It seems unlikely that any of the growing number of candidates for mayor are afraid of Sal Albanese, the former Democratic City Councilman from Bay Ridge.
Among the Democrats, Council Speaker Christine Quinn has nearly $5 million in campaign funds, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio rallied fearsome union support four years ago to win a tough primary and runoff, Comptroller John Liu was elected in 2009 with unprecedented support from minority groups and Bill Thompson that year lost by 4 points to an incumbent mayor who outspent him 11 to 1.
On the Republican side, supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis could generously self-finance, former Bronx beep and Obama administration official Adolfo Carrion is the only Latino in a city that increasingly looks like him, homeless services leader George McDonald's announcement made The New York Times and newspaper owner Tom Allon ran his first TV commercial a year ago. And has anyone—except maybe Tim Tebow—enjoyed more pre-season hype than ex-MTA boss and current pre-candidate Joseph Lhota?
But none of this seems to faze Albanese as he bites into a sandwich at the Bay Ridge Diner on a Monday in January.
"It's a wide-open seat," he says. And the sheer number of contestants he's facing suggests that—on that count at least—Albanese is right.
Says contest's contours favor him
A former schoolteacher, then councilmember, then lawyer turned financial advisor, Albanese left his job as a managing director at Mesirow Financial at the end of December. He's financially comfortable enough to devote himself full-time to the race, he says, and even to loan his campaign $100,000 to get things rolling.
Since announcing his candidacy on January 3rd, Albanese has been busy: appearing on NY1, getting time on NBC-4, talking on WWRL, marching with Sandy-affected residents on Staten Island and issuing his first position paper—a brief take on public safety that stresses quality-of-life policing and the hiring of 3,800 more cops.
All this was not enough, however, to get him included in a Quinnipiac College Poll conducted January 8-14; the poll's director says nobody knew Albanese was running.
Albanese argues that a lot of the conventional wisdom about the 2013 campaign is hollow. Take, for instance, the notion that Quinn had the support of the mayor and business community locked up. Recent reports about Mayor Bloomberg's extensive efforts to find a different successor undercut the idea.
What's more, Albanese thinks features of the 2013 race will allow him to engineer a better version of the surprising campaign he ran in 1997. That year, Albanese placed a surprisingly strong third in the Democratic primary behind the eventual nominee, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, and Rev. Al Sharpton.
His poll numbers surged when, four days before the primary, he finally qualified for public financing and was able to get a TV commercial out. He ended with 21 percent of the vote despite spending a mere $970,000 to the $3.7 million laid out by Messinger, who won 39 percent.
Like that race, this year's Democratic primary is unlikely to generate a clear winner, necessitating a runoff. That means placing even a distant second in the primary allows a candidate to fight another day. Unlike 16 years ago, the 2013 primary race features four candidates with citywide profiles: If they split labor support, endorsements and the electorate more or less evenly, the math could let a less-powerful candidate who appeals to a particular constituency (say, outer-borough “white ethnics” and Catholics) sneak in.
Plus, this time around, Albanese says, he'll be able to qualify for public funds earlier and he'll benefit from a matching ratio that has been increased from two-to-one, when he last ran, to six-to-one today.
A maverick streak
Of course, most of Albanese's opponents will enjoy that matching rate, too. Public financing might make him audible, but it's not going to change the fact that his war-chest will be dwarfed by his rivals. Albanese, however, feels at home in uphill battles.
He beat a two-decade incumbent to win his Council seat in 1982, then survived an attempt by the Brooklyn Democratic machine to derail his re-election. In 1985, he introduced the first legislation in America embodying the MacBride principles, which prohibit a government from doing business with companies that discriminate against Catholics in Northern Ireland. The mayor and comptroller opposed him, but the principles eventually were adopted and are now part of every city contract. He voted for a 1986 gay rights law even though opponents of the measure picketed his home and office. His 1996 living-wage legislation, which covered some private workers on city contracts, survived a veto attempt to become law. He took on Staten Island's powerful Molinari family in 1992 by unsuccessfully challenging incumbent Rep. Susan Molinari. He so often irritated Council speakers by refusing to toe the party line that he was stripped of committee chairmanships three times.
