GOP PICKS NEW LEADERS

Republicans in Albany County fill three of four top seats with women

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST
Section: Main,  Page: A8

Date: Friday, September 28, 2012

ALBANY -- County Republican Chairman Don Clarey stepped aside Thursday night and handed control of the committee to Elections Commissioner Rachel Bledi, who many believe is the county GOP's first elected female leader.


"I just think that we need to change the face of the Republican Party in general," said Bledi, a former Assembly aide who took over as elections commissioner in 2010 from former Chairman John Graziano, Clarey's predecessor. "I think we need to exude a level of energy that we haven't really had. I'm very positive about the future of the party in the county. We have some serious opportunities to make gains."


Clarey nominated Bledi himself, a transition she described as "very gracious."


County Legislature Minority Leader Christine Benedict was elected party secretary, while Melissa Kermani was elected treasurer, giving women three of the party's four top slots. Guilderland Republican leader Matthew Nelligan was elected vice-chairman.


Clarey called the hand-off the logical end to his tenure, which began in April 2011, during which he said the party was able to boost its membership enough to regain legal status, seed an organization in the Democratic stronghold of Green Island and expand the GOP minority in the County Legislature by two seats.


Clarey said his goal was to get the party on surer footing and never planned to stay more than two years.


"To me, it was mission accomplished. And I think that Rachel is going to be a tough, hard-nosed very capable chair," Clarey said. "I think I've turned the party around."


Clarey's detractors, however, criticized the party's failure to field candidates for any of eight countywide offices on last year's ballot as an embarrassment for a party striving to overcome decades of perceived irrelevance. Clarey countered that Republicans' roughly 50,000-voter enrollment gap behind Democrats made it difficult to recruit.


Even so, as is often the case in politics, when candidates emerged, things did not always play out as planned.


An intra-party dispute over last year's county executive race sparked public spats with former mayoral candidate Nathan Lebron, who called for his resignation, and county Conservative Party Chairman Richie Stack. This year, the Republican candidate for district attorney, David Price, who never publicly addressed his candidacy, mysteriously declined the party's nomination shortly after petitions were filed to get him on the ballot.


For the first time Thursday, Clarey said the plan was never to run Price but rather for him to serve as placeholder should the GOP come to terms with Democratic challenger Lee Kindlon to hand the party's line to him in his bid to oust incumbent Democratic District Attorney David Soares. Any hope of such a pact, however, dissolved in May when Kindlon squashed talk he might take the line. (Kindlon on Thursday said he was "unaware of any of the Republican Party's machinations.")


"You've got to pick your spots. I probably asked 50 lawyers to run for DA. All different kinds of people. I probably spent $500 on lunches," Clarey said. "(Price) was a placeholder. People may criticize me for that, but I spent a year talking to literally everybody."


Nelligan, the new vice-chairman, described Thursday's transition of power as less than voluntary.


"I don't think this was Don's choice so much as it was a fait accompli," Nelligan said, "but I give him credit for recognizing that for the party to move forward he needed to kind of move back. I think he made his best effort."


Despite running no one for the countywide office last year, the Republicans did expand their minority in the County Legislature from eight to 10 and came within 281 votes of unseating Colonie Supervisor Paula Mahan, a sign of the small steps Clarey said are the precursors to larger gains.


"We've turned things around. We've got a website that's actually updated," Clarey said. "And we're back in business."


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