ALBANY COUNTY — Long established Democratic leadership took a hit earlier this week during the Albany County Legislature’s first meeting of the year on Monday, Jan. 8, when independently-minded majority member Andrew Joyce (D-9) was unanimously elected chairman of the legislature.
The organizational meeting began with the swearing in of Vicky Plotsky, the new Democrat representing the county’s 38th district in New Scotland and Bethlehem. Plotsky, the eighth woman to join this 39-member legislature, represented the deciding vote to support Joyce in the 29-member Democratic caucus. The 14 members who opposed his election were all in favor of re-electing Sean Ward (D-16), the most recent chairman and the favored candidate of long-time Majority Leader Frank Commisso, Sr. (D-11).
“A number of members have expressed frustration with the leadership not engaging with our members,” said Joe O’Brien (D-25), one of the legislators who approached Joyce about running for the position a month ago. “Some of them have talents in different fields, and they just seemed to be not tapping into that. Andrew, on the other hand, is a young individual who wants to engage all members.”
“I don’t want to impugn Sean at all but, in terms of his leadership style, the membership didn’t see a whole lot of daylight between him and the majority leader,” said Joyce. “And I think leadership of the body should be about the members, every single one of them. It’s about listening.”
Two years ago, reform-minded members of the majority party tried unsuccessfully to unseat Commisso — who has led the party since 1993 — and get their own chairperson, Alison McLean Lane (D-14), elected to lead the legislature. Entrenched party leadership prevailed in both cases and Ward was elected to succeed outgoing Chairman Shawn Morse, the now-embattled mayor of Cohoes. (Incidentally, Joyce, who was a member of the reform coalition, ultimately voted for Ward in 2016, along with three other coalition members.)
In 2016, the reform coalition was also disappointed when four Republican legislators chose to support Ward and, by extension, Commisso. The resulting division within the GOP caucus ultimately ended in the unexpected choice of Frank Mauriello (R-27) as minority leader, after presumptive leader Peter Crouse (R-24) voted for Ward. That division, according to minority member Mark Grimm (R-29), has persisted within the 10-member GOP conference. Six members, including Grimm and Mauriello, once again voted with the reformist agenda, which they believe will give a greater voice to minority members, both in committee leadership positions and on the legislative floor.
“Andrew and his supporters really have a lot in common with our conference,” said Mauriello, “in that we’re looking to reform Albany County government and want it to be more open.” He said there have been times when legislation not supported by the majority leadership has simply languished in committee, without being given a chance in a floor vote. He also said independent redistricting, something supported by Joyce, is a priority of the minority conference.
“It was time for a change,” Mauriello said, adding that Joyce and other Democrat reformists assured their Republican counterparts that they would be given a bigger role in legislative committee assignments. “You will be seeing Republicans chairing some of these committees as well,” he said.
“There are four factions, really,” said Grimm, noting that the four Republicans who voted to support Ward have a history of voting “mostly with Commisso. We don’t talk much publicly about it, but it’s the reality and people ought to know what the score is. The Democrats are split, and the Republicans are too.”
This year, however, both parties resolved in caucus to vote with one voice to elect Joyce.
“It was a tight race for chairman,” said Grimm. “Let’s not pretend it wasn’t. [The majority] chose to elect [Joyce] unanimously as a courtesy, after they realized they didn’t have enough Republican votes to elect Ward.”
Touting Joyce’s military service and record of passing bipartisan legislation, Legislator Gary Domalewicz (D-10), chairman of the Audit and Finance Committee, nominated Joyce for the position and was seconded by Sam Fein (D-6), a young, first-term legislator representing the newest minority-majority district in downtown Albany.
“Andrew has the tenacity and drive to lead the legislature, and I am glad to work closely with him to support his vision,” said Domalewicz. “I look forward to working with him on launching new ideas and initiatives to improve Albany County.”
Joe O’Brien suggested that Joyce was able to secure not only the support of Fein, who voted for Ward two years ago, but that of Wanda Willingham (D-3) as well, due to a perception that legislative leadership has been unresponsive to minorities in Albany County. Willingham, who was a successful complainant in two lawsuits accusing the county of violating minority rights during redistricting, walked Joyce to his new seat at the front of the legislative chamber, along with his brother, Legislator Raymond Joyce (D-13).
Both Joyces are the sons of Harold L. Joyce, who formerly served as chairman of the Albany County Legislature and chairman of the Albany County Democratic Committee, and for whom the county office building on State Street in Albany is named.
“I am glad to support Andrew and am excited to work closely with him,” said Willingham. “Andrew brings a fresh perspective to the role and this next chapter of the legislature is going to produce positive and tangible results that we will all be part of and proud of.”
“My number one agenda priority is to figure out what each member’s top three priorities are,” said Joyce, “and figuring out how to utilize the staff to make those things happen.” He also said he wants to bring county government into the current century, and has plans to implement a modernization committee, headed by both parties, to look at ways to make that happen. One immediate change he’s looking at is the reduction of paper waste through improving electronic access to lengthy agendas. Another thing he said he wants to do is improve outreach to county residents.
Commisso congratulated Joyce on his election in a press release, saying, “We recognize that it’s a new era of leadership for the legislature, and we wish Andrew Joyce much success. I look forward to working with the new chairman.”
“We have a person that’s coming in to change,” Commisso said later. “We’ve had lots of changes in the Democratic party over the years, and I’ve been part of that change. I was one of the people that called for change at various times on different issues.
“I don’t think it’s a referendum on past years of leadership,” he said. “I think we’ve had very good leadership. But from time to time, people may decide that they want to advance themselves and it’s a democratic process.”
While there are rumblings that a democratic member may challenge Commisso for leadership of the party in coming weeks, Commisso says he is not concerned. “I have two more years remaining in my seat,” he said. “I run with the term of the legislature.”
Other members have pointed out that the county charter is unclear on the topic of party leadership and are not ruling out the possibility of a challenge in the wake of the recent reform victory.
“I think this is a watershed moment for our legislature and for Albany County government,” said O’Brien.
“I am thrilled by the vote of confidence by a bipartisan group of my peers in the legislature and pledge to bring my vision of collaborative and positive change to the legislature’s activities,” Joyce said. “I am grateful for this support and look forward to an era of progress that will utilize the skills and talents of all of my colleagues. I also want to thank Sean Ward for his dedicated years of leadership to the legislature and look forward to working closely with him in my new role.”
Legislators earn $23,084 a year; the annual pay for chair is $38,477.
Read Andrew Joyce’s personal and legislative profile here.
Statement released by the minority conference, identifying specific shared priorities: