Thursday, November 30, 2006


Don’t expect The Saratogian to get any Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce or Downtown Business Association awards for promoting the Capita Region this winter. While the advertising departments of every other local paper in the area generally promote local business with their online ads, the corporate sellouts on Lake Avenue have taken a new, more out-of-state approach: send tourists to Arizona.

What’s that loud yelling coming from Clinton Street? Is that Joe Dalton’s voice?

Click around The Saratogian’s Web site for a couple seconds and the teal-colored pull-down movie ad is bound to pop up at the header of the page boasting about the Grand Canyon State as an attractive travel destination this winter.

Among other things, the ad even boasts the present temperature in Arizona –today around 81 degrees –which is bound to become a tempting lure as the Capital Region dips into the dawning months of 2007. And if that doesn’t hook you into a trip, then perhaps a subscription to the online Arizona guide newsletter will.

Fill out a quick questionnaire and you’ll receive a bevy of information about tailor-made special offers and package deals that will make spending cash in Arizona seem much more attractive once the polished sheen the Chamber and DBA apply each the holiday season dulls with the permafrost of January.

Perhaps it’s the Journal Register Company that’s putting the paper up to posting this ad. But one would think that a quick call to the corporate offices would point out this obvious blunder and maybe replace it with something that would at least direct prospective tourists to an area in the region, say the state-run ski mountains in North Creek and Lake Placid.

Then again this is The Saratogian. And given their tendencies, it’s almost surprising they don’t have an ad boasting the finer points of the Saratoga TU leading their Web page.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pass the popcorn and amphetamines

Reading the quality of work produced by the northern region’s top news editors can be a stark reminder of why the small- to mid-sized dailies they preside over appear to be going nowhere but downhill. And fast.

Normally, a statement like that would be followed by the mention of a certain managing editor on Lake Avenue. But this time, the recalcitrance award goes to the Post Star city editor Bob Condon, who produced this gem of a narrated slideshow on the paper’s Web site after making a trip to the Crescent city last month. To his credit, it’s a short account, which is fortunate, seeing as though another few graphs would have needed counter-balancing with handfuls of amphetamines.

First, let’s point out some basics. Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2004, which was more than 14 months ago. There’s no breaking news, no anniversary follow-up, no new local news, other than Condon hits the Big Easy for a conference. This basically means that the story of Katrina recovery is dead for most readers in northern New York, barring usual circumstances warranting a feature, say a local group of blind Jehovah’s Witnesses single-handedly rebuilding New Orleans’ 9th Ward using stacks of surplus bibles and duct tape. But for everything else, it’s best to leave it to the Time Picayune or any of the host of other news agencies that toil in Louisiana.

Second, a travel journal of any distant venture can be interesting, provided it’s written with zeal and from the angle of an imbedded tourist, feasting on the marrow of a culture foreign to the readers. But when such writing is a quote-free account of what appears to be a bus ride through an impoverished neighborhood of a city that was in bad shape even before Katrina hit, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that is lost for even the most Byronesque writers.

Condon blasts right by these precepts and a dozen or so others he’d probably apply to his bullpen of writers to produce a pictorial that would make boring uncle Fred’s holiday slideshow about his recent trip to Gettysburg seem like a box office smash. No interviews, no color commentary, no insight, just New Orleans is recovering in places. And in others, it’s not.

For those who lack the fortitude to get through this 19-picture and 229-word account, here’s a quick recap: the Riverwalk Mall food court still hasn’t fully reopened and one of the poor saps that bit it after the hurricane struck is still dead and buried. Thanks for the news update, Bob. Perhaps you should stick to paginating.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Line 'em up

As one blogger rightly put it, the news coverage around the Thanksgiving weekend has become hackneyed enough that it’s now almost as traditional as the roasted bird. And one pillar of this same-as-last-year coverage is the rush to cover the racing people frantically buying all the garbage that was about to go into the half-price sale bin or get sent back to the manufacturer.

Black Friday has become synonymous with a culture hell-bent on the monolithic super deals at big box stores and maxing out decks of credit cards as if they were Ferraris on the autobahn. Buy more, buy it on sale and then put it on layaway so you save money. That’s the motto of this day, which for some has become almost a sporting event.

Perhaps that’s why editors of The Saratogian –in a rare moment of clarity –assigned a sports writer to the task to capture the play-by-play of the action at Wilton’s commercial death sprawl. In reading the article, one can almost envision sweat pouring from the brow of a short-breathed Shannon Robinson as she exits the buying frenzy for a post-game interview.

“My feet are a little cold, but they did a great job,” said the Connecticut resident during the recap, after waiting nine hours to make $64 purchase at Best Buy. “It was controlled and calm in the line.”

