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Ryan McMahon on the Campbell Conversations

Ellen Abbott

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. Last week, we heard from Bill Kinne, a Democrat who's running for Onondaga County Executive. This week, my guest is the man he's trying to unseat, the Republican incumbent, Ryan McMahon. County Executive McMahon has held the office since 2018 when he was appointed to the position following six years as the chair of the Onondaga County Legislature. He was then elected as County Executive in 2019. This is his first run for reelection to County Executive. County Executive McMahon, welcome back to the program, good to see you.

Ryan McMahon: Good to see you, thanks for having me, Grant.

GR: Well, thanks for making the time, we really appreciate it. So I'll start with the same question that I started with Bill Kinne, your challenger, and that is, how would you describe the current state of the county?

RM: Well, quite frankly, it's exciting. And when you think about what's going on, there's never been more economic opportunity on the horizon for members of this community. And this didn't happen by accident. There's a lot of thoughtful planning. There is a lot of calculated risk on my administration's end of things. But we really took the lessons we learned during the pandemic. When you're intentional, when you come together as a community to work towards a common goal, and we took those experiences and we moved those forward in a post COVID recovery strategy and plan, where we made a lot of local investments and because of those investments, and then the partnerships that we built, we have companies like Micron coming here. Largest economic development project that the country has ever seen. And this community needs validation and sometimes we do, we're hard on ourselves. Micron Technologies is making their biggest bet, the greatest memory technology company in the world is making their biggest bet in their company's history on us. And they chose us over Austin, Texas. They chose us over Phoenix, Arizona, Raleigh, North Carolina, Grand Rapids, Michigan. And then in addition to that community, in a site that would have sat between Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Illinois. So just think about that. And when you look at other strategic wins that we've had, creating economic opportunity, you know, we talk about what's happened with Amazon over 2500 new jobs, we put that deal together. When you look at what JMA Wireless is doing with 5G manufacturing here in our city’s South Side, again, that was a deal that we helped put together with our partners at the city of Syracuse in New York State. Lotte, right? Bristol-Myers, you know, Lotte is coming in, maintaining those jobs, adding more people and more investments so that campus can be restored and to be a powerhouse in biologics again. So it's not just in one area what we're seeing and again, how you get these companies here is a commitment to your own people, commitments to your own community, to build neighborhoods, to build workforce partnerships, to invest in people, to invest in kids, to invest in seniors. And we had to tell our story to get Micron to make this commitment and it worked. So we're ecstatic to be here. And now it's about making sure that we deliver and we execute on this opportunity in front of us. And a lot of that is community based planning, nuts and bolts planning. A lot of that is workforce development, supply chain strategies and then obviously getting the White Pine Business Park mega site ready for construction next year.

GR: So would it be fair to say then, because one of the questions I wanted to ask you was what accomplishments in your administration you're the most proud of so far? And so based on what I'm hearing, it would seem to me that it would be at the general level, it sounds like it's economic development. And at the most specific level, it's the Micron Investment. Is that fair to say that those are the things that you would think of if you had to pick the jewels in the crown, so to speak, that that's what they would be?

RM: Yeah, I think I think it's hard to say that there's ever been a time where we've had more economic opportunity. And I think if you look at this, Grant, if you look at our first two years, what I'm most proud of is the way our team handled the global pandemic, where, you know, we led the day to day regional public health response to 100 year pandemic. And I would say this at that pandemic didn't happen, many of the lessons learned there, we never probably would have implemented and Micron likely would not have happened. And so one of the things that I know that you're keenly aware of is that when we started to build out the White Pine site from a 300 acre site, which there's many 300 acre sites across the country, into a mega site of over a thousand acres, every time we would make those necessary investments to have a shovel ready mega site, we were criticized. There was editorials written about us. There's three famous editorials that ran about us, telling us that this was a waste of money and these are pipe dreams and nothing will ever happen. Literally, nothing. You know, we were criticized with this, but we knew what pressure felt like because of the COVID pandemic. And when you're dealing with life and death every day, when you're dealing with desperation, whether it's because people were sick, they didn't want to get sick, to maintain your medical infrastructure, the economic desperation that people went through when businesses were shut down or limited and they couldn't pay their bills. That's pressure. You know what’s not pressure? Is criticism from political adversaries and at times the media. Because we had a tested approach to what we wanted to do, we put together a post COVID recovery strategy, recognizing that one of the key lessons, the key lessons that we learned during COVID was we cannot depend on foreign supply chains in this country. Whether it's for personal protective equipment, whether it's for medicine or what we saw on the horizon with semiconductor manufacturing, because of what is going on the global stage with China and Taiwan. So we knew we had this asset but it had to be ready, and we took the risk to turn White Pine into a mega site. And we see those very much connected with COVID. It was the key piece of our COVID recovery plan, and that allowed us to play. And as you're aware and we've talked about, it wasn't just Micron we were talking to, we were talking to numerous semiconductor manufacturers. We just got the best project there was on the marketplace.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I’m Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Ryan McMahon, the Onondaga County Executive. So those are all the good things. What would you regard as your biggest frustrations or missed opportunities for the county so far?

