The Mayor’s Temperament, and What’s Best for the City

On Tuesday November 7, the City of Syracuse elected Ben Walsh to be its next mayor.

Voters chose Walsh, in part, because of his temperament. Just about all of the people who endorsed him brought it up. On November 5, the Post-Standard published the results of a poll showing that twenty percent of voters were going to choose the candidate with the best temperament for the job.

People liked that he’s not combative. Helen Hudson, President-Elect of the Common Council, called Walsh a “calm, quiet spirit,” and Common Councilor-Elect Joe Driscoll said that Walsh could “put aside the often petty, personal bickering and division that has too long dominated our collective efforts.”

This is an issue because Mayor Stephanie Miner’s personal relationships with County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Governor Andrew Cuomo have soured over the last eight years. People in Syracuse have watched it happen, and they’ve seen cooperation between the City, the County, and the State fall apart on projects like the new SU stadium, consolidation, and State Aid to Municipalities. The City is almost out of money, and it’s going to have to work with both the County and the State to avoid bankruptcy. People wanted a mayor who wouldn’t let personal animosity get in the way of that work.

There’s a mistake in this line of thinking, though. The City hasn’t failed to work with the County and the State just because the Mayor doesn’t get along with the County Executive and the Governor. All three governments answer to voters with conflicting interests, and those interests are more important that the personal feelings of any elected official.

Take the stadium proposal from back in 2014. Mayor Miner asked the State for money to replace all of the City’s water mains because the constant breaks were draining the City’s budget and messing up people’s lives. Governor Cuomo is worried about the effect that State taxes have on New York’s business climate, so he doesn’t like to spend State money on projects that do not help that image. He proposed that the state would pay to build a new stadium for SU on vacant state-owned land in Syracuse, with the hope that the development would generate enough sales tax revenue to pay for the City’s water main repairs. That plan didn’t work for the City, though, because it would have increased infrastructure costs immediately without any guaranteed increase in tax revenue because SU doesn’t pay property taxes. So the project never went forward because the State and the City had mutually exclusive goals, but people acted like the problem was really that Mayor Miner doesn’t get along with Governor Cuomo.

This pattern has repeated in a lot of big local projects: the City demands what it needs, the County and the State demand something different, cooperation breaks down, and it all gets blamed on personalities.

Syracuse has real needs. They’re deep and painful to look at, and they make everything more complicated, but whoever’s Mayor is going to have to demand that they’re met. Ben Walsh won 54% of the City-wide vote, but the the six districts with the highest concentrations of public housing, the six districts where those needs are greatest, he only got 20%. The people living in those places aren’t looking for a Mayor who’ll make quick deals with the County and the State. They need a Mayor who’ll advocate for them when the Governor tells Syracuse to “fix your own pipes,” or when the Suburban-Dominated Consensus Commission tries to turn Syracuse into a “debt-district.” They need for Ben Walsh to do what’s best for them, even when that means rejecting the County and the State.