Electioneering is supposed to be strictly prohibited inside the distance markers, which were set where the Hoffman parking lot met the street.) Many of these characters appeared to me to be employees of the City Department of General Services, most of whom do not reside in the City of Albany. And since this was a Tuesday, I assume that they were on the taxpayer’s clock.

As voters approached the polling station by foot or by car, these creeps would walk out onto the street in groups of two or three past the distance markers to stop the voters. Surrounding the pedestrians, or literally hanging on to the car doors, they would slowly escort the voters into the parking lot inside the distance markers, talking at them the entire time.

Once in the parking lot, these creeps would keep the voters helpless for a few minutes. I watched three of these creeps prevent an older lady from standing up so that she could get out of her car. She looked progressively more scared and exasperated as all three looked down at her and took turns talking at her.

Eventually these creeps would slowly allow the voters to move toward the building, escorting them slowly across the lot. This trip from the parked cars to the front door of the polling station took as much as ten minutes.
Imagine Two Goons With Folded Arms
Imagine Two Goons With Folded Arms

The door to the polling station was closed, blocked by two goons with folded arms. When the creeps in the parking lot had finally moved a voter to the door, the two goons would ooze apart, one to the left and one to the right. The door would open and the creeps outside would hand off the voters to the creeps waiting inside the door. The door would close and the two goons outside would move back into position blocking the door, arms folded.

The gymnasium inside was literally swarming with persons who had no business being there. It reminded me of a wasps nest. I stood inside for a while watching these indoor creeps just as carefully escort the voters up to the two registration tables, talking at the voters the entire time without letup.

Even then they didn’t quit harassing the voters. They followed the voters from the registration tables to the voting booths, still talking at them. I did not observe them pulling back any curtains, perhaps they restrained themselves while I was watching. Or maybe they didn’t need to do that, their victims looked pretty scared and intimidated by that point.

I did watch with stunned disbelief as one of these guys leaned over the shoulder of a voter who was filling out a paper ballot, which is given to voters if the voter’s name is not listed in the official book provided by the county board of elections. This clown was talking nonstop at the poor voter, pointing at the ballot and giving what sounded to me like instructions about the choices on the ballot.

All of a sudden Rita (not her real name) who was an election inspector at the table for the other e.d., planted herself in front of me and got into my face. Now Rita was honest, a committee person who believed in fair elections like I do. She was also quite volatile with a tendency to fly off the handle.

“What are you gonna do about this?” she hollered at me. “It’s the same thing every election. The Mayor’s people turn this place into a zoo every single time. Every primary they do this! Every one! So are you going to do something about this, or are you going to make promises and do nothing like Judith?”

Rita was referring to Judith Mazza, my longtime predecessor as ward leader. Unlike me, Judith is a real political player who knows how to push an issue or an agenda, and knows when to hold back. I’ve noted how many elected officials make a point of showing her respect.
Judith Mazza, At A Recent Corey Ellis Fundraiser
Judith Mazza, At A Recent Corey Ellis Fundraiser

As ward leader Judith had created a delicate balance between the Jennings Machine supporters on the 1st ward Democratic Committee and the progressives, which she had brought to the committee. With a small majority on the committee she had managed to slowly transform the 1st ward into the most progressive in the City.

More than any other one person she is responsible for Dominick Calsolaro getting elected to the Common Council. Unfortunately Judith could not figure out how to restore order to Hoffman Park on Primary Day. This crap had been going on at this polling station for several years, and for her it was a constant source of frustration.

Indeed, Mr. Calsolaro’s first election to the Common Council a year earlier in 2001 was surprisingly close because so many of his potential supporters were scared away from voting for him at Hoffman Park by The Current Mayor’s goons. For that election Jennings talked a reluctant Kathy Myers into running against Dominick, she agreed as long as she didn’t have to campaign!

Despite His candidate not doing any work, Jennings almost stopped Dominick at the outset. He didn’t need a good candidate, he just needed a body. He almost succeeded.
Some Of The Other Polling Stations In The 1st Ward, From Top: Krank Park, Sand Street, Hurlbut Street
Some Of The Other Polling Stations In The 1st Ward, From Top: Krank Park, Sand Street, Hurlbut Street

Judith has an excellent understanding of practical politics. She knew damn well that if she used her authority as ward leader to throw out the machine goons from Hoffman Park, then the Current Mayor would find a way to hang her butt on the nearest light pole but fast. Which, you see, is exactly what happened to me.

Judith had left me with this problem and no discussion about how to handle it. Sure, she’d told me about it, but until I saw it for myself I had no idea what Jennings had done to Hoffman Park. Judith is is one of those people who doesn’t like to say something to somebody more than once. She should have realized that when dealing with a dim bulb like me it pays to explain.

In short, I was effectively alone, unencumbered by advice, experience or a sense of expediency. I still wonder what Judith thought I was going to do when I saw the Hoffman Park polling station for myself. And I never did find out what she really thought of my actions on that day.

Back in the gymnasium I was still pretty stunned by the situation, and now I had to deal with this sceaming woman Rita who was full of righteousness. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was going to do. But I recall that it did not even occur to me to do nothing and walk away. This situation was unacceptable and it was my obligation to stop it now. Period.

First thing I did was clear the gymnasium of unnecessary persons, throwing out anyone without a watcher’s certificate (a little piece of paper with a signature from a party or from a candidate that authorizes one to observe the polling process, very easy to get.) A few of the creeps indeed had certificates, they stood off to the side and sullenly watched, waiting for me to leave.

