From Student to Mayor: Lessons About Politics

Posted on September 16, 2015

Today we bring to you a special excerpt from ELGL member Siba I. El-Samra. She is a recent Cornell University graduate with dual Masters’ in Landscape Architecture and City & Regional Planning. Originally from Lebanon, El-Samra studied Landscape Design & Ecosystem Management and Agricultural Engineering at the American University of Beirut. She is specifically interested in the role local government plays as a liaison between the public and higher levels of government as well as the role of design in informing local government officials.

Siba I. El-Samra

Connect: LinkedIn & Twitter

In the fall of 2013, El-Samra had the opportunity to interview Ithaca, NY mayor, Svante Myrick, as part of her Planning Practice and Theory class with Professor John Forrester. Mayor Myrick is the youngest person to hold the office in Ithaca and is the city’s first African American mayor. At the young age of 27, Myrick is one of the youngest mayors in our country’s history and one of the few to be popularly elected by a citywide vote. During her interview, El-Samra probed Mayor Myrick about the challenges he faces in his field, given his young age, and how he feels about being a direct link between the people of Ithaca and its government.

We share below, an excerpt from the Myrick interview that offers a revealing glimpse into the mind of a young politician and the education he has gained along the way.

From Student to Mayor: Lessons About Politics*

Svante Myrick – LinkedIn & Twitter

Interviewed by Siba El-Samra

November 2013

“I was elected [to the city council] without an opponent, and I started serving half way through my junior year in college. I learned [a lot] about the pace of things—that the pace was slow. I [had] thought [that] things happened like this (snapping his fingers, quickly, several times) but, you know, little did I know the way it [really] works!
You introduce a concept in January, and you form a committee in February, and then the committee works until June, and then in turn it reports to the [Council], and in July the committee votes maybe, and then in August . . .— maybe that’s the fastest possible. I thought I’d bring an idea into a meeting in January (he slaps the table), and we’ll do it in January! (he slaps the table again), and [then] we’ll just move on. That’s not at all how it worked. That was a big wakeup call.
I learned, too, one of the realities of politics, which is that there is more to winning the argument than just having the best argument. Coming out of school, you think you’ve got to write a paper. So you’d write the best paper [with] the best ideas in it, and you’d hand it in and you’d get an A, so you won, [you got what you wanted]. [So] I’d go to the [Council] meetings and think, ‘Ok, so it’s our side versus their side—and we’re outnumbered: there [are] seven on that side and there [are] three on our side. What I’ll do is I’ll write the most convincing paper with the best points’—and I’d spend hours on it—and then I’d hand it out to the committee, and the committee would go, ‘Aha, yeah, whatever, so listen…’ (he laughs), and then they would vote and there’d be seven votes to [our] three, and I’d say, ‘What the heck happened?’
I’d thought [that] if I handed in the paper with the best arguments I’d win. But it’s about more than that; it’s about recognizing people’s own biases, and your own biases. [It’s about] thinking about what’s best for the person that you’re trying to convince in that constituency. That’s not always the same, you know.
I’m now recognizing—[that it’s] a naïve idea that people would vote for something if it was in the best interest of their city even if it went against the wishes of their constituents. For example, if you lived in a certain neighborhood, and something was going to be not so good for that neighborhood, but better for everybody else in the city, I thought people would vote for it—[but], of course, that’s not how it works.
So, I think, if anything, I learned [about] the pace of city government—and I hadn’t yet learned what it took to win, but I learned that what didn’t win was those arguments, and I was just marshaling those.
City of Ithaca Seal SmallSo I think the next year I began to understand what it took to win. For example, there was this idea to ban smoking outdoors, in outdoor areas, so [there’d be] no more smoking on the Commons, on the playgrounds, [or] outdoor dining areas [and] things like that. I thought, as soon as it came up— I still remember it was [about] April of my first year— “Well, this will be easy. Just get all the statistics of how bad smoking is for you.”
