The rookies: Steve Kimatian makes a point at a spring mayoral forum at the Dunbar Center, while Alfonso Davis awaits his turn. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Election campaigns are usually seen as
just about winning and losing, but sometimes they can be more than
that. They can also provide a showcase of community talent, talent that
could make a contribution to the city regardless of who wins in
Several newcomers threw their hats into
the ring this season to run for mayor of Syracuse. First-time
candidates for office who win are the exception to the rule. While
neither of these candidates may have won their party’s designation,
they have both advanced perspectives that should continue to be heard.
Alfonso Davis on the Democratic side and
Steve Kimatian on the Republican side came seemingly out of nowhere.
When they made their respective announcements months back, there were
many who asked “Alfonso who?” and “Steve who?” But slogging through
debate after debate, knocking on door after door, both of them showed
dedication and devotion to their constituencies and their issues.
Davis was relentless in reminding candidates and
observers alike that Syracuse has a legacy of neglecting its poor and
its communities of color. When he spoke about the police, he insisted
that embracing diversity was essential to dealing with crime. He was
not shy about pointing out racism and the many ways it still affects
our town. He addressed the issue of economic development from the
perspective of those who have historically been left out. In an era
where many politicians seeking consensus seem to be afraid to point out
discrimination, Davis did not hesitate to call out the failure of city
managers to involve minority contractors in projects in a serious way.
Who else could answer a question about
the performance of our public schools by telling us that each child who
enters the classroom must be loved? Who else could speak passionately
of teachers talking derisively of their kids in the faculty lounge and
wondering why those same kids didn’t respond to them in the classroom?
Others may have had the plan and the polish, but Davis had the passion
and the consistent willingness to put himself out there. He knew who he
was speaking for.
Without any of the endorsements of the
old guard leadership on the South Side, he managed to voice the
concerns of many ordinary people, and in doing so Davis has earned the
right to speak for a community too long neglected. Those people who
rallied to his cause deserve not to be forgotten, and it will be
interesting to see how this activist-turned-candidate makes the
transition back to activist and serves the city, either from within
government or without.
Steve Kimatian may have been the least
likely candidate to appear this year. Like his Republican rival, Otis
Jennings, he came from the New York City area. He lived much of his
adult life in Baltimore and Buffalo before settling in Syracuse. He was
running for mayor as a businessman, but without the imprimatur of the
Chamber of Commerce and with a briefcase full of common-sense ideas for
how the city might better order its affairs. His signature initiative
to curb crime—a youth curfew—was not popular, but it was unusual in
that it called for social and educational programs for children forced
from the streets.
The first time I met Kimatian he was at
the Dunbar Center in April for a panel discussion with the rest of the
candidates. He appeared awkward. I asked him if it was his first time
in that historic building. He thought for a minute, then said that yes,
it was. By the end of the night, this newcomer with the straightforward
managerial style had people in the back of the room paying attention.
His ideas on making the city run efficiently were not designed to cater
to his audience, but he made sense, spoke plainly and began to earn
All through the campaign, wherever
Kimatian went, he stuck to his story. “Whenever I get inside an
organization I look at its structure, and I can see how it can be
changed—and I save millions. I look at performance: either you get
results or you don’t have a job.”
Social justice. Sound management. Sounds
like a good combination. Whoever the next mayor of Syracuse may be, he
or she will enrich city administration if the very different gifts of
these two newcomers—one Democrat, one Republican, one an activist and
the other a manager—can be harnessed to the task all the candidates
committed themselves to: making Syracuse a great city once again.
Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award winning Sanity Fair commentary runs weekly in the Syracuse New Times.