MAYORAL CANDIDATE A RARE BREED

LeBron is not your typical politician, but he hopes to buck the trend in Albany

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Thursday, October 29, 2009

ALBANY -- Nathan Lebron calls himself a rare breed -- a Harvard-trained 30-something Hispanic Republican flourishing in a private sector job at the epicenter of public sector largess, the state capital.


And while so many politicians insist they're not actually politicians, when Lebron says it you tend to believe him, if for no other reason than he also tells you things that a seasoned obfuscator probably wouldn't -- or shouldn't.


Like the fact that earlier this year he was seriously considering moving out of the city. That was about a month before the Harlem-born University at Albany graduate says he decided to run for mayor.


"I was just going to become part of the exodus," Lebron said this week, reclining in his office at Albany GOP headquarters in the old Marine Midland bank at 126 State St. "I know what's coming if we don't change the leadership in City Hall."


A color-coded map of the city's election districts is tacked to one wall, his master's degree in information technology from Harvard hangs behind him, an American flag is planted in a stand depicting the GOP elephant on his desk.


He is surrounded by baseball bats and other paraphernalia from his past gig as director of information systems for the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- including a Wheaties box featuring Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente.


"At some point," Lebron said, "you have to say, 'Hey, this city is slowly turning into the dead neighborhood I came from.'"


The places Lebron came from -- Harlem, the South Bronx and Puerto Rico -- figured prominently into his path to becoming perhaps an unlikely Republican and candidate for mayor in a city dominated for 90 years by Democrats.


But what his candidacy means to him, to the city's long-hapless Republican Party and to a region in which Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic population are not all necessarily the same thing.


At 38, Lebron already has outlived his father by six years. Both his parents, despite working most of their lives, were forced into stretches of homelessness.


As an adolescent he battled cancer and lived in a Bronx group home, spending weekends visiting family in welfare motels and, he said, watching his loved ones wait for salvation from the government that never came.


That, he offers, is roughly the genesis of his Republican beliefs.


"I just saw their potential wither on the vine, that government promise," he reflected.


But Lebron is far from a typical Republican -- which may be for the best in a city where Democratic voters outnumber their GOP counterparts roughly 11-1.


For starters, he seems to relish revealing that he counts among his supporters members of the Working Families Party, a labor-backed progressive party that is backing Councilman Corey Ellis for mayor.


Lebron -- who is a director for Garnet River, a techology company -- said their support is mostly in the city's 15th Ward, where opposition to the city's landfill expansion into the Pine Bush is strong.


Lebron opposed the expansion and said he believes the city needs to cut its budget between 1.2 percent and 1.3 percent each year to gradually wean itself from the revenue generated by the Rapp Road facility, which -- even with the expansion -- is projected to last at most another seven years. (City officials, however, counter that's a hollow suggestion without offering specific proposals of what should be cut.)


Only when the city is shrinking its reliance on the landfill revenue, can Albany and surrounding communities begin to have an honest discussion about the region's future trash disposal, he said.


And while Lebron said he's found himself welcome most everywhere -- he said he believes he's been shunned among Hispanic leaders because they fear reprisals from four-term incumbent Mayor Jerry Jennings.


Support from within the Hispanic community, however, has been strong, he said -- as has support within the city's black community.


Lebron has been forced by necessity -- and finances -- to forge unusual partnerships to get his message out. There will be no mayoral debate, such as the one that pitted Ellis against Jennings before the Democratic primary.


Throughout the summer he shared the stage with peripheral candidates not on the ballot rather than with Ellis and Jennings.


In West Hill -- one of the city's poorest and most violent neighborhoods -- his message has found the most traction, Lebron said.


Perhaps, he said, because of his personal history growing up in similar neighborhoods, or perhaps because residents there have the least to lose by offending the current administration. Jennings lost West Hill's 5th Ward to Ellis in the primary.


Of course, there are those who tell Lebron he just can't win.


"Everybody tells me that," he acknowledged. "I've had people come in here, volunteers, (and say) 'I'm going to help out, but you don't have a shot in hell.' I tell them, 'Just hand out my stuff, and I'll take care of the win.'"


Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.