[5/10/21 Albert Blankley greeting Tom Upson on Avalon Drive in the Meadowbrook neighborhood. Always opening their door, Tom and Meg Upson are frequently canvassed by candidates, see The early birds get the worms; Signature gathering in Brighton and On the electoral road with Rajesh Barnabas. Tom asked if Albert’s constituent services include weeding his front garden. Albert said yes.]
As seen in On the electoral road with Rajesh Barnabas, two Sundays ago I canvassed in my Brighton neighborhood with Rajesh Barnabas (D), Monroe County Legislature candidate for the 24th District in the June 22nd primary. On Monday, I joined Albert Blankley, the other Democratic candidate for the same seat.
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Albert is the the COO of Common Ground Health, graduating with a B.S. in Biology and an M.S. in Public Policy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Albert’s first grad prof was former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson. Currently, Albert is also an Adjunct Professor in RIT’s Department of Public Policy. He lives in the Highland Park neighborhood in the City of Rochester with his wife Kiersten and their two children.
As a canvasser, Albert, dressed casually, is affable, courteous, and well-spoken, presenting himself as more low key than pushy, but firm is his conviction that he can well serve the District. During our hour, as often happens when canvassing, we did not find that many prospective voters home or able to talk. One woman was understandably busy with a sleeping baby. Another was soaking an injured foot. One woman was packing up to move to Seattle.
We did speak with Matthew D’Augustine, a history teacher well informed about the current schism within the local Democratic Party as several Black Democrats have sided with Republicans Legislators. Matt’s priority is getting all the Democrats on the same page, one Albert shares.
We met a UR Strong Hospital physician whose pet peeve is that while Democratic candidate literature has plenty of blue colors, the pamphlets often are not marked DEMOCRAT in big letters. The card carrying Democrat (pardon the pun) said tell him upfront you are a Democrat because he never votes Republican.
Albert and the physician had a lively discussion on how the County administers medicaid funds and Albert’s plan for improvements. The man was skeptical about the prospects for bureaucratic disentanglement, but thought Albert deserved a shot.
The relative paucity of canvasees allowed us to have a wide ranging conversation. As Albert warmed to his favorite subjects, the walk felt like a graduate-level RIT Public Policy seminar.
We talked about Albert’s public policy approaches — he is a scientist at heart who knows human behavior is too complex to be reduced to algorithms — the nuances of electoral politics and other topics: including whether housing is human right, whether a universal basic income is viable, how much legislators should get paid, his master’s thesis on health genetic testing, to what degree should office holders follow the wishes of their constituents or their own consciences, the process of gathering petition signatures, the secret ballot, if there too many obstacles for the average citizen to run for office and various arcane rules of the County Legislature. The questions asked were partly gleaned from the conversation.
Talker: Tell us about your professional and personal lives, including your amateur hockey career.
Albert: I came to Rochester in 2005 to attend RIT. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s degree in Public Policy I entered into the non-profit world as a data analyst. Over the last ten years I have spent my career working to bring various stakeholders together to look at data, identify the root causes of poor outcomes and collaborate on solutions with people from all walks of life. I want to bring that approach and philosophy to the policy making of the county legislature.
I live in the Highland Park Neighborhood in Rochester, with my wife, who I met at RIT, and our two children, Owen and Katherine. We bought our current home in 2013 and can’t think of any place we’d rather be.
My wife actually got me into ice hockey. She played for the RIT Tigers women’s varsity team and I fell in love with her and the game watching her play. I learned to skate during graduate school and have been playing ever since. I play for the Rochester Inferno, and most recently the Flour City Hockey Club.
Talker: You are a relative newcomer to local Democratic politics. Tell us about your trajectory from door-to-door get-out-the-voter to candidate and Chair of the 24th Legislative District’s Democratic Committee?
Albert: It became clear to me that, while we were doing incredible work in the non-profit world, there were structures that needed to be changed and that could only be done from within government. Having advocated and worked with elected officials in a professional capacity, I reached out and got involved with my local Democratic committee in 2018.
