Remembering Norman McConney: Public Policy Expert Was a Champion For Minority Students

NORMAN MCCONNEY

NORMAN MCCONNEY

Norman McConney Jr. longtime chief of staff for Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, who used his connection to the legislative power broker from Buffalo to advance educational opportunities for minority students across the state, died on New Year’s Day at Memorial Hospital of congestive heart failure. He was 69.

“He and Arthur Eve did more good things for the people of the state of New York than any other political team I know,’ said H. Carl McCall, chair of the State University of New York Board of Trustees and a former state comptroller. When McCall was elected to the state Senate in 1975, he was told to see out McConney “in order to find out how Albany works.”

The devil is in the details in public policy and McConney knew how to parse budgets and the arcane language of bills better than almost anyone in Albany, McCall said.  “ Norman’s power came from his font of great knowledge and information. He understood the way things worked and how to get things done quietly behind the scenes,” said McCall, who will speak at Mc Conney’s funeral. McCall noted that cranky New York columnist Wayne Barrett wrote and appreciation in City & State that called McConney “a sage and principled operative.” Asked McCall: “When was the last time anyone called an Albany political figure principled?”

“Norman had the most incisive political mind of anybody we med in Albany,” said David Langdom, counselor for the former Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, who met McConney soon after he came to work in the Legislature in 1974. “ He also made me laugh harder than anybody else.”

When Even became Fink’s deputy speaker in 1979, McConney helped push through major initiatives, including the creation of the SUNY-wide Educational Opportunities Program, or EOP, which has assisted more than 5,500 graduates at the University at Albany, with a 78 percent graduation rate since 1968.

McConney himself was an EOP student and 1971 UAlbany graduate “ He was a passionate advocate for the program,” said Martiza Martinez, director of EOP at UAlbany and a $1 million budget, with average aid of $2,000 for tuition and $600 for books for each freshman from a disadvantaged background.

There are more than 5,000 applicants for 200 UAlbany EOP slots each year. “He fought for this program even after he retired,” said Martinez, who often sought out McConney’s wise counsel.

McConney also was a driving force behind the creation of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, which became the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators in 1985.  The group gave McConney its Man of the Year award. McConney also developed the People’s Budget, which shed a light on social justice investment. He was the architect of the state Science & Technology Entry Program which encouraged minority students to pursue careers in science. “He was a warrior-angel for African-Americans in New York State,” said L. Lloyd Stewart, an Albany historian who met McConney in 1969 doing community action work. “He brought the plight of the poor and minorities to light and helped them achieve their dreams.”

“Norman was a great thinker and strategist, the perfect combination for my husband,” said Constance Eve, wife of the retired Buffalo legislator.  “They worked side by side for more than 25 years and were an unstoppable force. My husband could not have accomplished all he did without Norman. They improved lives of the poor across generations..”

McConney was not slowed by the loss of a lung and played basketball and football at Albany High School. However , he was also shaped by his formative years as the son of an itinerant tap dancer, Norman Rowe McConney Sr., who performed with legendary tap dancers the Four Step Brothers and Peg Leg Bates.

The son spent summers as an adolescent at the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson in the Catskills. It was the largest black-owned and operated resort in the country in the 1950’s.

Its 70 units and nightclub on 40 acres served as a beacon of black cultural pride. Among his babysitters were the actress Dorothy Dandridge and singer Pearl Bailey.

“Peg Leg Bates created a magnet for black social life and artistic expression in the CatskillsIt drew all the great performers from New York and beyond,” said Constance Valis Hill, author of “ Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History” who teaches dance history at Hampshire College in Amherst Mass.

“To be raised in the vibrant environment of the artistic avant-garde, Black Nationalism and celebration of black culture had to shape him as a youngster and set him on his path,” Hill said.

McConney is survived by his wife, Cathlen, two children and two grandchildren.