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All 9 Syracuse mayoral candidates answer questions about city's toughest problems

Tom Magnarelli
The candidate for mayor of Syracuse take the stage at the Southwest Community Center.

All nine Syracuse mayoral candidates participated in a forum this week. It was a crowded stage that produced a wide range of different answers.

Syracuse’s south and west sides have similar problems with gun violence and the high concentration of minority poverty. The forum at the Southwest Community Center featured questions that reflected those problems. Many of the candidates said they support community benefits, local hiring ordinances and reducing regulations to stimulate job growth.

Juanita Perez Williams, who is challenging the designated Democratic candidate Councilor Joe Nicoletti in the primary, said whatever changes are made to I-81 through downtown will be the game changer for jobs.

“Not just construction, but the small business, the food vendors, anything that requires supporting a $2.5 billion project, we need to be talking about now,” Williams said.

Another Democratic primary challenger, Alfonso Davis, said there is a lot of economic development going on in the city, but he questions if city residents are the ones working on those jobs.

“So we have to be very honest about creating and giving jobs to people in economically depressed communities, and making sure they have an opportunity to work,” Davis said.

Republican candidate and Lafayette Schools Superintendent Laura Lavine said to attract businesses, the city needs to be safe.

“Our crime rate is out of control," Lavine said. "Everywhere I go, people are talking about crime. We had a record homicide rate in 2016.”

Another looming problem is Syracuse’s fund balance, which is running low. With more than $15 million in a deficit this year, the city could face a control board soon. Nicoletti warned that would be a disaster.

“The mayor does nothing, the financial control board can set salaries, can set schedules, and who suffers are the workers,” Nicoletti said.

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins joined in via video conference from California.

“We get a financial control board and the future will look like Flint [Michigan] which had its water poisoned or Detroit, who had its schools destroyed," Hawkins said. "We want control of our own destiny.”

Many of the candidates, like Democratic City Auditor Marty Masterpole, said it is not a spending problem, but a revenue problem plaguing the city.

“If we had a spending problem we’d see our streets plowed better, less potholes and roads paved and less water main breaks," Masterpole said.

Some of the candidates suggested new taxes, sharing services and selling vacant city properties could raise revenue. To reduce gun violence, the candidates were asked how they would create a community action plan to promote neighborhood safety that does not have the Syracuse Police Department as the only solution. Independent candidate Ben Walsh acknowledged that being white plays a role in trusting police.

“When I’m in trouble and I need help, I call the police and I feel comfortable doing that," Walsh said. "But the reality is a lot of that has to do with the privilege that I have and the way that I look.”

Walsh said it is unacceptable if people are not comfortable calling police. Local business enthusiast and Democratic candidate Chris Fowler received applause for saying the city should not treat poverty as a crime.

“We’re not going to put enough people in prison to change these things," Fowler said. "We need to stop the pipeline from preschool to prison in the city of Syracuse.”  

And Democratic candidate Raymond Blackwell said he wants strong neighborhood watch organizations.

“I’m open to creative ideas," Blackwell said. "I’ve heard things about a youth curfew, gun buybacks. Anything other than what we’ve been doing, I’m open to.”

At the end of the forum, Blackwell confessed that as a youth, he carried a gun, sold drugs and assaulted people. He said he wanted to show the audience how someone can change.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.