RM: Yeah, I think when you when you go through things, the speed of things. Even when you're in charge to implement things, I think is something that you underestimate, you know, the rules and regs that you have to follow. I do think that certainly this year, counties overall were very, very frustrated because the state government is intercepting, possibly illegally, our E-FMap Medicaid funding. So we weren't successful as county governments trying to get the state legislature and the state not to do that. That's going to impact us greatly in the county. That's about, in the state budget our county will be hit for about $14 million of lost revenue and increased costs because of that. So in a way, that's a that's a failure on our part for not advocating or getting the public engaged enough on that. But again, New York State's - $14 million out of our budgets, $14 million that's just drained from the local investments and people and workforce and important initiatives here. But overall I think, stylistic at times, I'm a hard charging executive and stylistic at times. Maybe I could have been softer on the legislature with some of my initiatives and, you know, helped go through their process a little bit better. And, you know, I learned from that. And I think overall, part of the reasons why I'm hard charging is at times during COVID when I was more diplomatic, I shouldn't have been. And when we're talking about getting kids back for in-person learning, you know, I was being loud, but I really should have been louder. And I look at that because now we're dealing with a situation with kids, mental health issues off the charts. But we have innovative programs we've developed to address these issues. But, you know, at times I was being more diplomatic and speaking to power in Albany, I probably should have been harder. And then at times, I was probably a little too hard on some of my own initiatives.

GR: I wasn't planning on asking you about this, but when you say you were too hard on some of your own initiatives, then I'm assuming you're talking about the aquarium is one of the things or not?

RM: Yeah, I think overall we put forward a post COVID recovery strategy at the same time as the aquarium, which included White Pine and included historic investments for Lead funding and mental health and I gave the legislature a lot at once. But time was of the essence for us to meet this opportunity. And certainly I probably could have been a little bit softer with my approach to the legislature, more of a stylistic thing. I think from a policy thing, you know, we believe in the policies and we believe in all the initiatives and most of them have paid great dividends already.

GR: So your Democratic challenger, Bill Kinne, is running on a message of, and this is a quote from his website, restoring integrity to the office and the county. And I asked him about that because it seems to suggest a pretty deep criticism. And he pointed to, as a specific, the change and county legislators having to go through your office in order to communicate with different department heads in the county. And so I have two questions for you about his remarks. The first one is, is what he described as the way that legislators now communicate with department heads, is that correct? And if it is correct, why was the change made?

RM: There is no change. Legislator Kinne, he's been there for a long time and he's not accurate. He's never been in a leadership position. As you recall in the introduction, I was the chairman of the legislature and so I can tell you, with my predecessor and working with County Executive Mahoney, there's a government relations team that we would work through and there's deputy County Executives that you work through. And they are in the financial world, the facilities world, and then the human service world and that's the way it's done. The legislature can use the committee process. Remember, I ran that branch of government and bring over departments at any time to get updates on things, but the way that it should work and does work and worked under the Mahoney administration and the McMahon administration and likely the Pirro administration before us, I just never interacted with the Pirro administration. From a legislative side of things is we had government relations people and their job is to work with these legislatures on the issues that are impacting them. And the deputy county executives are there to work with the legislative branch of government. And again, the committee process is a process that any department can be called over to talk about any initiative or any issue moving forward. And our department heads go over and do that, so, it's just a situation where, you know, maybe legislator Kinne, because he has never been in a leadership role there, didn't know protocol before, but that's been protocol ever since I've been in county government.

GR: And so also, let me just ask you a second question. I'm just going to ask you flat out, is there an integrity problem in the county executive's office? Because he seems to be suggesting there is.

RM: Yeah, I don't understand what that is. Again, I think overall, legislator Kinne can he's having a difficult time trying to tell people that this community is not on the right side, moving in the right direction. And so you have to come up with slogans and certainly that's the one he's tying himself to.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon. The Republican is running for reelection this November. So I want to come back to Micron, ask you a couple of more specific questions about that. And the first one is paraphrasing the ancients, John F. Kennedy once said, “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” So, the Micron investment…

RM: Yeah.

GR: …and again, just to remind our listeners, if they don't know what it is, mega complex for chip manufacturing. It was certainly a huge victory for the region and indeed the state, you and I have talked about this before and a lot of folks are claiming at least partial parenthood of this development. So how much, just bottom line question, how much of the credit do you think you should get?

