Tuesday, March 31, 2009

End of the line

Somebody put Jim Tedisco on suicide watch. When the numbers finally come down this evening, it’s best that the veteran state legislator is kept away from sharp objects, strong pills and any other implement of destruction with which he could end it all before the stooges running his campaign realized something is awry.

Sure he looks upbeat; cautiously optimistic at the very least. But so do most self-destructive people shortly before they pull the ripcord on life. Tedisco is mere hours away from learning whether his utterly botched campaign for congress miraculously salvaged him a short stint in Washington, or if he lost the seat to a guy that nobody in the 20th district knew two months ago.

Either way, Tedisco theoretically should have won the race in a landslide. The electorate was firmly entrenched in his party’s favor. He has national recognition and nearly three decades of state government service. Simply put, he was a shoo-in 45 days ago. All he needed to do was nothing at all. The only obstacle stopping him from ascending to congress was time.

That all changed at the start of the race. The national and state Democrats came strongly to the aid of Glens Falls businessman Scott Murphy, a fellow who curried a significant amount of political clout in Missouri, but relative anonymity in the northern Adirondack foothills characterizing a good portion of the congressional district. Fresh from their wins in November, the Democrats injected money and punch into Murphy’s campaign, something that surprised Tedisco and many others during the dawning days of the race.

Stung by the emergence of Murphy, the lumbering Republican machine suddenly jolted into action. Run attack ads. Print accusatory mailers. Grab at straws. Say something about AIG. Maybe harp on Wall Street. Take the GOP playbook, tear out all the pages, and throw them up in the air like confetti; hope that at least one goddamn play floats down. But the more they clutched, kicked grabbed and bit at Murphy, the more he seemed to gain traction in the polls. In the end, he surpassed the flailing Tedisco campaign, which remained a solid four points behind.

Tedisco’s desperation was clear weeks earlier when the Republicans summoned the Hatchet. When John Ciampoli gets involved in an election, the GOP might as well announce they’ve taken off the gloves and are now clutching a strand of razor wire in each fist. Ciampoli, who was once the Pataki appointed counsel for the state Board of Elections, is the political equivalent of highly-trained hitman. His modus operandi is quite simple: Find a couple of small party shills, get them to sign a few waivers and then exploit every loophole in election law there is.

Like any hitman, Ciampoli can’t be linked to any specific candidate. And on paper, he’s only loosely affiliated with the GOP. But in actuality, he does the party’s dirty work whenever summoned. Just ask Brian Premo, who went several rounds against the litigator when he brazenly challenged the otherwise unopposed Joe Bruno for state Senate in 2006.

In the case of the 20th district’s special election, Ciampoli targeted state Libertarian Party chairman Eric Sundwall, whose campaign was starting to attract moderate voters rather than the few fringe danglers that typically gravitate to small party politics. But in a special election for a congressional seat that will expire in less than 20 months, some moderate voters on both sides of the bi-partisan isle were starting to consider him as an option; a protest vote to show up the two-party system.

With Sundwall out of the race, Tedisco probably figured he could split the Libertarian vote and again scramble above the election’s high-water mark. At the very least, he probably assumed the shunned freak vote would instead stay at home to stage their protest. So he employed a trio of card-carrying conservatives to challenge Sundwall’s ballots at the last minute, knowing the candidate didn’t have the resources, money or time to battle it out in court.

Among this trio was Don Neddo, the pathetic shill who helped rally support for the war in Iraq seven years ago. For those who don’t recall this sinister denizen, the ruling Republicans put him on a pedestal claiming he was a decorated war veteran that wanted to see the shimmering glow of freedom shine in the Persian Gulf, regardless of the cost. He was the point man for the so-called ‘Patriot Rallies’ that cropped up across the Capital Region. The rallies were fomented by Clear Channel Communications, a company beholden to the neo-conservatives that pounded the drum beat for war just as people were starting to question whether another one was needed. In the end, he was exposed for the fraud he is and sent packing back up into the darkest nether-region of the GOP’s bowels.

