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McMahon turns to deal making to get aquarium votes ahead of Tuesday session

An artist rendering of a proposed $85 million aquarium in the Inner Harbor section of Syracuse
Onondaga County
An artist rendering of a proposed $85 million aquarium in the Inner Harbor section of Syracuse

Onondaga County lawmakers are expected to take up the controversial aquarium project at its next session on Tuesday. County Executive Ryan McMahon has been publicly pushing for the $85 million project since last fall, but hasn’t been able to move ahead amidst strong political opposition. Getting the votes for the project may come down to serious deal-making.

Here’s how the politics is playing out. Republicans have an 11-6 edge on the legislature. McMahon, a Republican, needs a majority of the 17-member body, or nine votes, to get the money to build the aquarium. Not all Republicans are on board though, so McMahon was forced to go to the Democratic caucus to get to that magic number. Most Democrats have been vocal in opposition, instead proposing the money be spent on health and lead abatement initiatives.

But McMahon found one lawmaker willing to work with him.

Freshman Legislator Charles Garland said he would support the aquarium, at a recent announcement of a $4.5 million project to build ten new homes in Garland’s district.

"This is Politics 101,” Garland said. “It’s about the leverage we have and using it. So the answer's yes. It was a very simple thing."

McMahon had asked lawmakers for ideas to spend a portion of federal COVID relief funds, and Garland said he put housing on the top of his list.

"Home ownership is important. It stabilizes areas, it’s also generational wealth,” Garland said. “So we just want to thank you for that. And once the program is sustainable, it’s ongoing. It’s not just in this area, but all over."

McMahon said this kind of political horse-trading was recently on display in Washington, when Democrats and Republicans worked out deals to pass the CHIPS Act. And this is the same strategy on a smaller scale.

"For those who are willing to sit down, help me with the macro agenda, so we can keep the regional economy going,” said McMahon. “Because at the end of the day, the job is what gets people out of poverty. And we’ll work together on micro level issues."

It’s still unclear if McMahon has the nine votes he needs, with some lawmakers still undecided about the project. He said his administration could have done a better job answering questions about the scope of the project all along. But he also admits some political missteps, in what may be the most challenging political issue his administration has faced.

“What I overlooked, is that the specific legislators the investment would benefit the most, I thought would be natural allies, but politics has gotten in the way of that,” he said.

The County Legislator meets for its August session Tuesday at 1 p.m.

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.