Rally around the Flag: The Resurrection of Otis Jennings & the Black Community of Syracuse in the 2009 Mayoral Election

The struggle for improving the community has historically been a lonely journey. Those who stand up for important issues often do so without the full support and backing of the group they are attempting to aid. Any study of African American history will show you how more often than not, Black leadership has often been done in exile. It is stated that Frederick Douglas once stated that “freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitudes.” Freedom isn’t free either. On the journey toward freedom, one has to pay freedom dues. All of these apply directly to our current state of affairs in Syracuse, NY.

I write this as a non-enrolled voter-if you are unfamiliar with that description, a non-enrolled voter is not a member of any of the political parties, but is enrolled as a voter. I now vote on the issues, on which candidate(s) best represent the issues that I feel are most important to me. I was raised as a Democrat, but became unhappy with how the Democratic Party addressed issues in the Syracuse community. I studied the core values of the Republican Party and saw a lot in common with many values that I was raised on by my family, and figured I’d give it a try. As a registered Republican, opportunities for advancement for me to further my community involvement opened up for me in ways that never happened to me or anyone else while enrolled as a Democrat. Stanley Dean became the first African American to lead the Republican Party in the city. Otis Jennings became the first African American to run for Common Council President. Soon afterward, I became the first African American to sit on the Onondaga Community College Board of Trustees, in an influential position to shape/influence educational policy that impacted thousands, in and out of the county.

Over time, fighting these battles alone can take its toll on you-physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Being a pioneer is not easy. You have to make a way through the wilderness. You have to fight enemies seen and unseen. It took a serious toll on me, in all of the aforementioned ways. I felt that as a soldier, I had to persist, I could not give in-too much was at stake. A close mentor of mine previously had given me an “Aries” zodiac birthday card that described my nature in a way that says that “Many insist that I always want to be first, first in line, first for everything…but I really want to be first so that I can endure the slings and arrows and protect you…I want to be first so that you can be safe when you follow me.”

There is another story about my tenure on the Board at OCC that only a few close confidants know about; but that story must be told at a different time. This story again, is much bigger than me as an individual. It is about a community, a community in crisis-our community in the City of Syracuse. I truly believe that this describes the experiences of me, the others who have been mentioned here as well as those who unintentionally may not have been mentioned, but most importantly, it describes all of our experiences, collectively, and specifically of Otis Jennings and his journey to become Mayor of Syracuse.

Chuck D and his group, Public Enemy, released a powerful statement with their 1990 album “Fear of a Black Planet”.

I’m not one to play the race card. I try to keep a cool head and evaluate things/events/people based on facts. The facts now overwhelmingly seem to say that we have some problems. I see the enemy, and the enemy is us-all of us.

Almost twenty years later, we see all over the news and the country the representations of this fear that are hidden behind party-lines and patriotism, the bubbling over of fear of a Black president, with hate and vitriol lobbed towards President Barack Obama. I cannot recall any president who faced such disrespect. It is often stated that Syracuse/Central New York is a “microcosm” of the nation. If this is the case, we are in much worse shape than I could ever imagine.

Now let’s move from national politics to the local level in the Syracuse mayoral race.

On a cold February day, Otis Jennings announced his decision to run for mayor. Then, on April 21, Jennings makes Syracuse history by becoming the first African American to be endorsed by any party in the history of the city.

Then the games begin. Consider the following.

First they said he wasn’t smart enough. His resume and over thirty years of experience and commitment to the city of Syracuse says the opposite.

Then they said he could not raise enough money. Since then, he’s raised over $200,000, more than any African American candidate running for any office in the city of Syracuse.

In a story written in the Syracuse Post Standard in July, Jennings was seemingly criticized & targeted for the fact that some of his fundraising support came from many of his friends in the religious community and businessmen, however, this type of emphasis and the detail that went into the Jennings’ portion of the story was not put on any of the other candidates.

The treatment of the Black candidates by the local press (with the exception of News10Now & Bill Carey’s fair reporting) is troubling, to say the least. Alfonso Davis even went as far to make it clear that he chose to run his commercials on cable as opposed to network television, because he felt that he and his campaign were being ignored.

And it continues to this point. On Monday September 21st, Otis called together a press conference at the Associated Builder’s & Contractors CNY Training Center, to highlight a program that is training twenty-six men between the ages of 21-45 to prepare for careers in the construction trades, something that fits into his vision for educating our cities’ youth. Instead of focusing on this great opportunity for helping young men find a way to help themselves and their families and improve the communities in which they live, I’ve been told that the many in the mainstream press who attended tried to turn it into an “are you still going to run for mayor” sideshow. Otis has stated from day one that he was in this race to win, and he is in it until the end.

