It is often remarked that Albany is a Democratic town. This is true enough as far as it goes: the municipality as well as the Albany Congressional District have been run by Democratic politicians for as long as anyone can remember. Though there has been some reform in the last decade or so, most of the city's modern urban political history is synonymous with the history of the Democratic Machine built by Dan O'Connell.

O'Connell's mastery of electoral techniques, and occasional questionable tactics, were summed up by incoming Governor Mario Cuomo in 1982. O'Connell, Cuomo said, had been marooned on a tropical island with one other man, and only one coconut between them. The two men decided to take a vote on who should get the coconut; when the votes were counted, O'Connell was found to have won, 110 to 1.

Who were the Albany Democrats? In the recent election, some advertising stereotyped Northeastern Democrats as effete liberals, gourmands with liberal educations out of touch with mainstream America. Albany Democrats were not that kind. These were blue-collar, urban, predominantly Irish Democrats, who paid five dollars a vote, who were more likely to share a bottle of Budweiser than a jar of Grey Poupon, and whose major civic functions in addition to patronage included securing "the right to run your bar after hours or to open a card game on the sneak".

The O'Connell organization was considered a textbook case of the urban political machine by historians, one of whom wrote that "it should be put into the Smithsonian before we forget what a political machine looks like". Even well into the 1980's, when other similar organizations across the country were becoming rapidly extinct, the Albany Machine ran city politics with an iron grip.

Dan O'Connell, an Albany native son of Irish-born parents who dropped out of school after the fifth grade and worked as a bricklayer and bartender, was elected County Assessor in 1919; a few years later he quit that post to become chairman of the County Democratic Committee, the only formal title he would hold until his 1977 death. For this entire period and for a solid two decades after, under his supervision, the party would control nearly 100 percent of all city and county offices, the entire County Legislature, and all the local seats in the State Senate and Assembly. O'Connell's 500-plus loyal Committee members often held more de facto power than the actual elected officials. They canvassed the city's neighborhoods thoroughly every year, gently suggesting its residents register Democratic, to avoid, for instance, a sudden threefold increase in property taxes (which would require a Democratic lawyer to fix).

Irish bossism in American cities began, of course, early in the nineteenth century. Albany's organization was its natural heir. O'Connell and his three brothers typified the Irish backbone of the Machine, but it would prove surprisingly adaptable to new waves of immigration and ethnic constituencies: Germans and Polish in the prewar period, and masses of American blacks in the 50's and 60's. When Erastus Corning II was elected Mayor in 1942 for the first of his eleven terms, he was O'Connell's protegé, a smiling patrician Protestant face the working-class, predominantly Catholic Democrats presented to the public. Corning would eventually gain, while becoming the United States's longest-serving Mayor, a high measure of power in his own right, and after O'Connell's demise the genial grandson of Erastus Corning I would run the machine himself from the Mayor's office. But that was later. The Albany of the mid-20th century was Dan O'Connell's town.

Once a year, at Committee meetings, O'Connell would read aloud his list of hand-picked nominees--an occasional which also brought out the press and sundry local well-wishers and favor-mongerors, for the Chairman's public appearances were otherwise rare. An unruly committeeman who ventured to place other names in nomination was likely to be booed, shouted down, or just laughed at. The nominees were rubber-stamped, and in almost all cases, duly elected that November to whatever city, county, or state post O'Connell has designated them for. The designation was, of course, a quid pro quo for unswerving loyalty and Herculean efforts on behalf of the County Democrats, and so the system perpetuated itself.

Though reformers objected, and Albany's two major newspapers excoriated O'Connell through most of his reign, the Machine played a vital civic role in the town's urban fabric. Both under O'Connell and his 19th century ancestors, the Democratic Party was not only a political organization, but a quasi-governmental social agency. It eased the connection between ordinary citizens and government bureaucracy, provided even those citizens on the lowest rungs of the social ladder with an avenue for complaints and queries for City Hall, and doled out a form of workfare, finding easy government sinecures for the elderly and indigent. The usual sorts of graft and contractor boondoggles were naturally prevalent, and a state probe at one point found Albany to be "the worst-run county in America". In 1947 John Gunther described the city as "a kind of political cloaca maxima, beside which Kansas City seemed almost pure". But Albany's upper crust, like Corning, for the most part tolerated and colluded with the Machine; after all, it was a far cry better than the disorganized Irish hooliganism that threatened to destroy the life of the city in the mid-1800's.


