CONSERVATIVE CHAIRMAN LIBERAL IN DEFENSE

MICHAEL MCKEON Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: D11

Date: Sunday, March 6, 1994

If you want to get Albany County Conservative Party Chairman Thomas Keenan's blood boiling, tell him he is in the pocket of the county Democrats.


To back up that charge, remind him that a former and a current vice chairman have been Democratic insiders for years and watch as his face turns increasingly deeper shades of red. "I'm nothing but a dupe for the Democrats -- I get so tired of reading that," said Keenan, 59, his face a bright crimson. "I've tried my damnest to build up the image of this party."


Since taking over as county chairman five years ago, Keenan has been repeatedly accused of working for the Democrats. The state party still won't work with him because of his alleged Democratic leanings.


Keenan doesn't dispute the fact that the Democrats took control of the Conservative Party under boss Dan O'Connell more than 25 years ago by stuffing the party enrollment with converted Democrats.


But, he claims, he has put those days in the past and made the party independent of Democrats and Republicans. As proof, he said the party has endorsed candidates from both parties after interviews that cover issues and personal philosophies.


"We're not so structured that whatever the Democratic slate is, that's what we go with," Keenan said. "We ask the candidates about their values and principles on things like the death penalty, anti-abortion and so on."


The party has less than 3,000 enrolled members countywide, but there is no disputing its influence on races in the suburbs as well as playing a key role in some countywide elections.


The Conservative line made the difference in electing Republicans James Darbyshire and Dominick DeCecco to the County Legislature in 1992. Had they lost those races, the Democrats would have a veto-proof majority in the legislature and a much stronger hand in dealing with Republican County Executive Michael J. Hoblock Jr.


On the other hand, Democratic Legislator Timothy Nichols reversed his 1991 defeat by beating Republican Ed Buhrmaster by 84 votes in 1992 -- thanks to 308 votes on the Conservative line. Buhrmaster had the line in 1991 but Nichols got in 1992 with party backing.


County Comptroller Ed Stack won re-election in 1991 by just 1,054 votes with the help of 2,880 votes on Row C, while Republican Michael Stafford may have won the 1990 Surrogate's Court race if he had the Conservative Party line.


In last year's town races, Democrat Matthew Clyne nearly pulled off a stunning upset in the Bethlehem supervisor's race. He lost to Republican Sheila Fuller by just 52 votes, aided by 450 votes on Row C. Keenan gave Fuller the party line but Clyne won it in a primary.


In Guilderland, Democratic Town Chairwoman Mary Ruberti is convinced that her party would have won both seats on the Town Board up for election last fall if one if her candidates had the Conservative line.


Democrat William Aylward won a seat without the Conservative Party, but Ruberti said that Daniel Centi would have bested Republican Timothy Sheehan if he had the Conservative line. Sheehan won by 461 votes, with 380 votes coming on Row C. Take those votes from Sheehan and give them to Centi and he is on the Town Board, Ruberti argued.


"I couldn't get my people endorsed by the Conservative line," said Ruberti, who noted that the Conservative party decided to stay out of the town races and let party members decide who to back in primaries.


"They looked at each individual candidate and decided if those candidates have their beliefs," said Ruberti, who said the line is "extremely significant" in town politics. "I have to believe they are independent."


Bethlehem Republican Chairman Bernard Kaplowitz is a little more tentative with his assessment. Yes, Keenan has given GOP candidates the party line on a regular basis in recent years, but that was only after years of losing primaries to the Republicans.


"It would be futile for them to keep fighting with us," said Kaplowitz, who said Keenan has proven trustworthy as county chairman since taking over.


While Democrats stuffed the countywide Conservative party with their sympathizers, some Republicans have made it a point to stoke the party within their areas to ensure primary victories. Several GOP county legislators have relatives enrolled in the party.


But there are still people within the party, primarily those with ties to the state Conservative organization, with serious questions about Keenan's loyalties.


"The Democratic lock is as strong as ever," said Anthony Rudmann, executive director of the state Conservative Party.


First off, Keenan is a former Albany Democratic committeeman who has worked for the county in the print shop since 1988. He got that job -- which will pay $32,869 when new raises kick in this month -- as a provisional employee and earned civil service status without having to take a test because of his qualifications for the job.


Keenan was tapped as Conservative Party chairman a year after taking the county job despite the fact that he was not active in the party.


His former second vice chairman was F. Patrick Jeffers, who worked for years as the deputy county attorney under William Conboy, who sat at the right hand of two Democratic chairman. Jeffers is now a close aide to county Democratic Chairman Robert Signoracci.


Keenan's current first vice chairman, Dennis Ryan, is a longtime Democratic insider who has run campaigns for Democratic countywide candidates and works for the County Legislature at the pleasure of the Democratic majority.


Both Jeffers and Ryan got their vice chairmanships soon after changing enrollment from Democrat to Conservative -- a rapid rise for people who allegedly hadn't been involved in Conservative Party politics prior to their switches.


Need more evidence of the Democrats reach into the Conservative Party? Former Albany City Comptroller Robert Kukla changed his enrollment from Conservative to Democrat in 1992 just before the Democratic Party tapped him as comptroller. Legally, Kukla was still a Conservative at the time because his enrollment changed didn't take effect until several months later.


All that history means that Keenan is once again likely to face a challenge in the form of primaries for county committee seats this fall.


"There is hope, a slight hope," said Emil Kercsi, chairman of the Kelly-Morgan Independent Conservative Association, a dissident faction within the county party that is recognized by the state leadership.


Kercsi said he has been able to work with Keenan, but sees Ryan and his long history of Democratic politics as a real problem.


"He is the power behind the throne," Kercsi said.


Keenan claims he offered Kercsi a vice chairmanship as a peace offering two years ago but was rejected. He contends Rudman is the real obstacle to peace because he wants the power and is embarrassed in front of his state bosses that he can't win it by elections.


"They bad mouth me up one side and down the other," said Keenan, who said he tapped both Jeffers and Ryan because they are friends, are true conservative and have political expertise. "In the beginning, the party was truly a Democratic faction, but since 1989 I have done what I can to cut into that stigma."