Stephanie Miner and Joanie Mahoney on the Campbell Conversations, part 2

Aug 10, 2014

When Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner sent a letter to President Obama offering to host undocumented Latin American children at a former convent, a spirited version of the immigration debate erupted in the area.  On this week's edition of the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher continues his interview of both Miner and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney.  They discuss the  hosting decision, and also have a more general conversation about leadership and politics in the region.

Note: Part 1 of the conversation can be heard here. See the transcript below for highlights of the conversation.

GR: The New York Times has recently reported on the extent to which Governor Cuomo’s office involved itself in, even apparently obstructed, the work of the Moreland Commission.  County Executive Mahoney, you were a member of that commission.  Do either of you think that there has been significant reform of the political system in Albany over the past three years.  If so, what is it?

SM: I guess that is kind of like asking, "When did you stop beating your wife?"  As long as we see politicians who are dragged out in handcuffs from their offices in Albany, the answer is no, there hasn’t been.  What is troubling for me is that this makes it hard for all of us, elected officials, to do our job.  Part of being an elected official is telling people things that they don’t want to hear, and when they have it in their mindset that there are other politicians who are lying or not being honest or are under the veil of corruption, it makes it much more difficult for all of us to do our job in a time when it is very difficult to be an elected official.

JM: I would agree with the Mayor that it makes it very difficult for us to work in this world, because there is an incredible amount of cynicism surrounding politics.  But I think that has gone on for a long time.

When I was asked to participate in this Moreland Commission, one of the first things that I said as a commission member inside our meetings was, we need to change the policies. You can spend the next year looking at individual donors or individual elected officials that have gotten in trouble, and maybe even have wild success and get rid of all the trouble-makers, but that vacuum is very quickly  going to be filled with more trouble-makers if you don’t change the policies.  I think we spent a lot more time talking about individual investigations and not about changing the big policies.  There was some progress that was made--there’s certainly more that can be made--but I think that anybody who rolls up their sleeves and tries to take this on should be focusing not on the individuals but on the policies that make the fraud possible.

GR: The last and possibly the final installment in the effort to bring back the Hotel Syracuse downtown is getting underway. Ed Riley has purchased it and it’s the beginning of another long, complicated process that if it works, will have to involve the ongoing financial support of city and county government. How important is having a hotel like the Hotel Syracuse located downtown?

SM: The Hotel Syracuse is an architectural landmark, it anchors the southern end of our downtown, and it needs to be renovated and viable for us to have a fully functional downtown, which then leads to a fully functional city and community. It’s an integral piece to our overall community and economic development.

GR: Are the two of you be inclined to support Riley on loans or tax credits and if so, are there any particular instruments that are best?

JM: I think people might be surprised to learn how much Stephanie and I have worked together on this.  This has been a joint effort between the City of Syracuse and the county to the point where every Monday morning Stephanie’s Economic Development director meets with the Deputy County Executive and Ed Riley.  They have shepherded this through, and we have made commitments to the project. The county has redirected the state funding that we received for our Convention Center Hotel and the city agreed to take it by imminent domain. This has been a real hand-in-glove [process]; we know what he is going to need and we are committed to his success.

SM: Absolutely, and to join this point, I think Ed would be the first to say that he wouldn’t be in this position had it not been for the city and county working closely to support him and help him move this project along.

GR: It doesn’t sound like then that one would anticipate any big conflicts in terms of support and the financing.

SM: I think the only conflict you would see is if something was wildly underestimated and more commitment in it needs to be made, but right now there’s a big commitment from the community that Ed says is enough to get it across the finish line.

GR: There was a recent report that in 2013 Madison, Onondaga, and Oswego Counties lost 2200 jobs, while the State as a whole gained jobs.  Aside from giving tax breaks or loans, what are the most important things that local governments can do to help businesses develop and create more jobs?

SM: Well it is education, and it is making sure that you have an educated workforce. We have a hard-working workforce that has a tremendous work ethic. What we are doing at the city level with the City School District is partnering with our light manufacturers and our other business entities who are constantly saying to us, we have openings for people, for jobs but we can’t get the right kind of skills or people with these skills. So we are looking to line up our curriculum to make sure that we are giving young people and others the kind of skills and workforce development necessary that the marketplace demands.

JM: The criticism is that we pick winners and losers, and to some extent we do. I don’t want that to be the case, but the world exists as it exists. I can’t--just because I am personally opposed to these--I can’t say on behalf of Onondaga County we are not going to do that, we are going to step back and let the free market play, when Connecticut and Pennsylvania and the states around us, New Jersey, are all giving away all these incentives.

GR: It does seem to me that at some broader level a lot of this is a zero-sum game.

JM: I think the solution has to come at the federal level. I think if we were to make decisions at a federal level that would make America more competitive, it would be better than pitting communities against each other on a local level or even the state level. But I am playing the hand I’ve been dealt, and I am going to compete for jobs for Onondaga County as long as I am County Executive.  We are going to make the decisions based on a return on our investment and that’s the calculation. We focus our decision through the prism of what is best for the next generation. We have to have jobs if these people are going to call Central New York home.  We have made it way more complicated than we need to, but it is not something that Stephanie can get on her horse and say I’m opposed to all of these, count Syracuse out. I am not going to say that on behalf of the county, so we continue to take the criticism that we take to make the best decisions we can.

