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Onondaga County Democratic Committee Chair’s mission? Getting people involved

Michael Davis photos

Pamela Hunter, the new chair of the Onondaga County Democratic Committee, is real Syracuse. Growing up as the daughter of a traveling preacher, she gained perspective through those journeys. After 20 years in the Salt City, where she lives with her husband and son, she has a sense that city residents are not practicing politics at a 2019 level.

“There’s too much at stake to wait around for politics as usual,” says Hunter, currently full time since 2015 at the state Assembly, representing the southern and eastern portions of the city of Syracuse and the surrounding towns of DeWitt, Onondaga, Salina and the Onondaga Nation. “The more traditional moderate Democrats and the current wave of progressives really want the same things.”

For Hunter, those things are improved schools, increased public safety and good jobs. They will be achieved, she projects, by activated citizens knowing their neighborhoods and knocking on doors.

Currently she expresses excitement at seeing more people involved in the process than ever before. She hopes that her career, highlighted with elective and executive professional service experience, will be an appropriate match to the local need.

Hunter earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Strayer College in Washington, D.C., with concentrations in human resources and computer information systems. Her perspective was broadened prior to her election to the state Assembly by serving three years on the Common Council and volunteering for the boards of directors at Catholic Charities, Meals on Wheels and the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency. At 49 she’s the only female veteran in the state Legislature. She is a member of that body’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus and the Legislative Women’s Caucus.

Fifty years ago somebody observed, “Syracuse is a small town with too many people, and the politics are parochial.” What kind of politics do we have now? 

Well, it’s definitely not parochial. I think that the naive voter is no longer the current voter. I don’t think that’s the current resident, either. I think that, especially right now, we are in the world of social media and people have more access to information than they have ever before. They don’t have to wait for the newspaper or the 6 o’clock news. So I don’t think it’s parochial anymore. I think we have a long way to go as far as communication is concerned, but I definitely think voters are more informed.

Looking back to the previous election season, there were candidates with elective experiences and different people in and out of the spotlight. What was the thing? Was it a party designation vote? 

Yes.

And Andrew Maxwell came within 1% of that? 

Andy, yes. That was 2017’s primary for mayor. Juanita Perez Williams won that primary and went on to run against Ben Walsh.

Does this indicate factionalism within the party as these working groups conflict with each other? 

I think there is a push for “what used to be, can no longer be.” The “if you pay your dues and lick envelopes and do what you’re told and wait your turn” kind of politics is not where we are anymore. There definitely are people in the party who are of the mindset that things could be or should be or want them to be like they were. But there’s too much at stake to wait around for whatever “their turn” is.

People want to be a part of elective politics and want to be involved and engaged in helping campaigns. That’s a different culture than this whole “you need to be the heir apparent.” I think a lot of hardworking diligence and door-knocking and being a part of the neighborhood and really understanding the people in the community is very important. So I really think those days are gone, factionalism is gone. There are definitely groups and there is tribalism; obviously that happens.

But for me as the chair of the Democratic Party, it is not “what level of Democrat are you?” because we’re all Democrats at the end of the day. I’m not qualifying someone as a conservative, or a liberal, or a centrist, or a moderate. You’re a Democrat.

Yet you do have people who want the old style and you’ve got people who are more modern and progressive. Will that ruin your chances in the next election? 

No, I don’t think so. And quite frankly, our concentration is on 2019. At the end of the day, we’re talking about Democrats, we’re talking about people who want the same thing ideologically. I think if you’re talking about someone who is the more traditional moderate Democrat, which is really reflective of the community we live in, then you think about the current wave of progressive Democrats. And ultimately they want the same things: quality education, clean water, healthcare.

A progressive or a centrist or a moderate Democrat all want the same things; it’s just they go about it in different ways. And it takes time waiting years and years paying your dues. Sometimes you gotta speed it up a little bit, and I think that’s where we are right now.

What’s interesting is the (election) season hasn’t stopped. It’s perpetual, it is ongoing nonstop in your face and the national news brings that to us every single day. So there is no pause because we have the president and the issues happening at the federal level and we have all the congressional races and people running for president.

But I’m still concerned with 2019. We just moved up the primary date and we’re talking about early voting, so it does not stop. And you have to be ever-present, ever-vigilant, on top of the new process and making sure you’re always cultivating candidates, because at this point there is no “let’s wait and see who we can get to fill position X, Y or Z in a year.” We need names today and that’s where we are at right now.

How about names that continually come up with your party, such as Joe Nicoletti? 

Sure, we want to say this city is progressive and moving forward, and in some ways it’s not. If you drive around outside the city’s core, you won’t see modern, you aren’t going to see current. I think there is a good chunk of the population with this mindset of “if the factories could just be here the way they used to be, then everything would be better.” Unfortunately, those times have changed, so we have to evolve and change is very difficult.

But a quick attempt at change was Juanita Perez Williams. It happened quickly, all of a sudden in a very prominent position, but she was not successful. Will she be in that rhythm?