Sports indeed. Ask any Black Friday aficionado about their trade and they’ll tell it’s all about strategy; like running pages out of Don Shula’s playbook only in an isle-separated warehouse instead of on the gridiron. First, map out an offense and run the big-name items to get on the board; then tighten down the defense to round out the purchases and shoot to the shortest checkout line. Take no prisoners and show no fear. They smell fear.

Yes, shopping on Black Friday is an event that is staged with the same bravado that some reserve for Super Bowl Sunday, sans the wings, beer and spinach dip, but plus plenty of crullers, double-large mochachinos and an awful lot of time standing on line in what is inevitably arctic-like weather in the Capital Region.

But think about the savings, the shoppers say; think about the tradition that is Black Friday.

True, Black Friday has become quite the tradition for contemporary society. Although it’s tough to say when the phrase was first coined, it once came to symbolize the day the U.S. Government foiled a plot by a couple of chaps named Gould and Fisk, who attempted to corner the gold market in October 1869. Fallout from the debacle cause stock prices to sink 20 percent, export agricultural products to drop more than 50 percent and severely disrupted the national economy for months.

Then just two short decades later, Black Friday became known for the Johnstown Flood, which occurred when the shoddily constructed South Fork Dam ruptured and sent a wall of water surging through the Conemaugh River valley. More than 2,200 people died as a result of the breach and the bustling Pennsylvanian metropolis was reduced to a pile of tinder; a Black Friday indeed.

Internationally speaking, Black Friday is known among labor unions to denote a variety of struggles with government and corporate entities. In 1910, a crowd of more than 300 women suffragettes were brutally assaulted by police after the British House of Commons denied them the right to vote. Nine years later, some 60,000 Scottish workers rioted in Glasgow’s George Square, after a rally to shorten the work week turned violent. The result was 10,000 English troops being sent into the city to quell what some feared to be an unfolding bolshevist revolution.

More recently, Black Friday has come to symbolize the day the soon-to-be-deposed Shah of Iran sent tanks and helicopter gunships to mow down more a group of otherwise peaceful demonstrators, who were protesting his rule in September 1978. More than 80 protesters died as a result, polarizing popular opinion against the monarchy and fomenting the Iranian revolution later that year. This ultimately lead to the ascension of the Ayatollah Khomeini; a dark name for dark times.

Given this history, it’s somewhat befuddling that merchants and shoppers happily apply this sinister nomenclature to a festival-like spending spree supposedly representing phenomenal savings for the buyer and block-buster sales for mrechants. Perhaps Black Friday is fitting, given the present state of consumerism –rather the mind set of most consumers –in this great nation of ours.

Ironically, the longest line to be found in any store on Black Friday was the string of people wrapping around Walmart, waiting with shopping carts stacked above their shoulders with items to be placed on layaway on the day everyone is supposed to be saving money. Not one of the many articles and new casts that adorned the Capital Region Saturday bothered to mention this little oddity.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

To assume...

In the course of two weeks, The Saratogian has reported a total of two deaths in two articles –one by Managing Editor Barbabara Lombardo –and assumed that there were criminal acts involved in each instance. And for the second time in two weeks, the newspaper is eating crow for using what could be termed as sensationalism at best; at worst flat out misreporting the news.

Not even a week removed from the incident at Saratoga West trailer park, the paper printed an equally dubious front page article about a pair of bodies being found on West Avenue. Read now by nearly 3,000 people online and the usual 10,000 in the normal daily circulation, the article caused quite the stir among the city’s populace over the weekend as well is should.

Lombardo’s lead assumes the worst, stating the cops had launched a “criminal investigation” into the deaths. Even though the article is markedly toned down by the end –the county district attorney assures the public is not at risk –the assertion there is something criminal at hand is a leap few law enforcement officers would take given the circumstances at the house, all which suggested the deceased had spent a good deal of time chugging antifreeze.

Back to newspaper etiquette regarding suicide; while one self-inflicted death isn’t likely to draw media attention, the stakes are much higher with two. A pair of suicides could mean a murder-suicide is at play, which is just sadistic enough to get the presses rolling. Double suicide, well, that’s still on the line. But in this case, a distraught couple’s choice of antifreeze made it bizarre and sadistic enough to attract attention.

Now for a brief chemistry lesson brought to you by Valvoline, the makers of Zerex Extended Life Antifreeze; protect your engine against liner pitting and corrosion.

Contrary to what some might thin, antifreeze isn’t an unpleasant substance to drink. In fact, the chemical compound Ethylene Glycol is sweet and even palatable enough that small children, pets and even wild animals are drawn to consume it. The immediate effect is something similar to being drunk –some moonshiners even use this substance to kick it up a notch so to speak.

However, this is where any pleasant properties of antifreeze consumption end. The substance is eventually metabolized into oxalic acid, a chemical commonly found in household cleaners. When in the blood stream, the acid bonds to calcium and eventually forms kidney stones. And as anyone who has suffered them could attest, kidney stones aren’t exactly a pleasurable experience. Drinking gallons of antifreeze puts this naturally-occurring process into overdrive, ultimately causing intense pain, vomiting and assorted other nasty complications associated with acute kidney failure. As little as two tablespoons of the substance is known to be lethal.

