Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings reflects on his 20 years in office

Posted at: 11/18/2013 6:41 PM
Updated at: 11/18/2013 6:59 PM
By: Benita Zahn

"Well, when I won in '93 I said, okay, now what do I do?"

23 years as a teacher and vice principal at Albany High and 11 on Albany's Common Council served Jerry Jennings well as he learned on the job.

It's a job he landed by bucking the machine.

Shunned by the democrats in a primary with the party's candidate, Harold Joyce, he turned to a republican power broker for help.

"I, tell you the truth, I talked to Bill Powers and he referred me to a young guy, the guy knew election law and when it was all said and down I froze the absentee ballots, the polls and made sure they weren't opened at the polls and things I was aware of sometimes. I only won by 854 votes I think."

His first order of business after winning the general election was the city's finances.

" When I came in there was a major structural deficit in the budget."

73 percent of the property in Albany was tax exempt. So Jennings began making trips to the Capital, lobbying for relief.

"So I had to sit down with Governor Pataki. I said look, I'm only 100 yards away and I'd rather work with you than fight with you. You were a mayor once. You saw state government. And tot ell you the truth Benita, I had great access to him. I could talk to him any day or anytime, night."

That relationship helped him win a half a billion dollar pilot program over some 28 years to cover costs the city incurs from the south mall.

But he struck out with democrat David Paterson when he wanted a multi million dollar grant to kick start plans to privatize the Harriman office campus.

" That was really, would have helped dramatically with the finances here in the city. But Governor Patterson vetoed it, so I wasn't a happy mayor. "

Thwarted in efforts to get more property on the tax rolls or get payments to cover the tax exempt property, Jennings focused on improving the city's tax base and reinvigorating downtown - more restaurants and recently - apartments.

" Have we had a lot of investment? We've had tremendous investment, a lot of new people. Has everything been right? No, but at least people are more interested in coming down here. "

The arts have been a draw - including his making good on a promise to his dying niece that he'd support the Palace Theater and restore the marquee.

" If you don't have arts you don't have a heart."

Arts may be thriving, but education - for the kids he so loves, remains thorny.

There are charter schools.

" You know, by and large the charter schools here they've been criticized by their competitors but is should raise the bar as far as I'm concerned. I go to charter schools just like I got to public schools I said any group that will teach my kids to learn and to be successful I'm, gonna support."

He still hopes an alternative school for kids in danger of making poor life choices will be created.

" Probably the most frustrating thing for me has been the inability to get the school district and state education department to work with local governments. I mean, that's a real tough problem You can't sit here and brag when 50% of your kids graduate, or 40% in Rochester. "

Despite the clock ticking on his tenure, Jennings is busy and hints there are projects yet to be unveiled.

He's begun packing up his office - the pictures will take time.

Whether you judge him thumbs up or down, Jennings is clear, he's done it his way.

" Because I micro manage."

He knows the time to leave is right .. He's got three grandkids to spend time with and when his brother Joey died 5 years ago he gave him the okay.

" But don't feel bad if you get out. I stayed another 4 years and I think I've made Joey proud. >

He says he'll miss the people but he's cagey about his next act.

" Hillary Clinton. Good friend.If she runs, yeah. You working with her? Why not, I'll have a lot of free time."

And his legacy?

" Basically, you know, that he was, we could reach out to him, that he was accessible, he did what he felt was right."