Syracuse Mayoral Candidate Juanita Perez Williams: Creating a System of Expectations

Born and raised in San Diego, California Juanita Perez Williams is a Mexican-American whose grandparents migrated from Guanajuato, Mexico. As a child Juanita participated in one of the first Head Start Programs and attended college with the assistance of the Educational Opportunity Program. In 1986 she received her undergraduate degree and went on to obtain her law degree. She entered the military serving 5 years attaining the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

In 2008 Ms. Williams was appointed by then Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo to serve as an Assistant Attorney General, investigating labor violations and Fraud. In 2010 Juanita was selected to lead the city’s legal office as Corporation Counsel.  In her position with the City of Syracuse, Ms. Williams negotiated high profile legal issues including the HUD project that involved the purchase of nine multi-family buildings and the 10-year sales tax agreement with Onondaga County.

Why Are You Running for Mayor?

“I’m running for Mayor because I see the potential of this city every day, going back and forth from my neighborhood to downtown and back. That People are looking for opportunity. They are looking for someone who will be there for them that will support them. I’m running for mayor to make sure that the people of this city, which has the ability to take us to a place of the top 25, have that opportunity, and have that voice. And I’m going to be one who doesn’t lead from the top, but serves from the bottom, to make sure those voices are being heard.”

Regarding the electoral contest, Ms. Williams pulls no punches about what challenges face the next Mayor, “You have to be someone who has demonstrated leadership. We’re at a critical moment in the history of our city and some of the people lined up to do this have no understanding how difficult this job is going to be. Not that being mayor is easy, but now more than ever this is going to be difficult.”

Map of Syracuse’s extreme poverty

Ms. Williams then zeroed in on some of the critical issues that will greet the new mayor on the first day in office. “This is a critical point for our next leader whether it’s defending it (Syracuse), and maintaining its status in the region and not being swallowed up by a county.  Whether, it’s focusing on high concentrations of poverty that continues to grow.  Whether, it’s focusing on the fact that we continue to have more and more people who lack the skills to get into the workforce, and that jobs being offered are not in any way tailored to meet the needs of people with these skills.

Williams raises her voice and states with certitude, “We’re asking them to take up the burden of a dilapidated city on the outskirts of downtown that continues to become more and more violent, and more filled with crime. My point is that, if we don’t have someone who can step up to the plate, who has demonstrated already, ‘these are the things that I’ve done, this is how I lead, this is how I come up with solutions.’ We’re going to continue to go into this spiral of depending on government to take care of us, hoping for a trickle-down effect. Or at the very least, praying we can maintain the status quo in the downtown areas.”

Missed Opportunities

“We had an opportunity, I believe, during the first 2 years of this administration to get some things done. The recession hit in 2007/08 and we had an opportunity to work with a federal administration that was trying very hard to focus on workforce development, to focus on neighborhood revitalization, to focus on the quality of life for people. And we were not taking advantage of it. I saw that and I tried hard as Corporation Counsel to get us more involved in neighborhoods. Because everything is data driven, unless you’re in the neighborhoods and you’re able to assess what’s happening, so you can use it for opportunities from public grants, and non-profit grants.”

Williams describes how Mayor Matt Driscoll created Syrastat, “so they were collecting data, that’s what that was. That was an opportunity for the city to start to show where it needed to put its resources.  Mayor Miner discontinued the data collection program.”

According to Williams, the City of Syracuse has not been focused on the collection of data that if utilized properly could improve the quality of life. “Rochester has done this and everyone would tell you that Rochester has established the standard of responding to challenges driven by the data. In Rochester they have a coordinated data collection system that ties into the delivery of services. This is something needed in the City of Syracuse.”

Williams takes a holistic approach to government, where every department is coordinated towards the same goal. She claims when you have a system where there’s a coordination of efforts and data, then Code Enforcement and DPW can help you fight crime.

How would a Juanita Perez Williams Administration be different?

Ms. Williams gives us an example of the kinds of changes that she’s looking at. “The pilot project of all projects was from Oakland, California. Oakland decided they were done with it (Code Enforcement). As crazy as it sounds, they started hiring, unskilled, untrained, grandmothers, 18 year olds; you name it, from the neighborhoods. This is all they said, ‘This is how much we’re going to pay you, and this is what you’re responsible for. These five blocks; you’re in charge of the absentee level of kids in school. You make sure these kids get to school. You’re in charge of issues, of any type of housing, including people who are complaining about a landlord.’  And they literally put them in charge. It became competitive, because the better you did the more you got. The more your neighborhood got, the more you got.”

Williams clarifies that city officials would still do the major work, but having local people identify problems in the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods will improved.  “When a person has an issue they can go to a neighbor, who will then alert the proper authorities.” Williams seems to be inspired by the work of Lovely Warren of Rochester.

Finds role model in Rochester’s First African-American Female Mayor

Mayor, Lovely Warren

Speaking in glowing terms about Rochester’s Chief Executive, “She had no support from the Democratic Party or members of City Hall. But she went to the people and asked them what they wanted.  By the time she presented her platform, it was the people’s platform.”

According to Williams, Syracuse is divided by old labels such as East Side, South Side, etc. 8 years ago people in neighborhoods approached the city and wanted to create neighborhoods identities that would get rid of the stigma attached to some parts of our city. For example, “the South Side”

“click” on map to enlarge

“I’ve been studying this map and this was the way the South Side was supposed to be set up. That’s what the people asked of her. We’re not the south side; we’re the Kirk Park Ward or the Townsend Street Ward”

Ms. Williams talks about what she calls a, “Navigator System”, this is a system where our city personnel on the street become the navigators of the well-being of the city, of their communities, the neighborhoods that they live in, they work in and they’re accountable for.”

Military Background

“All of that training is why I feel most prepared to do this; it comes from my time in the military. That’s what we did, that’s how we led with the most diverse workforce in the country.  There was a system of unifying people, a structure that everyone knows about, and is accountable for, and an expectation. When the people around you have the same expectations, that’s when you move forward. That’s when people think things are going to be different now.”

In the Navy, Williams served in the military as a JAGC, (Judge Advocate General Corp.) an elite legal wing of officers trained as lawyers who investigate, prosecute and defend those accused of crimes in the military, including murder, treason and terrorism.

Juanita’s Vision

Williams states she’s preparing a plan, the first “You’re going to see exactly what I’m talking about day by day, how we’re going to create this machine, that everyone, by the first year of this administration will know how it works, and how they can be a part of it.  And if they chose not to, they are going to fall behind. It’s going to be your choice. Things are going to change, so whether it’s the Police, whether it’s Codes, whether it’s DPW, whether it’s the Parks. It will be part of the system that carries our streets, carries our neighborhoods and the community will know and utilize it. It will be a system of Expectations. You won’t be able to say you didn’t know, you won’t be able to say, you ‘couldn’t get a hold of someone’. It will be an outreach that has never been done in this city, it will shake up the way people have seen government respond.”

Juanita is the mother of 4 adult children and a grandmother. She sits on several Central New York Boards including Onondaga Catholic Charities, La Liga (Spanish Action League), Clear Path for Veterans, a new local chamber of commerce (UMEA), and is a proud member of the Valley American Legion.