Democratic panel backs Commisso for Assembly, but primary seems certain

Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Sunday, April 22, 2012

ALBANY -- The Democratic primary to replace retiring Assemblyman Jack McEneny began to take shape Saturday as party leaders voted to back longtime Albany County Legislator and party power broker Frank Commisso to succeed him.

Commisso, who lives in the western part of the city and works as the business manager at the Port of Albany, has served in the legislature for nearly three decades and been its majority leader for nearly two.

Still, the likelihood of a crowded primary for the coveted seat representing most of the state capital as well as suburban Bethlehem, Guilderland and New Scotland seems strong -- if not certain.

At least two of the five other candidates interviewed for the party's endorsement -- County Legislator Christopher Higgins of Albany and former Albany school board member Patricia Fahy -- have vowed to stay in the race.

Albany County Democratic Chairman Matthew Clyne said the vote by the party's candidate-selection committee to back Commisso, a former party co-chair himself, was "near unanimous." The panel consists of the chairs of each of the town and city Democratic organizations in the county, as well as the city of Albany's 15 ward leaders.

"Frank's long dedication to the Democratic Party swayed a lot of people," Clyne said.

At least one dissenter was 6th Ward Leader Laura Castelli, who backed Higgins, citing his commitment to the downtown neighborhoods he represents.

Third Ward Leader Ron Bailey abstained because, he said, he didn't believe the party should endorse anyone, citing McEneny's own refusal last month to anoint a successor when he announced he was stepping down after two decades at the Capitol.

The panel's support of Commisso is not final. It still needs to be reviewed by the party's executive committee, which contains many of the same members, as well as the roughly 300 committee members in what is now the 109th Assembly District.

Clyne said he expects the full party to convene in mid-May to vote on the endorsement, as well as an endorsement to succeed retiring Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari of Cohoes. Interviews for that seat are scheduled for next Saturday.

He also defended his decision to back candidates in the primaries, saying one of the main responsibilities of the party leadership is to vet candidates to make informed recommendations to the broader membership.

All aspiring candidates will still need to gather 500 petition signatures to get themselves on the Sept. 11 primary ballot.

Not surprisingly, Commisso's endorsement did not come without mild controversy, with some speculating that a deal had been struck in advance of Saturday to hand him the party's support. Clyne and other party leaders flatly dismissed that.

"There was no effort made to influence the vote, one way or the other," Clyne said.

Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion interviewed for the seat but said he would not oppose the party-backed candidate. Also interviewed were County Legislator Bryan Clenahan of Guilderland, who has said he is running, and Albany resident Margarita Perez, chief of staff to state Sen. Jose Peralta of Queens.

New Scotland Town Board member Daniel Mackay was scheduled to be interviewed but was out of town on business Saturday. He said he remains interested in the race.

With roughly 40,000 Democrats in the district to just 16,000 Republicans, Democrats have fretted little about losing the seat, which has been in their hands since 1971.County Republicans have endorsed Altamont businessman Ted Danz for the seat.

"I think it's going to be a bloodbath on the other side," Albany County GOP Chairman Don Clarey said. "I will not discount winning this seat due to the absolute division on the Democratic side. It's a mess over there."

jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com - 518-454-5445 - @JCEvangelist_TU