On an ironic side note, the one way to counter-effect antifreeze consumption is to drink large quantities of vodka. Of course, it should be noted that such a technique could ultimately lead to cirrhosis, so you’re probably better off just avoiding antifreeze consumption.

Chemistry aside, The Saratogian has exerted a certain degree of bloodlust as of late that’s a bit above and beyond the normal boundaries of coverage. Even after two wild goose chases in two weeks, the paper is again sniffing around a suspicious death before anything concrete is known. This time, it’s the death of a grandmother more than 100 miles away; her 34-year-old grandson is listed as a “person of interest” who may or may not come visit his father’s residence near the border of Fulton County.

True, among news aficionados, getting the scoop on the competition is an adrenaline rush that would send any press junky reeling. Moreover, getting badly scooped by the competition is a beating no reporter ever wants to experience twice.

But these are internal and intangible industry pressures that most people among the news reading public don’t understand and could care less about. Seldom is there a reader who will pick up a paper one morning and determine to change his or her reading habits based on a single scoop.

What does change reader habits is a long track record of slanting or misreporting the news to make it more sensational. Even if this is unconscious sensationalism on the part of the Saratogian writers, it certainly should be caught on the copy desk; if not there then by Lombardo herself. But given the nearly record number of readers who read her tripe about the double West Avenue suicides, it’s more likely the managing editor will continue to borrow pages from the Ruppert Murdoch playbook of modern journalism.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Cold relief in a 16 oz. glass

With Friday’s happy-hour beer on ice across the region, take a moment to consider stop off at Clancy’s Geyser Sports Pub Geyser Road on the way home to imbibe in a quick libation. Yes, the beer here is ice cold and the drinks cheaper than at any watering hole along the Spa City’s bourbon strip.

And if you do stop by, don’t get agitated if it takes few minutes to get a drink. After all, the bar is a bit short staffed today.

So instead of rolling your eyes or tapping your foot, contemplate the poor bastard who’s now locked in county jail, embroiled in a criminal court case just because he chose to crash at the wrong trailer in the wrong trailer park at the wrong time. Then once you’ve been served a brimming pint of cheap swill, pluck a crisp Hamilton from your pocket, slap it on the bar and demand that any remaining change go toward springing the wayward Justin Ure from the clink.

True, blackouts are indicative of a pretty solid drinking habit, which might be why the Milton Town Justice set bail at $1,000 cash. Still, that’s an awful lot of money to come up with for a 25-year-old living in a trailer park and now facing misdemeanor charges.

See, after four days of intensive investigation and three days of mulling the case, Saratoga County Sheriff’s investigators believe that Ure knowingly entered or remained unlawfully in a dwelling. Yet Ure apparently doesn’t remember ever entering the home or depositing a fair amount of his hemoglobin everywhere. It could be argued that he remained their unlawfully, but then again, nobody told him to get out. As Sheriff James Bowen put it, “he left on his own power” in the morning.

Still unclear is how much damage was left in wake of the unlawful overnight stay, but it highly doubtful that the drunken man’s leaky cranium cost the homeowner anywhere near to $1,000 it will cost him to get out of jail. Such a cost could likely be worked out between the two parties involved, seeing as though the only thing hurt in the whole case was the pride of the cops who took four days to figure out they had no crime at all. And that’s probably the main reason Ure now finds himself in jail.

So grab a cold one at the Geyser Sports Pub and throw a handful of dollars to the Ure relief fund –not to be confused with the Err relief fund –and free the man who had a bit too good of a night go remarkably bad.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lessons learned

Note to the parents or guardian of Jason Levine of Ballston Spa: please pick up your truant son who, like many other deadbeat money-grubbing vagrants staked out at department stores across the region, is presently loitering in the vicinity of Blimpee’s inside the Route 50 Walmart.

Call it a case of aged recalcitrance or just plain old fashion principles, but how in the bloody hell is a 16-year-old high school junior and several classmates cutting three days worth of classes to get an over-priced video game console to hawk on eBay at an exorbitant rates? Better yet, what’s going through their parents’ minds to allow these teens to participate in a craze that exploits and exemplifies the most heinous aspects of the nation’s consumer culture?

And why, pray tell, is the managing editor of the city’s newspaper not asking these questions while interviewing this kid for a bandwagon article she chose to write instead of assigning it to her reporters?

All bizarre questions to be answered in this strange age of ours, as lines desperate adolescents snake around Walmarts and Best Buys, like they once did the soup kitchens during the Great Depression. There’s really no explanation for the phenomenon of camping out for a consumer good. It didn’t make sense with Tickle Me Elmo, and it sure as hell doesn’t make sense for the long-awaited Play Station 3, which was supposed to be available last spring.