That was until he surfaced in favor of Tedisco’s campaign. Remarkably, Tedisco says people like Ciampoli and Neddo have nothing to do with his campaign. He also claims he has no power over the relentless attack ads that are being sent out by his party at the national level. In fact, he seems to claim he has no control over his campaign whatsoever; that his party is running roughshod over the district like a speeding bullet train without breaks. Needless to say, it’s a troubling assertion that doesn’t bode well for his future in politics.

But most pundits realize Tedisco is all bluster. He’s fully aware of what his party is doing and complicit in it. Even the national ads that incomprehensibly link Murphy to the AIG scandal seem to smack of Tedisco, who once claimed he’d swear off Heinze Ketchup to support George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.

Well, this is the end of the line. A loss for Tedisco today will likely spell his doom in future office. There’s a chance he might be recycled for a state senate seat. But aspirations for higher office will be stemmed there. Even if he wins, the outlook isn’t bright for Disco Jim. He’ll need to bring home a lot of bacon in a Democratic congress that will be less than welcoming to a guy who just spent 45 days bashing mules

Monday, March 23, 2009

City Center Cubed

Spending eight years with your head immersed in calculations and equations is a good way to lose touch with the environment around you. At the very least, such arduous studies are going to warp your sensibilities. Just ask the architects that designed the recently pitched city center expansion.

After nearly a decade of planning, the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority unveiled plans for the $16 million expansion project during their 25th anniversary gala. The architects’ neatly polished rendition shows a structure encapsulated in dark glass and shimmering in the afternoon sun. It shows people placidly walking by the new structure, not even taking notice of the giant erection looming over the Spa City’s main drag. Perhaps this is because the only remarkable feature of the exterior design is that it took nearly two years to produce.

Simply put, this building is an eyesore that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the hotel complex, much less the buildings along Broadway. The design doesn’t even fit in with the standards set by the modern high-rises that have popped up in every corner of the city. Even the not-so-appealing city center design today seems like more of a fit than the design the authority returned, which might have been loosely based on the movie “Cube.”

Instead of using brick –the material used in just about every other Broadway construction –the authority’s architect decided to rely on concrete and what appears to be stucco. Despite its prominent location and equally discernable faux-promenade on the recently renamed “Ellsworth Jones Place,” the building lacks a single identifiable entrance. No visible doors, just windows. After all, it’s good to keep convention goers guessing how to get into the place

But don’t worry. There’s a “grand staircase” inside –right next to the escalator. And the new building will have 22,000 square feet of space to “boost business by 40 percent over the next three years,” officials from the authority claim.

“The expansion on the corner of Broadway and Ellsworth Jones Place will bring renewed energy and appeal to the northern entrance of our primary business district by creating a dynamic and iconic corner,” authority President Michael Toohey said in a prepared statement published in the Daily Gazette last week.

Bring renewed energy? Is that by overshadowing all the other buildings on the street fitting with the architectural precepts of the late 19th and early 20th century? The sole exception to this statement is the city center and adjoining hotel, which are at least built with characteristic red brick.

The architect –or architects –producing the expansion design decided to toss existing design to the wind. Clearly, the idea was to create a design that stands out from everything in the city. Fortunately for the authority, they didn’t need to go through the normal planning process. Due to timing constraints associated with the roughly $12 million worth of state funding, the authority was allowed to forgo the normal planning process and is instead reporting directly to the City Council. And it’s evident too, given the design they unveiled.

True, the authority has a lot to contend with in the project. They’re basically land-locked, meaning they’re bound to build the new structure within the existing footprint. They also can’t build much further upward, given that the city center is already one of the tallest structures in the city.

