Kevin Bott: It’s Not Easy Being Green

He’s running for Syracuse mayor on the Green Party line

Kevin Bott says he’s not the stereotypical Green Party member as he samples the coffee to see if it needs real sugar.

“Caffeinated,” he muses as he decides to take it black.

He’s running for Syracuse mayor on the Green Party line, and confesses to trying to figure out how he got there by chronicling the adventure each night in his journal.

“It was in the winter of 2011,” he recalls, “that I felt extremely discouraged by the state of politics and political discourse. The Tea Party had just ascended in the House, and it was {Gov.} Scott Walker in Wisconsin who had just announced that he was going to try to smash collective bargaining rights for public workers.”

And it was Syracuse. “That was the winter we got 180 inches of snow,” he adds, “and I was just in a bad place. I had two little kids, one infant, one toddler, going 9 to 5 and just feeling like things were falling apart in the political arena. I’m an arts activist. I’ve been an arts activist for a decade and a half. Out of that feeling of despair, I started to create a performance project here in Syracuse, the intention of which was to bring local people together using the arts as the hook, to get them to talk about local issues, and to talk about how we can change this sense of powerlessness that a lot of people are feeling. I did a show at the South Side Innovation Center a year and a half ago, and the Green folks saw me.”

Bott, 40, says he had never thought about running for office when, in July, Green Party spark plug Howie Hawkins called him to suggest that he take the party’s nomination for mayor.

“It was out of the blue,” says Bott, who arrived in Syracuse after earning a Ph.D.

from New York University combining education and the arts in June 2008 to work on a national higher education consortium at Syracuse University, then moving his family to live here in 2010. Born in Camden, N.J., his political activity locally has been focused on theater encounters on community issues combining an ensemble of more than two dozen area residents with groups ranging from the Ida Benderson Senior Action Group to the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation to Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.

At a recent news conference on the steps of City Hall, Bott and Hawkins maintained that the city administration’s position that urban austerity budgets are required to meet financial needs is behind the times. They insisted that a restoration of promised levels of state revenue sharing for urban aid and school aid is the only viable solution to Syracuse’s fiscal crisis, and that Syracuse is being set up for failure and a state takeover by the fiscal policies in force.

You advocate a new style of governance. How can you sell that when most folks don’t seem to be taking interest in the current style?

First of all, I think that people do care.

I look at a study done with Harvard seniors, the millennial generation. On one hand, the most important priority was to make a positive impact in the world. Zero of them said that the formal political arena was the place where they thought that could happen. Why is it that the political arena seems to be the most out of touch with what’s happening in our culture? Every other part of our culture, the most notable being these competitions on television, understand that people want access. People want their voices heard. They want their vote counted. They want to have a say in decisions that are important to them. And yet, to say that formal politics offers a meaningful, exciting, compelling invitation to the average person is just not true. To say, “Come to a city council meeting that’s going to happen at 1 o’clock on a working day,” is not a true invitation for people to get involved.

You say the Green Party is the only independent voice in this election. Without mayoral debates, how will that voice be heard?

This campaign has been an education for me. It’s been surprising to me the way that this administration, and to an extent the media, has been able to downplay or ignore the need for a substantive debate. Given the fact that the city sees the highest joblessness and poverty rates in four years—the entire term of the administration—the fact that we now have 20 homicides, on pace to hit a record by the end of the year. We have some real serious problems, not to mention that we’re two to three years away from having Albany impose a financial control board. The fact that in this context people aren’t up in arms, the media isn’t scrambling to organize a debate, to me undermines the very idea of democracy as a public good and as a place where people are governing the decisions that affect them.

Mayor Stephanie Miner points to downtown development as real progress for the city. For whom is it being developed?

This is the proof in the pudding.

Downtown is becoming a place where the average income of residents has gone from $20,000 in 2000 to $70,000 today, so it’s not a downtown for everyone. We see where the bus depot has moved away from downtown, away from where they want this development.

But the proof that I’m talking about is in the fact that despite the billion dollars of development that Miner touts, the fact that we’re standing at a place where joblessness and poverty are now higher than they were four years ago, undermines the claim that this is a city on the move. A thriving downtown in any metropolitan city is not a gentrified downtown: It’s a place where people from all walks of life see it as a public commons, where there’s energy, vibrancy. That’s what culture is. It’s not a place simply for people to exchange goods and services. It’s why people are attracted to urban life. And that’s not what we have here.

Outgoing Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor pitched in with some downtown development. Has it improved the town-gown relationship?

My professional life is intimately connected to town-gown issues. I’m the associate director of Imagining America. One of my primary responsibilities is to consult nationally on town-gown projects.

There are two parts of that narrative. The critics get a lot of play in the press. This happened in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year when they published an article about Syracuse {University}’s slide, and actually had to eventually run a companion piece because so many students and faculty wrote to the Chronicle saying, “This is only half the story,” and maybe less than half the story of what Chancellor Cantor did, put out a lot of energy and a renewed sense of partnership with the community.

If you were mayor, how would you deal with Destiny USA mall developer Robert Congel?

I don’t know. The man has a 45-year tax break. It seems that what’s done is done. My victory would signal to a lot of people around the country that Syracuse really is a city on the move, a city where people are saying, “We’ve had enough of the same old story.” I think we’d attract students. I think we’d attract faculty. I think we’d attract young professionals like myself, who say, “Wow. There is a city that has a story to tell,” and is actually willing to think outside the box, and can bring some weight back to downtown and all of our neighborhoods so that people don’t feel they have to go to the suburbs for anything.

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