NYT: An Elegant Home Away From Home for Republicans in Albany
In case you missed this story in yesterday’s Times, I thought I’d share it with you. It gives you an idea of the culture in Albany…
ALBANY — One recent evening, after business at the Capitol had wound down for the day, the Tap Room of the genteel Fort Orange Club slowly filled up with members of New York’s Republican establishment.
Dean G. Skelos, the Senate Republican leader, settled into a comfortable corner booth with members of his senior staff and the deputy Republican leader, Thomas W. Libous. John Faso, the party’s 2006 nominee for governor, sat a few tables away. Other Republican senators joined them as the night wore on.
Oysters Rockefeller and Dover sole were on the menu, served by waitresses in French maid frocks. The entertainment, a cabaret singer who was taking time away from her usual spot at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, had just finished performing in the club’s living room.
With their party out of power, Republicans may find their status diminished in Albany these days. But inside the Fort Orange Club — an elegantly restored brick mansion that serves as a home away from home for many Republicans during legislative sessions in the capital — the good life never stopped.
The Fort Orange Club, an institution about as old as the Capitol building, was founded in 1880 because, as the club’s founding fathers wrote in a letter to prospective gentlemen members on Jan. 29, 1880, “a club, commensurate with the character and importance of Albany, is an urgent want.”
Since then, governors, Court of Appeals judges, senators and other members of Albany’s upper crust have joined the Fort Orange — all of them men until 1989, when, after much prodding from outsiders, the club finally started admitting “gentlewomen.” Today, they make up around 12 percent of the 500-plus members.
Democrats have found the club somewhat intimidating.
“When I was a kid, Democrats didn’t stay at the Fort Orange,” said David L. Lewis, a lawyer for Senate Republicans who recalled visiting Albany as a young man with his father, Albert B. Lewis, a Democratic state senator in the late 1960s and ’70s and member of the Hugh Carey administration. “It just didn’t work out that way.”
Though the club has had its share of Democrats as members — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Benjamin N. Cardozo among them — its sumptuous wood-paneled parlors and high-ceilinged dining rooms remain the domain of Republicans, a place where they come to socialize, dine and conduct business outside the prying eyes of the many lobbyists, reporters and legislative staffers who flock to Albany during legislative sessions.
“No one bothers you there,” said Senator William J. Larkin Jr., a retired Army colonel and Fort Orange member since 1983. Mr. Larkin eats most of his meals at the club when he is in Albany and spends his nights in a first-floor room there, one of 22 reserved for members and their guests to sleep in.
“For me, it’s the convenience of it,” Mr. Larkin added. “It’s right next door. You don’t have to drive anywhere.” Mr. Larkin, 81, noted that his walk to work in the morning is a few easy steps out the club’s back door and into the adjacent Alfred E. Smith office building, where a tunnel leads to the first floor of the Capitol.
He, often dines with Senator Owen H. Johnson, 80, another longtime Fort Orange member who also stays at the club when he is in Albany. Says Mr. Johnson, “It’s not really any big deal, other than the convenience of it.”
The Fort Orange has also been a place where Republicans raise — and spend — money. An analysis of campaign finance reports conducted by the New York Public Interest Research Group showed that the club had hosted at least 28 fund-raisers since June — almost all of them for Republican legislators.
Between January 2007 and July this year, political committees spent nearly $230,000 at the club. The biggest single spender was Mr. Skelos’s election committee, which dropped $24,443 at the club during that time, the analysis showed.
Mr. Skelos, 61, a Fort Orange member since 1996, is so fond of the club that he has a watercolor painting of it hanging in his office in the Capitol.
Though some in Albany consider the club a bit elitist and stodgy (it is jokingly referred to as the “Wax Museum” because of the advanced ages of many of its members), Fort Orange loyalists insist it is an egalitarian, even progressive, establishment.
Its annual dues are around $1,000 a year for nonresidents of Albany; residents pay more. New members are charged an initiation fee, though the club’s general manager, James M. Flaherty, insists it is nowhere near the tens of thousands of dollars that many country clubs charge. (Given the state of the economy, Mr. Flaherty said, there is not currently a waiting list.)
The Fort Orange, Mr. Flaherty said, places great emphasis on its traditions but understands that the club has to be flexible or risk becoming irrelevant.
It recently committed $4.75 million to build a fitness center and even relaxed its formal dress code. A jacket and tie are no longer required in the Tap Room, a dark, wood-paneled grill just off the main dining room, where lighter fare is served.
Last month, the club made a historic acquisition for the Tap Room: a 58-inch plasma television. “But you can never watch it,” Mr. Flaherty said. “It’s not for casual viewing.”
For the original story, click here.