Schenectady's political history written by diverse characters
Joseph Yates, then governor of New York, was caught between a rock and a hard place. The citizens of New York were clamoring for popular elections, but while his political party held control of the legislature, changing the structure of state government early in the 19th century seemed like an unnecessary risk.
It was a dilemma Yates failed to handle successfully, and as a result, the only Schenectady native to rise to the highest office in the state had a single, two-year term as governor. Yates’ experience put him at the highest level of state and for a moment even national politics — in 1822 he was being considered as a vice presidential candidate.
For the most part, however, Schenectady politics has retained a strictly local but almost always colorful flavor, the inhabitants of the city’s highest office including people from a variety of walks of life. Mayors have been powerful bankers and lawyers with enormous wealth, while others, such as small businessmen, teachers and factory workers at The General Electric Co. were more representative of the working class.
Karen Johnson, elected in 1983, is Schenectady’s first and only female mayor, while others with special distinction include Mordecai Myers, a Jewish war hero of 1812, and George Lunn, our minister-turned-Socialist mayor from the early 1900s.
Often, the politics got personal, and in Yates’ case, he eventually was at odds with two of the most powerful politicians in state history, Martin Van Buren and DeWitt Clinton. Both men, one a future president and the other a vice president, publicly questioned Yates’ intellect, and as history and the popular election controversy demonstrated, he wasn’t nearly their equal when it came to playing politics.
“The issue was who was going to choose the presidential electors, the people or the state legislature,” said former Schenectady County Historical Society president Frank Taormina, who has studied Yates and his family extensively since he retired as high school principal at Niskayuna 20 years ago. “If he came out clearly in favor of the people, it would have been contrary to his political party’s interests, and if he didn’t, he was against the will of the people. He kind of danced around the issue, and as a result, he lost the governorship.”
Yates had won 97 percent of the vote in the November election of 1822 and was inaugurated governor on Jan. 1, 1823. His near-unanimous victory didn’t help him while he was in office, however, and as a result of the battle over popular elections and other patronage issues, Yates’ popularity took a dive. His lone distinction in many history textbooks is chronological; Yates’ time in office was sandwiched between the second and third terms of Clinton, one of New York’s most celebrated governors.
In Schenectady annals, however, the Yates family’s influence and role in local politics is unmatched. Joseph Yates’ father, Christopher, distinguished himself during the French and Indian War, was named chairman of the first Committee of Correspondence in Schenectady at the outset of the American Revolution and then played an important role for the patriot cause during the Saratoga Campaign in the summer of 1777.
He died in 1783, well before his eldest son, Joseph, would officially become the first mayor of Schenectady in 1798. Joseph was followed in the mayor’s office by a brother and a cousin, all of them either appointed by the governor of the state or selected by a common council. Joseph Yates, an attorney who also was appointed to the state Supreme Court bench, was a Democrat, although political parties in those days weren’t so clearly defined.
In 1842, John Isaac DeGraff, also a Democrat, became the first mayor of Schenectady to ascend to the office by popular election. DeGraff, a wealthy banker whose money helped build the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812, was also a U.S. Congressman and was offered the post of Secretary of the Treasury by U.S. President Martin Van Buren, though he declined. Instead, he returned to Schenectady, where he served as mayor for five terms.
It was in the decade before the Civil War that Schenectady had its first Jewish mayor. Myers, a Democrat, was also a mason when he was elected to the mayoral office in 1851 at the age of 75.
“It was unusual, but Myers was also a very high-ranking mason and a very good politician,” said Schenectady High School teacher Neil Yetwin, who is writing a biography of Myers and is also producing an annotated volume of Myers’ writings. “He never hid the fact that he was a Jew, but he also never talked about it. It just doesn’t seem to have been an issue.”
Firmly ensconced in politics in New York City and Kinderhook before moving to Schenectady in 1848, Myers was also elected in 1854, but resigned before the completion of his one-year term because of a heated dispute over the city’s drafting of a public school system.
“He said, ‘It would be an irrevocable tax burden upon the citizens of Schenectady for all eternity,’” said Yetwin, quoting Myers. “He resigned over it. He was a very strong-willed individual, and he did what he thought was right.”
Born in Newport, R.I., Myers died in 1871 at the age of 95.
“He had a long and varied life before he even moved to Schenectady,” Yetwin said of Myers. “He knew all about politics and how the process worked, having watched closely the political machines of Aaron Burr and Martin Van Buren, and he had already served six one-year terms in the state assembly. He was a very good politician in the best use of the term. He got things done.”