Yet even given these constraints, the new design basically flouts any concept of local architecture, leaving some observers to wonder whether the authority a relied on the same uber-designers that officials from the state Office of Parks and Recreation and Historical Preservation hired to design the ‘IHOP in park’ last year. Oddly enough, the design for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center renovation –also dubbed the “SPAC Stack” –was created by Saratoga Associates, the architecture firm headed by former planning board chairman Bob Bristol. Public outcry sent that visual disaster back to the drawing board last fall.

But in the authority’s case, the nationally renowned HNTB Corp. was secured. The company has designed convention centers for Boston, Providence, Kansas City and San Diego. Among the designs, only the center in Providence seems to fit in character of the city. All the others appear to be plucked from Sci-Fi horror movie story boards.

Hopefully, the city’s four commissioners and mayor won’t decide to stand behind this design. Or at least they’ll offer some suggestions. If not, the burgeoning public outcry should be enough to convince them it needs some tweaking. This is a building that should be a centerpiece for design in the city, not a knock-off attempt at emulating big-city architecture that stands out like a sore thumb. True, the convention center is in dire need of an update. However, it shouldn’t come at the expense of landing a hideous black cube in the center of the city.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Sometimes there is a right person for a job, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. For example, Marcia White was the right person to head the Saratoga Performing Arts Center four years ago, even if it was for a fundamentally flawed reason: Her close connections to heavy-weight politician Joe Bruno.

At the time, the inexplicably mismanaged performing arts center was in financial disarray. The combined salaries of patronage king Herb Chesbrough and his wife Kathy were bilking nearly a half-million dollars from the public benefit corporation. So when Chesbrough finally departed, SPAC was drifting through dire fiscal straits, with the only possible rescue lying in the executive director’s ability to raise money for the nearly bankrupt venture.

Enter White, Bruno’s former press secretary, who had positively no experience running anything, much less a performing arts venue. Critics immediately jumped on White’s appointment, arguing her remarkable ascension from spokeswoman to executive director was yet another patronage dump, simply compounding the folly SPAC’s board committed when it basically handed Chesbrough an outlandish contract.

But SPAC’s powerbrokers quickly fired back, foisting White as someone connected in lucrative money circles and with the ability to harness some of that green to bring the performing arts center back in black. Lo and behold, they were right –or at least partially. Within her first year on the job, White managed to pull SPAC back to safe financial footing, something that was roundly lauded by her allies in a very ‘we told you so’ sort of way.

Well all this is ancient history now and SPAC seems to be drifting back into the same problems it had when White first took the job. Not surprisingly, that main problem is White’s bloated compensation for being what amounts to a social cheerleader who mails out fundraising announcements every other week.

Four years ago, members of SPAC’s Board of Trustees listed as “between $150,000 and $175,000” when White was first appointed. By the time she took over for Chesbrough, that figure was at $175,000. Come to find out today, her salary was a whopping $205,000, which pales in comparison to the more than $244,000 she made in 2006, as dutifully reported by the Daily Gazette Wednesday.

But wait. That’s not even the best part. SPAC doesn’t even know how much she made in 2007 or 2008. And they certainly weren’t prognosticating what she’ll make this year. So given the salary history and the fact that her salary increased by more than $25,000 before she even started the job, it’s not a far stretch to think she may be making close to what Chesbrough was earning before he was tarred and feathered in the news media for almost ending the annual New York City Ballet performance due to revenue losses.

The fact that White is even approached a quarter-million dollar salary after four years is even more astonishing considering it took Chesbrough –SPAC’s director from 1978 until 2005 –more than a decade to reach that mark. Also figuring into all this is the fact that no other comparable venue in the northeast pays their executive director as much as White. When confronted by all this, board chairman William Dake seemed to stammer a bit.

“We are an $8 million business,” he told the Gazette. “We interface with national organizations and it’s complicated. We have to deal with five different groups who we have to beat to death to get them to focus on the programming. And she started in a complex time. We didn’t have a lot of staff. She works her tail off.”

