The Vote Cetera Express chose the heavily Latino neighborhood of the Near West Side to made its first stop in Syracuse.
On June 8, Frank Cetera, the Green Party candidate for the job of 2nd District Common Councilor, held his initial community listening forum at the Brown Memorial United Methodist Church, located at 228 Davis St. The 2nd District comprises the Near West Side, Skunk City, Tipperary Hill, the Lakefront, and parts of the South Side and the Far North Side.
Cetera told the audience that the 2nd District is a “microcosmos of the spread of the gap” seen nationwide. “It’s a very diverse, very big district and it’s very challenging to reach all of its residents,” he said. “There is a divide in the district between distressed neighborhoods such as the Near West Side and the South Side, on the one hand, and more affluent neighborhoods such as Tipp Hill and the Lakefront, on the other.”
Chad Ryan is the incumbent 2nd District Common Councilor from the Democratic Party and he is running for reelection. In a statement released to the press, Ryan stressed the polarizing situation in the 2nd District. “A brief look at the district reveals some of the poorest census tracts in the country while at the opposite end we have some of the more affluent neighborhoods in the city. The district covers the north and west sides of our city. Spread out among this large district are about 30,000 residents, many of whom have different issues and concerns,” he said. “Having lived my entire life in the district I know this firsthand.”
On the Near West Side Cetera described his plan, which looked remarkably similar to that carried out by Hillary Clinton during her 1999 “listening tour” of all 62 counties in New York. This plan, implemented in the race for a vacant Senate seat, was predicated on talking to potential voters gathered in small groups.
Cetera said, “I want to be a candidate who listens to people I intend to represent.” But instead of going to all counties of the state like Clinton, Cetera is going to all neighborhoods of the district. To this effect, the Vote Cetera Express made its second stop on July 23 on the North Side at the Seven Fifty Four Barber Spa at 754 N. Salina St. Its next scheduled stops are on Aug. 11 on the Far West Side at the Polish Home at 915 Park Ave., on Aug. 13 on the Southwest Side at Aggie Lane’s house at 340 Midland Ave., and at least two more in September: Franklin Square and the Lakefront, with more stops to come in a “second round” as the Nov. 3 election draws closer.
Not content with this, Cetera seemed eager to get up close and personal with voters by seeking invitations to their living rooms or kitchen tables. His campaign manager, Ursula Rozum, said that the Green Party is recruiting “neighborhood captains” willing to open their homes to host their relatives and friends for a chat with Cetera on issues neglected by city government.
K.C. Rothwell, an award-winning community leader, praised Cetera for rolling up his sleeves and working side by side with other residents in shoveling snow from the sidewalks, growing vegetables in public gardens and working in other activities for the betterment of the neighborhood.
Cetera attempted to establish a contrast between him and Ryan. Referring to the Democrat, Cetera asked the audience, “When was the last time you saw your city councilor? When was the last time you spoke to him?”
Cetera answered his own question by saying that he has seen Ryan only twice at community meetings since the Democrat took office on Jan. 1, 2014, despite Cetera having been attending frequently events hosted by the Westside Residents Coalition, the Near Westside Initiative Business Association, Syracuse United Neighbors and Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today, among other grassroots organizations.
But, conversely, Ryan attended at least one community engagement that Cetera didn’t: the Greater Syracuse Land Bank meeting on Nov. 18. Ryan was there to show his support for Rothwell, Rick Destito–Cetera’s next-door neighbor– and about ten more community members in their attempt to prevent the sale of a property in the 2nd District to a nonprofit organization seeking to build houses for veterans and people with disabilities facing homelessness.
Undeterred, Cetera continued to comb through Ryan’s track record as 2nd District Common Councilor. Cetera said that Ryan was the only one of the nine members of this elected body to vote against the Ban the Box ordinance on Dec. 8. This piece of legislation requires city contractors and the city government itself to stop inquiring job applicants about convictions before the applicants are offered a job.
Then Cetera broadened his criticism to include the democratic process in city government as a whole. “If Syracuse is trying to be considered a technology hub, I don’t know why city government meetings are not being broadcasted, recorded and archived,” he said. “These public meetings are perfunctory and the minutes of them are vague. In reality, the decisions taken officially at the meetings are made in advance of them. Technology should be used by city government to expand the sharing and distributing of information.”
Susan Hamilton, a neighbor at 218 Holland St., appeared to agree with Cetera. “The city government doesn’t communicate well with the residents. I ignore what is going to happen to properties close to my home until a bulldozer shows up,” she said. “There needs to be a better system for the city to send notifications in the mail to neighbors so that they could know in advance of upcoming changes in the neighborhood.”
Hamilton was miffed by the lack of citizen participation in the process of the Salvation Army trying to build a women’s homeless shelter on West Onondaga Street, in the back of her house.” She questioned whether City Hall would allow the Salvation Army to put a shelter in more privileged neighborhoods, citing Sedgwick, Strathmore and Tipperary Hill as examples. Cetera replied that city government is “insular” to the demands of community members living in downtrodden sections.
Cetera advertised his experience in running the Rahma Edible Forest Snack Garden at 3100 S. Salina St. since August 2011 as a qualification to represent the 2nd District in the Common Council. “I helped developed one fifth of an acre on the South Side into a naturalized environment with edible plants,” he said. But his passion for fostering this kind of environment in his own house led him into trouble with the city’s Department of Code Enforcement. “After I created a naturalized landscape in front of my house, I received a citation for a code violation,” he added, “City government told me that I had to mow the lawn even when I was growing there edible vegetables for my own sustenance and that of other people living at home. Otherwise, it threatened me with a fine and a fee.”
He went on to say, “I want to take my successes and diffuse them across the city.” As an example of this, he proposed replicating the Rahma Garden experience in abandoned properties in other parts of the city starting by doing remediation of contaminants in their grounds with mushrooms and plants.”
Cetera also spoke about his trajectory as a member of the Urban Jobs Task Force, which last year tried unsuccessfully to get a city government agency to force a baseline hiring of local residents by COR Development Company for a tax-subsidized project in the Inner Harbor. “I propose that the city of Syracuse require a minimum of 20 percent of city contract jobs to go to city residents and half of this percentage to residents of distressed neighborhoods,” he said. “This is not occurring now because there are fingers in the pot. There are hands in the budget pot.”
An additional topic covered during the forum was that of sidewalks. “The sidewalks in the 2nd District are in a pretty bad condition and, even in the summertime, district residents have to walk on the road to get to their jobs,” Cetera said, “Syracuse now is owned by cars, not owned by people. We need to turn the district into a walkable community.”
Finally, the Green Party candidate said that his campaign will be exploring a proposal to have the city of Syracuse issue municipal identification cards for its residents, a program already in place in New York City and other localities across the country.
Cetera seemed to be following a two-pronged strategy. First, capitalizing on the frustration of individuals who voted for Ryan, in the past election, with his performance addressing a range of neighborhood problems, and, secondly, attempting to capture the votes of those who didn’t enter an election booth last time. “Only 20 percent of eligible voters in the 2nd District went to the booths in the 2013 elections,” Rozum said.
“The Green Party doesn’t take special interest money, as opposed to the Republican and Democratic parties,” Cetera concluded. “I am going to bring an alternative vision, an alternative perspective to the Common Council by being the voice of innovation.”
Ryan lamented the tone adopted by the Cetera political campaign. “Anyone who knows me knows that I work hard for our district and it is unfortunate that one of my opponents has chosen this level of rhetoric when there are so many important challenges facing us,” the Democrat candidate said. “I look forward to a continued dialogue with the many residents of this district and working together to meet the challenges that face us.”
About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).