Blurred Lines

Return of the black middle class

After Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney received the endorsement of the Alliance Network, a city-based African-American advocacy group, she was grateful. But she also thought to herself, “They’re not asking enough.”

In his May 20 endorsement press conference, held at the Dunbar Center on South State Street, South Side power broker Walt Dixie — leader of the Alliance Network, which is affiliated with the Rev. Al Sharpton — mentioned two reasons his group likes Mahoney over Democrat/Conservative Toby Shelley. One had to do with improvements in how the jail is treating people, and another had to do with streamlining public assistance appointments.

“Really?” Mahoney recalls thinking. Is that the best we can do? Is that all they are asking? A county leader can earn the endorsement of a black activist group twice just because her administration treats their people better when they become prisoners or paupers?
It’s time, says Mahoney, to raise the bar of expectations. And Dixie, along with others in the community, seems to be buying her brand of hope and change.

Mahoney says that if she is given another four years at the helm of the county, she wants to take a crack at doing much more for the urban core. “I want to bring back the black middle class,” she told me the day after the Alliance Network gave her its blessing. Bold words and not what you might expect from a Republican leader, but Mahoney is no stranger to unusual alliances.

She’s tight with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and is barely on speaking terms with local Republican boss Tom Dadey. Rural and suburban Republicans in the County Legislature regularly challenge her initiatives. Frequently those points of contention, from Save the Rain to Say Yes to Education to the sales tax formula, come when she advocates for city issues at the county level.

Dixie calls her a maverick. Others see opportunism. Mahoney says it’s personal.

The reigning county executive explains that she is, at heart, a city kid. She grew up on the edge of Upper Onondaga Park. She and her husband, Mark Overdyk, graduated from Corcoran High School. When she attends reunions of her Class of 1983, or her husband’s Class of 1981, she’s struck by the number of their African-American classmates who have gone on to professional careers and fled Syracuse for Charlotte or Atlanta or other Southern cities.

They migrate in search of jobs, but also, when they get talking about it, to escape this city with its persistent and soul-numbing segregation. That segregation, she says, weighs on her even after she moved her family out to the ’burbs.

Can a white Republican leader of a county reverse the trend of black flight from our town? She’s laid out a difficult challenge and is using language that makes many people uncomfortable. She echoes the charge made by others in her party that the Democrats have taken African-American votes for granted. In Syracuse, she argues, African-Americans have helped elect Democrats to every major office and have very little to show for it. Dixie echoes the same sentiment.

Mahoney bristles when she points out that Democrats have chosen a candidate to oppose her, Toby Shelley, who is running on the Conservative line. The Conservative party platform includes an endorsement of such police tactics as Stop and Frisk and profiling. She anticipates that Shelley would say that he doesn’t agree with everything in the Conservative platform. He does, and more. Next week we’ll hear what Shelley has to say about his race to replace Mahoney.

Ed Griffin-Nolan

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