Campaigns & Elections

Inside The Capitol: Syracuse Democrats For Mayor Spar In Televised Forum

WCNY Public Television worked hand-in-glove with the Syracuse Media Group/The Post-Standard to produce the one and only televised debate between the Democratic candidates for mayor of Syracuse. The WCNY team collaborated with SMG’s Editorial Opinion Leader Marie Morelli and Editorial Opinion Specialist Steve Carlic to draft questions that would educate the public about where the candidates stand on key issues. The questions we received from the public in the week leading up to the forum touched on a wide variety of issues, from prostitution (“There are prostitutes plying their trade in broad daylight! Why are they allowed to do that?”) to why the street lights in the city aren’t synchronized.

If you’re thinking that Syracuse is very different from New York City, you would be correct.

But to leaders in Yonkers, Albany and Rochester, the issues are familiar: foreclosures, litter, drugs. These cities have limited tax bases to draw upon to solve their problems. Most upstate cities, like Syracuse, will eventually face a future that includes cuts or some painful restructuring—or both.

We wanted to alert the public to the city’s likely future, so we boiled down the many issues facing Syracuse to two. The first was crime and policing. While the crime rate in the city has dropped, the homicide rate has done just the opposite. By the end of August there had been more homicides in the city than in all of 2012. Was the current mayor’s data-driven approach to fighting crime working?

The second critical area we wanted to discuss was the city’s finances. In the most recent budget, incumbent Stephanie Miner siphoned $18 million from the city’s rainy day fund to fill a budget gap. At that rate, the fund would be depleted in three years. How would she and her challengers, Pat Hogan, a city councilor, and Alfonso Davis, a community activist, handle such an enormous financial shortfall?
Crime & Policing

The first question was directed to the incumbent. We asked Stephanie Miner why her philosophy of policing had changed. Four years ago when she was running for mayor, she was a proponent of “community policing,” something she recently called “a romantic idea.” Now Miner advocates a more data-driven approach.


MINER: We saw the models working in other cities, especially in New York City, which has had a tremendous reduction in crime. … I would say when you look at the CompStat model, you’re looking at analyzing data.

The other two candidates argued for a return to community or “neighborhood” policing.

HOGAN: My idea is to have a severe police presence—40 officers on the beat at any given time. Police officers should be tethered to the city’s 38 neighborhoods.

DAVIS: Who is better to lead a city with compassion and empathy than someone who has been on the ground level? When we talk about community policing, that has been my focus for years. There is a contentious relationship between the community and law enforcement. You cannot engage people by doing “drive-by policing.”

Both Davis and Hogan were critical of the Syracuse police department for not making more of an effort to walk on foot around the city’s neighborhoods.
City Finances

The incumbent’s position on city finances also differed from her challengers’.


Miner gained statewide attention by arguing in a New York Times op-ed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pension-smoothing proposal would cost Syracuse over 100 million dollars. Both Hogan and Davis stated they would consider borrowing from future pensions to pay current obligations.

Since Cuomo has said he will likely not increase state aid to localities, Mayor Miner was asked what her “Plan B” was.
Closing a fire station here, a senior center there, and consolidating planning with Onondaga County is nibbling at the edges of a very big problem. Yet you say you don’t want a “handout” from the state. So what do you want?

MINER: I want the state to change the underlying economic model for cities.

But isn’t that just semantics? What you want is more state aid, whether you call it an obligation or a handout.

MINER: It’s much more complicated than that. I have spent three years talking about this very issue. It’s not just semantics. What it means is that 50% of our property is nontaxable. When we have 12% of our budget going toward pension costs and a full 20% going toward healthcare costs, we need the state to step in, because clearly the taxpayers of the city of Syracuse can’t bear the burden, [and] pensioners shouldn’t bear the burden. It needs to be shared across the board.

But what’s your Plan B if the state doesn’t come through?

MINER: We have said, and I have said, I don’t want just a handout. I want to make sure we talk about revenues and liabilities. We want flexibility. We want all the constituency groups to get together and solve this problem. And just because the governor has said right now he won’t doesn’t mean he’s not going to have to have a conversation. When all of these municipalities start facing financial control boards or bankruptcies there’s going to be a conversation, and I plan to make sure that Syracuse’s interests are represented in that conversation. 
From there, we segued into a critical “what if” question. In the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy, many municipal finance experts are looking at city leaders wondering what they think about this conundrum: If a city faces bankruptcy, it will likely have two large debtors, the banks, and the pensioners.
In your opinion, who is the more deserving debtor?

HOGAN: I think we [have to] take care of the people who have worked for us for many years. That’s the fairest way to do it.

DAVIS: I would also say that those individuals who provided the services for us are the ones we need to look at first.

MINER: There is no moral distinction between the pensioners and the bank. They are both commitments the city has made.

Miner’s comments drew criticism at one debate-watching party. Party attendee Howie Hawkins, a Teamster and former Green Party candidate for governor of New York, described a group of union members (himself included) who were furious at the mayor for what they viewed as a cavalier position toward their retirement, “especially after the Obama administration claimed it had to use bailout money for Wall Street bonuses for AIG employees, because the bonuses were a part of a ‘sacred contract.’ ”

On the other hand, finance experts like former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch argue that there are no simple answers; that “banks” is a loose term given to bond holders, who may include you or your parents.

The forum went smoothly, even though fireworks threatened several hours earlier when Hogan had issued a press release inviting the public to a local diner to vote on the question: Whom did Mayor Miner “insult the most in her quest for political stardom?” It was a thinly veiled reference to Miner’s other job as co-chair of the State Democratic Committee. Hogan’s ballot included Cuomo, with whom the mayor has publically disagreed (as mentioned above), as well as the Syracuse police and fire departments, which have seen their ranks dwindle as the mayor attempts to balance her budget.

It was probably not Hogan’s intention, but his list helped underscore the feeling that we’d picked the right issues to zero in on.

Several political analysts we spoke with, including Prof. Tara Ross of Onondaga Community College, think the primary will determine the ultimate outcome in this election, if for no other reason than the fact that the Republicans do not yet have a firm candidate.

According to The Post-Standard, the Republicans have named a placeholder candidate, Kevin Kuehner. In a letter to the editor published on August 30, Tom Dadey, Onondaga County Republican Chairman wrote, “You should know that I continue to conduct a vigorous search for a challenger to go up against incumbent Mayor Stephanie Miner, and we remain optimistic that we will find a credible candidate who would make a strong mayor.”

Among the rumored possible GOP candidates is Hogan, who, if he loses the primary, may run on the Republican line.

The forum, broadcast Aug. 28 on WCNY, can be viewed online