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Syracuse elects independent mayor, a 'heartbreaking' loss for Democrats

Tom Magnarelli
Ben Walsh thanked supporters in Syracuse Tuesday night, after being elected mayor

Syracuse independent mayoral candidate Ben Walsh won big Tuesday night and will be the first mayor of the city not affiliated with a political party. Walsh won with a mix of support from Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.

Walsh said when he started his campaign more than a year ago, not a lot of people gave him a chance.

"They said it wasn't my turn, an independent could never win," Walsh said. "Luckily, the people of Syracuse have spoken clearly that they are not willing to wait any longer for the change, progress, and opportunity they deserve."

Walsh was called a Republican in sheep's clothing during the campaign. He comes from a prominent Republican family. He grandfather, William Walsh, served as mayor of Syracuse in the 1960’s and his father Jim Walsh, was a former congressman.

"I may have never followed my father and grandfather's footsteps in joining the Republican Party," Walsh said. "And for the record, I've never been a Republican. But let me make one thing clear, I am honored to join both my father and my grandfather as duly elected public servants. I am proud that my last name is synonymous with a family that cares for the city, fights for the city and fights for the people of Syracuse."

Walsh won more than 54 percent of the vote in a four person race, in a city dominated by Democrats.

"We are about to undertake a grand experiment, to test whether or not we can set aside politics, to test whether we can shed our decades of old pessimism, an affinity for status quo, and instead embrace the innovative, big thinking, risk taking, progressive approach that defines the great cities of this world," Walsh said.

A heartbreaking loss

Democratic leaders called the loss of city hall in yesterday’s election heartbreaking. Walsh pulled in 4,000 more votes on election day than Democrat Juanita Perez Williams. Perez Williams urged her supporters to continue fighting for the people she said she fought for in the campaign.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Democratic mayoral candidate Juanita Perez Williams addresses her supporters after being defeated Tuesday night

Perez Williams spent much of her campaign in the homes and community rooms in the Latino and new American communities, listening to residents who told her they wanted change. She doesn’t want that message lost because of the loss of an election.

"People came together because they see that change is needed," Perez Williams said. "And they were talking about it and exited about it and hoping we could move in a new direction where we’re not forgetting people. And that’s what hurts me tonight, is that I hope this new leadership that takes over the city remembers that."

Perez Williams said the Democratic Party should stick with its roots, and continue to remind voters what it stands for, fighting for the rights of the marginalized populations of the city.

"I just hope that Mr. Walsh knows that these folks are hoping for a change," Perez Williams said. "They’re hoping that he’ll be there for them, that a leader will be there for them. So my heart goes out to them."

Party chair Mark English blamed the loss of a Democrat in a overwhelmingly Democratic city, on Republicans who didn’t stand by their candidate, but instead voted for Walsh. But English maintains the party is still strong.

"It’s not good to lose city hall," English said. "But yes as a party, we’re coming back."

The Republican Party ran a Republican

The Republican candidate in the race for Syracuse mayor, Laura Lavine, only collected 2.5 percent of the vote, finishing last in the four-person race.

The last time a Republican was elected mayor of Syracuse was in 1997. Lavine said she ran the best campaign she could given those circumstances.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
Republican candidate Laura Lavine only picked up about 2.5% of the vote in Tuesday's mayoral election

"I knew coming into this as a Republican in a nearly four-to-one Democrat city, that this was going to be a long shot,” Lavine said.

Walsh ran on the Independence and hybrid Upstate Jobs/Reform Party lines after being turned down by the Republican Party. But Onondaga County GOP chairman Tom Dadey said he is not second guessing the party's decision.

"The Republican Party chose to run a Republican and not somebody not in our party,” Dadey said. “Ben Walsh did not want to be a Republican. Laura Lavine was a registered Republican her entire life. She was a former committee person. She came forward and made her case to the Republican Party.”

Dadey said overall, it was not a bad night for the GOP. The county Republicans only lost one of their 13 seats in the Onondaga County Legislature, enough to retain their supermajority.

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins finished third with four percent of the vote.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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.
Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.