This coming Monday’s mayoral debate may not decide the Sept. 10 Democratic mayoral primary between incumbent Shayne Gallo and challenger Steve Noble. But it could be the beginning of the end for whichever Democrat comes off badly. Maybe they both will, which could give long-shot Republican Ron Polacco some hope in November.
Kudos to civic-minded Temple Emanuel on Albany Avenue for stepping up to provide a community forum at a convenient hour, bringing a settlement where chaos and petty bickering had prevailed. (The Vietnam peace talks were less complicated.) The always reliable and impartial League of Women Voters has been invited to conduct the 7 p.m. session. For pure partisan bile, tune in to bloggers shortly thereafter. For those who miss the debate, the Chamber of Commerce will host the candidates at its monthly breakfast Oct. 20 at the Best Western Hotel on Washington Avenue.
This will not be a debate in the classic sense, think Lincoln-Douglas, JFK-Nixon, my wife and the cats. There is usually very little actual exchange, none of that “I knew T.R. Gallo and you are no T.R. Gallo” stuff. Typically, candidates are given a few minutes to introduce themselves and state positions, after which questions, usually written, are solicited from the audience. Candidate wrap-up pretty much mirrors the start. Everyone goes home humming “Mrs. Robinson,” though perhaps not as well informed as they might have hoped.
Voters like to see their would-be lawmakers in action, as opposed to the glad-handing robots that come to their doorsteps right after “Jeopardy!” commences. Appearances count. Does a candidate seem prepared, alert, quick on his or her feet and facile with the facts? How does he handle adversity, if it occurs? Does he keep his cool? Does she speak clearly and with confidence? Mumblers need not apply.
Incumbents usually run on their records while ignoring challengers. Gallo has turned that strategy on its head by relentlessly attacking Noble, who, ironically, works for the Gallo administration as an environmental specialist/grant writer. Having buried Polacco in 2011, the mayor apparently sees no reason to beat a dead horse to death. (A former mayor, whose name I will not repeat out of deference to the dead, was fond of that expression. Also cringe-worthy from this dearly departed were such aldermanic gems as “the people aren’t as dumb as we think they are” and “correct me if I’m right.”)
None of these busy guys solicit my advice, but experience suggests they should have one goal in common: Act mayoral. This means conveying to the public that they are capable of administering a $40 million operation with 300 employees and a constituency of some 23,000 residents; that they demonstrate a clear understanding of modern city government, its challenges and its opportunities; that they offer at least some good ideas for achieving their goals. I think they should also display the kind of temperament — call it a sense of humor, patience and accessibility — required in a job with constant stress, implacable problems and a cacophony of critics, most of who would never dream of volunteering for anything.
For Gallo, acting mayoral should be easy. He’s been the mayor for almost four years and before that served for several years in the Jim Sottile administration’s legal department. I don’t think he learned much from his late brother, former mayor T.R. Gallo, as the siblings were not exactly simpatico during Gallo’s eight full years in office (1994 to January 2002).
Where Gallo falls short in the estimation of those close to the scene, is in the temperament department — the main reason, Sottile says, he did not appoint him a city judge when the vacancy occurred. To even the casual observer, Gallo is wound tight. He calls it “passion.” He is a man who suffers neither critics nor fools gladly, which in his mind may be one and the same. At the same time he can be outgoing and engaging. No one questions his smarts or in-depth knowledge of city issues. He’ll need to have all his positives on display at Temple Emanuel.
Noble, even after three months in the race, remains an unknown quality, something that voters may find troubling. To the broader electorate, he has to be much more than “not Gallo.” At 33 in June, his age shouldn’t be could be a factor; experience is more the issue. The late mayor Gallo was 33 when elected in 1993, but had been an outspoken alderman for four years. Former mayor Ed Radel (1958-61) was the youngest city mayor at 32.
Nobel is a fresh new face with an attractive family, but there’s nothing new about the Noble name. Uncle Alderman-at-Large Jim Noble has been intimately involved in city politics for a generation and was widely viewed as mayoral timber when Sottile chose not to run in 2011. Indeed, his nephew was probably in grade school when his father’s brother was elected an alderman in the mid-1990s. Fortunately, for young Noble, Gallo’s raising of the nepotism issue draws mostly guffaws, considering the source.
Noble’s options are narrowed in that Gallo projects himself as the kind of innovative progressive a challenger would hope to be. In country jargon, why buy the cow when you already have the milk? Noble will need to demonstrate where his opponent has failed to produce while advancing his own specific ideas. The low-hanging fruit is there for the plucking. “He only has to talk about three things, the sinkhole, the police station and the Uptown parking garage,” one Noble advocate told me. Points taken, but Noble will have to offer much more than that.
It might be a mistake to give Polacco short shrift because theoretically, even in a town with a 2-1 Democrat majority the former alderman has at least a puncher’s chance. The problem with Polacco was that four years ago there wasn’t much punch there, even after four years on the Common Council. He’s an attractive candidate, a pounder of pavement not seen since the days of Frank Koenig and Bobby Gallo, but more a sloganeer. Does he have the kind of gravitas voters will trust with the keys to City Hall? Like Noble, Polacco will have to bring considerably more to the Temple debate than he has heretofore offered.
I’m not predicting anything here except to remind readers that in terms of holding the title, Gallo is the champ. It’s his to lose.
They’re number two
If it weren’t for his nephew running, the race for ill-defined and largely overlooked office of alderman-at-large would be the backburner it has usually been, with rare exceptions.
First, some history. Kingston at its founding in 1872, was essentially a pair of widely-separated bookends. The villages of Rondout and Kingston had very different interests and constituencies, literally uptown and downtown; the middle only began developing a generation later. Building the new City Hall near the border of the former villages did not bridge those sectional gaps with the first five mayors hailing from the much more populated Rondout. In 1896 city fathers came up with the idea of an alderman-at-large, someone who could run citywide with a mayoral candidate from the other side of town, preside over the Common Council and succeed the mayor due to death or vacancy. (There have been only two cases of the former. Mayors T.R. Gallo and Morris Block died in office, but several aldermen-at-large have been elected mayor; in recent years, John Schwenk, Frank Koenig and Jim Sottile.)
Aldermen-at-large, elected separately from mayors, seem to fall into two categories, the outspoken, public types like Bobby Gallo (father of two mayors), Joe Ingarra and Sottile, and the under-the-radar types, like Joe McGrane and Jim Noble. Some are team players, like Gallo and Koenig, others at odds, like Noble and Gallo.