Independent gubernatorial candidate Stephanie Miner on the Campbell Conversations

Jul 21, 2018

After months of speculation about her political plans, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner announced last month that she was launching an independent campaign for governor. Rather than run as a Democrat, and challenging incumbent Andrew Cuomo in a primary, Miner is the first candidate under a new party, the Serve America Movement. Miner joins host Grant Reeher to discuss her campaign for governor. 

Interview Highlights (note: questions and answers have been edited for clarity)

Reeher: You’re running on a new party label—Serve America Movement—and you’re their first candidate, in fact…You have your own positions that relate specifically to New York, but what does the party more generally, at least so far, stand for policy wise? Where is it coming from?

Miner: First of all, it’s a group of people who have gotten together before I ever came into the picture, before they met me. [They are] just really dissatisfied with the current state of political dialogue and public policy and got together around a set of principles and said, “We want to change the course. We want to stop this hyper-partisanship. We want to solve problems, and we want to do it in a civil way.” And so, a number of them heard me on a podcast that I did down in New York City and reached out through mutual friends that they’d like to meet with me.

Reeher: Do they have certain core policy positions on things like taxes, healthcare and other things, or is it more about change and corruption, at least is what I’m hearing?

Miner: We have to understand in a heterogeneous society that there are certain things that we need to agree on in order to be able to move forward: civil dialogue, fact-based dialogue [and] understanding that we have to solve problems. And so, there are policy positions on a certain number of issues, but this is not something where you go in and say…“Where are you on any number of issues? And if you’re yes, you can be part of this movement. If you’re no, you can’t.” They’re looking to really break away from that model and more towards a model of “Let’s understand that we have to build relationships and we have to talk to each other in a civil way.” And there are times when we’re going to agree. There are some times when we’re going to disagree, but we always have to build a relationship so that we can move forward in solving problems and having good public policy.

Reeher: Let’s talk about your particular campaign and what’s driving that, and let’s start with the incumbent. These are all challenges to the incumbent that are being made by the different candidates. In what ways has the incumbent—Democrat Andrew Cuomo—underperformed enough as governor in order to be sent packing by the voters?

Miner: I think first you have to start with the public policy failures that we see across the state. We see basic public services failing around us, whether that’s infrastructure, roads, bridges [or] water mains, or whether that’s something equally as important, [such] as lack of economic growth upstate. There has been failure after failure. And Andrew Cuomo, when he ran originally eight years ago, he said he was going to clean up Albany, and the morass that is corruption and the ethical lapses in Albany, candidly, that both parties have been complicit in, [is] a price that we, as New Yorkers, are paying for poor public policy, this culture of corruption and the price of politics as usual. And Andrew Cuomo has been the head of those institutions and allowed that, if not encouraged that, to flourish underneath his eight years.

Reeher: Let me pick up on that very last point because there’s this line…between making the argument that Albany is not functioning the way it should, it’s not functioning in an ethical way, and the governor, as kind of the head of that, has to bear some responsibility. And there’s another one to say the governor himself is actually actively part of that problem. And where would you come down on that?

Miner: I would come down on what Andrew Cuomo himself, how he has defined the issue…Eight years ago, he said he was going to clean up Albany, and eight years later, we see that far from has it been cleaned up; it’s been worse than ever, and his own administration has been touched by it and, in fact, embroiled in it…What makes it so tragic is all of the wasted opportunity that the state had to fix things. We’ve had a million New Yorkers who have left the state looking for opportunity in other places because we couldn’t provide it here. That’s a million people who left friends, their families and their networks who said, “I can’t do it in New York anymore.” And instead of being able to solve their problems, what we have done is seen billions of dollars wasted on economic development programs that don’t work—boondoggles that existed for campaign commercials or campaign donors…And I don’t see it getting better. I only see it getting worse.

Reeher: Let’s think about policies—things that we could change in the laws or in other practices in a formal way in Albany. What do you think can be done policy wise to help address this problem [of corruption]?

