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Albany Reform School 101
October 21, 2004: While Bush & Kerry rassle on the national stage, myriad smaller battles are being fought on local political fronts across the nation. When it comes to day-to-day impact on the lives of most Americans, these are the truly important contests.

In the county of Albany in upstate New York the hottest race is for district attorney. The city of Albany is the capital of New York State. A Democratic bastion since the early part of the last century and in effect, a single party city. A true Moscow on the Hudson where a choice between factions is the closest it gets to democracy. Smaller cities in the county also go donkey. Suburban or rural areas are a bit more Republican though urban outflow is changing that picture. County Republicans stuck in the wilderness comfort themselves with Governor George Pataki. In county races urban Albany has a good chunk of the numbers. But its population has been shrinking. Crime, particularly drug crime, is one reason. Not the only reason, but among the foremost. Who serves as County District Attorney, given the primary role of the office in the prosecution of crime, is of major importance to the future of the city of Albany.

The race has 3 contestants. David Soares is the Democratic candidate and until earlier this year, was a prosecutor in the district attorney's office. When Soares announced he'd be running in the Democratic primary, his boss Paul Clyne ordered him off the island. Running as a reformer Soares beat incumbent Clyne in a surprise upset. Clyne remains in the running on the Independent line. Clyne is identified with what some call "the Machine". Though such labels in places with only one party are relative. And indeed, once David Soares won the primary most members of the Machine took the Reformer to their bosom. As Soares told a gathering of the Machine on September 23rd at the Albany Polish American Center: "I am a Democrat...We will march into November stronger than ever."* The Republican candidate for D.A., Roger Cusick, would normally be a snowball in hell. But since Clyne remains in the race, Cusick has hopes of picking up a majority of votes. Cusick's shtick is reform lite.

Why the reform note in this race? Political dissatisfaction in Albany County is about far more than District Attorney Paul Clyne, but he became its lightning rod. During his time in office Clyne has made many bad calls. And judging by his shock over losing the primary, he underestimated how many people those calls outraged. Actions that grated include, but are not limited to, the following:

In 2001, a prominent white heart surgeon from a suburban part of the county was caught buying crack in a ghetto neighborhood in the city of Albany. Doctor Crack received kid glove treatment from higher ups in the Albany police department and the DA's office. Ghetto dwellers knew a low income black person caught in a similar situation would have fared very differently.

Over the past few years the Albany Catholic Diocese has been hit heavily by charges of sexual abuse by a number of its priests and by the appearance of a cover-up. Some believe Clyne has hung back from involving the D.A.'s office in an investigatory role.

During Clyne's watch a string of scandals erupted involving the Albany Police Department. Last New Year's Eve, in the late afternoon on a crowded corner in downtown Albany, pedestrian David Scaringe was accidentally shot to death by a police officer during a DWI pursuit. Numerous police officers were involved in the chase. The officer who fired the fatal shot was on foot. He later testified that he thought the drunk driver, who when cornered reversed the car toward the officer, meant to kill him. Making the use of deadly force justifiable. The driver was caught next day and ultimately pled guilty to assorted traffic violations, in the process admitting he intended to run over the officer. He got six months in jail. Even though he potentially could have killed a police officer. The grand jury investigating the matter absolved the officer, plus the police department, of any culpability in Scaringe's death. The perception exists Clyne guided the case to a soft landing.

Combined with outrage over individual incidents, is growing concern over drug crime and violence. Particularly in the city of Albany.

Before going further a personal note. In the Spring, I signed a petition to put David Soares on the primary ballot. I knew little about him. But like many people, I was thinking reform. Plus, I figured a political race that would raise the issue of how crime is dealt with in the City of Albany would be beneficial. Since I was one of those people who left the city because of it. Yet when the actual primary rolled around I didn't vote. By then, I'd become an "undecided".

Reform candidate David Soares has tapped into a rich vein of voter dissatisfaction. But will he pursue certain issues? For instance, while there was much genuine grief over the Scaringe tragedy, there was also much fear of multi million dollar lawsuits. The kind that jack property taxes. An indictment of a police officer, or a finding of departmental culpability, would have strengthened any such suit immeasurably. Clyne did the dirty work but many secretly craved the result. Even as they used it as a political weapon. As to Soares involving the DA's office in an investigation of coverups of sexual abuse by the Albany Catholic Diocese, don't hold your breath. Some of the most influential supporters of Soares belong to the Reform wing of Albany's single party. Over the decades they've been on the same ideological wave length as the current leadership of the Albany Catholic Diocese. And the Machine has always been heavily Catholic.

Then there's crime. Albany, like other upstate cities, has seen its crime stats climb while downstate numbers have shrunk. David Soares proposes a number of solutions. What he's most passionate about is the need to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Enacted under Governor Nelson Rockefeller (aka Rocky) the state laws mandate certain sentences for drug convictions. Taking discretion in sentencing out of the hands of judges. The mandates are viewed by many as overly harsh. Though law enforcement agencies tend to support the Rockefeller Drug Laws, even in that corner support is by no means one hundred percent. Yet whether the laws are good or bad, their future can only be settled on the state political level. As a county district attorney, David Soares could do little to repeal the laws beyond advocacy.

