The event, the annual public meeting of ACTS, the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, took place at Most Holy Rosary Church, a stately 19th-century building on Roberts Avenue that straddles the area between Strathmore and the Near West Side. More than 1,000 members of ACTS gathered to review its progress on issues involving health care, the justice system, jobs and opportunities for youth, as well as to encourage its members to get out and vote next week.
When the candidates were introduced, Green Populist Howie Hawkins appeared to get the biggest applause from the crowd. Democrat Maffei received a sustained ovation, while Republican Sweetland’s reception was polite but not too enthusiastic.
The central moment of the evening, which at times took on the flavor of a church meeting, and at other times a campaign rally, was when ACTS president, the Rev. Kevin Agee, called out the candidates to ask them three questions. By that time, Sweetland had already left. Agee, of Hopps Memorial Church, lit into the candidate. “We ask for respect for our process,” he announced. “Mr. Sweetland chose to leave. If he is elected we may have to do some action at his office to get him to partner with us.” The crowd grumbled its displeasure with the former County Legislature chair.
Dan Maffei: Invokes the Old Testament Daniel in a campaign appearance in front of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Contacted by phone later that evening, Sweetland said his staff had spoken with ACTS organizer Andres Kwon, and Kwon agreed to adjust the agenda to allow him to meet his other commitments. Kwon denies that Sweetland’s staff told him of the conflict when they met to plan the event two weeks ago. He said he had a phone conversation with Sweetland staffer Travis Glazier on Friday, Oct. 24, in which Glazier informed him that Sweetland had other commitments that evening.
“I told him that I would leave that up to his discretion,” said Kwon, “but that we have this agenda and we want you to stay.” As it happened, Sweetland left 30 minutes into the ACTS meeting in order to attend campaign events in South Onondaga and Elbridge.
“I left because I made a commitment to some other people,” Sweetland said. “Everyone believes that you can be everywhere, but you can’t be in two places at once.”
Asked about the minister’s remarks, Sweetland said it sounded like a setup. Glazier described the situation as unfortunate.
Maffei took full advantage of his one minute with the microphone by telling the gathering that he would “keep faith” with them and likening himself to the Old Testament figure of Daniel. “My name is Daniel. Daniel was someone who was sent to a foreign land. In a strange place he remained faithful to his people, he always prayed with the window open to Jerusalem. You are my Jerusalem,” said Maffei, to thunderous applause. “I will always keep faith with you.”
Maffei seemed to have perfect pitch with this crowd, appearing more animated and at ease than he has in most campaign forums thus far. Campaign manager Mike Whyland hadn’t ever heard his boss use the reference to the Biblical Daniel before, and he appeared surprised as well as pleased. Reacting to recent criticism of Maffei in The New Times, Whyland indicated that perhaps the public has not seen enough of this side of Maffei.
“We get nervous sometimes,” admitted Whyland, clinging to his ever-present Blackberry in the vestibule of the church. “We are confident, but we want to fight for every vote.”
That confidence is enhanced by the district’s enrollment figures. “In Onondaga and Monroe counties there are 10,000 more newly registered Democrats than there are newly registered Republicans,” said Whyland. There are 15,000 new Democrats registered in this district since 2006. This is going to be a different district after this election.”
If Maffei appeared at ease in the church, he was clearly more nervous the day before during a conversation in Munjed’s on Westcott Street. Even while seated, his legs kept moving as he talked and later, on a walk through the neighborhood, he called out to people in their cars, reminding them to vote. He told supporters on the street that the race is tightening.
Maffei was accompanied by his wife Abby Davidson-Maffei, who took issue with a statement in a recent New Times commentary attributed to a Maffei supporter, in which he was called “a suit.” “I did not marry a suit,” scolded Davidson-Maffei, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship. Maffei noted that he is shy, and that he has had to force himself out of his shell in order to hit the campaign trail, but he still has difficulty talking about himself.
“I don’t volunteer personal information. I’m very shy. My mom and dad are very shy. But I discovered that if there’s a purpose, I can be outgoing. If there’s something to be said, I can put myself out there. I love being out in the public.”
Meanwhile at the ACTS gathering, Hawkins said he would always work to have dialogues with those gathered, and challenged them to turn their advocacy for children’s health care into support for his plan for single-payer national health insurance. “The Democrats’ plan gives public subsidies to the insurance companies and drug companies,” said Hawkins. Glazier said in a phone call that the Republican candidate would endorse increased funding for SCHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Maffei also endorsed the ACTS demand for greater federal funding for SCHIP. In the earlier interview he outlined his views on health care in greater detail. “I would go beyond SCHIP. I want to insure all kids. Even cover the healthy kids, kids whose families have money. Medikids, we call it. Insure them all.”
He said that in his travels in the district, he hears people voice support for universal health care but they are conflicted over how to get there. “There is a strong consensus that everyone deserves health care, that it has got to be less expensive, and that there is frustration with the bureaucracy,” Maffei noted. As an example, he mentioned his grandmother, who is in assisted living when home-based care might serve her better and be less expensive, but insurance will not cover it.
Maffei called his health care plan more progressive than the one proposed by Barack Obama, but he doesn’t buy Hawkins’ call for a single-payer system. “People say they like their employer-provided health care. I say, you can keep it. It would be a big mistake to shut out any group. We can learn from the insurance companies. They’ve made a lot of mistakes we shouldn’t repeat.
“To get real change, sometimes you have to compromise,” he added. “A health care plan has to first pass the Congress, and it can’t be imposed. That was the problem Hillary Clinton had, that it was imposed from the top down.”
The next act will take place Tuesday, Nov. 4.