One would assume that gamers could hold their water –and money –for an extra few months having waited all this time. But no, it’s straight to eBay for the purchase of a game machine selling at more than four times the retail price. Exacerbating this absurdity is the fact that the cash some are bound to spend on this system could be put toward building a supercomputer of sorts infinitely more useful and powerful than the latest of tricks pulled from Sony’s bag of corporate marketing.

Then there’s the 16-year-old kid, who tells the managing editor of The Saratogian that he’s hoping to score a quick $1,500 by ditching class. Undoubtedly, if he’s talking to Barbara Lombardo, he’s received permission from his parents to spend up to 72 hours waiting for this pile of silicon and plastic; a sad commentary indeed.

Sure, his parents could make the argument that these students are learning a valuable lesson about the U.S. consumer economy and entrepreneurial spirit; being at the right place at the right time to get the big payout. But more likely, he’s learning that sitting around on his ass at a fast food restaurant will earn more rewards than attending class like most normal kids.

Hopefully, for his sake and the sake of the many others who fan the flames of this sort of hysteria, the eBay market is hyper-inflated with sellers, which it appears to be –one auction had the console system for sale at the ludicrous price of $25,000. If this is the case, young Jason Levine and many others will soon to learn the same valuable lesson that so many learned on a fateful afternoon in October 1929.

An even better lesson would be if the principal of Ballston Spa High dished out some detention notices to Levine and the three other dolts participating in the nonsense. Too bad The Saratogian's readers can't give such a punishment to Lombardo for her shoddy article.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The world according to sports

Imagine the work week involved strolling into the office at quarter-past four in the afternoon to rap by the water cooler about who’s the best left-hander in baseball until shipping off for some early-evening pizza a few hours later. Around seven, you click on the game and watch it for three hours or so before finally sitting down to do some real work: coming up with snappy anecdotes to describe how bad the game was or how good the home team played.

Yes, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in the realm of sports journalism; a real pressure-cooker. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see the beer-breathed sports guy sauntering into an otherwise white-collar office donning a bawdy Hawaiian shirt and a Jagermeister hat. Wearing any sort of semi-formal attire might push them over the edge while they’re watching the final seconds tick down in a dead-locked Knicks game.

But in the wide world of Lombardo, sports writers are the “A” line at deadline. These guys are the dry-browed chaps who stare with cold eyes at the deadline clock, then coolly pull together the sports section as though they were blindfolded, she marveled while pulling together last week’s election results; the true clutch hitters of the newsroom.

Clutch hitters indeed.

This is not to say most sports writers don’t face a certain level of difficulty. Seldom is there a sight more pathetic than watching one of these normally jovial reporters get a brutally tempered tongue-lashing from a scorned parent whose kid got blasted in print for blowing the lead in the big game; it’s sort of like witnessing a pair of golden lab puppies get repeatedly flogged by an oafish redneck wielding an oak switch. Not to mention, extracting plausible quotes from the rantings of low-level coaches who never mentally left the football field after high school can be quite a challenge in itself.

But to suggest that these guys face more difficulties than the standard news reporter is almost laughable. While the rules of baseball, football golf or any sport remain fairly static, the landscape faced by the standard general assignment reporter is fraught with incongruities that are impossible to quantify when the element of deadline is added in.

Most low-level reporters are faced with getting a crash-course in state law, local politics, county history and statistics; environmental issues, health code, building code and town ordinances; all while watching the minute hand of the clock spin like it’s gauging seconds. This is why veteran news reporters often begin to take on a haggard look, almost like they've had spent one too many years entrenched in the unforgiving mines of the news business.

As anyone who has tried to churn out 600 words of prose digestible at the seventh grade level while leafing through a book that’s standard Albany Law curriculum could attest, being a sports writer, while not a menial task by any means, is not exactly the definition of pressure cooker job. In fact, it’s a job that just about any sports aficionado would probably kill to have. Come in late, watch sports all day, then take a set of creative liberties with writing that are often not afforded to other reporters, but necessary in sports journalism to make the musings of some high school jock sound elegant.

No, covering sports doesn’t sound that bad. That's at least until the first paycheck comes from the Journal Register Company.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Leave it to the drunk guy

After a weekend worth of speculation, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department has finally released details about the “crime scene” at the Saratoga West trailer park. Contrary to The Saratogian’s report Saturday, the incident didn’t have anything much of anything to do with homicides or rapes. Then again, it also didn’t have anything to do with suicide.

Instead, leave it to the hammered guy to throw everyone a curveball.

Undersheriff Michael Woodcock reported Monday that a 25-year-old Ballston Spa man apparently wander into the trailer at lot 85 bleeding profusely from three-inch gash on his dome. The man lived at a different trailer park just a bit further down the road and, in his intoxicated stupor, wrongly chose Saratoga West as his final destination. After taking a brief nap and depositing a fair amount of blood around the home, he wandered off.