Governor DeWitt Clinton, the Nelson Rockefeller of his time, probably around 1820.

That was an era when Albany's first generation of bosses, Anglos like Erie Canal mastermind DeWitt Clinton, men of vast wealth who were in many cases the heirs to Dutch patroonships, seemed on the verge of letting go of the steering wheel. The combined and related pressures of mass-scale foreign immigration and rapid industrialization created a pressure-cooker situation in the face of which the old gentlemanly code was outmoded and impotent. The Anglo families like the Clintons, Cornings, and Livingstons struck a practical bargain with the nascent grubby Irish ward heelers: in return for a tacit respect for the sanctity of their wealth and fortunes, the newcomers would be allowed to more or less run the city. This bargain took the edge off not only class and ethnic resentments like the ones which flared in the New York draft riots, but off the more general ideas of social revolution that were coming over from Europe, along with boatloads of Germans, Irish, Russians and Poles, in the years following the old Continent's 1848 revolutions. It was a bargain that offered a modus vivendi which was one of the cornerstones for a surprisingly stable urbanism up through the 1960's, and in some places even longer.

Well before Erastus Corning II's ascension to the Mayoral office, this bargain was instrumental in the establishment of the O'Connell Machine. Dan O'Connell and his attorney brother Edward allied themselves in 1921 with Erastus's father, Edwin Corning: "the young aristocrat with the Old-Albany name", in William Kennedy's words. The new allies proceeded to quickly purge the government of leftovers from the era of Billy Barnes--a Harvard-educated Taft-Harding Republican who had run the city for the previous 30 years with as tight a grip as O'Connell and the Cornings would eventually gain. Barnes' big mistake was to trample on the idea of the aforementioned Brahmin-Blue Collar bargain; this worked okay in the Gilded Age and the giddy period of the Rail barons but wore thin in the postwar period with comments like "the labor of a human being is a commodity".

Having gained their foothold, the Democrats did not relax, but intensified their hold on as many powerful institutions of civic life as they could. The tacit cooperation of Albany's wealthiest bluebloods was already assured through the alliance with Corning (and would strengthen when another aristocrat-turned Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arrived in the Governor's Mansion in 1928). The Roman Catholic Diocese was avidly courted by the devout O'Connell, who reportedly kept rosary beads on his desk and had holy water fonts installed in his Albany home. Democratic D.A.'s handpicked by the machine would oblige the Diocese with periodic crusades against public lewdness and moral decay, while the City would dole out large parcels to the Church throughout the O'Connell era. As a result of this combined fealty and largess the Catholic Diocese would eventually become a a staunchly Democratic quasi-corporate power player in the Albany political arena.

The police were likewise co-opted by the machine early on, when one of the first Democratic moves on gaining power in 1921 was an increase in police officer salaries. O'Connell himself considered the Police Department his personal fiefdom, and for decades a succession of police Chiefs would pay him daily personal visits to keep him apprised of everything going on in the city.

Having secured alliance with the forces of law and order and spiritual nourishment, the Machine developed an equally potent alliance with the less savory elements of the urban fabric. Famed Albany gangster 'Legs' Diamond, who ran the city's gambling, prostitution, and Prohibition-era booze rackets, was given a detective on the city payroll as his personal bodyguard at the downtown Kenmore Hotel. Solly O'Connell, Dan's brother, was the Democrat in charge of Nighttown, the vice-ridden area South and West of Downtown, where he formed an easy and mutually beneficial truce with Diamond until the latter's violent death. Dan's own sole criminal conviction during his long reign came in 1927, when he was fined $750 for his part in sponsoring a baseball gambling ring in a probe instigated by his erstwhile friend, Governor Al Smith.

Other alliances would come later: with civic groups, business associations, and most notably, organized labor, which became an important factor in the postwar era as an economy of goverment and health care workers, as well as universities, replaced the old manufacturing sector.

Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, meeting with prominent labor leaders in the 1950's.

