The two candidates vying for Albany's 5th Ward Common Council seat met in an online forum this week.
First-term Councilor Jahmel Robinson and his June 22nd Democratic primary challenger Wilmer Lawson spent an hour and a half answering questions gathered from neighbors in advance.
The Fifth Ward stretches from Watervliet Avenue to North Swan Street, bordered by Manning Boulevard on the north side, a long stretch of Clinton Avenue on the south side, and includes West Hill along with the intersection of First and Quail Streets, a neighborhood plagued by numerous incidents of crime and gun violence over the years, including a recent fatal drive-by.
Robinson says he grew up in West Hill, which he notes has been “in decline and decay” over the years.
"And with my background being in addressing systemic issues, I knew that the issues that we address in our community were systemic, dealing with things such as history of redlining and racism and racist policies of our city and also of our state. And so I knew that it would take bold and progressive leadership to get the job done. And so during my first term in office, I addressed a lot of the systemic issues. And I look forward to continuing that in a second term."
Lawson claimed current city administration doesn't understand what's really going on in the ward.
"I live this life. I'm out here, I'm touching the people each and every day. I haven't been to a corner that I don't speak to people and they don't speak back, they don't know me by name. And I really feel like that is very important in our community that issues that need to be adjusted, they can come to you on a personal level and come to you and knowing that their issues will be taken care of. So these are some of the main reasons why I came to run this term."
Both candidates agree public safety is the number one challenge facing the ward, which Robinson says he has already addressed in policies he presented to the council.
"And one of the things that we passed is the city's equity agenda ordinance, in which it set up the Anti Violence Task Force. So public safety is still a major concern. Also, urban blight, our housing stock is declining. And so I've worked with the Albany County Land Bank, to create new policies to get houses in the in the hands of those in our community."
Lawson says public safety and housing are paramount.
"And making sure that our people are able to afford these houses by getting jobs. We have a lot of people that's walking around here, that that has trades and, and, and can do different things. And we're not creating jobs and opportunities for them."
Robinson and Lawson agreed that the city has a long way to go toward building police-community relationships. Both men favor banning tear gas and rubber bullets, which the council has been wrestling with for weeks.
With Albany expected to receive approximately $85 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, candidates were asked how they'd like to see that money spent in Fifth Ward neighborhoods. Robinson is a member of the city's COVID relief task force.
"We need our streets and sidewalks updated, there's areas on First Street that are just a travesty to walk on. There's overgrown trees and this has been a concern that I've brought up to the administration a few times. So like to see that in money, that money goes towards that investment, and also see that those funds goes towards small business incubators in our district."
Lawson would like to see the money go toward affordable housing.
I also would love to see more programming for our youth. You know, we're struggling, we need things, we have a lot of trauma that's been going on here in our community. We need more, you know, we need more more programming... We need so much."
The candidates agreed the Albany Public School district is doing an excellent job when it comes to educating children. On Albany's Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, Lawson said police have a tough job but must be held accountable. Robinson was part of the collaborative and says it accomplished "many great things" including the creation of the Public Safety Commission.
Early voting in the Democratic primary starts June 12th.
The forum was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Albany County, Albany NAACP and CANA, the Council of Albany Neighborhood AssociationS.