And in his travels, he managed to shed his hat, a shirt and his identification around the trailer park for the super-sleuths of the sheriff’s department to track him down four days later. That’s some good work, Lou.

Apparently, the man was so tanked that he didn’t even remember wandering into the trailer or ever being in the trailer period. Neither did the trailer’s resident, who returned to find the bloody scene Thursday afternoon, much to his chagrin. But all in all, there appears to be no real crime committed, as the drunken fellow didn’t break into the home or take anything while there; in fact, he actually left some free blood and a T-shirt.

So to recap, no murder, no real crime, just four days of investigation, a bloody mess, and what was likely a real bad hangover for a poor sot with quite the headache in the morning. Hopefully, investigators will cut their losses and realize there’s no way to properly mete out justice in this case through the courts. At the very most, they should insist the guy foot the cleaning bill.

After all the hype, one would think The Saratogian would have been all about adding a bit of humor to pot, maybe to ease some of the tension built up over four days. Instead, 10,000 loyal subscribers got this double-byline gem, which despite the dramatic change in tone of the story, still includes superfluous quotes from trailer park residents concerned about a killer or some other nefarious character on the loose.

There is hope, however, that The Saratogian and any other media source that jumped on the story learn a valuable lesson about jumping to conclusions before someone in the know goes on the record with details. Then again, maybe someone should just buy them all a “jump to conclusions” mat for the holidays to help the editors make key news decissions.

There's a killer on the road

There’s nothing like running a front page article about a mysteriously blood-splattered trailer in Milton with all the markings of a homicide on Saturday, only to clam up about the incident the next day. It’s sort of like getting hooked into a good Agatha Christie novel at the local library only to realize too late that some rude bastard has tore out the last three chapters.

Such was the case during this weekend’s bang-up coverage by The Saratogian, which has again provided a text-book example of bad journalism. Saturday’s rag contained a prominent front-page article with photos that described how dozens of cops from the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department and the state police descended upon the Saratoga West trailer park in Milton Thursday evening and proceeded to cordon off the area by lot 85.

Using the headline “Bloody Milton Mystery,” the paper claims the police were investigating “a crime scene that has all the markings of a homicide.” There were unconfirmed reports of a bloody scene with “all the markings of a homicide” and police helicopter hovering overhead. Sheriff’s investigators declined to comment on their presence in the park and concerned neighbors vetted about their angst regarding the mysterious investigation. And The Saratogian was there to listen.

Other news agencies, mainly the print media, weren’t too eager to jump on the story —and with good reason. See, often times when police sources refuse to give even a meager morsel to the press about an investigation, it usually means there isn’t a morsel to be given, as is the case with most suicides.

One of the quandaries of journalism is covering suicides, which unless done in a very public manner, are often shunned by most media outlets. While news agencies have absolutely no shame in contacting a grieving widower or family member even before the body cools in the minutes after a horrific tragedy, there is a line that isn’t crossed for those who take their own lives.

As the television news channels revel in saying, there’s no word yet from the sheriff’s department about what occurred out at Saratoga West. They’re supposedly preparing a press release to sum up the incident, but deputies were in no apparent hurry to get the information out this weekend, which is a good sign they’re not looking for an ax murderer on the rampage.

Not that there isn’t at least one killer on the road. Or a bloody Milton mystery that still hasn’t been solved by the sheriff’s department sleuths. In fact, there’s at least one confirmed murder in Milton that neither The Saratogian nor the sheriff’s department have made a peep about since last March.

Christina White’s brutal stabbing more than a year ago is proof again that once the blood dries up, so does the interest in solving or publicizing the case. One could argue that the grisly headline and above-the-fold front page placement of the so-called Milton mystery in The Saratogian would be better served in drawing attention to a real unsolved murder, not just hearsay among the trailer park.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Requiem for a Congressman: an ironic political obituary

Embattled Congressman John Sweeney looked out across a somber oom of republican supporters gathered at the Holiday Inn and finally faced the music.

“I’m only sorry that I let you down,” he told the crowd, as he conceded the 20th District to challenger Kirsten Gillibrand, the first democrat to take the seat in nearly three decades.

Among the many upsets that swept the people’s house out of republican control, Sweeney’s loss might not seem like much more than a footnote to the otherwise nightmarish political drubbing taken by the Grand Old Party. Yet his colossal rise to power and subsequent plummet to political ruin are deserved more than a mere mention in the glossary of the 2006 midterm Election.

In his younger years, Sweeney was perhaps the antithesis of the gluttonous icon he’s most recently portrayed. Growing up the son of a blue-collar factory worker in a somewhat rough-and-tumble area of Troy, he seemed the prodigal child of the proletariat. Like his father, Sweeney was also active in the labor movement, becoming a member of the Newspaper Guild while working ironically for the circulation department of the Albany Times Union.