To my knowledge, David Soares has never directly said he would circumvent the Rockefeller Drug Laws via non enforcement. But many of his supporters believe this will be the case. Yet if Soares did this, it would be akin to the selective enforcement some say Paul Clyne practices in regard to other laws. "Reform" would merely mean pandering to a different set of people, rather than making an actual change in how things are done. In one party Albany "reform" has a history of meaning only a faction switch-- driven by competition for public money.

Speaking of money, large contributions flowed into the Soares Democratic primary campaign from the Working Families Party (WFP). $81,500 of which came via a grant from the Drug Policy Alliance. The Alliance, based in downstate New York, is an entity funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The Alliance's agenda is drug legalization. Much was made of the WFP contribution by Paul Clyne, his supporters and most recently, the New York State Republican Committee. The latter filed a complaint, based on the New York election law which stipulates one party can't meddle in another party's primary. Given political conditions in the Capital Region, ethical outrage by the Soares opponents over funding irregularities evoked a certain degree of mirth. None the less the violation was real. State Supreme Court Judge Bernard Malone ruled that though the Soares campaign was not at fault for taking the money, WFP violated the law in making contributions to another party's primary candidate.

It seems odd that political reformer and former prosecutor David Soares was unaware this sort of contribution was illegal. And if he wasn't handling the money side of his campaign and didn't realize the WFP had made the contribution, it doesn't speak well for his oversight of his staff. Being a political reformer in this day and age means making sure people close to you don't make bad calls about campaign contributions. Furthermore, the Drug Policy Alliance has the sole agenda of seeking to overturn current law. That a large contribution from the group went, via the WFP, to a potentially highly placed law enforcement official made a nasty impression. If the contribution had gone to members of the state legislature, whose job it is to represent citizens and change state laws at their behest, it would have been a different matter.

Another bad call was made regarding the Soares campaign headquarters. Which is located in a building on lower Central Avenue in downtown Albany. According to a 10/15/04 Albany Times Union article by Michelle Morgan Bolton, the building's owner was indicted last year for street dealing crack at several downtown locations. He later copped a plea. The same article quotes David Soares: "It's usually the landlords who do background checks on the tenants, not the other way around. I had no involvement in the paperwork or in any of the negotiations. Our decision is based on location. That's it."

Albany is a relatively small city. Population roughly 97,000. Anyone with eyes knows lower Central Avenue has drug trade. It's typical that some building owners in areas with drug trade will be in on the biz. David Soares, a former local prosecutor, should be cannier about who his campaign funds profit.

As mentioned, crime has been on the rise in upstate New York, while declining downstate. Repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws has been a central part of the Soares crime related platform. But would repealing the laws help reduce crime in Albany? If the statewide laws were contributing to crime, wouldn't the rise be statewide rather than regional?

Albany and other upstate cities have specific regional crime problems. Various factors are to blame: one being that as the value of downstate New York residential real estate soared, substance abuse facilities and assorted forms of related, subsidized housing moved upstate. Corporate, non profit and small investors found that upstate investment properties acquired for a song, could become profitable when taxpayers picked up the tab. Upstate New York has absorbed a growing population of substance abusers and parolees. The area is chock full of prisons so in the latter case, it's a hop skip trip into nearby cities. Yet unlike downstate, which is tethered to the NYC economic engine, upstate offers little chance for social mobility to unskilled workers or ones with erratic work histories. The manufacturing base continues to shrink. The average regional income runs well below the national level. Young people whose families have lived in the region for generations, leave to seek opportunity elsewhere. Yet the poverty industries serving a mired underclass are doing fine. While poverty itself flourishes. Along with drug traffic.

Among the solutions to crime David Soares proposes is less jail time and more rehab time for non violent low level dealers/users. He may be right. But will Soares fight to place facilities providing recovery services in Manhattan? Or how about in Saratoga Springs? Where Robert Bruno, brother of Joe Bruno, New York State Republican Majority Leader, holds court in a building leased by the state from the town's Republican committee chairman. Robert Bruno collects $130,000 per year as deputy commissioner of the Road to Recovery. Which isn't a Bob Hope movie but a state program offering treatment rather than jail time to nonviolent dealer/users. Maybe the Soares version of the road to recovery could run past Governor Pataki's country digs right up to the nearby second home of one of Albany's most prominent advocates of rehab rather than jail. But I suspect the road will lead, as usual, into the Capital Region's low and middle income urban and suburban neighborhoods. And that many of those treading it will continue to help push struggling nabes over into tooth and claw slums.