Beat to death? Works her tail off? Started in a complex time? One can almost imagine Dake stuttering with angst as he tries to come up with an applicable excuse for White becoming a millionaire at SPAC’s expense. What he’s really saying is things are back to normal at SPAC. Nothing has changed since the state released a scathing audit back in 2004. That’s really all there is to be gleaned from his stream of gibberish.

Worse yet is that Bruno, White’s main benefactor, is no longer in office. Nor does he seem in much of a position to throw around what little political clout he has remaining, thanks to a recent federal indictment. For the first time since she took office, White is alone in her endeavors at SPAC.

All this seems rather glower news considering the recession, one week being trimmed from the ballet this year and yet another Live Nation concert slate that doesn’t appear to be wowing the concert goers that do have money to dump on over-priced lawn seats. However, there is a simple solution to all of this: Dump Live Nation and let White earn her paycheck for a change.

Dake claims “[50] percent of the job is fundraising,” but doesn’t hint at what White does with the rest of her time at SPAC. Perhaps if she was working the phones and making connections, she could be hauling in concerts, soliciting vendors and running the operation so that SPAC gets a bit more than the paltry $1 million Live Nation offers them every year for throwing some of the worst concerts Saratoga Springs has seen over the past four decades or so.

Some argue Live Nation is the only way SPAC will ever book truly big-name acts. But the problem with this thinking is that SPAC must put on at least five stinkers to get just one big name. Even when the big names do come to perform, Live Nation is the one that makes off with the big payday, not SPAC. After all, they’re the ones that hit real pay-dirt with concession sales. Think the profit margin this company makes on just one 16-ounce Budweiser they sell for $8 in the industrial cattle pen some call a beer garden.

The best part about all this is that Live Nation’s contract expires this year and apparently they’re not all too keen on keeping the terms the way they are. So basically, it’s time to put White to the test. If she’s interested in getting paid like a major promoter, then it’s high time she start acting like one. SPAC is locked into this year’s program, but now is the time to start placing feelers for next season. And if she’s not up for the task, then perhaps it’s time for SPAC look for a new comprehensive director that will earn such a lofty paycheck. Either way, it’s time for the plug to be pulled on one of these experiments.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Is there anybody out there?

This just in: The race for the 20th Congressional District is still on! Yes folks, rub the winter out of your eyes and take a gander at this gallop as it comes down to the wire! Excitement, fancy, thrills beyond your wildest expectations! Hold onto your seats, because we’re only getting started!

At least, this is the impression most voters would get if they picked up a newspaper these days. But they don’t. And the battle for the 20th has really slipped off the radar for most people after they realized the two candidates vying for office really aren’t that different once the preposterous attack ads on television are tuned out. The main and perhaps only one is that they place different consonants behind their names, which is hardly a difference that rallies up the masses.

So far, the most exciting moment of the race was when the Democrats were trying to lure Stanley Cup winning goaltender Mike Richter into the fray. When they couldn’t land the former Ranger, there was a bit of curiosity over who they would put up against a showboat Jim Tedisco, who might as well pick up the ‘Hollywood’ moniker Joe Bruno used to carry so well.

Since then, this race has been a snoozer. And it’s not a surprise either. Winter is perhaps the worst time to conduct a campaign. Volunteers are sparse, and the few that do turnout hardly feel like tromping around in two feet of snow getting doors slammed in their faces.

So everything comes down to press coverage and sound bites. The charred crater that was once the Republican Congressional Committee has jazzed things up a bit by trying to help Tedisco’s campaign. Yet when this comes in the form of knocking Scott Murphy for an essay he wrote as an undergrad bashing President Eisenhower, it’s a real stretch calling this help at all. In truth, the best campaigning Tedisco could have done is no campaigning at all. Had he continued to be the ceaseless mouth of the state Assembly, he’d undoubtedly be running away with the race today.

Instead, the media is filled with ludicrous attack adds basically making Murphy out to be the second coming of Bernie Madoff. Assuredly, some conservative think-tank in Washington thought it would be a groovy idea to link these two names, thinking the fickle troglodytes of northern New York would surely buy it and wander out of their Adirondack caves to thwart the next big Ponzi scheme.