By many accounts, Sweeney was a self-made man, who worked hard for associate’s degree at Hudson Valley, a bachelor’s in political science from Sage College and finally a law degree from Western New England College. During the 80s, he served as Rensselaer County’s Stop- DWI program director and remained in relative political obscurity until becoming an aide to GOP heavyweight William Powers.

Ultimately, it was from this relationship that the congressman’s career was ultimately bore. He made the head of the state’s Republican Committee and then honed his politcal acumen working as an insider on the successful senate campaign of Alfonse D’Amato in 1992.

It wasn’t until two years later that Sweeney hit his pay dirt by helping Rudolph Giuliani's successful campaign for New York City mayor and George Pataki’s bid for the governor’s office in 1994. Ironically at the time, the GOP was seizing hold of the House of Representatives in Washington with a grip they would not relinquish until now.

Sweeney’s loyalty and past labor movement history earned him Pataki appointment as head of the state Labor Commission, where he stayed until Pataki called on him again during his bid for reelection in 1998. Sweeney’s continued party loyalty made him the ideal candidate to succeed long-time Rep. Gerald Solomon in 1998, after the congressman held the district for two decades.

But Sweeney didn’t coast to election. He battled an ugly primary win against four challengers that depicted him as a district outsider who refused to debate them and as being handpicked by Pataki and Powers. Even after securing the nomination, he was forced to ward off criticism after the Saratoga County Democratic Chairman brought alleged that Sweeney’s estranged wife Betty had an order of protection against him.

How ironic.

Still, Sweeney’s name stayed largely out of the national spotlight during his freshman term in the house. That is, until the congressman decided to go on vacation to Florida’s Dade County in November 2000. As the hotly contested presidential recount simmered in the Miami heat, Sweeney jumped to attention with the move that ultimately earned him the nickname Congressman Kickass from newly elected President Bush.

“Then the Three Counting Sages repaired to semi-isolation, forcing TV cameras to watch through a window and keeping reporters 25 feet away,” recalled Wall Street Journal correspondent Paul Gigot. “That did it. Street-smart New York Rep. John Sweeney, a visiting GOP monitor, told an aide to ‘Shut it down,’ and semi-spontaneous combustion took over.”

Republicans descended upon the vote counters chanting "Three Blind Mice" and "Fraud, Fraud, Fraud" in what would later be termed the Brooks Brothers Riot. Sweeney later told The Associated Press he didn’t recall his exact words, just that he urged the masses to stop the recount. The rest is history.

Less than six months later, the now well-known Sweeney managed to shut down something else: the power to Willard Mountain and dozens of surrounding homes. In what was to be the first of Sweeney’s many missteps and abuses of power, he commandeered his 2001 Jeep Laredo into a telephone pole, trapping dozens of skiers on the mountain’s lifts. Despite admitting to having “one or two” glasses of wine, the congressman was never tested for driving while intoxicated.

What followed was five years of corruption and scandal that hovered over Sweeney like a dark cloud that never seemed to get enough momentum to rain down. The list of indiscretions seems to go on at infinitum; ties to Abramoff, trips to the Marianas Islands to ironically support the small nation’s sweatshop-conducive labor policies, paying his future second wife thousands of dollars to be a political consultant, charging the Olympic Regional Development Authority nearly $30,000 for congressional ski trips in Lake Placid, being top on the list of congressmen accepting money from lobbyists. Yes, this guy was a one-in-a-million politician.

In the end, what probably killed Sweeney’s campaign was abandonment by the ambitious Pataki, who is more concerned with the electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire than the fate of New York’s flailing GOP. No longer do names like Powers and D’Amato strike fear in the hearts of opponents like they once did. And Giuliani, well he was too busy capitalizing on his 9-11 fame to be bothered with state or national politics –at least not for another year.

Sweeney was also hung out to dry by the national Republican Committee, which spent more time fighting to hold U.S. Senate seats than bothering with the doomed house. In the end, it was the Times Union’s one-two punch that knocked him out. Breaking the Marianas Island story over his bow one week before publishing a story about his alleged choking of his wife was enough to sink the S.S. Sweeney to the murky waters of the political graveyard.

Mind you, Sweeney’s career in politics is not done. There are plenty of party names that would be more than happy to pull his battered hull from the depths; the names Pataki and Giuliani come instantly to mind. But for now, he’ll nurse the wounds he sustained from his dramatic but ironic fall from party grace.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dead and bloated

With the electorate fired up today for another whirlwind mid-term election, it’s a bit late to be proselytizing about any particular stance toward candidates or, in the case of Saratoga Springs, the charter referendum. But what should be on the top of peoples’ minds as they exit polling places across the city is what an abysmal waste of money this election posed for both state and federal offices, as well as the taxpayers themselves, who apparently funded a last-ditch effort by the charter amendment contingency to seize a handful of votes.

