On a warm Friday afternoon, Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis sits outside a cafe on Madison Ave reminiscing about his early days on the Albany Common Council and his first run for mayor (against former Mayor Jerry Jennings) in 2009, and discussing how little has changed since then.
Gun violence was on the minds of residents in 2009, as was racism in the ranks of the police department as then police Chief James Tuffey was accused of telling officers that a victim of a shooting “Wasn’t just some spook.”
In the end those issues and Ellis’ platform brought him within under 2,000 votes of Jennings who was running for his fifth term. Ellis ran again in the general election under the Working Families Party banner against Jennings who had the Democratic and Conservative lines and last more handily this time.
Economic racism, the city’s lack of attention to underserved neighborhoods like Arbor Hill and the South End, and the city’s dire financial situation were all on voters’ minds. Almost 11 years and one mayor later, it feels like very little has changed.
And so it seems logical to ask Ellis about the rumors that he’s considering another mayoral run.
“Why wouldn’t I want to be mayor?” he asks. “As long as I’m living in this city and God grants me the breath and strength to do it, of course I’d want to be the mayor of this city. That is what I’ve always worked towards. I’ve always felt this is my way of giving back to my home town. And I feel like I have certain attributes and assets that can move this city forward.”
Ellis, who also ran unsuccessfully in a primary against now Mayor Kathy Sheehan in 2013, received the Mayor’s endorsement in 2017 for Common Council President. For three years Ellis has remained rather quiet, not issuing press releases, and filling the traditional role of Council President. But Ellis says that does not mean he hasn’t been working to better the city. He has larger ideas he wants to implement that aren’t achievable through his current elected position.
Ellis’s history growing up in the city’s traditionally black neighborhoods gives him a perspective on the roots of the city’s trouble that current Mayor Kathy Sheehan almost certainly lacks.
“Where Did the Gun Come From?”
Ellis recalls a recent conversation he had with a childhood friend.
“He said, ‘Do you think when we were kids, if we had access to guns that these kids have access to now we’d have been shooting each other?’ That was a great question. I was like, well, we know that what has changed is access to guns.
So, I don’t know. And that made me say, where are the guns coming from? How in today’s society, is it easier for guns to travel in these neighborhoods? Kids have been fighting, kids have been bullying each other since the beginning of time.
What has changed? Kids have access to guns. And why is that? Is it because in the country we live in we just let manufacturers make guns and sell them in gun stores and then you lose track of them? Where are they coming from? And why aren’t we tracking it? We never hear. And I asked the chief this, ‘We never hear when they arrest the kid with a gun–where did the gun come from? Who had it before this child or person?’”
“Everything’s Going Up Except People of Color’s Paychecks
It isn’t just about access to guns. Ellis points to a report that ranks Albany 234 out of 274 large cities on economic and racial inclusion. According to the study, Albany’s inclusion got worse over time instead of better. Ranking 174 in 2013, by 2016 it had plummeted to 232. This September Albany was ranked at 234.
“There are social and economic issues that we haven’t wanted to talk about,” says Ellis.
“It’s mainly Black and Brown people who live in the city and the county, and they’re paid less than their white counterparts. I fought for this when I first came back home from college. You have people of color who are called the working poor.
They work full time, full-time hours, and make hardly any money. A study done in 2018 shows that in Albany County African Americans’ median family income was $32,000, whites’ $61,000, Asians $81,000. That’s the problem. Because what do we know? People with disposable income, people with resources, are able to spend more time with their children.
They’re able to put their children in certain programs. They have more access to the resources. And now we have people in our Black and Brown communities working paycheck to paycheck, trying to figure out how they’re going to pay the rent and eat while everything’s going up except people of color’s paychecks in this area.”
Ellis says it’s time to have a hard conversation with local employers about economic racism and how they thrive while their employees struggle to survive. He points to the health-care sector as a major area of economic injustice in Albany.
“When we have so many large hospitals in the area, are healthcare workers who are part of the second largest growing industry in our country not making a decent wage? That’s the problem. So when we look at gun violence and you look at the services that aren’t available in those communities, it’s economics, and until we turn that around nothing’s going to change. We can’t keep doing these feel-good moments. We can’t have people come and say, how can I help? And you don’t tell a large employer, well, you need to pay people more money.”
Further, Ellis says that local investors need to be ready to work with residents of neighborhoods like the South End and Arbor Hill on projects that will boost the neighborhoods.
“Who’s going to save those neighborhoods? People who were born and raised and lived there. When they come back home from university with the skills and the talent they have, we need to now open the door for them. And that hasn’t happened.
We have a lot of educated African-Americans come back and they usually go to state government jobs. But the private sector here hasn’t opened the doors to them. And that’s why that income disparity is so great.”
He suggests that keeping more young people in the city and allowing them to become homeowners will also ease the city’s financial woes.
“They Are Working For Us”
Ellis, who is one of the 33 members of Albany’s Police Reform and Reimagination Collaborative, says that he and many of his colleagues come to those meetings knowing what kind of changes their constituents want to see.
I ask Ellis about our recent report that policing reforms he and other council members introduced in June won’t be acted on until after the Policing Collaborative finishes its work.
“The public and Council members want us to start voting on it and that should happen. We are legislators, and we are a separate branch of the government. The Mayor is following what the executive order from the Governor mandates, and we can follow what our process is,” Ellis responds.
“A lot of the things that we immediately want to change are not that big. And we know what they are. People have been screaming for them for a long time. So it’s almost like we’re going to create a document to tell us most of the things we already know that people want. I’m just interested in seeing what new comes out of it. What’s new that we haven’t heard before. We want to see police reform. The first thing people want to see is for the police department to understand they are working for us.”
Police accountability, according to Ellis, stems from police respecting what kind of policing neighborhoods want. “If I’m a taxpayer and I say, ‘This is how I want you to police my neighborhood,’ that should not be a fight. This is how I want you to speak to individuals in my neighborhood, whatever neighborhood that is–that shouldn’t be a fight. If a cop mistakenly takes the life of an unarmed person, I want there to be a fair and just process on how to deal with that issue. That’s what people want.”
However, Ellis believes federal funding for police agencies needs to be rethought so that money isn’t spent on militarization and surveillance, but instead on creating bridges between the police department and citizens. Ellis cites an idea he’s put forward throughout his career that would fund the creation of small offices for community police to work from in each community.
“Maybe they work out of a storefront in your most challenged neighborhoods, and you hire what you call neighborhood interceptors and they work out of that storefront. And their job is to engage, look at quality-of-life issues and report. We’d fund that, because that’s going to help the community, because now the community sees not only a police officer in that storefront but they also see their own neighbors help with quality of life, trees, sidewalks, disputes, and you have a social worker who might work out of that office. That’s a different type of policing. That’s the reform people want to see.”
Will Ellis run for Mayor again? He isn’t saying. It likely depends on whether Sheehan seeks a third term next year and who else might enter the race. But Ellis seems to be betting that his long relationship with the city will be a boon if he does.