These Democrats and Republicans Have Something in Common. It’s a Bar.

It has been a bad decade — or three — for political nightlife in Albany, N.Y. Can a Manhattan P.R. man bring back the bipartisan schmoozefest?

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David A. Paterson

At the War Room Tavern, everyone knows your name, especially if you’re former Representative Carolyn Maloney, right, or former Gov. David A. Paterson, to her left. Also pictured are Mary Paterson to the Governor's right and Molley Mills. Credit...Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Reporting from inside the War Room Tavern in Albany, N.Y.

It was 10 p.m. on the eve of the governor’s State of the State address, and all of political New York, it seemed, was trying to jam into two adjoining brick townhouses within stumbling distance of the State Capitol.

One housed a restaurant where Letitia James, the attorney general in the midst of a splashy fraud trial with Donald J. Trump, was holding court at a table just steps from a group of Long Island Republicans toasting their recent electoral rout.

At the cigar lounge next door, Carolyn Maloney, the former Manhattan congresswoman, hosted a smoky reception to promote the Equal Rights Amendment.

And the barroom was crammed with lawmakers double-fisting cocktails and legislative leaflets. That is, until many took a pause in the revelry to watch former Gov. David A. Paterson strap on a Fender Strat and deliver earnest covers of Hendrix and John Lee Hooker.

“This place is a scene and a half,” marveled James E. McMahon, a veteran lobbyist known as Cadillac. “It’s like the House of Dracula. People come back you haven’t heard of in years.”

Letisha James

Attorney General Letitia James waves at other patrons in the cigar bar.Credit...Cindy Schultz for The New York Times.

Every capital has its power spots and watering holes, where the political class comes to lubricate the gears of government and strike deals that can reshape the lives of millions. There’s Cafe Milano in Washington and the Cloak Room in Austin, Texas. Brooklyn Democrats claim Junior’s as their unofficial clubhouse.

Todd Shapiro, a frenetic Manhattan publicist, sensed a void in Albany and, perhaps, a quixotic opportunity to recreate the halcyon days before tribalism and Covid took their toll on the capital city’s once-bustling bipartisan political nightlife.

His answer is the cheek-to-jowl townhouses now doing business as the War Room Tavern and its smoke-filled neighbor, Todd’s Back Room. They aspire to be a clubhouse not just to serve Albany’s political set but to venerate it. Think Planet Hollywood for Planet Albany.

There’s a massive bull-moose head to honor Teddy Roosevelt hanging alongside a small museum’s worth of Albany esoterica (Bella Abzug’s hat! Andrew Cuomo’s humidor!) and framed headshots of governors and obscure backbenchers alike. The bar downstairs hosts karaoke featuring politicos. (Diane Savino, a former state senator and now Mayor Eric Adams’s Albany liaison, is a regular.) Even the menu serves up political tributes (a $57 Pataki filet mignon) alongside fresh hand-rolled sushi.

Diane Savino

Diane Savino, senior adviser to Mayor Eric Adams, sang along to “My Girl” with Mr. Paterson.Credit...Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

A sign outside seeks to reassure wary elected officials: No photos or video allowed.

“It’s really a love room,” said Mr. Shapiro, who welcomes Democrats and Republicans with equal verve. “Politics is about war. It’s about campaigns. But they come to this place, and they come together.”

Like any political haunt, the War Room has quickly inspired its own intrigue, much of it around Mr. Shapiro, 59, and his cast of friends.

He once opened a shoe store inside a Hamptons nightclub and has promoted “probably 1,000 restaurants,” but he has never owned one before now. Most of his career was spent in public relations, where he built a reputation around proximity to the powerful, with little regard for political affiliation.

He has represented socialitesplastic surgeons, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Brock Pierce, the child actor turned cryptocurrency investor. He has helped police unions through scandal. At points, Mr. Shapiro worked both sides of one of Manhattan’s most famous divorces: serving as a publicist for Ivana Trump and for her ex-husband Donald’s ill-fated Long Island catering hall.


But he always fantasized about his own place. So for about $1.5 million, Mr. Shapiro said, he bought and renovated a pair of 19th-century brownstones that previously housed a bar and drug rehabilitation center, put out the call for memorabilia and opened shop last January.

