Councilwoman says she seeks mayor's office with eye toward change

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Date: Monday, March 9, 2009

ALBANY -- There is a sign in front of Mayor Jerry Jennings' office that says, ''You must have an appointment; appointments are made by phone only; no walk-ins.''

Common Council President Shawn Morris, during her formal announcement Sunday that she will challenge Jennings in a Democratic primary this year, said the sign represents what Albany government has become -- a machine that caters to the politically and financially connected and ignores its citizenry.

''Mr. Mayor, I challenge you to take down the sign, that symbol of a locked-door government,'' Morris said in front of about 75 family, friends and supporters in front of Midtown Tap & Tearoom on New Scotland Avenue. ''Because I assure you, it will be gone on Jan. 1. Let's open up City Hall to the people who own it. It's our city, it's our City Hall.''

Morris, 52, who has served on Common Council for 16 years, is entering a potentially crowded Democratic primary. Her colleague, Councilman Corey Ellis, who represents the Third Ward in Arbor Hill, announced his candidacy March 2.

Resident Marlon Anderson says he's running. And four-term incumbent Jennings has strongly indicated he will seek a fifth term.

Morris didn't provide any specifics in her speech concerning the favoritism she said runs rampant in city government.

But afterward, the councilwoman said it stretches from getting trees planted to the current ghost-ticket scandal, which involves chosen citizens receiving special bull's-eye car stickers in order to get out of parking tickets.

Jennings' executive assistant, Bob Van Amburgh, said Jennings knew Morris would knock his administration, and prepared a statement ahead of time about the councilwoman's announcement.

''Ms. Morris has been in office for over 15 years and for over the past three years serving as president of Common Council. During this time, I've seen little evidence of leadership and even less of accomplishment,'' Jennings' statement said.

As for the sign, Van Amburgh said it was posted after concerns following Sept. 11.

Jennings was unavailable Sunday for comment, Van Amburgh said.

Attending Morris' announcement were Common Council members Cathy Fahey and Mike O'Brien -- perhaps a signpost of future tensions between supporters of Morris, Ellis supporters and those who will remain neutral. Council members Dominick Calsolaro and Barbara Smith side with Ellis, and Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin, the Democratic majority leader who is running to replace Morris, has not declared herself a supporter of either.

Morris is not the first woman to run for mayor but would be the first to win. Last election, Jennings easily turned aside a 2005 challenge from Green Party candidate and community activist Alice Green, defeating her by nearly 10,000 votes.

But unlike Ellis, who most recently served as chairman of Albany for Obama, Morris has shown she can win a citywide post. She was elected council president in 2005, defeating Sarah Curry-Cobb, a Jennings ally, in the Democratic primary. Before that, Morris spent 12 years representing the Seventh Ward. But her job as council president, while showing her viability citywide, also could be a hindrance. The post is in some ways largely ceremonial, running the council's meetings but only voting to break a tie -- a rare occurrence on the 15-member body.

Morris wouldn't say Sunday how much money she thinks it will take to run in a highly contested primary, but she acknowledged that fundraising will be difficult amid the economic downturn.

Both she and Ellis have had the backing of the Working Families party in the past, and both have already informally approached the WFP about their mayoral campaigns. The WFP, which has a strong presence in New York City, would provide access to campaign contributions well beyond the bounds of Albany -- and money will likely be a strong consideration in any primary against a well-funded and well-entrenched incumbent like Jennings.

Morris may also be able to count on support -- financial and otherwise -- from some quarters of the state Legislature. Her husband, John Wellspeak, is director of administration for the Assembly. Wellspeak attended the Sunday announcement, along with the couple's daughter, Alanna, 21. Their son, Devin, 18, is studying in China.

Morris said she wants to strengthen code enforcement and encourage small business growth to lift up blighted neighborhoods; develop a formal plan to address needed water, sewer and road repairs, and focus on getting neighborhoods more directly involved with the Police Department.

Candidates will need to collect at least 1,000 signatures this summer in order to get on the ballot.0

Lauren Stanforth can be reached at 454-5697 or by e-mail at lstanforth@timesunion.com.