Like many days over the past two months, city residents came home Monday to a mailbox chocked full with Election Day mailers. This time, it was a peculiar piece of literature titled “Voter’s Guide” in bold blue lettering with “to the Proposed Amendment” written beneath in slightly smaller print. The return mailing address is listed as City Hall, giving the reader the impression that this is indeed an independent guide sent by the city.

What is less obvious on the outside is that the 2006 Charter Revision Commission drafted the document and sent out 10,000 copies using what The Saratogian reported Tuesday as $5,000 worth of city funds.

True, in this day in age, five grand isn’t much. In fact, won’t buy much more than a dinner with John Sweeney and a pair of pictures with Laura Bush, with some chump change to call a cab afterward. But for New York’s proletariat, $5,000 is big money. In fact, it’s more than 10 percent of the average household income in the Empire State.

That’s not necessarily money that should be tossed out the window on a late mailer after the city already sponsored hearing after hearing to explain in great detail both sides of an issue that has obviously polarized the electorate. While the literature is informative, it is also quite clearly biased to supporting the referendum, which is definitely a questionable move when using tax dollars, as Charter Commission Chair Amanda Hiller asserts.

But if the Charter Commission really wanted to get the message out, then perhaps they could have personally visited the homes of registered voters to spread the word. Given the number of registered voter homes, each of the commission’s 14 members could have made knocks on roughly 714 doors over the past month to spread the word and save tax dollars. And if this sounds unreasonable, then look no further than Mayor Valerie Keehn’s run last year, when she waged a similar door-knocking grassroots-style campaign to unseat the incumbent.

Of course, those days of lean campaign spending are over. Now getting the message out is all about glossy ads, television plugs, lawn signs, and a host of other tactics that were once left to telemarketers or used car dealerships. So gross is campaign spending this year that just the federal mid-term elections have cost more than $2.6 billion.

Yes, that’s right, $2.6 billion. Say it twice. Let it roll off your tongue; two point six billion dollars, spent on some of the ugliest, nastiest propaganda that would make even Joseph Goebbels cringe with pride. That’s more than half the annual gross domestic product of Haiti, Zimbabwe and Nicuragua; this exceeds the GDP of Rwanda, Mongolia and Belize.

In the United States, given the average cost to educate a student from kindergarten through high school runs roughly $9,000 per year, this money could have paid for 24,074 students to earn their degrees. Or look at it this way: $2.6 billion could have lessened the burden on countless homeowners who are finding it increasingly difficult to pay their taxes, which most of the politicians using this campaign fund pledge to reduce –but never do.

Instead, this cash went to fund garbage can fodder in an attempt to advertise bloated candidates and causes, half of which will likely get shot down by voters this evening. It’s all food for thought tomorrow morning, when the lawn signs and confetti fliers will be nothing more than a grim reminder of what waste this nation has bore witness to this election season.

Monday, November 06, 2006

When the going gets wierd...

...the weird turn pro, a somewhat drugged out journalist once said. And in the case of the gloves-off bout between republican incumbent John Sweeney and democrat challenger Kirsten Gillibrand, the going has definitely gotten weird. This is not to say Sweeney or Gillibrand have gone pro, so to speak. Rather, both are looking to the pros for help to win the 20th congressional district's seat in the waning hours of this bloody mud-slinging campaign.

Amid his campaign's inept bungling, Sweeney has watched his lead over Gillibrand finally evaporate in a poll released by Siena College Sunday. In and of itself, this is not surprising given the veritable procession of bad news that has followed Sweeney around like the storm cloud that often hovers over Charlie Brown on an otherwise sunny day.

First there was news of the December 2005 domestic altercation, which Sweeney and his wife vehemently denied, rather than coming clean about the incident and moving on. In an equally mind-boggling move, he appears on the stump smiling next to George Pataki, who has successfully irked both sides of the political spectrum with his brazen patronage and wastrel governorship. Then to compound everything, Camp Sweeney comes out with a statement that they won’t release any documentation about the domestic incident under the professional advice of E. Stewart Jones, one of the Capital Region’s most notorious lawyers.

But the weird doesn’t stop there. After a weekend spent out of the public view and while his former 14-point lead dipped a solid 18 points to put Gillibrand ahead in the polls, Jones fired back, blasting the Times Union, Daily News and Newsday for collaborating in a bizarre conspiracy to sink Sweeney’s ship.

Now we’re talking weird.

According to Jones, the police report given to the press last week was leaked by none other than Howard Wolfson, a top advisor to former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is widely believed to have presidential ambitions. Jones told several news agencies that he believes Wolfson promised unabashed access to the future Clinton campaign in exchange for the timed release of the deleterious document.

And Camp Sweeney’s response to this mayhem? Show up at the Milton Town Hall for no apparent reason.