Another Soares anti-crime promise is that he'll go after "king- pin drug dealers....the ones behind the kids the current DA is locking up." This opens up some interesting questions. To its serendipitous credit, the Soares candidacy has made the nuts and bolts of local drug trade a topic suitable for polite conversation. In Machine, Reform and Republican circles reluctance to discuss the matter has been marked. Ideological discomfort, investment property involvement, fear of impacting real estate values and a reliance on endless road to recovery government funding, are all factors which singly, or in combo, have kept analysis of the structure of local drug trade off the table. Which in turn contributed to the growth of the problem.

The image of drug trade most fervently embraced in the Capital Region, from political administrations to police officials to newsmedia to neighborhood associations, is of a business run by king-pins far far away. Drugs are just passing through with low, and occasional mid level touch downs in a few afflicted nabes. This spin sometimes becomes truly absurd. As when Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings obtained federal drug crime fighting assistance from the High Impact Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program-- but at a civic forum referred to the acronym as standing for "Highway Interstate Drug Trafficking Area".

It's true that the Capital Region's geographical location at a hub of interstate highways running south to north and east to west, plus its train and bus lines, plays a big part in making the area a drug distribution center. And individual druggies do make small hauls in NYC, which they then deal in small amounts upstate. But it takes major regional organization to keep enough product flowing in and out of a city to make it a "High Impact Drug Trafficking Area". And while larger amounts of drugs distributed via Albany, often come from other northeast distribution centers, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in its 2004 NY State factsheet says cocaine for direct distribution is also coming into Albany from Florida and Puerto Rico.

When David Soares says he'll go after king-pins, which king-pins does he mean? Will they be the ones far far away (where his power to pursue them would be limited) or will they be the ones close to home? If the latter is the case, running checks on certain building owners in drug traffic areas might be one way to start. Since king-pins need somewhere to store their product. Then there's the money laundering aspect. Just which business entities in Albany are washing king-pin profits? And since Soares is presenting the king-pin approach as an alternative to Paul Clyne's record of prosecuting "kids" to the Rockefeller max, does Soares feel Clyne has been lax on king-pins? If so, why?

Along with king-pins David Soares also plans to go after illegal guns. According to his website, one way he plans to proceed is by working to "create new buy-back programs". Several years ago the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)tried this approach in crime ridden housing projects. But the buy back program was deep sixed when it turned out people were turning in old guns and buying new ones with the proceeds. The number of guns in housing projects actually increased. As an aside, gun buybacks are also current U. S. policy in Iraq. Where I suspect results will be similar.

During the primary race a policy debate over domestic abuse arose between Paul Clyne and David Soares. Soares said Clyne wasn't doing enough to aid victims. Clyne responded by coming up with a letter Soares had written in April to the Rhode Island Parole Review Board. Requesting that his cousin, Aires Correira, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for beating his wife to death, be allowed to serve the rest of his time on the outside, working in various programs aimed at deflecting other men from similar actions. According to the Troy Record (8/13/04) in his letter Soares cited Correira as having acquired college credits, and participating fully in "programs dealing with domestic violence, anger management and a group that deals specifically with murderers".

How Paul Clyne obtained possession of the Soares letter was not revealed. Making it public demonstrated, yet again, the qualities in Clyne that make him so well loved. But though I believe in redemption and realize Aires Correira may be a changed man, I found the wording in David Soares' letter to the Rhode Island Parole Board, as quoted by the Troy Record, troubling. While acknowledging his cousin's "substantial" debt to society and that his family and community were "devastated" by his sister-in-law's murder, Soares described that murder thusly: "Alcohol was involved and there was an argument that got physical..Eventually, he beat her...He woke up the next day and she didn't."

The wording is in the passive voice. The events are generalized and subtly rationalized. As opposed to: He was drinking. They argued. He beat her severely. Then he fell asleep. When he woke up she was dead.

Of course I may be too sensitive to such subtleties. A few years ago a young woman who I knew when she was a beautiful child argued with her intimate partner. He beat her severely. Afterwards, he too fell asleep. When he woke up she was comatose. He took her to the hospital (after stopping to buy cigarettes) but it was too late. She died. On every step of the way to her death, he made an active decision.

I truly wish I believed that if elected to the office of Albany County district attorney, David Soares would prove both a genuine reformer and an effective crime fighter. But I don't. But hey-- I'll be happy if I'm proved wrong. Overall, I think it a positive thing that the specifics of drug trade in the Capital Region can now be spoken of frankly and I'm sure many will rush to take advantage of the glasnost. I also respect the desires and dedicated efforts of all the citizens who sincerely believe David Soares represents change.

As for me, when I get to that voting booth I may have to fall back on that old reliable write in favorite, Mickey Mouse. Though Donald Duck seems to have the fire in his belly...

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

"Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me?"

The Mickey Mouse Club Song, Walt Disney Productions, 1955

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1946

 

*Political Patriarch reunites party, Carol DeMare, Albany Times Union 09/24/04

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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