The church-based network opened its session with prayers, song and Bible reading, followed by a mini-sermon preached by the Rev. Brian Seymour of Anointed Temple Church of God in Christ, the NAN Chapter chaplain.
Then each candidate was given an opportunity to address concerns raised by chapter president Walt Dixie. “We want to hear how the candidates will relate to our neighborhoods,” said Dixie. “We have children who are not eating during school breaks. Candidates have to know that this is a moral issue, not a political issue. We need to know how a candidate will react. Will you have good communications when someone gets shot by the police? That needs to be explained. It’s about leadership, and moral values. How will each of you demonstrate leadership?” he asked the five candidates.
What NAN heard from Davis included metaphors they probably weren’t expecting in church. Davis told the story of how he ran for president of the student body at Onondaga Community College 15 years ago. Davis appealed a regulation requiring that candidates be officers of a student organization, won the appeal and eventually the race. He objected to the notion that he was unqualified simply because he had not held public office.
“You know me,” he said. “Some of you helped raise me. You know my love for this community. I’m not a Johnny-come-lately. Twenty-four years ago Walt pulled my coattails to work for the Rev. Jessie Jackson, and I never looked back.”
He used the example of 49th District state Sen. Dave Valesky, who four years ago was endorsed by the Democratic Party when he ran against then-Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffmann, the candidate Davis had supported. “In 24 years of dealing with issues in this community, I never saw him. Yet they talked about him as the greatest thing since white bread.” A ripple of laughter worked its way through the nearly all black congregation. Davis smiled as the crowd broke into a roar. “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” he corrected himself.
“They want to impregnate you with the idea that I’m not qualified. Then you give birth to the idea.” But how did he intend to address the issue of people impregnating the minds of voters? “What I say to whoever is running around trying to impregnate our people is—‘put on a condom.’
“Just give me a chance,” continued Davis. “I am your chance. I come to you with the rawness, with the reality of what’s happening in this community. I’m the best mayor you’ll ever have.”
Councilor-at-Large Van Robinson, seated in the audience, commented on Davis’ words and his style. “I enjoy his rhetoric. He’s telling it like it is, and maybe saying things that others are more afraid to say.”
Following Davis to the lectern was the other African-American candidate in the race, Otis Jennings. Dixie noted the pride felt in the African-American community at the selection of a black candidate. “The Alliance is 100 percent Democratic,” said Dixie. “But we do feel proud and acknowledge that this is the first African-American candidate for mayor in a major party.”
Dixie went on to describe a meeting he had in New York City recently with Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, a Republican. “I would never have thought that Newt and I had anything in common, but when we talked charter schools, we talked about changing the Rockefeller drug laws, we had some common interests. It’s not just about party.”
Jennings recited a list of his accomplishments and shared a story of his personal struggle to overcome a childhood speech impediment. “Don’t look at the party, look at the person. Judge me as God would judge me—look at my heart. I have learned not to look at skin color, but at the behavior. I’m sick and tired of fighting over the color of someone’s skin, because I’ve got a God who says ‘I am not of any color.” I’m not ashamed of the Gospel, cuz it got me here. I’ve got a God who untied my tongue and he’s given me a fire and a desire.”
Jennings then went on to remind the crowd that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass were members of the GOP. “It’s a fact,” said Jennings, a construction contractor and former commissioner of Syracuse Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs. “Frederick Douglass was a Republican. Martin Luther King was a registered Republican.”
“It’s not a well-kept secret,” said Robinson, “that Dr. King was registered as a Republican, just like many ministers in Syracuse are, but they don’t go shouting it from the rooftops. Remember that back then the Democrats were mostly southerners opposed to integration, opposed to civil rights. They were called Dixiecrats. It was not until the 1960s and ’70s that Democrats become a major force pushing civil rights legislation. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, the party of emancipation. But the Republican party has changed a great deal since the time of Dr. King.”
Robinson added that King was a supporter of both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in their respective presidential races in 1960 and 1964.
It just so happened that the three white candidates in the race, television executive Steve Kimatian, Councilor-at-Large Stephanie Miner and former Assembly representative Joe Nicoletti, were the last on the bill.
“This wasn’t the plan. Don’t be intimidated,” joked Dixie as he called Kimatian up to follow Jennings. Kimatian mostly stressed his executive experience as he spoke of leadership. He reached for common ground with NAN by voicing his support for the “Decency Initiative” led by NAN president the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“As I understand it, the initiative is to end the practice of using derogatory and demeaning terms in hip-hop lyrics. Rev. Sharpton got together with Russell Simmons and other hip-hop producers to ban the use of ‘ho,’ ‘bitch’ and the ‘N-word.’ I know I can’t say that word,” Kimatian said.
“We can,” said a voice in the crowd. “We can, but you can’t.”
“I know that I can’t,” said Kimatian. “I don’t know why, but I know that it wouldn’t sound right.”
The Alliance Network will present another mayoral forum on Tuesday, May 12, 6 to 8 p.m., at Bethany Baptist Church, 149 Beattie St. For further information, contact Walt Dixie at 832-0026.