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Are political parties still relevant in 2017?

Matt Coulter
Syracuse University
The four candidates running for mayor of Syracuse at their first debate with moderater Grant Reeher in early October.

The role of the traditional political parties is being called into question on the national and local levels. Syracuse’s mayoral race offers a few examples of candidates outside the mainstream trying to break through.

Current Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner said politics as usual is becoming less relevant.

“The voters of our country, of our state and of our city are saying that the status quo is unacceptable and you need to change it," Miner said. "They are saying that they will vote for people that are willing to change it.” 

Miner said that can be positive or negative.

Grant Reeher is a political science professor and director of the Campell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. He said despite the yearning for something different, the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming more polarized.

“What that means is that, if someone has an allegiance or even a leaning toward one of the two parties, their voting has become much more rigid along those lines,” Reeher said.

Reeher described the Syracuse mayoral race, as a series of individual stories. Democratic candidate Juanita Perez Williams received hardly any support from committee members during the party’s designation process. The voting was split between Councilor Joe Nicoletti, who was making his fourth run for mayor, and former-city hall staffer Andrew Maxwell.

“There was some kind of division between the traditionalists, do we want to take this person that we know, who’s been around, who’s held different offices, has made all these connections, has been working on this in one way or another for 25 years, is that the person we’re going to go with, or are we going to go with this new face, this younger candidate?” Reeher said.

Reeher said Maxwell’s loss was an opening for Perez Williams who went on to defeat Nicoletti by almost 20 points in the primary.

“What the Democratic Party in that instance failed to take account of was the importance of identity politics," Reeher said. "Juanita Perez Williams, being both female and Latina, gives her a particular advantage.”

Perez Williams said her message needed to get out as a reminder of what it means to be a Democrat. She said being in a political party represents your values.

“To those who would consider a candidate that doesn’t belong to a party, that’s concerning," Perez Williams said. "What are your principles? What do you stand for? That’s why party affiliation is so important.”

Ben Walsh is trying to become Syracuse’s first independent mayor. Walsh said he made the decision to be independent when he was 18.

"If you're being true to yourself and you believe that being a member of a political party reflects your values, then that's great, that's what you should do," Walsh said. "That's not the case for me. I'm being true to myself and to my independence."

Walsh noted a trend that more young people are not affiliating with the parties.  

Reeher said Walsh is unlike any other independent candidate. He said Walsh has a sterling pedigree. His father was a Republican congressman. His grandfather was a Republican mayor of Syracuse. Plus, Reeher said it works to the younger Walsh’s advantage that the Republican Party is so weak in Syracuse; creating another opening. Republican candidate Laura Lavine said she believes in strong security and less government intrusion, but also said she is moderate on a number of issues.

"When people first meet me or they find out I'm a Republican, especially in this day and age, they tend to dismiss me," Lavine said. "But as soon as they meet me and talk to me and find out where I stand on the issues, all the doubts fall by the wayside."

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins said parties are important because they organize people around political perspectives and help them participate in the process.

"What has happened in the Democratic and Republican parties, their grassroots is alienated," Hawkins said. "That's why I think a lot of people are not listening to their political leaders in the old, two major parties."

Hawkins said Democrats claim to be the party of the working people but participate in trickle-down economics. He said Republicans say they are fiscally conservative but explode budget deficits. As for Walsh, Hawkins said being independent on the ballot is one thing but he said the Green Party is independent of money special interests.

A recent poll from Siena College, Syracuse.com and Spectrum News shows Perez Williams and Walsh as the two top contenders in the race.

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.