RM: Oh, there's a lot of things that happened in this process that if they didn't go a certain way, you probably may not receive the investment. But the reality is, is again, we went through site selection processes with the greatest technology companies in the world: Intel, TSMC, Micron and others. And there's three things that happen that they look at, the first is site. If you don't have a site that they can do what they need to do, they don't even look at your state. Then they go in deeper dive, okay you have the site. And again, there is about five or six of us in the country that had the site and my administration put this mega site together. So my administration put New York State in the game and there's no arguing that, Senator Schumer would tell you that. The governor would tell you that, Empire State Development would tell you that. Then the second focus is the community, right? Do you have the partnerships to develop workforce? Higher education, right? So, without Syracuse University and all these higher ed partners, we can't tell that story. The quality of life in the community, the investment. Two big comebacks that we talked about, the cleanup of Onondaga Lake. That's when our comeback in this community started was the cleanup of Onondaga Lake and then the downtown revitalization. You know, there's lots of people that had parts of those, right? So in the community, we're telling the community story, right? Did Ryan McMahon have something to do that? Sure, but so did thousands of other people. And then it's about incentives, right? Being competitive locally, incentives. I directed the local incentives, right? I can get criticized for that, but we made ourselves the most competitive. And then the State of New York, the State of New York needed to be competitive. Governor Hochul got through Green CHIPS. So with Green CHIPS, the State of New York is not competitive. So the governor needs credit for that. Then the federal legislation, right? Without the CHIPS act, you're not seeing this activity because that's going to offset the difference between building here and Asia. So for sure, Senator Schumer was a Goliath in this process, John Katko important in this process, because the progressives on the left, we're not going to vote for the CHIPS Act, so the moderates on the right had to have their back to position this. And certainly the President of the United States signed the bill and supported the bill. So, Grant, there's so many people and so many different things that happened to your point. Now, your second part of that quote is very important. If we did not get a project, what you would be talking to me about today is you're running for reelection, you invested $70 million to get a site shovel ready and there's nothing here. Those editorials that they wrote about you were correct right? So the failure only would have had one author and you're looking at it.

GR: Interesting. Well, speaking of those editorials, the other question I wanted to ask you about this is the Post-Standard dinged you a little while back for a county video about the Micron investment, they said it was too self-promotional. Do you think that was a fair criticism at the time?

RM: Yeah, not really. But I get it and I get it's an election year. So the reality was that video was done last year right after the Micron announcement to tell the story of White Pine, right? And White Pine’s story was not just Micron, that's the end of the White Pine story. And it talked about all the partnerships that made it necessary. But with economic development and site selection, leadership matters in a community. The alignment of leadership in this process mattered to Micron with the state, local and federal working together. And that's the White Pine story and this community should celebrate the White Pine story. And there's no way to tell the White Pine story without the role that my administration had. And so I get it became political fodder. Look, if you're trying to unseat us, you know, ironically, the same people who criticized me about the Micron video were the same people who voted against the funding to do the White Pine mega site. So they're trying to hide the fact that they did not support this initiative and this project in the beginning. It's always easy to have friends once you've landed the largest project in the history of the United States. We love having those friends now, but we really love the friends that were with us in the beginning that believed in the vision and the plan that we put forward.

GR: So one concern, though, about the Micron investment is that it will further, what is already a crunch on affordable housing, especially in the city. And I've been asking lots of different guests on the program about this in the last year. Do you think there are things that the county in particular could do to help avoid this becoming a real problem?

RM: Yeah, there are some things we are doing. And so remember, a lot of talk on site selection process, getting the project here. Now it's all about execution, right? So we're executing on the site itself, we have teams working on that. We're executing on the workforce partnerships, we have teams working on that to maximize the job creation opportunities for the community supply chain. But also we're really implementing in our comprehensive plan, the first comprehensive plan that the county has had in 25 years, Plan ON(ondaga) which is a really big deal and the timing couldn't be better. And housing is a key piece of that. So, what we're doing is we have created a situation where we are updating and we are funding all these other municipalities’ comprehensive plans and their zoning rules are part of that process. And so updated zoning in some of these communities that are going to experience growth will help with housing tremendously. In addition to that, we have what we call our O-CHIP program, which is essentially, if you think about, it’s GAP funding to get some of these projects online for new housing units. We have not historically had a housing issue in Onondaga County except for the last two to three years. And so there hasn't really been a strong economic driver for the private sector to come in and invest for more housing because the business opportunity wasn't there. Now it is and Micron's driving that. So in the updated comp plans, updated zoning, our O-CHIP funds are bringing new units online, many of them affordable unit projects and senior projects, many of them in the city of Syracuse. We think this will all help, but for housing you need market drivers. And so now we got a really big anchor tenant coming into town. We are seeing private money come in that we haven't had before. We're seeing projects like Great Northern Mall really start to come to fruition, it will be big town center project. With the aquarium going to the inner harbor that's driving more density and we think that's going to drive more housing. And then projects like O-CHIPs are going to go into neighborhoods throughout the community and those hard projects to get done that need that GAP funding, O-CHIPS is going to help fund that. So we understand this is an issue, we’ve already taken action on it and we think we're going to make good progress on it.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon. So when you ran for office four years ago, you emphasized three things and they're still on your website today. That's poverty, infrastructure and economic development. I'm curious to know in a second term, would you be adding to those themes or will they still remain the three things that we'll be seeing on your website four years from now?

