Interview: Mayor Miner and County Exec. Mahoney pt. 3
by Grant Reeher - Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
Leadership and politics in Syracuse

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner have appeared on the Campbell Conversations program before. This is the last of three parts in which they participate together. This week, they discuss leadership and politics in Syracuse.

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

Joanie Mahoney (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.

Stephanie Miner (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 24 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 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 someplace 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 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 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 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.

To read Part 2 – CLICK HERE

Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.

Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.

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