Miner: I think you have to completely eliminate all of the economic development programs and bureaucracies. They exist to choose winners and losers, and they are rife for the opportunity to exploit them for campaign contributions and donors and corruption, which we in central New York have lived through…Take the money that is there and invest it in infrastructure—traditional infrastructure, like roads, bridges [and] transit, [and] new infrastructure, like high-speed, affordable broadband. 

Reeher: Would there be other ways, in terms of economic development, beyond the infrastructure projects you’re talking about, that you would change? Would you create a new program of economic development?

Miner: No. I’m saying eliminate the programs and take that money and invest it in infrastructure. Government doesn’t create jobs. What government can do is create environments where smart people, entrepreneurs in the free market, can take advantage of that. And for far too long in New York, it was Empire Zones, START-UP New York [and] nanotech. We have seen politicians take taxpayers’ money and invest it in boondoggle programs, stand up and say “This is going to be completely transformative,” and then, lo and behold, in a year or two years, you see empty factories [and] empty buildings. And now, what we’re seeing is even more so indictments follow on top of billions of dollars being spent. Enough.

Reeher: What about the state’s tax code? Are there changes in the tax code that you’re advocating?

Miner: First and foremost, what we have to do is look at our owners’ property tax burden. The loadstone around that is how the state pays for Medicaid. We’re the only state in the country that makes local counties pay for a portion of Medicaid. We need to take and eliminate that. The basic philosophy is if you are designing the benefits, then you should pay the bill. So, what New York is doing is it’s designing the benefits for Medicaid, but it’s kicking those costs to the localities, and often, the localities that can least afford to pay it…We pay the highest property taxes. Our services are not equivalent to that, and we have to look at ways that we can make localities, particularly upstate, competitive again.

Reeher: It seems to me, then, if the state were to take that on, then in a sense, it’s not like it’s going to be cheaper for taxpayers on the whole.

Miner: Part two of my program would be that the state takes it over, and then, the localities have to rebate that savings back to the property-taxpayers. So, it’s not that the county of Onondaga comes in and says, “I got this windfall of $90 million that I can now spend on another tax break for Destiny [USA].” Instead, what we would say is, “No, we’re going to take up the cost.” We should be doing it because we’re the ones who are determining the benefits, and we have to manage the program, and we should drive those efficiencies in the program. And we’re going to make the localities rebate that same savings to the property-taxpayers that will remove part of the owners’ burden of property tax, and it also deals substantively with the issue of the elimination of state and local deductibility for taxes…Andrew Cuomo also put into place a property tax cap, which I agree with. What I didn’t agree with, and what I think this litigation also shows, is let’s deal with the issues substantively. Let’s attack what is making property taxes so high and making them so onerous and driving people from New York.

Reeher: Let’s talk about education funding…How would you change that? What would you restructure there?

Miner: We have to change the foundation aid and look and change the formula so that we can, first of all, meet the obligation that the court said to us in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. There has to be more equity in New York state. We’re seeing wealthy, largely white school districts be able to take advantage of the current formula and poor school districts being left behind. Real economic development, for me, is education. We need to make sure that we are training a workforce who can compete in the globalized market that we live in. We’re not doing that. Large swaths of our population are being left behind because the state is underfunding certain school districts, largely poor and minority school districts, and giving lots of funding to wealthier, suburban school districts.

Reeher: What about the overall amount of education funding? Do you have a view about that? Would you be looking to, in a sense, not only rearrange the slices of the pie, but make the pie bigger?

Miner: Before we start talking about making the pie bigger, I think we have to address the outcome…The reality is we cannot continue to spend all of this money and get the outcomes that we currently have and say, “Well, the only reason our outcomes aren’t better is because we don’t have enough money.” We have to completely rethink this system. We have to look at, are we doing enough for actual job training? Are we doing enough for technical training? Are we doing enough to support families so that their children can take advantage of the school system? And how are the different models that can help change the outcomes?…There needs to be a sustained look at what is successful, and not every model’s going to work for every type of child or school district or school building. 