Unfortunately, these aren’t the people Camp Tedisco needs to win over. Even if they were, they’re a shrinking minority these days, hardly the folks that would sway an election in one direction or another. The 20th District race is all about the centrists, and these aren’t the type of voters that buy into the trip the RCC is shoveling. These are educated, middle-class people populating the city centers in the district. And they see through attack ads like granny’s underwear.

Proof of this lies in the polls, where Tedisco has taken an utter beating recently. He’s still bringing home the Republican vote. However, Murphy is making serious strides toward seizing the independents. Siena College placed Murphy a sparse four points behind Tedisco, who should theoretically be running away with the race. After all, he’s going up against a guy that has no name recognition and has never bothered with politics in New York. When the Democratic Committee announced Murphy would be running, the pundits answered with a as a round chorus of ‘who?!?’

Now, polls are tricky thing that should always be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, the only they really are good for is giving a race the appearance of being close. The print media seems to think they’re also good for selling papers, but this is a misnomer. Polls are all about giving the American public the carrot it needs to get out and vote. But if the polls aren’t close, they’ll probably stay home and watch American Idol or something even more frivolous –say reruns of Baywatch.

These same people will make a concerted effort to cast ballots if they think there’s a bona fide race afoot. Close polls tap an instinct that is learned very early on in life, that makes us thirst for the gut-wrenching feeling of the bottom of the ninth and the bases loaded; the field goal attempt at 50 yards with the game tied; the neck-and-neck race that has darkroom analysts inspecting photos to determine which hair on the horse’s nose crossed the finish line first.

So maybe a close poll is what this race needs to get people charged up. Maybe a narrow margin is the spice to give this otherwise milquetoast campaign some zing. After all, it’s kind of tough to get excited about the whole affair, when the winner will pretty much sit around Washington and stagnate for the next 16 months before starting a re-election campaign in 2010. All the while, voters can regale over how nice it is to burn through nearly $1 million of tax dollars just to throw such a worthless race.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Compounding tragedy

The Fay family was waiting for their comatose daughter to expire this weekend when an anonymous person decided to add to their misery. Using an article posted on The Saratogian’s Web site, the nameless online denizen decided to weigh in on the situation.

“I hope she dies,” the poster wrote, clearly without thinking too much about the impact of those four seemingly innocuous words as they traveled through cyberspace.

Just a day earlier, 30-year-old Erin Fay was driving down Jones Road when she hit a patch of ice. Her Subaru Forester careened off the road, plowed through a snow bank and hit a tree. The young woman was mortally injured. Doctors indicated she was brain-dead and would never recover. The Fays made the gut-wrenching decision to remove her from life support so at least someone could benefit from her healthy organs –the gesture would extend nearly a half-dozen lives.

Meanwhile online, a battle was erupting. Police at the scene of Erin’s crash sensed the presence of alcohol and charged the woman with driving while intoxicated, long before anyone knew of her dire condition. The Saratogian rightfully reported the news they were given and the hot-button term sent ripples of rage through the paper’s online site.

Even when the Fay’s daughter finally died Saturday afternoon, online readers were viciously ripping each other. Some argued about the DWI laws. Some offered spiteful thanks that she only killed herself. Some argued that all the arguing was only twisting the rusted screws that had impaled those who knew and loved the girl.

Astoundingly, the battle raged on for nearly two days after the death. Finally on Monday, editors at the Saratogian put an end to what had clearly grown out of control. The comments section on the original article and two subsequent articles were disabled and the trolls that had besmirched an already tragic situation disappeared into the dark recesses of the Internet.

Those who knew Erin Fay describe her as an all-around amazing woman who seemed destined for success. She carried a stunning beauty and was outgoing. But in black in white and to those who see the world in similar absolutes, she was just another DWI; a faceless person that embodied everything that’s wrong today. Hopefully in wake of the tragedy, there are a handful of overzealous keyboard jockeys re-evaluating their outlook on life.

