The 2021 Re-Election Interview: Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh

On September 17th I sat down in Mayor Ben Walsh’s Office for this interview. As an introduction, I gave the mayor an opportunity to reflect on his time in office. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh is up for re-election in November.  You’ve been in the job almost 4 years, was it anything like you expected?  

Mayor Walsh: Having been in City Hall for six years prior. There are certain things you come to expect. I knew what I was walking into. We were able to develop a plan and execute this plan, that’s what I expected to do when I walked in. What I certainly didn’t expect was a global pandemic. That’s the most extreme example of what happens virtually everyday in this job. Which is, something happens that you don’t expect. While you expect the unexpected until you’re in this position. I didn’t fully understand and appreciate how that much that would challenge our efforts to execute on our vision and on our plan.

There’s something always pulling you off of that path.  Not knowing what it’s going to be does create daily challenges and uncertainty. But what I think I’ve learned and what I’ve gotten better at over the last four years is to be able to manage the day-to-day crisis, while staying focused on the plan. Between the pandemic and what happened after George Floyd’s murder. The protests and the focus on policing that followed is certainly something that we were focused on prior to that.  I don’t think anyone would have anticipated the way in which people took to the streets and became engaged in ways that we hadn’t seen, certainly I haven’t seen in Syracuse in my professional career. Lots of surprises, but all in all as I look back on four years, I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished. And I feel like I’ve gotten better in my ability to manage the unexpected and keep pushing forward.”

Mayor Ben Walsh Photo Gallery – Highlights, Policies and Observations Mayor Walsh Signs Mayors’ Compact on Racial Equity could you explain how that will impact the city of Syracuse.

Mayor Walsh: The request came along. I saw it as a good opportunity to reaffirm our values and our priorities. And to also acknowledge that for as hard as we’ve worked over the past four years, to be more inclusive, to be more intentional in lifting up marginal communities, communities of color or impoverished communities, that there’s still a lot of work to be done. That was an opportunity to reaffirm my priorities on the national level. But also, to acknowledge that this is not something that we said we were going to do four years ago and then forgot about it. It’s still important. It really aligned with what I’ve been thinking about lately as I’m coming to the end of my first term. Which is, how much of what we’ve done is really leading to systemic change?  I’m hopeful that I’m in this office for four more years. My goal while I’m in this office is to make sure that the changes that we make last beyond my time in this office. Something that the Deputy Mayor and I talk about a lot. If we move out of the seats that we’re in, have the changes that we’ve made, have they been systemic? Will they last beyond us?  I think in some cases, we can say yes, in other cases we’re not so confident.  It’s acknowledging there’s still a lot to be done, there are challenges particularly around racism are systemic and institutional, we want to acknowledge that and then continue to work to address that. “ What would you point to as significant achievements of your first term as Mayor?

Deputy Mayor, Sharon F. Owens

Mayor Walsh: We’ve accomplished a lot. I always go back to where we started with the team that we put together here at City Hall. I’m very proud that I was elected with a broad diverse coalition of support. I always acknowledge that my challenge was bringing that diverse coalition into government with me. And we did that. When you look at the three biggest departments in City Government, Police, Fire and DPW; they’re all led by people of color. In two of those cases, Fire and DPW, we hired the first Black department heads of those two departments. Deputy Mayor Owens is the first Black Deputy Mayor and the first female Deputy Mayor.  Those are just a few examples, that’s something I’m very proud of. But I’m equally proud of the accomplishments we’ve all had working together.

When you look at the city’s finances, it wasn’t too long ago that people were speculating about a bankrupt city government, we don’t hear those conversations anymore. We made a lot of progress righting the ship, thanks to the Federal Government, we’re back on track to having balanced budgets and a fiscally sustainable City Government, so I’m really proud about that. I’m really proud of the investments we’ve made in city services. We’re paving more roads than the city has in a long, long time, if ever.

We took on challenges that previous administrations hadn’t been successful in taking on, like sidewalks. We have a new Municipal Sidewalk Program; we’re constructing new sidewalks throughout the city right now. Our Street Light Program, we took over our city street light network, invested in it, put in new streetlights in every neighborhood across the city, and in doing so saved a lot of money and also benefitted the environment. We are making investments in our neighborhoods that haven’t been seen in decades. We’re building new homes, new single family owner-occupied homes, that hasn’t happened on any significant scale in decades here in the city, but we’re doing it through our Resurgent Neighborhoods Initiative.