I was [thinking] like, ‘Boom! Smoking kills you—it’s horrible for you—this is a no brainer: just ban it!’ — And it went down in flames! It didn’t go anywhere at all because I wasn’t speaking to each [council member]. I didn’t know who on [the City] Council smoked and who didn’t smoke. I didn’t know the ways that they smoked. I didn’t know the way [that] they felt about smokers [or] about outdoor space, or civil liberties or the role of government, and I wasn’t working any of those angles.
Now, into my second and third year, I started to understand that form. In the second year, it came up again, so I did a couple things differently. First, I offered to serve on a subcommittee. So instead of just trying to do it [right away], pass it that month, [I] put together a committee that was [going to] take months and months and look at this from every angle.
Secondly, I got to know the people I was serving with. I learned that one of the council members likes to take his dog for a walk every night and smoke a cigar, and that was it—he likes to smoke a cigar. I learned that another council member was worried about all the people who loiter on the Commons, young people mostly, and I figured out that those young people are smoking—so by banning smoking that was a way to address the concern that he had about the loiterers.
I learned which of my colleagues had a real concern that government not overreach into people’s personal lives—and what I did there is that I found examples of other places where government had done something similar without really unduly limiting people’s ability to make the choices they wanted.
A good example is alcohol. We don’t allow people to drink alcohol in outdoor open public spaces because we thought it would be too bad an influence on, especially, young people. Another one of my colleagues was really worried about young people and the impact this would have. So, that time it worked, [and] in my second year we passed the outdoor smoking ban. For the Commons it’s still in place, you can’t smoke in any [public] playground and you can’t smoke in any public park. So I guess this was one of the differences between my first and second year. [So the key was those personal relations and networking, understanding the motivations of other people.]
[Because] my ward was relatively young ward—mostly Collegetown—I found that actually using the list serves and using social media was a good way to stay in touch with most of [my constituents]. There was a diehard group of non-students who were very civically involved, about 15 people, who lived in the neighborhood. With them it was just about a personal approach—you grab lunch with them, [or] have coffee with them, [and] it worked pretty well.
I’m still learning how [to face the frustration caused by the slow pace]. I still get frustrated, and I still [want to] go faster than a lot of my colleagues [want to] go. I’m still the one pushing the pack. I guess if I’ve learned anything, I don’t get any less frustrated, but I’ve changed the way I express my frustration. I used to irritate my colleagues a lot by saying, when I got frustrated, ‘You’re moving too slow.’
I would just say it, ‘You’re too slow, and you’re moving slow because you’re scared. You know the right thing to do, and you don’t [want to] do it, you’re just buying time.’
That was not helpful, because, again, [it] not [only] pissed them off, [but it] made them a whole lot less likely to [work with me]. So now what I do is that I just say, ‘I understand that you’re concerned and just don’t [want to] go at this pace. I’d [like to] go faster for these reasons, but I’ll give you the room to do what you need to do.’
In my heart I haven’t changed. I’m not slower or more patient, but the way I express my frustration, I guess, has changed, because, really, it just works better. I found that I could get people [to go] faster by not insisting that they go faster, [but] by just saying why I feel comfortable moving forward, and allowing them to do what they want to do.
So that was my first year and second [year], so I was twenty-one and twenty-two. [When I was twenty-three, there] was really the battle over the Collegetown Plan. The Collegetown Plan [was] a neighborhood plan that included recommendations for changes for the streetscape, changes to the public transportation, [and] changes to the zoning code. [Those] were the biggest [recommendations]. It intended to focus development—because a lot of redevelopment had been happening in Collegetown—[to] focus [development] in the right places, to make sure it was happening in the right ways, [with] the right design, and [to] clamp down in any areas where we thought development was inappropriate.
This touched off a firestorm, not in Collegetown— my ward, which was very supportive— but in the next ward over. To the east of Collegetown is an affluent, more suburban style neighborhood called Belle Sherman, and they were very concerned that increased development in Collegetown was going to decrease the quality of life in their neighborhood. They thought that they’d get more students, more cars, more noise, more partying, and more trash and litter. And I underestimated the fury, the unbridled fury of NIMBYism— this was my introduction to NIMBYism.
