Sixteen months ago, the Democrat was elected mayor of Saranac Lake, the largest community in the Adirondack Park. His latest adventure in politics has been marked by some big successes, including a public campaign to convince the Trudeau Institute to keep its laboratories in Saranac Lake.
But he has also clashed publicly and fiercely with other leaders in the North Country and his brash style is sparking criticism. Brian Mann sat down to talk in-depth with Rabideau and has our profile.
Correction: In the audio version of this story, Brian Mann incorrectly states that Clyde Rabideau has been mayor of Saranac Lake for two years. Rabideau was elected in March 2010 and has served for approximately sixteen months.
This spring, when Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Lake Placid to talk up his agenda, Saranac Lake mayor Clyde Rabideau was up on the stage and he couldn’t resist getting in a little dig at the more famous Olympic village. "We take great pride in your visits to Saranac Lake and we’re also glad you get to drive through Lake Placid on your way here," he said.
Roby Politi, town supervisor in North Elba, who lives in Lake Placid, was also on that stage and he fired right back: "And uh, no Clyde, the governor is not here to announce that the capital is moving to Saranac Lake, just so you know."
Politi and Rabideau have been friends for years and the exchange was good natured, but a few weeks later, Rabideau said he was actually sending a fairly serious message. "Saranac Lake was represented at a huge event in Lake Placid, we didn’t take second stage to anybody," he recalled. "We didn’t back down from anybody. We stood our ground and we got a few shots in."
If that sounds kind of confrontational, it is. In the next few minutes, you’ll hear some surprising and controversial things, some of them coming out of Clyde Rabideau’s mouth and some of them from people talking with surprising candor about Saranac Lake’s mayor.
He’s a guy who inspires strong opinions.
But the first thing I realized, during our hour-long conversation in Saranac Lake’s bandshell park, is that this is one politician who’s having a blast.
"I’m having so much fun. At this point in my life when I don’t have to do it," he said. "I’m doing it because I really want to do it. I want to help out. It just makes it that much more enjoyable."
Rabideau is a former high school wrestler, and a Clarkson graduate who served as Plattsburgh's mayor for five terms. After losing a re-election bid, he spent years building up his successful contracting company.
During that time he moved to Saranac Lake and the lure of politics in his adopted home down pulled him back in.
When he won the Saranac Lake mayor’s race in March 2010, Rabideau, a Democrat, inherited a majority-Republican board torn by rancor and distrust.
"After the election was over, I asked every single trustee out to lunch and sat down to talk with them. I said, Look it, I’ve done this before and I wasn’t so good at it," he said. "I wasn’t as good at working with people as I am right now and I know how important it is and how much better it can be. So I want to just put politics aside and work with you."
Peter Crowley, managing editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, says Rabideau’s transformation of village politics was quick and confident.
"He just wants to get stuff done. He likes getting stuff done on a municipal level," Crowley said. "And that means he has to get the other guys on the board on his side and work with them."
But if Clyde Rabideau can sometimes play the peacemaker, he is the first to acknowledge that there’s another side to his political style – more bare-knuckles, more confrontational.
During his short political tenure in Saranac Lake he has battled openly with a lot of people, from the Chamber of Commerce to key business people, to the leaders of neighboring towns. "I’m at a point in my life in my late fifties where I don’t have to do a lot of butt-kissing." he said. "I just don’t have to."
Rabideau also wants people to understand exactly where his loyalties lie: "I am mayor of Saranac Lake, New York. I will fight and die for everybody here, grapple in the streets. This is my job and I am here to represent and promote Saranac Lake and nowhere else."
A lot of North Country mayors are fiercely loyal to their towns and that sometimes means feuds with their neighbors and with other elected officials. Unlike most politicians, Rabideau is willing to name names.
Of state Senator Betty Little, he said, "As far as a lot of communication with Betty, there's hardly any. We just don't seem to be in sync."
Of Assemblywomen Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward, whose districts include roughly equal chunks of Saranac Lake, he said, "Janet and Teresa, nice ladies. They're in the minority in the assembly and they have very little clout. Not a heck of a lot going on, I don't care what anybody says. They're in the minority by a lot."
When asked about relations with the town of Harrietstown, which includes a big chunk of Saranac Lake village, Rabideau suggests that the town is just sort of in the way. "We’re setting the pace for economic development and for community identity in Saranac Lake," he said. "It’ s kind of too bad that the town of Harrietstown is called the town of Harrietstown. It should be called the town of Saranac Lake, it really should."
When asked about Saranac Lake’s Chamber of Commerce, Rabideau describes the organization as irrelevant. "They seem to be on the opposite side of every argument we have in the village," he said. "We've gotten like eight nasty-grams from the chamber of commerce and we're the biggest contributor to them."
Rabideau has also clashed publicly with leaders of Trudeau Institute and with executives at Paul Smiths College, two of Saranac Lake’s biggest employers.
That has sparked growing criticism from people like John Mills, head of Paul Smiths and a member of the chamber board. "As a person in the Chamber and a community member, those lines of communication have not occurred," Mills said.
Rabideau should view the village in a wider context, Mills said, one that includes a regional economy, a regional network of leaders and businesses that go beyond the village boundaries.
Mills said when he tried to reach out to Rabideau to talk about a different approach, it didn’t work. "Clyde had asked me very early on to be someone who would advise him," Mills said. "I tried to advise him and never heard back from him. So there is no communication."
That view was echoed by Senator Little, who says she had good communication with some members of the Saranac Lake community but not with the village mayor.
"There are some mayors and supervisors and school superintendents that I hear from more often than others. I don't hear from him," she said.
Peter Crowley, managing editor of Enterprise, says Rabideau’s blunt style – and his willingness to clash publicly with other leaders – could blunt his effectiveness.
"I think it could be problematic in a big way," Crowley said. "He has a strong sense of this is our team and that's your team and the village of Saranac Lake is this team and the town of Harrietstown or the state of New York or the chamber of commerce...He's trying to win. And I think that's a minefield for him, to be honest."
For his part, Rabideau said he’s rebuilt good relations with top leaders at Trudeau – a fact confirmed by Trudeau officials. He also said most politicians know that he’s a willing partner on key projects.
Rabideau rejects the idea that his political approach could alienate enough people outside Saranac Lake that it could hurt the village’s interests.
"I have a lot of friends in the Assembly and in the Senate and in the executive chamber in Albany," Rabideau said. "And that's part of the secret to being an effective leader here in New York state. It's to make sure you have allies on board. And I know how to play that game too."
In an editorial published last summer, the Plattsburgh Press Republican described Rabideau as "tenaciously competitive," a man who butts heads “with adversaries and sometimes even with friends.”
But the paper also called him a man of ideas, with a long list of accomplishments. Sixteen months into Rabideau’s first term in Saranac Lake, it’s still unclear how those two sides of the mayor’s personality will play out in his new hometown.