9/11 perpetuated the old-boy’s network in Syracuse politics, but change was in the air
Among the many things he accomplished on that grim September Tuesday in 2001, Osama bin Laden may well have delayed by nearly a decade the election of the first female mayor in Syracuse history.
The day the planes hit the World Trade Center coincided with a primary election all across New York state. In the race for mayor of Syracuse, Matt Driscoll, a former saloonkeeper who had been in office for a mere two months, was confronting a major primary challenge from Common Councilor and longtime social service advocate Kate O’Connell. O’Connell was the party favorite. As she remembers it 10 years later, the polls were showing the race even, with O’Connell holding a huge organizational advantage.
Once the magnitude of the calamity in Manhattan became apparent, then-Gov. George Pataki made the decision to suspend the voting. The primary election was delayed for two weeks, and restaged on Sept. 25 in a state still wracked with fear of follow-up attacks.
In those intervening two weeks, incumbents all over the land found themselves leading community exercises in commemoration, consolation and community building. Here in Syracuse Driscoll led a gathering of thousands in Clinton Square the week before the primary voting. By taking on that role of community leader in time of crisis, the as-yet-untested mayor got a boost that, in the eyes of many, was the edge he needed to overcome the formidable O’Connell.
O’Connell, meanwhile, did not campaign, believing even today that to do so would have been inappropriate in a time of national crisis. (She is careful to note that Driscoll, acting in his role as mayor, did the right thing at the time, and she bears him no ill will.) “If it were not for the horror of 9/11 it would have been very close. If things had been as they were supposed to be, we would have won. At a time of crisis, it is a human tendency to stick with what you know.” In this case, that meant voting for the incumbent.
Driscoll had become mayor somewhat by accident, by good fortune occupying the seat of Common Council president at the time Mayor Roy Bernardi resigned to take a job as George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Bernardi thus set himself up as sort of a role model for many urban professionals in our town by moving South to take a better job). The City Charter calls for the nonvoting Common Council president to take over in the event that the mayor leaves office, and so the keys to City Hall passed to Driscoll in July 2001.
Many believed that Driscoll would be a caretaker. Then the towers crumbled and, with them, O’Connell’s hopes for becoming mayor. On the second primary day, Sept. 25, Matt Driscoll won 56.8 percent of the votes. He went on to easily defeat the Republican, Bernie Mahoney, and a handful of third party candidates that included Dr. Jennifer Daniels on the Green line and O’Connell on the Liberal and Working Party lines. Four years later Driscoll would face off against Mahoney’s daughter Joanie, a very different kind of Republican from her father. It was a much tighter race in which the fate of proposed megamall Destiny USA was a central issue. Mahoney lost by three percentage points,
but rebounded to win the post of county executive two years later.
Also elected to citywide office for the first time in 2001 was a young labor lawyer named Stephanie Miner, who won a race for councilor-at-large. She was re-elected to that post in 2005 before successfully running for mayor in 2009. Of course, Miner and O’Connell deserve to be judged on their own merits, but the question of gender has got to enter into how we understand O’Connell’s defeat.
In the wake of 9/11, the nation gravitated toward what has traditionally been seen as male models of leadership. Fearful citizens drew comfort from the example of firefighters (all of them men) selflessly walking into the fire to help those trapped. We repeated the stories of tough civilians (mostly men) wrestling a plane from the hands of terrorists, and to the tough guy with the comb-over who came to be known as America’s Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, guiding the City of New York in its hour of need. Subconsciously, it was as if the nation, confronting monsters under the bed, called out for its daddy.
Does Kate O’Connell think this reversion to gender stereotype played a role in her defeat? In a word, yes. “For many reasons,” says O’Connell, now completing a three-year assignment working in social services in Cayuga County, “in times of crisis, you turn to a man. It’s deeply embedded in our culture. Right, wrong or indifferent, there is a stereotype that makes most people think that at such times, it’s better if a man is in charge.”
In her heart, even today, she feels that gender made a difference.
Whatever the reason, we got eight years of George Bush at the federal level and Matt Driscoll here at home. And at the end of Driscoll’s second term, for a lot of reasons, we elected our first woman mayor, Stephanie Miner. In that same interval the county and many of our major civic and educational institutions have embraced women in top leadership posts. That post-9/11 reflex was short lived, and may not have been the best idea after all. t Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.