RM: Yeah, those are our guiding principles because they're all connected. And when we do them well, we have great results, and I think we've seen that with what's going on. Again, workforce is always a key issue for these companies. That's one of the key issues is as important as financial incentives. So you have to invest in people and you have to remove barriers to employment. We've done that with childcare, increasing the ability to make it affordable for people, but also working on increasing the infrastructure in the childcare space. And that's something that's going to be key for Micron moving forward. That's going to be one of our key focuses moving forward. Child care and the infrastructure is a barrier to employment, specifically for women. And in addition to that transportation, we made key transportation investments. That's going to be key moving forward, making sure our rapid transit isn't just something that's going to happen in the city of Syracuse, which it’s going to in 2026, but also that we have employment rapid transit systems. And we need to be aspirational about transportation moving forward as we're going to be a growing community. Workforce development, we are investing in workforce development programs left and right and the county-wide STEAM school is coming online, a workforce development laboratory for our kids. 60% city kids, 40% suburban kids coming together to get trained for the jobs that are here now, tomorrow. OCC, we're building a clean room at OCC so that we can train technicians for Micron in the semiconductor industry. These are all key things that we have to do to execute moving forward. Infrastructure, we're going to make more investments in infrastructure, whether it's modernizing our roads, but our sewers to continue to create capacity so that we can build neighborhoods in a smart way. And also we can continue to support the companies that are here but the companies that will come here. And when you have workforce and you have infrastructure, you get the jobs. And we've seen that with Amazon, we've seen it with Lotte, we've seen it with JMA, Micron. And trust me, Grant, we are talking to dozens and dozens of supply chain companies that are going to co-locate with Micron. And again, one of the things with Micron, we're not talking about 5,000 construction jobs, local trades, local companies, New York state companies. But we're going to be hosting construction workers from the Northeast, from the Pacific Northwest, maybe even the world in certain specialties, right? That's going to be an economic boon for our hospitality industry as well. So these are all things that are going on. But our PIE platform, as any of my department heads will tell you when we go through a budget process, if there is a new investment that's being made, how does it fit into the PIE platform? How are we getting people prepared for the workforce? Because the way out of poverty is a job and a career, not a government program.

GR: So you mentioned the county's leadership and your leadership during the COVID pandemic earlier. And I did want to ask you a question about COVID, because it looks like it's poised to make a comeback this fall. Just as an example, I just got an email from my primary care doctor's office telling me that because of the recent uptick, they are going back to a mask mandate for all patients coming in. So they're making a change about this. Are you concerned about what you're seeing and some of the numbers that are coming in in the last few weeks and months?

RM: Yeah, we've learned a lot with COVID and with each variant that comes through, and COVID is here to stay. And so what we need to do is really watch the data. The goal of everything is always about your medical infrastructure, making sure you can take care of all your sick, not just those who have COVID. And so what we'll do, is we're going to give the best guidance based off all the information that we have. And certainly as more and more vaccines become available, we will certainly get that information out to everybody. But we don't see a county wide mask mandate coming in. We will give the best information to people and let people make the decisions that are best for them and their families.

GR: So we only have about 30 seconds left or so, but I wanted to give you at least a short opportunity. Is there anything that I haven't asked you so far about your reelection campaign?

RM: Yeah, one of the things we didn’t talk about is our fiscal record. We've had five straight years where we had balanced budgets and we delivered county surpluses. We paid for major infrastructure and major entertainment infrastructure projects with cash. We've cut the county tax rate to the historic low and while other governments have been raising taxes, we've cut taxes and we've made government more efficient. And I have a budget presentation in two weeks, and I want you to follow it because I think people are going to really like what we have to say.

GR: All right, great, we’ll look for that. Thanks much, we'll have to leave it there. That was Ryan McMahon, County Executive McMahon, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me as always. And I want to wish you safe travels on the campaign trail.

RM: Thank you, Grant.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.