Q&A: Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner on debunking gender stereotypes

Last week, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney gave an interview on WSYR-TV in which she voiced her opposition to a lawsuit brought by Mayor Stephanie Miner on behalf of the City of Syracuse.

“I think that is one of the issues that the mayor struggles with,” Mahoney said. “She gets emotional and she just very quickly lashes out. Here I think you are seeing it again. ... Then she gets her feelings hurt and then we get lawsuits and we get entrenched. It’s just not a good way to move forward with government.”

The issue at hand is a real estate deal to develop Syracuse’s Inner Harbor. The mayor is suing to halt the project on the grounds that the developer reneged on an agreement to not seek a property tax break in return for the land. Mahoney’s comments drew criticism for reflecting negative gender stereotypes.

City & State’s Alexis Grenell spoke with Miner about her reaction to Mahoney’s comments and the challenges of being a woman in a position of power.

The following is an edited transcript.

 City & State: What do you think of the county executive’s use of gender negative stereotypes to dismiss your lawsuit?

Stephanie Miner: I think it was unfortunate. It doesn’t add to the public discourse. There are real issues of public policy in terms of economic development philosophy … and when you just engage in personal ad hominem attacks you don’t add to the dialogue. When you engage in certain language, what you do is sort of say to people, “If you get into the public arena be prepared for people to say the worst kind of prejudice against you.”

I’ve tried to recruit women candidates all the time and this is a real issue. I go to these women all the time and say to them, “You should run for office,” and they say, “You know what mayor, we like what we’re doing and I don’t want to put me and my family through this.”

That’s what I think part of my role is as a female leader, when people engage in stereotypes and use loaded language, first stand up for the issue and say, “Don’t do that.”

C&S: Does it matter that the sexist remarks came from another woman? Is it better or worse? 

SM: I don’t think bias or prejudice is limited to when only one group says it. I think it’s arguably more damaging when someone of the same sex says it because it allows others to use that as a pretext to say those kind of things.

C&S: Women in public life are always grappling with how to handle the expectations for a job that has only ever been held by men. You seem very open about talking about gender issues. What is your approach? 

SM: I am comfortable with who I am. In order to be the mayor of the city of Syracuse you have to embrace that. I am different than anyone else who came before me, and I have seen firsthand how my gender can add to the public policy discussion and can bring a point of view. 

Let me give you an example. When I was in college and law school I used Planned Parenthood for my reproductive health needs. Here I am as mayor and I see the Republicans talking about how Planned Parenthood is about abortion exclusively and women should get health services from some places other than Planned Parenthood. That was an opportunity for me to stand up and say, “Hey, I was a person who used Planned Parenthood in college and law school.” There is no other place for women without means to get those kind of services. This is about women and health care. I could use my personal experience to illustrate an issue in the public domain. I think the best politicians are able to listen to people and become advocates for public policy changes. Look, I’m a short Catholic woman who’s young looking and I’m in office now. I’m not going to walk away from that. For me that’s part of leadership, being able to give voice to the issues of your constituents.

C&S: I heard an anecdote about your first State of the State as mayor that epitomizes what I think a lot of women in any male-dominated profession experience.  

SM: Yeah, I’d been mayor a few days, I had an escort from the governor’s office, a woman state trooper. And I’d brought a male relative of mine as a guest. [The trooper] said to the security guards, “Could you clear the way? I have the mayor of Syracuse with me.” The security guard stopped everything and cleared the way and turned to my 50-year-old white male relative, and said, “Go ahead, sir.” He said, “Actually it’s not me, it’s her.” The female state trooper turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, mayor, they’ll get used to you soon enough.”

C&S: What do you think of the Women’s Equality Party? Is there a future for it or should it just be disbanded?

SM: I was hopeful about it when it was formed that it would be used as a vessel to really bring to light issues that women face, and working families, and particularly for me issues of poverty because I see so many single women in retail jobs, fast food jobs, etc. But it hasn’t become that. Instead it has become a party for the favored few of the governor’s team.

C&S: You recently renounced the LLC loophole, refusing to accept any donations through it. Why does this matter? 

SM: I’ve seen firsthand, particularly as I’ve gone to Albany, that legal, large anonymous contributions drive public policy outcomes. I’ve seen that when that happens it’s my constituents who suffer. People who can’t afford to hire lobbyists or have an anonymous LLCs.

C&S: You’ve taken money through the LLC loophole before. What prompted this recent revelation?

SM: It started around the events that unfolded around Moreland and the [Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos] trials. I read through the litigation that the Brennan Center brought. For me it was time to say I don’t want to be part of that system.

C&S: There have been rumors that you might run for governor. Want to weigh in?

SM: [Laughs.] I haven’t ruled anything in or out!