(Editor’s note: Below is what’s called a “reporter’s notebook” piece. For those unfamiliar with the term, it denotes a piece of writing where a journalist steps out from behind the usual third-person/inverted pyramid form to offer insights and perspectives in a less-regimented style.)
If one were to write an epitaph for the administration of Mayor Shayne Gallo, and one were to use the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand favored by obituary writers which renders a drunk a “bon vivant,” it might read, “He made good copy.”
Indeed, the Kingston Times experienced a steady circulation increase all four years of Gallo’s reign. I’d like to think at least some of that stemmed from some decent reporting, spot-on editing and the emergence of a more energized and informed citizenry. But it would be both ungenerous and untrue to deny that we were aided immensely by a mayor whose bullying style, mercurial decision-making and occasional bizarre pronouncements made each edition a hybrid of Wrestlemania and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. As a City Hall reporter, your bread and butter is pretty much dry toast. The city goes up a blip in its S&P bond rating, you write a story. An alderman proposes a new law to regulate cats, you write a story and crack a few jokes. The mayor orders a city dump truck parked on a working railway line. Wait…What? Seriously?
That, in a nutshell, was the Gallo administration that I spent four years documenting. It was a weird, exasperating, sometimes infuriating four years. But it was never boring.
As a reporter, you learn to play your cards close to the vest. You give people the facts and let them draw their own conclusions. You write what you can nail down to a semi-certainty, then hope the rest can be read between the lines. But with the Gallo administration coming to close, it’s time to briefly put aside objectivity in order to tell a deeper truth — one that doesn’t fit comfortably into the template of classic American newspaper journalism.
Shayne Gallo, as mayor of the City of Kingston, was a bully with a mean streak so wide it blotted out most of the good he tried to accomplish and killed his hopes for a second term. He was a mayor who, for all his talk of “transparency” and “accountability,” regarded Kingston as his personal fiefdom, the resources of which could be used to reward friends or punish enemies at his whim. He was a mayor so lacking in self-awareness that he failed to recognize the rank hypocrisy of his actions. Again and again, he would paint himself into a corner, then walk out and blame someone else for the mess.
None of this unfolded secretly. It was all right there in the mayor’s own words and actions since the day he took office. You just had to read the paper.
Gallo began his term four years ago with a mandate for reform. The son of one Kingston powerbroker and brother of another, Gallo nonetheless positioned himself as an outsider who would take a sledgehammer to the entrenched Democratic Party political elites. In a city where cronyism was taken as a given and outright corruption widely assumed if rarely proven, his was a message that resonated. At the Kingston Times, where we’d editorialized against the “institutionalized lassitude” of city government, it seemed Gallo’s promise to ride into office, wielding torch and sword, was just what the city needed.
Early on, his targets were predictable — fellow Democrats who’d backed his opponent in the primary. I soon learned that Mayor Gallo had no intention of making nice, or even pretending to, with the opposition. In long, digression-filled diatribes that I learned to recognize as his preferred speaking style, he would launch rhetorical bombs at enemies real and perceived. On the record, people like then-Common Council majority leader Tom Hoffay, were good ol’ boys driven by their sense of entitlement to help themselves and their friends at the taxpayers’ expense. Off the record, they were worse. Much, much worse. Speaking in rapid-fire monologues, Gallo would sketch out to me convoluted webs of political conspiracy. From his earliest days in office, he saw a “shadow government” stalking his every move, waiting for its moment to pounce.
Gallo is hardly the only elected official to subscribe to the paranoid school of political relations. While his relentless focus on those who opposed his candidacy seemed both overblown and counterproductive, it fit snugly into a familiar category of smash-mouth governance. Less understandable were the fights he began picking with nonprofits, businesses, individual citizens — anyone, it seemed, who offered the slightest disagreement or resistance to his agenda. About a year into his term, stories had begun to creep out of City Hall and the nightlife circuit. Tales of savage public dressings-down of employees for petty or nonexistent infractions. Threats to send in the cops or the building department or a legal injunction to deal with someone who had pissed him off. In early 2013, I received word from a source I considered both well-placed and credible that Gallo had even made threats against me and my employer. In a private rant, the story goes, Gallo had suggested he might deploy building inspectors to ticket-blitz the offices of Ulster Publishing. More ominously, the source said, he’d hinted that he might instruct police to make trouble for me at my side job tending bar in a late-night dive. I’d already witnessed Gallo openly threaten a naked abuse of power — denying permits to County Executive Mike Hein’s proposal for a SUNY Ulster campus at a shuttered city elementary school — and had no reason to think he’d stop short of mobilizing city resources against the paper. That revelation gave me a few anxious nights staring past the neon onto North Front Street waiting for the posse until some cop sources assured me that no such order had been given and, anyway, nobody in the department was inclined to grant the mayor that kind of favor.
It was around that time that we went to press with a scathing story bearing the memorable headline “Neither politicians nor public safe from Gallo’s rages.” The story came in the wake of Gallo’s well-publicized on-tape eruption at onetime campaign worker-turned-parking enforcement officer Jeremy Blaber. At the time, Gallo’s supporters brushed off the profanity and threats of arrest and physical violence as a one-off incident stemming from a sense of betrayal. It wasn’t. In the story I was able to document a series of very public temper tantrums. I left out the part about the profane tirade he unleashed over the phone at Daily Freeman Managing Editor Tony Adamis while my then-10-year-old daughter stood a few feet away. I left out half a dozen or more anecdotes that I was unable to get on the record because people sincerely believed that if they talked openly about their experience, the mayor would use his office to go after them, their loved one and their livelihoods.
After that story, Gallo didn’t talk to me for a long time. I was relieved to have a break, but it wouldn’t last. Eventually, he and I returned to a regular routine of phone interviews that usually left me depressed that the person I’d just spoken to was a mayor — and relieved he wasn’t my mayor. The stories of bizarre behavior grew less frequent, but stories of petty vengeance and blustery threats remained steady. I wrote them when I could nail them down and let them go when I couldn’t. As far as I was concerned, Gallo’s toddler-like tantrums were now a matter of record and people could do with the information what they pleased. Gallo’s vindictive nature went well beyond the confines of his duties as mayor or any perceived need to be tough in service of the public good. When his personal relationship with a former Kingston Times writer ended badly, he took to calling my boss demanding that she be fired, or else he would stop responding to requests for interviews. The campaign of harassment ended only when the woman sent him a formal cease-and-desist letter.
One thing I learned reporting on Gallo is that he hides very little and what he does hide he hides poorly. It was perhaps a redeeming quality. He would engage in atrocious behavior so brazenly that it was clear he believed right was — always — on his side. My personal favorite Gallo technique, if only because it was relatively low on the collateral-damage scale, was what came to be known in the newsroom as “The Spontaneous Demonstration.” The maneuver would involve rallying a small corps of supporters, feeding them talking points and then turning them loose at public meetings to parrot them, often line for line. The effect he hoped to create was an impression of a groundswell of popular support for whatever he was pushing or, more often, popular condemnation for whatever he opposed. He would prime me for these puppet shows by solemnly warning me that “a lot of people are really upset about this and you’re going to see that at the meeting tonight.” Usually “a lot of people” would be his secretary’s husband or a handful of hardcore Gallo-istas.