I talked [earlier] about the limits of reasoned, rational debate—how that could be limited, if somebody had a different interest. Well, in the case of NIMBYism, it’s completely useless. I mean there is nothing you can tell them; they just don’t want it in their backyards. And people who are otherwise rational and could even look at a problem happening across the city and think, ‘Oh, they’re just being babies about that,’ take it so, so seriously. I mean [it’s] deadly serious when it’s in their backyards.
I made a lot of enemies that year —a lot, a lot of enemies. But I learned another thing too which was that if you stick to what you believe— and this served me well since, in this firestorm [and on] other ones that have happened— if you stick to what you believe, some people might be mad at you for now, some people might hate you forever, but you won’t hate yourself, and that’s worth more.
It’s easy to strike some bargains in this job, [to] make some choices that would make you ashamed of yourself, and living with that shame is hard. It’s harder than living with other people’s anger. [Maybe it’ll gain you respect from them, even if they don’t agree with you—] that’s right, [especially] if you do it in the right way. A lot of the people who endorsed me when I ran for mayor [did so] because they watched the way I handled that fight.
One of the things that you have to be most worried about, [when it comes to] people in public life, is, ‘Will they cave [in] to the pressure?’ and this pressure is all around. I mentioned being in the center of a circle—that means that from every side you’re facing pressure, facing pressure to do what people want you to do. These people want you to do this, and the State wants you to do that, and the Police Department wants you to do that, and if you give in to any of those sides or to all of those sides, what you’ll be doing is betraying the trust of all the others. [But] because I proved that I was able to do that, I know that at least the most practical and the most important endorsement came from that fight — [from] Dan Cogan [who] has been on City Council for 10 years himself — a lot of people were asking him to run for mayor.
[But on the case of the Collegetown Plan], I lost (he laughs), which was instructive. It was a heartbreaker. On most things that we pass, we just need a majority of the City Council, so with 10 people on Council, you need 6 people’s votes. These landowners had banded together and filed this “challenge” —which was an official legal [move that] meant that you actually needed 75 % of the City Council to vote. So then we actually needed 8 votes out of 10, and we were able to get [only] 7 votes, which was a heartbreaker.
[We got those 7 votes by using] those same tricks and twirls that I learned before, and if you actually look up the Collegetown Plan, you’ll see it’s a very long, 100 page document full of all sorts of codes. What we did was, to appeal one by one to each representative’s sense of fairness and justice. We found out what motivated [them]. We even got one of the representatives from that neighborhood who was upset to vote in favor of it, because we convinced her that the best way to protect her neighborhood was to focus development in the center of Collegetown closest to campus—because the more we could do that, the less we would have development springing over into her neighborhood—which was true.
But that’s a very different argument [from the one] we used for the representatives who live in Fall Creek. We didn’t really have a bone to pick, but we had said, ‘Look, the land up there is very valuable, the more we can develop it, the more tax revenue we get, [and] the tax revenue will help [the city].’  We also got a representative from downtown, who himself was a renter, and we made a point that the rents in Collegetown were obscenely high, extremely high, and they were just crushing for people. The more housing we could add, the more we could alleviate that kind of pressure.
So, we just went, person by person, [and we] found out what motivated them and we used that tack. It’s easier to do in public policy because public policy is so complicated. Any policy has a lot of positives and a lot of negatives, because there are all those ripple impacts, so all you have to do is find that one ripple that is important to the constituency that you’re targeting, and talk about that.”
*Excerpt of an interview with Mayor Svante Myrick conducted by Siba El-Samra, November 4 2013, for a History and Theory course in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. Edited by Siba El-Samra and John Forester, Cornell.

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