Reeher: One of the things I think I’ve seen here in the state when these conversations come up is resistance from different institutions and organizations to significant ideas for change. And one of the ones that strikes me in thinking about this would be teachers’ organizations, teachers’ unions, because some of the things you’re talking about might be perceived as threats by them. And they’re very quick to put messaging on television and advocate for or against different candidates on the basis of that. So, how would you work with that in order to try to get there to be a more positive environment for talking about real changes?

Miner: I have never met a teacher who does not want to make sure that their students excel…What [Cuomo] has done is pit different people against each other, so charter schools are pitted against public school teachers…And so, immediately, instead of having public policy discussions, where people of good will sit around and say, “We want to change the outcome for the better,” what you have is this hyper-political environment where that’s what your alternative is; if you don’t like what Andrew Cuomo’s proposed, then you have to go to war immediately, and that war is in television ads, boycotting, the state fair and spending money on people who are opponents running against the governor…What you learn is you have to be able to build relationships and be able to say to people, “These are the reasons I’m taking a position that I am. If you disagree with the reasons, tell me why I’m wrong, and we can work through this.” As a mayor, I had a vibrant public school system. I had a vibrant charter school system…All of those systems are important, and the best scenario is when we all work together and say, “Let’s make sure that we have choices for every single family.”

Reeher: Would you support the idea of making New York a single-payer state unto itself regarding health insurance? That’s an idea that’s being pushed pretty hard.

Miner: I am open to having that discussion, but what I don’t hear when people ask that or say that is…“Let’s look at whether or not we can afford to do it.”…What falls in the wayside is an actual discussion about the realities of governing and public policy. We need to have that, and we need to make sure that we can afford to do these things. So, you just can’t say, “Medicare for all,” and then just say that that’s the end of the discussion. I think that everybody should have healthcare, and everybody should have good, high-quality, affordable healthcare.

Reeher: Why would you run as a new-party candidate versus challenging Andrew Cuomo in the primary? I think almost everybody thought if you ran for governor, that’s the way you would do it, rather than this way, so why’d you make that choice?

Miner: I think that there is no room in Andrew Cuomo’s…Democratic Party for me…For me, people and public policy and solving problems has always been more important than a partisan label. And this hyper-partisan political environment that we live in, it has become standard procedure that it’s more important to talk about what your party label is and then be quiet if your party is engaged in something that is not right. And I just don’t think that, in a democracy, that’s healthy. That’s not the way I view public service, and I don’t think that we’re ever going to be able to be constructive and move forward and really solve some really important issues that impact Americans’ lives unless we say, “Look, we have certain standards—high ethical standards—that we believe that everybody should adhere to, and the first one is that people are more important than partisanship, that ethics and morals is more important than your party label.”

Reeher: The path that you’ve chosen here, I think it’s fair to say, is low probability. It’s going to be tough to win as an independent candidate running on a new party in a very blue state, so again, even more strategically, why this path?

Miner: It’s a combination of things. I have never been somebody who has taken the easy path, and I didn’t get involved in politics or run for office just so I could say I was an elected official. It’s not, for me, about ambition. It’s not about transactions. It’s about trying to solve problems and trying to make things better. And in that construct, for me, running for the House of Representatives just didn’t fit my personality. And the frustration that I felt as mayor over and over again was this frustration that I was turning to state officials and federal officials and asking for help on a number of issues, and they were saying to me quietly, “Don’t make waves. This is the way the system is. Do your time. Stand up and join us in these ridiculous ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings, and someday, you will be lieutenant governor, or someday, you will be able to have a six-figure job with the state of New York”…And again, fundamentally, I think that this is something that people who are in the power structure always kind of never understood about me. That’s not why I did it. I did it to solve problems. I did it because the nerve part of me enjoys public policy and enjoys thinking about how you can make things better. The politician part of me enjoys having relationships with the people that I represent and being an advocate for their interests, often when they couldn’t be an advocate themselves. And so, when you take those as your principles and you say “This is what my priorities are”…then it became pretty clear that the road not taken was the road for me.