The union-government connection became strongest during the ten-year boondoggle that was the contruction of Empire State Plaza--a project that Mayor Corning initially opposed, until he was able to wriggle his hand into the cookie jar of contracts, patronage, and dollars that flowed from Rockefeller's project (see my essay on The Making Of Empire State Plaza).

The dominance of the Albany machine, and its tendrils extending into State politics, made Dan O'Connell a national political player by the 1960's, when he helped deliver the Democratic Presidential nomination for the son of fellow Irish Democratic boss Joe Kennedy. When JFK called to thank him O'Connell reportedly said "I didn't do it for you, I did it for your old man." Even as his health deteriorated in the 70's, the Boss of Albany continued to play a part in Presidential politics, as in an unsuccessful effort to deny George McGovern the Democratic nomination in 1972 (though the ever-loyal O'Connell nonetheless went on to deliver McGovern a higher percentage of Democratic votes in Albany than any other New York town). But these were the years of O'Connell's fade. Even before his death in 1977, there was a new skipper at the helm of the Machine: his onetime student, Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd.


Likeable, saavy, and handsome, with a last name that was money in the bank when it came to upstate politics, Erastus Corning 2nd held the mayor's office for 42 years, a longer term of incumbency than any American mayor in history. Seven New York governors and nine American Presidents came and went while Corning held his office. His success and his growing personal power apart from the machine owed themselves largely to O'Connell's affectionate tutlelage. Erastus's great-grandfather was the original Erastus Corning, maker of Albany's greatest industrial fortune in the Erie Canal years; his father was Edwin Corning, the blueblooded Episcopalian who allied with the Irish Catholics in 1921 to forge an unbeatable urban coalition.

Corning's childhood brought him into regular contact with downtown pols and monied aristocrats alike. O'Connell was a frequent visitor to the family home on Chestnut Street, while Nelson Rockefeller was a childhood friend at summer camp in Maine. The ability to travel between these two worlds and understand them both was Corning's unique political gift. To it he added a formidable mind, unerring political instincts, great charisma, and, not least, a sizeable personal fortune.

O'Connell cultivated the young Corning while the latter was still a Yale student. In 1936 he nominated his ally's son for the State Senate, and Corning, having just embarked on a less-than-thrilling career in insurance, accepted with delight and naturally won easily. Five years later O'Connell suggested the mayoralty, which Corning took in similarly breezy fashion.

Drafted into the army and the European Theater, Corning was serving as a private in Czechoslovakia when he was renominated for a second term. His Army uniform added to his already formidable appeal, and he won his second term despite fierce campaigning against him by Governor Dewey, who had won the Governor's seat while promising to break up the Albany Machine. For the next 38 years and ten subsequent races he faced little serious opposition, and after a failed attempt (at O'Connell's urging) to win the Lieutenant Governorship in 1946, never sought higher office.

Corning exercised complete and unbridled control over not only the city budgets but those of Albany County--not technically within his job description, that last, but it was all O'Connell's territory anyway, and as Erastus remarked, "I involve myself in both city and county affairs....things flow smooth that way."

Smooth was a good word to describe the 6 foot 2 gentleman with the winning smile. But behind the glad-handing facade there lay a certain ruthlessness learned in the smoky halls of the County Committee meetings. City and county officials who crossed Erastus or questioned his budgetary authority would find themselves losing to primary opponents in the next election. Occasional critics of the Mayor's questionable practice of giving his own insurance company all the insurance contracts for the county were not willing to go on the record. (The practice, which earned Corning millions, was technically legal, since he was not a county official; when a reporter once mentioned the lack of competition for insurance contracts the Mayor blandly replied "nobody else wanted to bid".) In short the well-educated cultured gentleman was as much a player, behind the scenes and in the clear light of day, as any Irish pol--no better and no worse.

He was also a dedicated workaholic who genuinely believed in public service and reveled in the ceremonial trappings of his office than certainly would have tested most others' patience after 40 years--attending every Tulip Festival, appearing in elementary school classrooms for civics talks, and, at least on occasion, personally answering citizens' phone calls on topics from voter registration to garbage removal. To Corning politics was fun as well as important--a game his father and Dan O'Connell taught him at an early age. A thick skin and tremendous physical energy didn't hurt either.