Then the Kimatian campaign (and according to the Post Standard story written last week by Maria Welych where she pointed out that Kimatian says he was aided in his upset of Jennings by County Executive Joanie Mahoney and her former campaign manager/current Director of Intergovernmental Relations Ben Dublin, the political cartoon above is obviously missing the puppet strings of a marionette) used the curfew issue as a “Syracuse Willie Horton” tactic (which in the political world is a veiled racial attack) to attack Otis Jennings. If you aren’t familiar with the “Willie Horton” tactic, it is basically a political maneuver that combines “fear” and “race” that was created by Lee Atwater to be used by George H.W. Bush in his presidential campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

Add to these facts some of the other “hot button” issues that have occurred to dilute the stability of the black community in Syracuse (i.e. Clear Channel Radio’s “game” of playing with the listenership of the Black community’s only terrestrial radio station that caters to an urban demographic by switching without barely providing any notice to an all-country format, and then switching back a few days later stating it was all a gimmick), or go a little further back a few months to look at how long-time Syracuse radio pioneer Butch Charles was let go by Clear Channel, there appears to be a strategy that strips away the ability of the African American community to communicate with one another on a mass level. The recent op-ed piece written by Syracuse University Associate Professor of Law LaVonda N. Reed provides us with a precision analysis of the situation.

Common Council President Bea Gonzalez and Councilor-At-Large Van Robinson both chose to endorse Joe Nicoletti, who, was opposed to Stephanie Miner. The day after the September 15th primary, Nicoletti, the democratic runner-up, after months of harshly criticizing Miner’s candidacy for mayor, had a sudden “change of heart” and endorsed Miner. So since their candidate lost the democratic primary and has endorsed the winner, will Gonzalez and Robinson follow suit? Harlow, who came in last place in the four-way primary, soon did the same. Alfonso Davis, who despite having a monetary disadvantage compared to Miner and Nicoletti, ran an inspiring and impressive grassroots campaign that was the voice of those who felt left out of the political process, and to date, Davis has been silent about where he will throw his support. The question is, will their supporters break ranks with this type of “flip-flopping” and stand their ground to vote against what they feel in their hearts is wrong with local politics? Only time will tell.

The Syracuse community, particularly the Black community, is at a crossroads. On November 3, 2009, will we continue the status quo, which has been done for decades? Where has voting the status quo gotten us-we continue to have schools that are not producing the number of graduates needed to sustain a community, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the majority of Black employees in the City of Syracuse working in either entry-level and/or service-related positions that lead to nowhere. Or will the Syracuse community step outside the box, look up and down the ballot, and find the name Otis Jennings, and vote “Otis Jennings for Mayor” for a breath of fresh air? This is the direction that we need to go.

I think my wife says it the best. She shared with me a discussion she was having with a close friend who is also a staunch supporter of Stephanie Miner-in a nutshell, my wife stated “I don’t care what anyone says about Otis being this, that, or the other. I know he is a hard worker. I know that he is intelligent. I know that he will surround himself by people who are as smart or are smarter than he is. But most importantly, I know that Otis is a good person.”

That is the central theme of the type of leadership that Syracuse has. We need a person with good character, who has the confidence in themselves, but also the wisdom to seek good counsel. We need a person who has that unique ability to go anywhere and everywhere, but at the same time stay true to himself. Our city is quite diverse, in ethnicity, in needs, in wants, in desires. Otis Jennings is the person that we need to elect to help us help ourselves. Government can only do so much-however, we need someone that has this unique quality of inspiring us to be our best. I feel that way when I am around Otis. The entire campaign team feels that way. I felt that way when I was a student in his health class at Fowler High School many moons ago. This city deserves to feel that way with him as our mayor, leading us to the great potential that awaits all of us.

This year’s election, at least for folk in my generation, may represent the “final battle” to begin to turn around the internal and external destruction of the Syracuse Black community.

How long will we sit and allow this to happen to a good man who can be just the type of leader Syracuse needs? How long will the Black community of Syracuse continue to allow itself to be used as a “tool”? How long will we stand by idly and let our leaders who put themselves in the line of fire become victims of “character assassination”?

We have never had a candidate like Otis Jennings before in the history of Syracuse. I urge you to look very closely at Otis, his record of contributions to this community. I urge you to go to his website http://www.Otis09.comand read up on his background, what he is doing, his vision, and how he would like to lead us. I urge you to meet him when he’s out in public, at events, in the neighborhoods, or visiting someone’s home. I urge you to get to know Otis Jennings. I urge you to think when you vote, not of only what this means to you, but what this vote will mean to you children and grandchildren. This election for mayor is truly about the legacy we leave for those who come after us in this community; it is about the heritage of our community.

I encourage you all to look for “Otis Jennings” on Election Day, Tuesday November 3, 2009, and make that vote for yourselves.