It has not been always easy business, particularly for a first-time restaurateur who takes the train up from Manhattan. Albany’s nightlife has been in decline for years, hobbled by tighter ethics laws that stop lobbyists from picking up the tab and a social scene where Republicans and Democrats keep to their own parties. The pandemic only accelerated the drop, claiming the venerable University Club and Pinto & Hobbs Tavern, a favorite of the karaoke set.

Mr. Shapiro said his restaurant was profitable “some months,” calling Albany “a desert” when lawmakers leave town in June. But then again, he often appears more interested in playing host than a conventional businessman, offering free food and drinks to politicians and near-strangers who quickly become his friends.

“Once you’re in with him, it’s like being family,” said David N. Weinraub, a lobbyist whose clients include DoorDash and New York’s largest health care provider. “I had three dinners there when he started. He insisted on paying. I’m like, ‘Dude, you can’t keep buying me dinner!’”

Mr. Weinraub has held fund-raisers there and signed up for a $2,500 cigar lounge membership to bring clients in for quiet chats. He drew a line when Mr. Shapiro offered to put his photo on the wall.

That largess has led some regulars — and ethics watchdogs — to speculate whether there may be more in it for Mr. Shapiro than food and beverage receipts. As owner, he plays host to the kind of powerful decision makers who control budgets and policy that could give his clients a leg up, or attract new ones. He rejects the suggestion: “Look, if anything, it’s lost me business.”

Todd Shapiro

Todd Shapiro, in the cigar bar at the War Room. “It’s really a love room,” he said.Credit...Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Either way, it is hard work. On Monday, as old friends poured in, Mr. Shapiro and his wife, Liz (another friend, the Rev. Al Sharpton, officiated at their marriage), were frantically running up and down the townhouses’ narrow staircases, ferrying drinks and steaks alongside overwhelmed staff.

“It’s like the opening of the opera,” said Mr. Shapiro, who seemed to relish his role as disheveled maestro.

The evening began around 5 p.m. with a fund-raiser in the restaurant’s private events space for Taylor Darling, a Democratic assemblywoman running for State Senate.

“Is my picture up yet, Todd?” she yelled back as she ascended three flights of stairs. (It was.)

By 8 p.m., the Assembly Republican leader was posted up at the bar, and Ms. Maloney was next door mingling with Roosevelt’s great-great-great grandson, a teenager whom Mr. Shapiro would honor in a ceremony at the War Room the next day with a former client, Gov. George E. Pataki, and Mr. Adams.

“Women should be allowed in every room,” said Ms. Maloney, another former Shapiro client, explaining why she’d chosen a traditionally male space for an E.R.A. event. But that did not mean she liked the smoke.

“It’s enough to gag,” she said more than once. “You could literally chew the air.”

Minutes later, heads swiveled as Ms. James burst through the front door and playfully bellowed, “Where’s Todd?”

Ms. Savino, who guided other guests to see framed mementos she had donated, argued the restaurant was filling a significant social gap that had grown in Albany.

“When you see somebody belting out a tune that you like, it makes you look at them different,” she said. “It may not change your ideology, but you start to see the humanity in each other that I think has been missing.”


Blind Dog Dave and the Pirate Throng featuring Gov. David Paterson as Blind Dog, guitarist David Murray to his left, and musical director Simon Mills on piano. Mr. Paterson played covers of Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. “This place is a scene and a half,” said a lobbyist.Credit...Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

That was evident Monday night, as Mr. Paterson took a makeshift stage with his band, “Blind Dog Dave and the Pirate Throng,” a reference to the former governor’s limited sight. He dedicated a rendition of “My Girl” to Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was out of sight cramming for her own more staid State of the State performance.

Republicans mostly sat out the singalong. But they whooped as Ms. James introduced Mr. Paterson by highlighting some common ground.

“This War Room, this wonderful restaurant, is packed to the rafters, with just about every politician of all types and all races, all political stripes,” she said. “And there’s one thing we can agree on, and that is: You can’t sing.”

Nicholas Fandos is a Times reporter covering New York politics and government. More about Nicholas Fandos

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