When he took over the Machine, Corning, like O'Connell before him, played a major role in Democratic politics beyond Albany's borders, backing the gubernatorial campaigns of both Carey and Cuomo, and running Jimmy Carter's 1976 effort in upstate New York. (When Walter Mondale asked Corning for a list of solid supporters in his area, Corning provided a list of all city employees.)

The Mayor's amazing vitality finally gave out in 1982. When he died he left behind a machine ill-equipped to carry on in his absence; he had held it together for a decade through personal charisma and the power of his mayoral incumbency. Corning's handpicked successor, a self-described "Kennedy liberal" named Tom Whalen, was committed to addressing social and ethnic issues the machine preferred to let simmer. His religion, too, was unheard of for an Albany mayor: Roman Catholic. The next two decades would see the fracturing of the Democrats into warring factions, the squabbling of former loyalists over the scraps of the old regime, the ascent of progressive and reformist groups, and, in sum, a long gradual dissolution and seismic collapse of the edifice the O'Connells and Cornings had built and lived in for 60 years. They would also see the renaissance of the state Republican Party, an organization that, Albany at least, "had been so relentlessly humiliated, so neutralized.... that for decades they had ceased acting like politicians and behaved like pop-up targets whose function was to instantly shot down every election day." The ascent of neighboring Colonie, a Republican enclave of suburban warrens and box store malls whose population has swelled to 70,000 as Albany's has declined to 95,000, helped lessen the Democratic grip on the county. So did a reformist campaign against one-party rule by the influential Albany Times-Union.

Mayor Jennings: last gasp of the County Committee?

The current Albany Mayor, Jerry Jennings, was elected in 1993 as a centrist, business-friendly New Democrat in the Clinton mode. His constituency included elements of the old machine--elements which by now represented the conservative interests in the city and had little interest in the ghettos and ethnic problems of the city. Jennings has twice supported Republican George Pataki for Governor--a heresy which would have been unthinkable in the O'Connell years--and courted bankers and developers with his proposal for a massive downtown convention center. The Congressional district, which also includes deeply troubled Troy and Schnectady, remains a lock for incumbent Mike McNulty, who just won his ninth term in the House. But the rise of the suburbs, the fracturing of the old coalition, and the increasing power of corporate interests ensure that even when Democrats stay in power in today's Albany they do not and never will look much like the Democrats of yesteryear.

Most observers hailed the final death knell of the Albany Machine in 2004, when black insurgent challenger David Soares beat incumbent Paul Clyne, who was backed by Mayor Jennings as well as the County Committee and the last of the old-time hacks, for the Albany D.A. nomination. Soares, an African-born immigrant lawyer with no prior political experience, ran a campaign of reform backed by a heavy volunteer get-out-the-vote effort. Clyne had been nominated in a back room process four years earlier, which drew outrage from the increasingly educated, affluent, pluralistically minded new arrivals who were starting to comprise a major element of the local Democratic base. These newer Democrats were more suburban, tended to work for the state or for the University, and unlike the rank-and-file of Dan O'Connell's day, didn't like being told who to nominate. The irony for longtime Albany observers was seeing the reformers being the ones with the massive door-to-door effort, while the Machine candidate collected endorsements and contributions but failed to appeal to the electorate.

At the County Committee meeting of 2004 the reformists nearly succeeded in ousting Jennings ally Betty Barnette, the current County Chair; only a last minute appeal for unity from Mike McNulty's father Jack, a feisty reformist thorn in the side of the Machine going back to the 1960's, kept a major schism from occurring. But the Soares primary really tells the whole story: the machine is gone. Common Council President Helen Desfosses called it "a transformational moment in Albany politics. We've blown the top off the bottle."

Where the transformation will take us, it's a bit too soon to say.

The account of the Dan O'Connell years was informed primarily by William Kennedy's brilliant "O Albany!" (New York, Viking Press, 1983). More recent political info comes from the Albany Times-Union and from Paul Bray's Eye From Albany column at empirepage.com, as well as other online sources. There is a great-looking new biography out on the irrepressible Erastus, but I haven't gotten to read it yet.

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