Tragedy is tragedy, and the still somewhat tight-knit community of Saratoga Springs has seen too much of over the past week. The larger lummox-like Times Union and Daily Gazette were just warming to the Fay story Tuesday when a body mysteriously appeared along the dog walk trail in the State Park.

Quickly, the word spread across the Internet. The Times Union took the brashest approach by labeling the death of a male in his “mid-20s” a “homicide.” Though the TU was technically correct in their terminology –police investigate any unattended death as a homicide –the term also seems closely linked to the concept of ‘murder’ in the CSI-crazed eye of the generally uninformed public. And it’s looking like this characterization couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of in 19-year-old Alex Carsky-Bush.

Fortunately for the Carsky-Bush family, the internet hasn’t erupted into a frenzy of rants and pontifications about the death of their son. But unlike the Fay family, they now have to deal with a number of front-page articles focusing on their loss. At this point, the death has become so public that it’ll get broad media attention if it does turn out to be a case where no criminal wrong is found.

Update: The TU went out on a limb Wednesday evening, claiming police had linked the deceased boys apparent overdose to a Oxycotin robbery at CVS in Wilton Monday. The bombshell was dropped, but then curiously and quickly removed from their online site within a couple of hours. There was no mention of the link in Thursdays web or print edition. That didnt stop the Saratogian from jumping on what the extremely fragile limb the TU mashed. They were the lone paper to have anything about the connection in print.

Were iSaratoga to lend its expert counsel, all papers would be advised to drop this story until something official is released. There
s no glory in scooping anyone on a story like this. Accuracy is far more important than timeliness when it comes to the needs of a grieving family and theres no immenent threat to the community.

Sadly, police can usually determine with a good deal of accuracy the direction an investigation will turn within the first hours of a body being found. And the word is they already have in this case. But rather than ease the hyper-coverage of the media, they’ve kept things quiet. Now, the TU has a special ‘death investigation’ site that’s eagerly awaiting the autopsy results; the Saratogian, perhaps still stunned by how out-of-control their Fay story became, markedly downplayed their online coverage of the story Wednesday.

Like any new technology, the Internet has revolutionized human perceptions; the way we view ourselves and the way we view our peers. In a sense, the Web has depersonalized tragedy much in the same way that newspaper objectivity did back when people still bought them. The nearly instantaneous delivery of information has made pundits out of everyone and brought to the surface a new, grayer brand of callousness.

Police agencies continue to struggle with internet news. Just as they were learning to deal with newspapers, the Internet touched down. Now they seem inept when it comes to releasing all the information they have or none at all. For instance, it made little sense for the state police to charge Erin Fay with DWI, much less release this information to the Saratogian while her family was contemplating whether to take her off life support. Likewise, they would have certainly benefited from the police downplaying the death of Carsky-Bush, rather than baiting the media by calling it ‘suspicious.’

More in need of a manifesto are the free-wheeling anonymous legions of online media hounds. The advent of newspaper discussion sites first encouraged unfettered and unique discussions. These discussions can be enlightening and a good barometer for the issues that truly rile up a readership.

But they’re also giving birth to a new brand of callousness that seems to be replacing the now-stigmatized vitriol that swirled around issues of race, religion and sex. While you won’t catch too many of these righteous pseudo-pundits and quasi-trolls calling their targets ‘fag’ or ‘nigger,’ they won’t bat an eye about calling for someone’s death or worse, which can be just as hateful and sometimes even more hurtful that these slurs.

This is the ugly side of the First Amendment; the dark corner of free speech that shields and even promulgates shades of hate. Hopefully, a common ground can be found between all these elements before the courts and absolutests decide to stop the tide of free flowing information altogether. After all, free speech is a right that can quickly go up in smoke under the flames caused by its abuse.

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