As Sweeney flounders, Gillibrand is seeking the final nail to hammer into his coffin by appearing with the Clintons at a quick-stop rally at the Warren County Airport. This appearance falls just two days after the congressional candidate and senator snubbed a fundraising event for children with disabilities in the Spa City, according to a typical one-source article appearing in The Saratogian this weekend. The organizer of the event at the Excelsior Avenue VFW Post said there wasn’t going to be any opportunity to speak or wave political signs at the event, which is probably why both politicians chose not to attend.

Instead, Camp Gillibrand left behind three pictures autographed by retired Stanley Cup winning New York Rangers’ goaltender Mike Richter, who has about as much to do with the 20th Congressional District as hockey does with formulating policies in Washington. True, Richter is a Yale graduate who has dabbled in other campaigns this year, most notably the battle for the 19th Congressional District by former Orleans front man John Hall.

Just a quick recap for those suffering from attention defict disorder: John Sweeney is doing his Charlie Browniest to turn his campaign around, E. Stewart Jones is trying to ferret out the modern-day Deep Throat with less than a day of stumping to go and Kirsten Gillibrand is humming “Still the One” while watching reruns of the Rangers’ 1994 cup run with the Clintons. Yes, the going has indeed gotten weird.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

You choose, you lose

If one ever wanted to see the deep partisan divisions that have bisected society lately, they wouldn’t need to look much further than the gigantic Old Glory hanging near the Clifton Park exit on the Northway. Though the vandalism that struck this oversized flag has since been painted over, the vitriol that has simmered since the turn of the century continues to openly roil amid perhaps the ugliest of elections in recent history.

It’s us against them, they say. Choose them and you’ll lose the moral high-ground. Choose them and you’ll toss the office to a crook. Choose them and bad things will happen. No doubt, the gloves are off on this one.

First, there was the race for state comptroller, when in late September, republican candidate Chris Callaghan mysteriously unearthed evidence that incumbent watchdog Alan Hevesi was using thousands of state dollars to shuttle his sick wife around. The scandal turned the former Saratoga treasurer from a dark horse candidate without a snowball’s chance in hell to a viable challenger who, depending on voter turnout, could unseat his opponent.

As Hevesi’s numbers plummeted further last week, the state Ethics Commission gave further rebuke of the comptroller. Hollywood Joe Bruno stood up on the pulpit and raised Cain over the burgeoning scandal, calling for Hevesi’s immediate resignation; similarly, lame-duck Governor George Pataki decided to weigh in on the matter, delving out an almost equally stiff rebuke.

And then this week, the tide has apparently turned in the heavily weighted race in the 20th Congressional District after the Times Union and New York Daily News got hold of documents that allegedly prove that Congressman Kickass was kicking his trophy wife’s ass. In typical firebrand fashion, John Sweeney threatened to sue to the press for libel, then pointed the finger at directly at his challenger, democrat attorney Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s campaign he accused of fabricating the state police report released to the paper.

Of course, Sweeney supporters can revel in the fact that the congressman seems to be a proverbial alley cat when it comes to politics; he’s no less than nine lives and for some reason he always lands on his feet. He last coasted to election despite having slammed his SUV into a utility pole after chucking back hooch at Willard Mountain. No one has really cared either about the sweetheart deal his son received last year to avoid prison –ironically around the time he’s accused of throwing Gaia or Gayle around by the neck. Then there were the free ski trips, hammering beers with Union’s Alpha Delts, his connections to Abramoff, the paid trips to the Mariana Islands to support slave labor.

More than likely, Sweeney will land on his feet one more time and win the district, much to the chagrin of his opponents, who assuredly stretch much further than Camp Gillibrand. But as one political operative recently said, Sweeney’s re-election will assure only one thing: he’ll do something so unbelievably terrific that he’ll draw national attention to himself as he expends the last of his nine lives.

As for Camp Callaghan, scandal still hasn’t put him into the driver’s seat. But even if Hevesi wins re-election –which he will –there’s a good chance someone will move to take him down for his misdeeds. Call it a parting gift from Governor Protractor. Political guru Fred Dicker mentioned Thursday that Hevesi's losing the election would probably be the easiest solution to a burgeoning problem that will otherwise taint Eliot Spitzer’s impending victory for the governorship.

The big concern that voters should take from the polls this year is the fact that someone knew about both of these scandals long before they ever broke into the mainstream media. There seems to be a spigot of information that political operatives feel compelled to turn on whenever elections near, rather than when the wrongdoing is actually happen. Then, it’s a heartfelt appeal to the fickle public, as to say look what the other guy did; now you can vote for me.

This is the sort of infectious hatred seems to be eating away at political discourse whenever election time rolls around. And it’s why no one should be shocked by the profaned flag in Clifton Park, which seems oddly symbolic of the present state of our nation’s political system.

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