SM: I think what you have seen us do in the city and also in the county is look at our strengths, and align our incentives to our strengths. We are not out chasing smoke stacks. We are saying here are our areas of real economic viability. They are on technology, they are on higher education, they are in healthcare. And so we are incenting development as a great return on investment on those things. We are not out chasing and saying we are going to compete with Pennsylvania for some retail jobs, or the next Wal-Mart or Sams’s Club. It really is about having a rational basis, and saying for every public dollar of investment in that project, we need to have at least two dollars back in terms of return.

GR: The question of undocumented alien children who are stopped at the border being brought to Syracuse temporarily--Mayor, was this your idea originally to bring them here, or did someone come to you with this?

SM: The federal [Department of] Health and Human Services [HHS] alerted me that they were in the process of reviewing what I call the convent school as a potential to house unaccompanied minors who are coming across the border. When that happened I called them and talked to them about the process and participated in a conference call with a number of other people across New York State, and it was very clear to me in my conversations, and of course reading the newspaper and watching what was going on, that not many people were welcoming these children.  When I said to HSS we would welcome them here and do what we can to facilitate this, they were thoughtful and gracious about it.  I decided to write a letter to the president to expedite the process, so it wasn’t happening behind closed doors.  This is something we in Syracuse have a proud tradition of doing, and we are happy to do that. We can expedite this process to give these children a place of safety and compassion.

JM: I know there has been some concern on the part of the County Legislature whether this would be some strain on the county budget.  The Mayor’s understanding thus far is that communities will be self-contained and that everything that the children need would be available on site and paid for by the federal government. The keyword for me in your question is children, the fact that we are dealing with children changes everything for me. We have to make sure the kids are taken care of. And if there is a role for any of us to help take care of the kids until a much bigger, more complicated problem gets solved--I mean, you can point fingers all day toward the federal government for the lack of an immigration policy that has worked, but right now there are children that are away from their families that need to be taken care of.

GR: There is a concern that somehow at the end of the day it is going to cost the city money.  The federal government won’t pay for everything.

SM: I am confident in both the conversations that I had early on and in written conversations that the federal government picks up the costs associated with this facility. Now, are they going to use our water? Of course. If a child breaks his arm on the facility are they going to go to our hospital? Of course.  But you know, our proudest tradition as Americans is when we welcome people, particularly refugees.  The people of this city--whether it is migrant grandparents who came here from Ireland or whether it is the people we have today coming from Bhutan and Iraq and South Sudan--we have welcomed them and said, your experience is our experience.  We are a better community when we welcome everyone.

JM: And you know you are going to hear from people in response to what you just said, is that these folks aren’t in the same political category.

GR: They're not here legally, for one thing.

JM: Right, and my response to that is, ok, somebody has failed. Along the way there has been failure, but you have children that are away from their families that need to be taken care of. If there is something I can do to help personally, I’m going to do it.

GR: The two of you are in second terms. How are the leadership challenges different in the second term as opposed to the first?

JM: In politics there is a shelf-life. People think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread for a minute and then they hate you. So I think it becomes more difficult to sell your ideas as time goes by.  Everybody clamors for change, but when you try to make change or want change, they don’t. I have enjoyed a real amount of encouragement and loyalty from the people who elected me, and I don’t want to exaggerate, but I am in a good place. But as time goes by, my advice to anybody who gets into this business is to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can and hit the ground running, because as time goes by it does get more difficult to do the job.

SM: I think there is a tremendous window when you first get in to implement change, and then it does become harder. That’s why they talk about honeymoon periods. What we are also experiencing as leaders is a change in the media.  You used to be able to go to the media and say, “Ok, here’s my idea and here’s why I think it’s a good idea and here’s why I think we would benefit.” But now it has become so diffused--you lose that vessel of the fourth estate and it becomes very difficult to implement change.

GR: Each of you has had conflicts with your respective legislatures.

SM: I thought you were going to say spouses (laughs).

GR: We don’t go there on this program—we aim higher than that. But you’ve had conflicts with your respective legislatures, even among those of your own party. What have you learned from those conflicts?

SM: I think conflict and change go hand in hand. And when you are a full-time executive you are with these facts and circumstance and issues twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. A part-time legislature comes in and out, and chooses issues they want to be very active on and which they don’t. So what I have learned is that I need to take more time to explain the rationale behind these policies, because I was assuming that they knew as much as I did, and I was really forgetting the fact that I’m full-time and they are part-time, and most of them have other jobs.  And even though I am saying one thing to one person, it doesn’t mean that it is automatically disseminated to all the others in the same way that I have explained it.

JM: My relationship has gotten better over time, and I have learned some of the same things that the mayor just said. You have to take the time to say what it is you are trying to do.  We have a chairman of legislature right now, Ryan McMahon, who came from the Syracuse City council. I’m not sure when the last time you had a city councilor take over as chairman of the county legislature. There was a real city-versus-county when I got here. I came here saying that the city is part of the county, and we are all in this together, but the legislature wasn’t there. Now, with this new chairman, with this new legislature, my relationship has gotten a lot better. But I have learned along the way that I can do better in terms of communicating what it is I am trying to do, and so far so good.