Albanese doesn't always obey his quixotic instincts: He briefly considered but then dropped a run for mayor in 2001 because of his inability to raise money. But then he was a generous donor and delegate for Barack Obama in 2008, bucking the trend among New York pols to back local favorite Hilary Clinton.
However, on city issues, Albanese has been silent since the '97 race. "I would wake up in the morning and pontificate to my wife," he jokes. But he's not weighed in publicly on school closures, overturning term limits, budget cuts, the Park Place mosque, the West Side stadium, same-sex marriage, extending living wages to development projects or any of the other big fights that have defined New York politics since then.
"I've been in the private sector. I couldn't really get involved in politics per se. I mean, I had compliance issues or what have you," he explains. "I think being in the private sector is an advantage. I'm not inclined to think that being in politics for your entire life is a good thing." But he acknowledges that, "One of the disadvantages is that I have to reintroduce myself to people."
Congestion pricing, quality-of-life policing
Albanese praises Bloomberg's independence and the mayor's hiring of skilled commissioners (except for Cathie Black), but faults the mayor for seeming out of touch with the outer boroughs and for what he believes is a late-blooming hostility toward workers. "He thinks the minimum wage is a communist plot," Albanese jokes. "But I'd say on balance he's been a good mayor."
Compared to the candidate of 1997 vintage, today's Albanese says he's more sensitive to the needs of businesses. Back then he might have supported a tax surcharge on people making, say, $500,000 a year. But now he thinks that would drive people from the city. Albanese believes the city's economy could be used creatively to address more of New York's problems. He's intrigued by the prospect of trying to build subway cars and buses within the city. Not doing congestion pricing "would be malpractice."
According to him, the city's long-term fiscal problem is not the pension fund—he says it's well-funded, although he wants to limit the amount of overtime that employees can rack up in their final years on the job—but worker and retiree medical costs. He believes the city could better harness the buying power of its large municipal workforce.
Early childhood education must be improved, something he'd approach by streamlining and integrating all the youth services now offered by different city agencies. After Sandy, he says, the city has to think about changing its building codes and restoring wetlands and other natural defenses. But bigger-ticket fixes like sea walls are impractical unless the feds pay for them, Albanese contends.
His public safety plan would divvy up 3,800 new cops based on the number of radio runs each precinct gets. It would also focus on "issues that often undermine our sense of safety and community confidence" like "public intoxication and nightlife noise in places like the Lower East Side, car repairs and bicycle traffic blocking sidewalks in Sunset Park, graffiti and property tagging in Jackson Heights, theft and harassment on the transit system, and a general lack of security in public housing."
There were nearly 500,000 quality-of-life summonses issued in the city last year—down 7.5 percent from the year before, but still more than ever issued under Mayor Giuliani. Albanese thinks stop-and-frisk is a valuable policing tool but that cops need regular, intense training on how to use it.
A rationale to run?
So far, Albanese is stressing his biography and reputation for independence rather than any particular policy idea. New York, his campaign literature says, needs a mayor "who is independent from party bosses and special interests, who isn't afraid to be honest with the people, and who is focused on the issues New Yorkers care about most."
His pitch is more about his qualifications to lead the city than any particular problem facing New York. "The city's not in bad shape vis-a-vis other places," he says. "There are obviously pockets of poverty that could be addressed." Whether the city's 20 percent poverty rate constitutes a "pocket" or not might be one of those things Albanese hashes out as he reintroduces himself to the city. Dismissed as "Sal Who?" during most of his first run for mayor, he believes people will pay attention sooner this time.
"I came here as an immigrant at the age of eight. The city is 40 percent immigrant-based. I went to New York City public schools. I went to the City University of New York. I mean, I'm a New York City story. I spent 15 years in government, 15 years in the private sector," he says. "Our challenge is going to be raising enough money to get our message out. I think we're going to be able to do it."
THE BROOKLYN BUREAU
The Brooklyn Bureau, a non-profit news organization launched in 2012, publishes in-depth coverage and investigative journalism on New York's largest borough and provides tools for civic engagement.