The mayoral position was upgraded from a one-year term to two years in 1862, and Republicans Benjamin Franklin Potter and Arthur Hunter served as mayor during the Civil War. But while Schenectadians voted for Republicans in the mayoral elections, they weren’t too enamored with Abraham Lincoln, voting instead for the Democratic presidential candidate in 1860 (Stephen A. Douglas) and 1864 (George McClellan).
A different voice
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, neither party gained a stranglehold on the mayor’s office, and in 1911 the Progressive Era helped spawn the highwater mark for a third political group, the Socialist Party. While it was four-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs who spearheaded the national movement toward socialism, it was Lunn who carried the Socialist Party’s banner into power in Schenectady. The city’s population explosion, fueled by the emergence of the General Electric and American Locomotive companies, made Schenectady ripe for something a little different. In Troy, socialism only made minor inroads during that same time, and in Albany, the movement was practically nonexistent.
“Its roots lie in the rapidly expanding industrial base of the city and the diverse laboring population drawn to the city as a result of this rapid expansion,” University at Albany history professor Gerald Zahavi said of Schenectady’s surge toward socialism. “Among the new workers were a substantial number of European immigrants who were very sympathetic to syndicalism, worker control of industry and socialism.”
In the November election of 1911, Lunn defeated both the Democratic and Republican candidates and became the first mayor to turn his duties into a full-time job when he took over on Jan. 1, 1912. Lunn served as mayor for four terms and also won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. Later, again as a Democrat, he nearly reached the highest office in the state, serving as Al Smith’s lieutenant governor in 1923.
While Lunn was a gifted orator, according to Zahavi there were others who helped foster socialism’s growth in Schenectady.
“It’s important to note that the working class radicals were supported by many of Schenectady’s middle-class community,” said Zahavi. “Lunn was mayor around that time, but also some of GE’s engineers and scientists and managers brought with them ideological traditions that were anathema to corporate capitalism. [Charles] Steinmetz, the most famous research scientist, was a German-born socialist who hosted Socialist Party meetings at his home in the prestigious GE Realty Plot.”
In 1935, a four-year term was adopted for the mayor’s office, but at the same time, the city manager form of government took over and lasted until 1979. The switch back to a strong mayor form of government took place as Frank Duci was beginning his third term, having succeeded fellow Republican Malcolm Ellis. Ellis had also won three straight elections in 1960, 1964 and 1968.
In 1984, however, the Republican run ended, as Democrat Karen Johnson became the first female mayor of Schenectady, defeating Duci by a slim 302 votes of more than 24,000 cast. The campaign attracted state-wide attention.
“It was a very well publicized race, probably because I was a woman and Frank was very colorful,” said Johnson, who won a second term in 1988 before Duci returned to the office in 1992. “It was a very tough race, I won by a very small number of votes, and in those days the Democrats didn’t have the large edge in enrollment numbers like we do today.”
During the last two months of the campaign, things got a little heated.
“He was a scrappy campaigner, and things got pretty rough,” remembered Johnson. “In the middle of all this, I had a dispute with Frank about whether or not he would agree to a debate. It was all kind of difficult to deal with because his wife wasn’t well, and he ended up just leaving town to be with her in New York.”
Duci’s wife, Bette, died a few months after the election, and Duci, now remarried, remembers it as a very hard time for him and his family.
“It was a very unfortunate thing,” Duci said earlier this month, remembering the 1983 campaign. “The newspapers kept calling me, wanting to know what was going on, and I wouldn’t tell them. I did not want people to know that she had cancer. I didn’t want that to be a part of the election process, and I didn’t want to use it to advance my election chances.”
While the politics did get a little personal, all is forgiven now, although Johnson said that Duci still takes occasional potshots at her on his public access show, “Frankly Speaking.”
“He still talks about the ‘mistakes’ I made while I was mayor,” said Johnson, “but I still see him quite a bit because he’s always around. We talk, we find out what’s going on with the other one. We’re pretty friendly.”
“I had some hard feelings, but all was forgiven a long time ago,” said Duci. “I never believed you had to be enemies with people just because you disagreed with them. Karen and I are very friendly with each other.”
When it comes to national politics, Schenectady has had two of its residents enjoy long stays in the U.S. House of Representatives. Frank Crowther, a dentist who was born in England, won election to Congress in 1918 as a Republican and served for 11 more terms (through 1943), while Sam Stratton, a Democrat and former Schenectady mayor whose son Brian was also an occupant of they mayoral office, served in the House for 15 consecutive terms (1959-1989).