I was asked to step in for a leader who was leaving the area in 2019 and then wound up taking on a leadership role in the 2020 petitioning process. When I found out that the current county legislator in my district wasn’t going to be able to run for re-election, I looked closely at what it entailed, discussed the idea with my family, friends and trusted Democrats. They all suggested that this position would be a good fit for my skill set and values.Talker: You mentioned that voters often ask what exactly does the County Legislature do? What does the County Lej do?
Albert: The county legislature serves as the law-making body for the county of Monroe. The job of the legislature is to take the challenges faced by the residents who live here and create public policies that solve those problems. The legislature works with the county administration to establish and execute an annual budget and to oversee the services that the county provides.
Talker: What writers/schools of thought have influenced you? What are some of your primary sources of information?
Albert: Atul Gawande and Malcolm Gladwell are two of my favorite authors. Their ability to dig into the rationale behind the way things are, dissect it and present pragmatic approaches to solving the systemic challenges we face speak directly to how I desire to approach everything.
I am also a massive fan of JRR Tolkien and Douglas Adams. The Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have helped to shape my morals and my sense of humor.
Talker: You say one of your skill sets is an ability to sit around the table with people from various backgrounds/disciplines, “translate” what each is saying, and find common ground. Elaborate.
Albert: My education and experience to date have required me to learn how to talk to people with different backgrounds, educations and lived experiences. Having honed this skill for over a decade, I find myself comfortable bringing community leaders, lawyers, doctors and other professionals together and am often able to get them understanding each other in a way that builds trust. Too often our differences come down to the fact that we don’t understand what each other means. Being able to translate those languages into one another, and then turn the ideas generated by those conversations into policies that can actually get accomplished is a skill set I want to bring to bear for the people who live in this district.
Talker: The other Democratic Party candidate, Rajesh Barnabas, identifies with the Bernie Sanders/AOC wing of the Democrat Party, if not further to the left. Within the spectrum of the Democratic Party, you call yourself a Warren progressive.
What do you like about Warren’s policies/approach?
Albert: What I love about Elizabeth Warren’s approach is that she thinks through the policy ideas to achieve the progressive goals she wants to see. I have found that one of the most difficult things when bringing people together to solve a problem is having a blank slate. Senator Warren always comes with real ideas for how to achieve her goals, they evolve with collaboration and are built upon, but the kernel of the idea is critical to getting forward momentum. This exactly the approach I will take as I pursue a progressive agenda for the people of the 24th LD.
Talker: As a progressive, you believe that housing is a human right and a universal basic income is needed. If elected, you want to implement both to some degree at the County level. Explain.
Albert: Housing is unequivocally a human right, but in addition to the moral imperative of making sure everyone has housing, it is fiscally responsible to do so. In NY, county governments share the cost of Medicaid and folks who do not have safe, affordable, healthy housing are far more likely to use expensive services like the emergency department. By providing housing to people, we’re likely to save a significant amount of money in the long run.
The idea of guaranteed, unregulated financial support or a “Universal Basic Income” is one whose time has come. That said, I appreciate that many people have not yet come around to the idea that it should be widely implemented. I think that a natural experiment to demonstrate its effectiveness locally would give us the opportunity to begin building toward what other metro areas across the country.
Talker: For decades, we’ve spoken of “the two Rochesters,” i.e. the patterns of segregation existing between city and suburbs. For example, when I taught in the RCSD, I spent a fair amount of time in the urban neighborhoods beyond the school walls. Now, to be honest, I’m rarely in those urban neighborhoods. (See (Un) Writing an old wrong in Brighton’s Meadowbrook neighborhood and a look back at B.H.S. in the late 70’s and early 80’s)
Can the County Legislature actually do anything to bridge divides between the “two Rochesters.”
Albert: I think our county government is in a unique position to do just that. This district, in particular spans both Rochester and Brighton. I have found that voters in both areas are interested in the same things. Our ability to work together requires us first to build relationships and my goal as a legislator is to help build that trust so that we can move forward with progressive policies to support all of Monroe County’s residents.OTHER ELECTORAL ROADS [PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS BELOW AT END]