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The New York Times METRO Friday, February 4, 2000

The Self-Made Charmer Who Runs Albany


THIS is Albany, so that dapper fellow in the camel's-hair coat must be Mayor Gerald D. Jennings, a two-term statesman with sufficient stage smarts to turn on the charm and put up his dukes simultaneously. Central casting might want credit, but he's self-made (just ask), and right now he's brandishing a welcome mat the way his father and grandfather taught him back at their Jennings's Broadway Tavern. Though the tavern is defunct, he's still in Albany and loving it. As the top-of-the-ticket Democrat in a city that he says tends to embrace his party by an 11-to-1 margin, what's to hate? Not even Republicans.

His gift of gab, like his politics, is inherited. His perpetual tan, he is quick to explain, comes from the sun, not from a tanning booth (on the rare occasions that he takes a vacation, the destination is Miami). As for the snazzy clothes, indulge him. "When you're mayor, every day is dress-up day. First I face the treadmill, then I face the world," says Mr. Jennings, 51, who exercises at 6 a.m. each day to keep bureaucratic bulge at bay.

He's an equal-opportunity host, as tavern keeper or as keeper of the keys to this city. But only if his guests behave themselves. And the Rev. Al Sharpton, that means you.

When Mr. Jennings learned from a local television station -- he keeps relations with the media warm and fuzzy -- that the Amadou Diallo murder trial had been transplanted to Albany, he didn't exactly cringe. None of that "why us?" stuff.

Instead, Mr. Jennings mobilized for what he felt he could parlay into a Chamber of Commerce showcase for the city that's been his oyster, well, forever. Rose-colored visions like this got him elected in 1993. And re-elected after his Capitalize Albany plan, a consortium of government and business, drew $400 million in construction projects, etched a new skyline and enlivened downtown.

He deemed being host for the Diallo trial not a nuisance but a grand opportunity "to not only profile the city from a legal point of view, but get the message out that things are turning around here." There's no place as well equipped as Albany, he insisted, to deliver "a fair, fast trial." To set the right tone for that, he acted fast, too.

First he huddled with the commander of the 335 police officers who patrol this city of 104,000 -- 77 percent of it white -- and instructed him to rev up for an influx of demonstrators and the same downstate media that get their jollies portraying Albany as Hicksville, U.S.A. Mr. Jennings has not forgotten the time Albany made it into a Letterman monologue; the subject was a proposed bullet train linking New York City to Albany.

"Letterman said, 'Who would WANT to go to Albany in an hour?' " mimics the mayor, who soothed his ruffled feelings by shipping the comedian a taped rebuttal that, alas, never saw air time. Mr. Jennings had better luck with another celebrity, Mr. Sharpton, whom he contacted the minute he and his police chief ended their Diallo strategy session.

"I welcomed him to the city and told him we would be hospitable hosts as long as they would be hospitable guests," recalls the mayor, who can peer out his window and see the courthouse. "He's made it clear he's not here to take anything out on the city of Albany or its citizens, and I've held him to that," says Mr. Jennings. The subtext: while Albany is not immune to racial strife, the host prefers that outsiders stick to their own knitting, in this case the Diallo case.    O N Monday, a peaceful demonstration of 450. On Tuesday, just a gaggle of reporters, with Mr. Sharpton and a few defense lawyers verbally sparring under the watchful eye of two of the biggest members of the police force, Nick, a Clydesdale, and Deb, a Belgian draft horse. Today, on the one-year anniversary of the Diallo shooting, the trial will be three days old and, the optimistic mayor hopes, just three or four weeks from resolution.

But he's also a realist, a self-described street kid from North Albany, the swath of city called Limerick. That's why he penned a letter to Gov. George E. Pataki urging that some richer agency foot the bill for the $500,000 to $1.5 million cost of maintaining order during the trial. And the fact that Albany did not request this spotlight does not mean it won't bask in it a little.

"I'm proud of this city," Mr. Jennings says from an office whose opulent furnishings confirm that the prior mayoralty had a habit of mistaking itself for a monarchy. One predecessor, Augustus Corning, reigned for 41 years "in an era of lower expectation."

Mr. Jennings, a former assistant principal at Albany High School, got his start when Mr. Corning handpicked him to run for alderman against an insurgent Democrat in 1977. He lost by 21 votes and, determined not to be a whipping boy again, became a bit of an insurgent himself; when the Democratic machine kicked him off its ticket in the 1989 primary, he "became famous" by running and winning as the Independent Voice Party. An alderman from 1980 to 1993, he says he ran for mayor because he was sick of seeing the city regress and, as a divorced man with a grown son, had 24 hours a day to commit to the job.

Cozy with the Clintons and already endorsing the mayor-friendly Andrew Cuomo for governor, Mr. Jennings is engaged to a "very, very tolerant" woman, earns $102,846 and has set his heart on a third term.

Rumor has it that his touchiest guest, Mr. Sharpton, is talking up the re-election.