I don’t know if it would be her or someone else. This is obviously the Democratic Committee so we will be supporting the Democratic candidates. At this point a mayoral election is two years away; obviously we have to get through 2019 and we have a huge presidential race next year.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2021. She has been around the party, she is a committee member and she is still very active. That’s what you want: people who come from your ranks, a Democrat who is active and knows about the community. But you can’t underestimate the kind of pendulum swing that happens here in Syracuse, and I have lived here for 20 years. If someone ever said that an independent person would be elected as mayor, I would say, “When you go back to your parochial thought of 50 years ago, they would say it absolutely won’t ever happen!” But if someone said, “Another Walsh would be mayor,” someone would say, “It absolutely would happen!” So it’s very different.

So what happened? 

Trump happened! People who were never engaged in politics before were activated. If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that the folks who are not affiliated or not even registered in a party is almost equal to the number of people in the Republican Party. So people are activated and they’re using their vote. And they said, “We need to be involved more than ever before.”

Quite frankly, I love having people involved in the process and registering to vote and actually voting. I think people need to do it. I have a young teenage son, I want him to vote. But I’m not telling him what to do. We just need more Americans involved in the process.

People are saying that you have to assess the landscape. Is the Trump election setting up the fronts and promising a battle? 

Well, if you look at our last congressional race, we were very close to beating a two-term incumbent (John Katko) for Congress. What we didn’t take, even with the enrollment, was a congressional seat that was right there for us to get to. What’s interesting about that was in the wave of Trump, the year after people were still just as involved and focused and concerned, a “blue wave” didn’t happen in the 24th District in Onondaga County.

In the state Legislature we saw record numbers of Democrats being elected on Long Island like never before. What didn’t happen here in Onondaga County, however, was that we were not able to take a Republican state Senate seat that was previously held by John DeFrancisco for 20-plus years. So that’s why I’m concerned because obviously these numbers reflect people registered to vote but that does not dictate who’s going to come out and vote on Election Day, and that’s where our focus needs to be. I think we’re mired in a “this is how it has always been” kind of place and that mindset won’t move us forward.

Has this been the case for years, like during the time of previous Onondaga County Democratic Committee chair Mark English? 

I like to think that we’re doing things differently now. I am a “We succeed together, and fail together” leader. It’s not “Me,” it’s “We” are doing this together, and that’s how we get there. That’s how I lived my philosophy in the Assembly, and that’s how I live my philosophy in the Democratic Committee, and I think that if we stick together we’ll win. We should have more Democratic-elected officials in Onondaga County, and we don’t have that.

What groups do you need to have in order to get that? 

We do have a coalition of many different groups who are engaged. They aren’t necessarily Democratic Committee members but they’re definitely advocates who are promoting Democratic candidates and lots of grassroots organizations, whether it’s CNY Solidarity or Uplift Syracuse, there are definitely advocacy groups who are bringing forward issues that affect the constituency. I think that maybe before some people thought that those advocacy groups were working against the Democratic Party, but you can’t win alone and you have to have help. I feel like these folks provide lots of help, and they want the same things we do.

Are we undergoing changes in the system, such as term limits? 

I think in some ways term limits do make sense, because you are not only allowing more participation in the process but you are making sure that the people who are representing are engaged in the community. There is some concern about limits, especially at the state and federal levels. It’s probably different at the lower level, where it takes time to learn not just how to kick in the door and yell, “I’m taking over Albany!” That might sound great, but you don’t get legislation passed that way.

I think if term limits are instituted, it would need to be enough years so that you can bring meaningful legislation to get resources back to your district. Four years is not really going to be that helpful, especially if the houses switch at the federal level, not so much at the state level. This year it did switch and look at all the meaningful legislation we have been able to pass this year.

What are the issues? 

The issues for Syracuse are probably different than the issues in New York City in some ways, but it’s also the same things. Everyone wants quality education to make sure their kids find meaningful employment. That doesn’t make a difference whether someone lives on the South Side or in Jamesville-DeWitt. People don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck; they want to be able to ensure the resources they need to live and thrive and have a good quality life. They want to make sure roads and bridges are fixed, that the police or firefighters come when you call, the garbage and litter gets picked up. Regardless of where you live, people want a good quality of life, education and jobs.

How can people in the community get involved? 

They can go to the ocdemocrats.com website and get lots of information of all the wonderful things that we’re doing. There is a community calendar of events that will show folks what the party is doing and there is no shortage of forums, town halls and community meetings that people can hear about issues. And that is actually the richness of our “Small town with too many people,” that there is plenty of opportunities for our community to come together. We just need to make sure that the information that’s being disseminated is meaningful to the folks who come out to these meetings.

One factor in people coming together concerns race. How are we doing here? 

I would probably say that we aren’t doing great. We have a high concentration of poverty for people of color in this area; it’s higher than any other place in the country, which to me equals not doing great. A lot of it is generational poverty that has to do with the quality of housing situations.

People are also impoverished because they can’t get to their jobs. We have so many employers who say, “We need skilled workers to come out and work,” but they can’t get the people because they have transportation issues. So a lot of that has to do with race; in the city there are a decent number of people who are impoverished who are of black and brown skin color.

Are there any questions that you’ve been asking yourself? 

Mostly “Why?” At a recent meeting, one of the town chairs was going on about some of the issues that they were having in one of their rural towns, and I asked “Well, what can we do to be helpful?” I thought about that afterward because I really don’t recall many people asking what we can do to be helpful. People always offer their recommendations, and everyone has an answer, but they’re not offering help. I feel like if there’s anything we should be asking, it’s “How can I be of more assistance.”

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