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September / October 2012
Currents
Mr. Mayor
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Precocious politico Svante Myrick '09 has the corner office in Ithaca's City Hall

Ask Svante Myrick '09 if he's sick of being asked about his two mayoral firsts—he's not only the youngest in Ithaca history, but the first African American—and he'll tell you a story. It's one he heard from a staff member whose sixteen-year-old son dropped by City Hall. "He's a young black man, and in the elevator someone asked him, ‘Are you the mayor?'" Myrick recalls. "She told me this, and I laughed. And she said, ‘No, you don't understand. He's been mistaken for a lot of things. He's been stereotyped; people have crossed the street when they saw him coming. But to have somebody assume that he's an authority figure—that he should be respected rather than feared—had never happened before.'"

And that, says Myrick, "is the type of thing that just blows you over."

The former CALS communication major was just twenty-four when he assumed the corner office in January, but he was no political neophyte. As a junior, Myrick was elected to the city's Common Council—representing the ward that includes Collegetown—and spent four years advocating affordable housing, youth involvement in government, and public smoking bans. During the mayoral race, he knocked on thousands of doors, defeating a veteran county legislator in the Democratic primary and going on to take 54 percent of the vote in a four-way general election.

His prize for all that tireless politicking? "Meetings," Myrick says. "A lot of meetings and e-mail. I get over 200 e-mails a day to my city in-box alone, and then there are my personal e-mails, my Cornell e-mail, all kinds of Facebook and Twitter messages. I try to answer all of those and take eight to twelve meetings a day." The most pressing issues on his constituents' minds, he says, are common to cities everywhere: housing, transportation, crime, government transparency. And then there's the fiscal time bomb he's struggling to defuse: a $3 million budget deficit. "We've been facing this deficit for the past five years," Myrick laments. "To get out of it, each year we've been raising taxes and taking at least $1 million out of savings, and we can't do that anymore. So we're gonna cut, because we have to." Facing the prospect of laying off police officers and firefighters, the city has implemented a host of cost-saving measures, from debt refinancing to early retirement incentives to limiting the use of municipal vehicles. "We're trying everything in the book—and we're making stuff up and adding it to the book," says Myrick, who will present his proposed budget to Common Council at the end of September.

mayor
Follow the leader: Mayor Svante Myrick '09 speaks at the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration an at Ithaca elementary school.

Like many an Ithaca mayor before him, Myrick would like a certain occupier of vast swaths of tax-exempt land far above Cayuga's waters to voluntarily contribute more to the city's bottom line. He couches it as a win-win: safer student neighborhoods (Collegetown has one of the city's highest burglary rates); more affordable housing for faculty and staff; better schools for their children; improved public transportation to alleviate the perennial parking crunch. "We have 100,000 people driving into our community every day," he notes, "and only 30,000 paying to fix up the streets." And yes, the University's big-ticket investment in the NYC Tech campus rankles—and makes Myrick skeptical that Cornell can't afford to contribute more in its own backyard. "We have a $3 million deficit, and we're having to lay off police officers and firefighters—and the University has an endowment of $6 billion and is making an investment of $2 billion in another city," Myrick says. "It's tough to take that line of reasoning seriously."

Town-gown issues are familiar to Myrick, who grew up outside Hamilton, New York, home of Colgate University. And struggling to make ends meet is also nothing new. Myrick and his three siblings were raised by an impoverished single mother (they had little contact with their father, who was addicted to drugs). The family spent time in homeless shelters and got groceries from food pantries; Myrick and his siblings had after-school jobs, including a window-washing business that he and a friend launched, charging 50 cents a pane. "I know it has motivated me," he says of his background. "I hope it's made me better at my job, because I have a real understanding of what folks in my city are struggling with—not an academic or a second-hand understanding, but a real, visceral understanding."

And in an era when government is often vilified as burdensome and profligate, Myrick holds himself up as an example of the good it can do. "I got here with a lot of help from my mom, my family, my church, and largely from the government—not just food stamps and housing but public education, free breakfast and lunch at school, teachers who pushed me, all the way to the University where I got grants and federal funding," he says. "People hear all the time that these programs are ineffective, they're a waste of money, the people they're trying to help can't succeed. I wake up every morning wanting to be evidence to the contrary."

Some of Myrick's biographical details are, of course, reminiscent of a fellow American currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He is a precocious, Ivy League-educated politician of mixed race; he was raised in modest circumstances by a single white mother, with an absentee father of African descent; he possesses an odd-sounding name and somewhat prominent ears. And indeed, Barack Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father made an indelible impression on Myrick, whose maternal grandmother gave him the book after Obama's star-making speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "I read it cover to cover and sent her an e-mail saying, ‘It's such a shame that someone like that can't become president,' " recalls Myrick, who met his idol at a 2011 White House reception for young officeholders. "I assumed that if you're born with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, or you're raised by a single mother, there's a ceiling on your success. And he showed me there's no ceiling. The only limit to what you can accomplish is your own imagination. He definitely changed my life."

Myrick still lives on Linden Street in Collegetown, in a house nicknamed the Hall of Justice (after the heroes' headquarters in the "Super Friends" cartoon). In addition to two PhD students, his roommate is Nate Shinagawa '09, a county legislator running for Congress. (Former Ithaca alderman Eddie Rooker '10 also lived there until recently, when he enrolled in law school at NYU.) He walks to work every day, having given up his car several years ago due to global warming concerns; the mayor's reserved space outside City Hall has been transformed into a public mini-park with plants and benches. While his job doesn't allow much time for socializing—and his beloved Royal Palm Tavern, where he worked the door as an undergrad, has closed—he occasionally grabs a drink at Stella's or the Chapter House. Even there, though, he's often on the clock. "When I go out," he says, "I usually end up talking taxes."

— Beth Saulnier

Comments (2)Add Comment
1929
written by Chas. D. Otts-Rout, September 05, 2012
Actually, most Ithacan old codgers know that the "Hall of Justice" is likely also a snarky nod to the self-aggrandizing label that adorns the lintel of the Ithaca Police Department and City Court's building.
1968
written by Fred Weinstein, September 06, 2012
As Ithaca's first City Controller and a former city attorney
under Mayor Smith and Johns, I appreciate his problems getting CU to contribute substntially to the City expenses.
Nothing has change over the years

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