Those are some specific examples. When you look at the data, the metrics that we measure ourselves by, they’re all pointing in the right direction, our population is going up, our poverty rate is going down, our graduation rates are going up, crime is down. The data supports that we’re making progress and that work on the ground supports that we’re making progress. I’m very proud of that. What would be your priorities in a second term?

Mayor Walsh: We want to continue the progress that we’ve made. There are four areas that stand out, where I’m going to look to prioritize.

Number one is public safety, I mentioned that overall, crime is down during this administration. But we have significant challenges in public safety. And I know that for far too many people in our city, despite what the numbers say, they don’t feel safer than they did four years ago. And that’s something that I take very seriously, and I’m anxious to change. Part of that is because despite overall crime being down, violent crime is up and it’s up across the country, it’s not unique to Syracuse but we all feel that. So, I’m very focused on doing everything in our power to reduce violent crime, and to make this city safer.

Number two, I previously mentioned the progress we’ve made in housing I want to continue to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods, and do that by creating more stable, quality, affordable housing in our neighborhoods. Investing in our neighborhood business districts, as well. Making sure that people are able to stay in their homes to have some stability in their housing. Because when we have people with stable housing it helps to create stable neighborhoods and stable communities. Right now, we have a lot of people that are moving throughout the city, oftentimes, multiple times a year and that creates instability that has a ripple effect in our neighborhoods.

Number three, I want to continue to make improvements in infrastructure and in city services. I mentioned the improvements that we’ve made with our sidewalk program, with our street paving. I want to continue to make progress there, to continue to invest in our water infrastructure, to make sure we continue to have clean safe water for everyone in the city of Syracuse. And we’re going to continue to make more investments in infrastructure and city services.

Syracuse Build

And finally, jobs, economic opportunity. So many of the challenges that we face in the city, from crime to neighborhood quality of life issues, is rooted in too many people living in poverty. That’s why we invested in our Syracuse Build Program which includes our pathways to apprenticeship program. There are too many people in the city that are unemployed and underemployed. So, we’re investing in workforce development programs, like Syracuse Build; to give people the training they need to get the jobs that are available. That’s why we’re investing in Syracuse Surge, to create an environment, where companies whether they’re local growing companies or global national companies; see Syracuse as a place they want to do business.  And the more people we get into equal employment and in new careers, the better we’re going to be able to address all the other challenges that face us. How do you differentiate yourself from your two opponents? 

Mayor Walsh: I’m the Mayor, and I’ve done this job for nearly 4 years now, and as we’ve discussed, we’ve made significant progress on virtually every front. I’m not here to tell you, or our constituents that we’re anywhere near where we need to be as a community. We still need to make sure that more people are feeling safe, we need to make sure more people have economic opportunities, we need to make sure that our neighborhoods are being invested in.  On all those fronts we’ve made progress, but I’ll be the first to tell you that we have a long way to go. But when you look at the choices for mayor, what differentiates me is that I’ve been the mayor for the past four years and I’m doing exactly what I said I was going to do, when I was elected. And we’ve made progress, I’m confident that if I’m able to serve for another four years we’re going to be able to continue that progress. Police Community Relations What’s your assessment of the challenges we face?

Police Chief Kenton Buckner and Mayor Walsh

Mayor Walsh: It’s a work in progress, it’s something that I’ve invested a lot of time and energy and resources into. Going back to the process we used to select Chief Kenton Buckner. It was a year-long process, that was rooted in community engagement. The Deputy Mayor and I traveled throughout the city, held community meetings sought input from our constituents. That selection, and selection process was reflective of our commitment to improving police community relations.

Since we’ve hired Chief Buckner, we’ve made significant investments to continue to improve those relationships. The Chief has a Citizen Advisory Council that he relies on. We had a panel of citizens that actually participated in our officer recruitment process for the latest police academy that’s currently happening. We actually had community members interviewing police candidates, and again I think that shows our commitment to community engagement and improving those relationships.

We established a Police Athletic League program to help build those relationships at the very beginning with our young people. Even through the contract that we negotiated with the Police Union, one of my top priorities was achieving city residency for new officers, which I believe will enhance police community relations, and we have that now. So, starting with our next class which we plan to bring in, in January. All of those officers, presumably over 30 officers are going to be city residents, that’s significant. Those are all things that we’ve done, and I’m proud of those accomplishments. But I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that we have a long way to go with Community Police Relations and there’s still a lot of challenges. We’re going to continue to invest in them, but I think it’s a work in progress. We’ve seen multiple incidents this year in Syracuse where 14 to 16-year-old children are becoming both victims and perpetrators of violent crime. How do you think we should handle the problem of youth violence?

