Alexander, who served as mayor from 1970 to 1985 and as a federal prisoner for six years afterward, was Syracuse’s most flamboyant chief executive in modern times, and he left behind a checkered legacy. In the aftermath of his guilty plea on racketeering charges, the Common Council passed legislation limiting future mayors and councilors to two terms in office.
This year it’s as if Alexander is governing from the grave. Common Council President Bea Gonzalez is at the end of her second term. Faced with the legal requirement of leaving her seat, she has chosen to run for mayor. Councilor-at-Large Stephanie Miner, also term-limited, has also announced her candidacy to succeed current Mayor Matt Driscoll, who can’t run again because of, you guessed it, those pesky term limits.
Van the man: After eight years on the Syracuse Common Council, Van Robinson is running for Common Council president. One of his hallmark issues is what should be done with the aging Interstate 81 corridor as it runs through downtown. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
The city’s other councilor-at-large, Van Robinson, is taking a different tack as he too tries to outfox the ghost of the Golden Greek. At a press conference in the Renaissance Hotel on Jan. 15, the 71-year-old former insurance executive and past president of the local NAACP said he is now in the running for the non-voting position of Common Council president.
Asked how he feels about going from holding one vote to holding none, unless there’s a tie, Robinson was optimistic. “As Common Council president you do have influence,” he noted. “Under the charter the president meets with the mayor frequently, and with the minority and majority leaders of the council. You also make committee assignments.”
If elected in November, Robinson will potentially have another eight years to influence the direction of the city. His No. 1 priority, he said, is to seek an alternative to the major north-south thoroughfare that cuts through the city, Interstate 81. Robinson also wants to continue working on a number of economic development projects, including the North and South Salina street corridors, and the renovations being overseen by the Joint Schools Construction Board, of which he is a member. But the revamping of I-81 is clearly at the center of his vision for Syracuse.
“At some point the highway is going to come down,” he said, referring to the thoroughfare that bisects downtown, constructed during Alexander’s first term on the Common Council. “It was built in 1966-’67, and it has a life span of 40 to 50 years. Major repairs will be needed soon just to preserve the integrity of the highway.”
Robinson sees multiple benefits from eliminating the stretch of I-81 that goes through downtown. “You could reroute the traffic that goes through the city onto 481 by making the transition to 481 seamless. In downtown you could create city streets and free up some land there for development. This could allow a possible expansion for Syracuse University, Upstate Hospital and the College of Environmental Science and Forestry. It would eliminate what I call the ‘Berlin Wall’ between the university area and our neighborhoods. It would also reduce the incidence of upper respiratory illnesses in the neighborhoods in close proximity to the highway, and eliminate the noise pollution caused by the trucks on I-81.”
Thus far, according to Robinson, the city has obtained funding to begin a process of meeting with citizens and sending their input on to the city and the state Department of Transportation. “My interest is to see if we can formulate a citizens group with a mission to ensure that whatever is done will be beneficial to the city and the region,” he said.
Given how slowly the wheels turn in government and the size of the undertaking, Robinson believes that it could take at least eight years before this vision comes to pass, but that the time to get started is now. “President Obama and Gov. Paterson have indicated that infrastructure should be part of the stimulus package, and monies might be available to help with this process. The time to secure monies is now.”
Robinson is running on his own for the Democratic nomination, but if successful in securing the nomination he will be running in November on a ticket along with a mayoral candidate who will be selected in a primary in September. So far the field includes Gonzalez, Miner and community activist Alfonso Davis, and the crowd is expected to grow. At this point Robinson is diplomatic. “Who knows who will be nominated?” he asked rhetorically during a recent telephone interview. “Every one of them is a qualified and competent individual, and they are very passionate about the city.”
If Robinson succeeds in November he will become the first African-American to hold the post of Common Council president. He said he’s not taken with the significance of breaking that racial barrier. “I hadn’t thought about it like that. I think primarily about how the city is going to prepare for the future.”
It could be a barrier-breaking year either way for Syracuse. A Miner or Gonzalez victory would give us our first female mayor, and if Gonzalez wins she will become the first mayor of Puerto Rican descent to run an upstate city. And if, as expected, Joe Nicoletti announces his candidacy, he would be the first Democrat-turned-Republican to come back to the Democratic party and win the mayoral race.
Robinson, who lives on the Southwest Side near Onondaga Park, began his political career a quarter-century ago. In 1983 he ran for the 3rd District seat, a race won by James Walsh, who went on to represent Syracuse for 20 years in Congress.
“I was on the political action committee of the NAACP,” he recalled. “At the time there was not one person of color running for office in Syracuse. Part of the mission of our committee was to involve people of color in the political process. I was challenged by people to practice what I preached, so I got in the race. I ran better than anticipated.”
His second time out of the box, 1987, Robinson lost a race for councilor-at-large. He remained involved in Democratic politics but it was not until 2001 that he won citywide and took his current seat. Why not just retire at the end of his term to work on his golf game? The ever cheerful Robinson responded in character, “If I’ve learned anything, it is that I am no Tiger Woods.”