The longest surviving political dynasty in America is at stake in the mayoral election next month, but nobody here is biting nails over the outcome.
Least of all Erastus Corning II, who has been mayor since 1942 and presides over a Democratic machine founded 55 years ago by his mentor, Daniel P. (Uncle Dan) O'Connell, who died last February at the age of 91.
Corning, seeking his 10th term at the age of 67, has been mayor of New York State's capital city longer than any other incumbent mayor of a major U.S. city.
Last month he put down an audacious challenge in an unusual primary, defeating his opponent by two-to-one. It was the first time anyone had dared challenge him in a primary.
For the Nov. 8 general election against token Republican opposition, Corning is passing out some leftover bumper stickers which read simply "Keep the Mayor Mayor."
If that sounds slightly over-assured it should be remembered that the last Republican elected to a City Hall post here was an alderman in 1928, and nobody can remember his name.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-to-1, and the smallest plurality Corning has had in 36 years was 3,500 out of 30,000 votes cast. That was in a year that Albany faced a $22 million deficit and raised taxes to record levels.
The most he ever won by was 46,000 votes.
In an interview on his high-ceilinged, dimly lit City Hall office, Corning reflected on a political career that began when he was handpicked by O'Connell to become, at age 32, Albany's youngest mayor.
It is impossible to contemplate Corning's political career without O'Connell's name persistently cropping up.
The son of a South Side Irish saloon keeper, O'Connell bucked the Republican machine in the early 1920s and was elected city assessor. He held the post one year, and never ran for elected office again.
With that base, he seized control of the Democratic Party. He also bought at bargain rates a brewery closed by Prohibition. When repeal came, he amassed a personal fortune producing Albany's biggest selling beer.
It was said that no tavern in Albany stayed open long without Hedrick's Beer in draught, just as no Democratic precinct leader lasted long if he failed to deliver Uncle Dan O'Connell's quota of voters to the poll each election day.
For years, O'Connell routinely installed handpicked mayors, mostly [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of Albany's banking establishment. But there never was any doubt who ran the Democratic Party, and who passed on the major decisions in City Hall.
In 1942, O'Connell chose Corning, a Yale-educated local aristocrat and descendant of the founders of the New York Central Railroad. Corning is the great-grandson of an 1830s Albany mayor, and son of a former lieutenant governor, Edwin Corning.
Of his primary victory this year over state Sen. Howard Nolan, an ambitious and wealthy 44-year-old lawyer who has built a fortune in real estate, Corning said, "It was a real tough battle. It was a test of whether I would carry the organization along."
Nolan was first elected to the state Senate in 1974 with the blessing of the machine, and then promptly incurred its wrath by adopting independent positions on a number of issues, including his refusal to back for Senate minority leader the man to whom Corning had promised Nolan's vote.
When he decided to take Corning on in a mayoral campaign, Nolan railed against "one-man control of everything," but his attacks on Corning were viewed by many voters as a sacrilege because, by implication, Uncle Dan O'Connell was being criticized.
"O'Connell took care of everybody's problems, no matter how small. They have never forgotten that," said one veteran machine politican.
There was a degree of irony in the primary campaign, which saw Nolan, an Irish Catholic, waging an underdog battle against the establishment and a Protestant aristocrat from one of the state's oldest family.
When O'Connell returned to Albany as a young sailor from World War I, he took on a Republican machine that had been deeply entrenched in the city since 1880.
A silver-haired, patrician-looking man who easily blends a courtly manner with earthly Irish saloon language he admits picking up from O'Connell. Corning said he plans to rule Albany for just one more time, then retire.
"When you have a leader as strong as (O'Connell) was for so many years, it was necessary to solidify the party leadership again. It was a test of strength six months after he died, and we needed to win," Corning said.
For his own part, Corning has been credited with rejuvenating downtown Albany, and putting together a complex financial package in which city banks and insurance firms were the major underwriters of the new $1.7 billion Empire State Mall, a hypermodern complex of state office buildings and cultural centers conceived by then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Corning, who initially opposed the mall project, used his influence to force the state to make direct payments to the city to make up for the tax money lost because the land was not in private hands.
That kind of political clout is not uncommon in this city of 110,000, which is used to freely wielded power. Albany has been the political base for many governors who have sought or obtained the presidency, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Smith, Thomas E. Dewey, Averill Harriman and Rockefeller. And the city's mayors also are used to controversy.
"We've never had much opportunity to be smug around here, because we always had someone like Dewey investigating Albany," Corning said. Dewey used his reputation as a racket busting New York district attorney in the '30s to propel him into the New York governor's chair in the '40s.
Political scandals, including two State Investigation Commission probes into city purchasing practices and police activities, were an issue four years ago, but despite them, Corning was again swept into office along with the entire local Democratic ticket.
Allegations of corruption and claims that Albany is ruled by the intimidating power of the Democratic machine were raised again in the September primary, but voters seemed to pay little heed.
Corning also has successfully duplicated O'Connell's style of personal service, riding around residential neighborhoods in an open-up convertible and offering attention to minor complaints.
In one pre-primary tour, Corning is said to have listened to a woman's complaint about a hornets nest in her garage, and then sent an exterminator the next day to remove it.
He personally answers every call to his office, and listens to the smallest complaints about city's service.
"In a city this size, you can do this," he says.
While his Republican opponent, H. Michael Roberti, a teacher at nearby Siena College and parttime employee of the state Senate, has been running a barely noticed campaign. Corning has been planning for what he says will be his last term.
"I'd like to get things ready for whoever succeeds me," he said, not mentioning any names, but leaving little doubt who will pick the next Democratic nominee.
In the meantime, Corning said, he plans to resign as county democratic chairman, a post he inherited from O'Connell, as soon as he is re-elected mayor.
Asked if that would man the end of the O'Connell-Corning dynasty, Corning said, "Well, Dan was never chairman until Dewey came along, but everyone knew who ran the party. I'll let you draw your own conclusion."
Then, as if to soften the meaning of cryptic remark, Corning added, "I expect to be active. I expect I will have some influence on the direction of the party."