Mayor Walsh: The ages of our crime victims and perpetrators continues to get younger, that is scary and it’s unacceptable. We all acknowledge as we grow up, we make mistakes, but in 2021 the mistakes that you make as a young person in the city of Syracuse can be a matter of life and death, it can impact your life forever. Whereas for most people those mistakes are met with second chances and the benefit of the doubt. It’s a great concern to me, we have worked very hard to give our young people the support that they need to stay on a path towards opportunity and success.

Syracuse Police Athletic League

I mentioned the Police Athletic Program, that’s a program that we think is not only going to help improve the relationships between our young people and police officers; but also give our young people some of the tools and skills that they need to navigate the troubled waters they have to navigate throughout their childhood.

I came into this office wanting to significantly increase the number of summer jobs available to our young people, and we’ve done that. This past summer we put over 2,000 city kids to work, that’s giving them something productive to do, it’s giving them an opportunity to generate some income, it’s helping them build networks, it’s helping them learn skills that they need to be successful, both in school and in life. I’m proud of those investments. I’ve also worked very closely with Superintendent Alicea and the school district to make sure that our kids are getting what they need in our schools. We’ve seen an increase in graduation rates. Which is a really important step, but we know that we need to make sure that we’re supporting our kids with their mental health, and with all the other challenges that they’re facing.  It’s a crisis, I think about it a lot. I talk to young people a lot and get their perspective. There’s no doubt that we need to continue to do more to support our young people and keep them on the right path. The Skyline Apartments and the city of Syracuse have been under scrutiny after the death of a 94 year-old woman, and the discovery of unfit living conditions at the complex.  How well do you believe you’ve handled the problems Syracuse has with our quality-of-life issues?

Skyline Apartments

Mayor Walsh: Before the tragic death of Connie Tuori we were well aware of the problems at the Skyline. Not only had we cited them for many violations in years prior. We’d actually sued them. So, we had been fighting with the slumlords that own the Skyline for years. I don’t know what else we could have done to avoid that tragedy, but the fact that the tragedy happened does weigh very heavily on me. I constantly think about what else we could have or should have done. But I also think about what we need to do both at the Skyline and in our other neighborhoods, in our other problem properties to make sure that we avoid a tragedy like that in the future.

One of the things that we did as a result of that tragedy and the ongoing challenges at the Skyline was to create our new High Occupancy Monitoring and Enforcement Unit, our HOME Unit. What that was, was essentially formalizing something that we had been doing, but we felt by formalizing it, we could do it better. Which is bringing in all of the Department representatives that are involved with holding property owners like this accountable. From Code Enforcement to the Fire Department, to the Police Department, to Neighborhood and Business Development to even the County Health Department. I’m bringing them all together and formalizing the process by which we address these properties. I think that’s helped us.

The Skyline isn’t the only problem property in the city, we have many of them and we’re addressing many of them. Until everyone in the city has a quality, affordable and safe place to live, our work isn’t done.

In addition to the larger housing complexes, your broader question about neighborhood quality-of-life; it is absolutely a priority, it’s something that we’ve tried to address on multiple fronts. Some of the investments that I mentioned in housing and infrastructure are all intended to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

For some of the criminal activity that impacts quality of life, we’ve created a number of Special Details in the Syracuse Police Department to deal with specific quality of life issues. Fireworks, we have details that go out in the Spring and Summer trying to address the firework issue. Dirt Bikes and ATV’s, another common complaint that we get in neighborhoods; we have a special detail that’s been out confiscating those illegal vehicles, keeping our neighborhoods safe.  We have Special Burglary Details; we’ve seen rashes of burglaries in particular neighborhoods where we’ve been able to bring these Details in and apply significant pressure and we’ve been able to help with those.

And even with Gun Violence, which is certainly much more than a quality-of-life issue, it’s an issue that is a matter of life and death. We were able to create a Gun Violence Suppression Detail that was specifically focused on getting guns off the street. They were very successful at doing that. On all of these fronts, we established a quality-of-life commission with neighborhood representatives from throughout the city. They get together on a quarterly basis and talk about where the challenges are, where we’ve made improvements, and what else we need to do. So, we have prioritized quality-of-life issues, we’ve invested in them, we’ve made progress on many.  We need to continue to make progress on those fronts.