After a bit, something resembling order had been restored inside the polling station. But then, I looked out the door at the ongoing nonsense in the parking lot and realized that the second I walked away everything would go back to hell. I had an entire ward to administer, I couldn’t hang around here all day. I needed help, and fast.

I sat down heavily into a chair at a sort of desk in the corner of the gymnasium that had nothing but a telephone and an old fashioned paper phone book. Just for laughs I called the county board of elections and the police. After they both blew me off, I thought for a bit and sighed. I called Citizen Action.

Now, I have nothing against Citizen Action and their allies, the Working Families Party, not at all. I mostly agree with their perspective on politics, but it is my nature to be repelled by their tight top-down organization. And as I’ve found out recently, the folks at Citizen Action are naturally repelled by a loose cannon not a team player who doesn’t like to take orders. Like me, for example.

Judging by various stray comments that I’ve recently been hearing, I suspect that Citizen Action would like to create a “progressive machine” to replace the Jennings Machine. I’m happy to report that they do not have enough power to create such an ugly monster, they simply do not have the grassroots organization that major political parties posses. But because they are a tight top-down organization Citizen Action can apply pressure at a critical point with a moment’s notice. That’s what I needed.
Anita Thayer
Anita Thayer

At my request, Citizen Action board member and attorney Anita Thayer showed up at Hoffman Park, her arm in a sling. Elbow problems. She stood in the gymnasium and looked around tiredly. “Well, it looks like you have a problem,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want bodies,” I told her. “I can’t chase these guys away, but if I can get some people to neutralize these clowns maybe the voters can vote without being threatened.” Anita nodded and said that she would see what she could do.

By mid afternoon a small army of volunteers had assembled and fanned out across the polling station, inside and outside. The volunteers stuck like glue to the machine goons, following them around one on one and forcing them to behave. Every last one of these invaders had valid watcher’s certificates issued by the Working Families Party.

What a circus. Former 6th ward Common Council member Sharon Ward (Richard Conti’s predecessor) was back in town for the elections. She spent the afternoon in the parking lot helping to keep the goons from crossing inside the distance markers. They were reduced to stopping and harassing voters out on the street, but Sharon (among others) was right there beside them as a counterweight as they stuck their faces inside the car windows.

Best of all was Maureen O’Brien, who showed up dressed in bicycle spandex, a honking big film camera sporting a lens like a salami hanging on her chest. She strolled around the gymnasium with a big grin pointing that thing at the Jennings goons. Each time she pointed they would hide their faces and scurry spastically out of her sights, terrified.

It was really funny. The next day Maureen told me, “...And the best thing of all is I didn’t have film in the camera!” You know, that’s too bad. I could have used those photos.
Her Good Buddy Jerry
Her Good Buddy Jerry

No way that Kathy Myers was going to let me disrupt this sordid sideshow without a fight. Her face tight with rage, she grabbed the phone and called her good buddy Jerry.

In about ten minutes The Current Mayor was standing inside the door of the Gymnasium taking in the situation. Kathy Myers talked at Him nonstop, hissing and spitting and pointing at me. As I walked over to The Current Mayor with a smile, Kathy bared her teeth at me and fled.

Jennings shook my hand like it was a rotten squid and regarded me like He would a dog turd. He had nothing to say to me. As He continued to survey the room He began to nod with what looked like resignation and finally said, “All right.” Then he left the premises.

After that I managed to get through the day and close down all the polling stations properly at 9 PM. By suppertime the goons had given up and left the battlefield to the law abiding invaders. The last three hours before the polls closed turned out to be the best time to vote.

Fast forward two weeks to a meeting of the 1st ward Democratic committee of the City of Albany. My committee. Main item on the agenda: election of the ward leader by the members of the committee.

During those two weeks after Primary day, Jennings mobilized His minority supporters within the 1st ward committee. And He managed to find a defector among the progressives on the committee, a pathetic unstable woman with a mostly tentative grasp of reality. Jennings had no problem manipulating her. With grand visions of power and adulation rattling around in her little mind this twit agreed to become the new ward leader.

The vote was close, razor thin, but I was out. It’s not a great feeling being shoved out of public office like that without warning, especially with all those Jennings supporters sitting there sneering and laughing at me. But the truth is, I was secretly relieved. The Jennings Machine faction of the local Democratic Party is as corrupt as the Republicans, clearly I could not abide in their dwelling.

This pathetic twit proved incapable of running the 1st ward, but she had served her purpose. After a while even Jennings gave up on her. She suddenly quit as ward leader at the beginning of petitioning, the busiest time of work for party volunteers. Judith and Dominick had to step in and do the work that she was supposed to do.

The casual observer might be tempted to condemn Judith Mazza for not sacrificing her job as ward leader to clean up Hoffman Park during Dominick’s first campaign. That’s the contradiction of politics. Sure, you have your hands on the levers of power. But after a while you realize that the levers have power over you.

Judith had built a 1st ward progressive movement that had threatened to serve as a model for the rest of the City. Her political problem at that point was that she could not wiggle or else the whole thing would come crashing down. That’s why Jerry Jennings could grab control of Hoffman Park with His goons, He could see that Judith was too overextended to fight back.
Our Next Mayor Corey Ellis With Dominick Calsolaro At Avenue A On Delaware Earlier This Month
Our Next Mayor Corey Ellis With Dominick Calsolaro At
Avenue A On Delaware Earlier This Month

Well, what happened is what happened. Since 2002, I always drop into Hoffman Park on Primary Day for a quick look, driving a voter to the polls or sometimes for no reason. As far as I’ve been able to see, the voting has been orderly, no intimidation problems that I’ve noticed.

But what about this year? What will Jennings do to stop Corey Ellis from taking His job? Will the Current Mayor play fair?

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