GR: Everyone who follows politics says that relationships are incredibly important for making the system work well. Your own relationship, however, seems to get a different kind of scrutiny.

SM: Because we are both women?

GR: Well, why do you think it is such a dissected topic?

JM: It might have to do with the history and the fact that there was always this city and county thing.  We had the city suing the county, the county probably suing the city, and there was this battle.  I think it was a big difference for people to have a city mayor and a county executive that were cooperating. Out of respect for the voters I have committed to working with anybody that the voters send. The voters don’t send Stephanie Miner and send me, and hope that we will prevent each other from getting anything done. The voters have elected Stephanie Miner. I happen to have lucked out, because we had a previous relationship, we were friends. There is a level of trust, we could work together. But I will work with whoever the voters send to me to work with.  That’s my job. And I don’t understand on the federal level, how you can count as a win preventing the other side from accomplishing anything.

GR: But the media constantly cover your relationship, and the ongoing story is, “Are they getting along?”

JM: There was actually an article in the paper [Post-Standard] that quoted the mayor saying that our relationship is fine, quoted me as saying that it is fine, but the article and the headline was that our relationship was not fine.

GR: I remember that piece.

JM: It’s ridiculous.

GR: I would think that then generates a lot of talk among political people about the relationship, and I would also think that creates some of its own stresses on the relationship, regardless of how things are going. Has that been a challenge?

SM: It hasn’t been for me. I think that Joanie and I benefit from being local government officials. We don’t have the option of running away to some place and not dealing with our constituents. We see them in the grocery store, we see them when we are out on the street getting lunch, getting dinner, having coffee. When you are held accountable the second you walk out of your door in the morning to the second you walk in your door, you have a sense of I have got to get these things done. What I have always respected and found really beneficial working with Joanie is she will tell you what she’s thinking, why she is thinking that, and how are we going to move forward. And when you have that in any relationship, but particularly in a political relationship, it just makes it so much easier to get decisions made and to move forward.

GR: What are the biggest shortcomings of the political decision making process in this region?

SM: I think that there are people who want change, and everybody says that they want change, but it is always a fight to get people to take the inherent risk that change brings with it. And it is a fight against the cynicism that is deeply held in this community, about where we are going and where our future is.

JM: The best example that I have is recent. Things take forever in politics and in government. This amphitheater project that we are trying to build--the criticism is I am going too fast, and it is mind-boggling to me. This piece of land that we are talking about building on, you would be a hard-pressed to find another piece of land in the country that has been more studied and more documented. We had to go through all of the federal and state processes to do the loop-the-lake trail that goes over the property right now.  I personally sat down with the top EPA official in this region, and we had a one-on-one conversation. I said I am a mother of children who are going to be sitting on the lawn, listening to the music.  I am not looking to cut corners. I have been assured that it is safe, but almost every email that I have gotten has been slow down, slow down, slow down.  No wonder it takes us so long in government to get anything done.

GR:  A reform of perennial interest is campaign financing, and the state is trying to have a very limited experiment with it this year in the comptroller’s race. What authority do local governments have to try things in this arena and if so, have you ever considered proposing something?

JM: I actually wrote the dissent with eight other people in the Moreland Commission against the public financing for this state cycle, and it is because of the Supreme Court’s decisions that have come down that have corporations being treated as people and the free speech implications. Given that reality, I think you are throwing good money after bad by just pouring more money into the current system that we have. It will be interesting to see what comes of this but we didn’t have a whole bunch of candidates clamor to run simply because there was public financing. It was one of the things we thought would come from public financing, we’d get far more people.  That has not happened and six-to-one matches on a maximum of $175 is nothing compared to what corporations are able to put into campaigns.  To take hard-working taxpayer money and pour it into a system that’s going to be expensive for taxpayers and at the same time a drop in the bucket for the overall costs, has led me to think that this is not the solution.  I haven’t looked at it at a local level. I don’t know what authority we would have.  We probably we would need state permission to do that because it might be considered a gift.

GR:  But there is not going to be the same level of outside money coming in for local races as you would see in a state-wide race.

SM: They are subject to a state law that dictates what the campaign maximums are. We couldn’t change that law or do a pilot program here without breaking the state law or having the state change the law just for us.

GR: You couldn’t even do a voluntary public matching?

SM: I don’t believe so. The state law is very specific about that.  Campaign finance is controlled by the Board of Elections and New York State law.

JM: There are people that have very good intentions but the playing field is not what they think it is. [The idea] that if we got public finance we are going to solve all of the mess that campaign finance has created, I haven’t been convinced that that is the solution.

SM: I think money is a pernicious factor in politics and raising it is not one of my favorite things to do, but I will do it. But as the county executive points out, the Supreme Court had been pretty clear.  Money is speech. And when they set that down, a mayor from Syracuse and a county executive can’t do a run around it.