Catching up with Joe Schember
Erie's mayor on his health, 'Activating the Vision,' and the 2020 Presidential Election
Earlier this year, Erie Mayor Joe Schember made two major announcements a week apart at the routine media conferences he's been conducting since he took office in January 2018. One was about his administration and the plan to move Erie forward; the other was personal.
On Jan. 9, Schember outlined the contents of "Activating the Vision: A Path to Success." The plan benchmarks various goals centered on what he and his administration identified as their vision for the city: "Erie is a Community of Choice. We celebrate our: Rich Cultural Diversity; Welcoming, Vibrant Neighborhoods; World-class Downtown and Bayfront; Excellent Education for Everyone; Abundance of Family-sustaining Jobs."
The 16-page document takes those five areas and establishes goals — most with a deadline of 2021 — to be measured by various key performance indicators.
"This action plan focuses on how government can transform our community, but government cannot do it alone," it reads in its opening. "Private sector leaders, non-profit organizations, philanthropic and educational institutions all play a huge role in transformational change. As the city does its part to be an active player, we also seek the assistance of community partners to lead change."
Partnerships are evident and so is the encouragement for more. Too, "Activating the Vision" illustrates some of the initiatives already in motion — The Better Together initiative geared at addressing racism and discrimination in Erie; the pursuit to be certified as a Welcoming City to continue the influx of New Americans.
The document serves to showcase how Schember's administration has been working the past two years, and what it hopes to accomplish in the next two.
"I have an incredible staff," the mayor tells me during our conversation. "I've really been blessed. They work hard, often more than 40 hours a week. If anything I'm trying to get someone to slow down a little bit — you know, pace themselves a little bit more. But they've bought into the mission and the vision. I don't think I put a lot of pressure on people to do things, but they do more than I ask."
A week after the mayor's announcement of the ambitious plan — now that his administration has two years under its collective belt to mindfully craft said plan — to set policy and programs in motion to actualize, err, activate the vision, Schember shared some personal news. With his wife, Rhonda, by his side he told those present at his media conference and those watching the live stream online, that after a biopsy and some testing, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Caught early, he reported, he would undergo surgery and later radiation treatment. But the 69-year-old said he expects a full recovery, as the cancer had not yet spread elsewhere.
Since then, the mayor's had surgery and returned to work. While the radiation treatment still lies ahead, the work never stops.
I sat down with the mayor to discuss the past two years, the new "Activating the Vision" plan, his health, and the 2020 Presidential Election. Here's what he had to say:
Ben Speggen: Here we are, 2020, two years into your administration; if you had to give yourself a report card, what's the grade?
Joe Schember: I never give myself higher than a B. I always want to do better. I think we have accomplished a lot so I would give us maybe a B-plus for what we've accomplished here.
BS: What's been the most rewarding single day so far if you had to pick one?
JS: Every day is exceptional to me. I mean, I literally enjoy every day, every meeting I'm in. I can't even think of a meeting that has been frustrating. We just came out of a meeting about evaluating the infrastructure that handles the sewer, the water, the rainfall … there's a lot of details that we need to learn. To me, it was still a positive meeting; we have a clear idea now of what we need to figure out, and then how much it is going to cost to be able to fix.
BS: Let's flip the coin then. I think that most people who meet you sense that you're upbeat, you're positive, you're optimistic. And you said it's hard to find a day you got frustrated. But what has been the toughest day on the job so far?
JS: I'd say the only frustrating thing is my recent health. For the first two years, I could start early and work late — and the only person who was mad at me was my wife because I was never home [laughs]. Now, I'm improving. It'll be three weeks tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 20) since my surgery. But at first, after the surgery, I would come in and at about 2 in the afternoon, I'd be dragging — I could barely function anymore. The first week or so — my lack of any endurance really, really bothered me. Now, I would say I'm good until 4 or 5. So I got a couple of hours more. And actually, yesterday, I started at 8 in the morning and went until about 9 last night. I was down at the Knockout Homelessness Round 13 event to support the Erie City Mission, and all I had to do this year was sit there. I did talk to a lot of people too. I felt a little tired, but it was manageable. And today will be similar to that. I survived okay yesterday.
BS: Let's start when you get the call, or you have a meeting, and you find out: You have cancer. What was that like?
JS: You know, I've developed a really good relationship with Dr. Peter Lund (urologist at Saint Vincent Hospital). For at least five years, I've been going to him regularly, and I trust him a lot. When he decided he wanted to do the test to find out if there's cancer; I was fine with that. Of the 12 samples he took, only two out of 12 had cancer. And of those two, only 5 percent of the sample was cancerous. So, he gave me a bunch of options. And I said to him, "Well, what do you suggest I do?" and he suggested surgery to reduce the size of the prostate, which has a lot of benefits, actually, which I'm starting to experience already, even. One of the reasons he wanted to do that is that I'm going to get some radiation to make sure all the cancer is gone, and that will cause the prostate to grow. I'm pretty encouraged by what's happened so far.
BS: You decided to take a really public approach to this and announce it. Why do that?
JS: The only reason I did that is, I feel that men especially tend not to …
BS: We don't want to talk about it.
JS: Right! We don't talk about it and we don't go to the doctor either. Some women, too. Breast cancer affects a lot of women, and it's very treatable if it's caught early, as it is with prostate cancer. I just wanted people to know what happened to me and how it's being handled. And I'm really looking forward — I hope later this year — I'm going to be able to announce I'm now totally cancer free. I just want people to learn from this. Listen to your doctors, go to them regularly, get the tests that are recommended, and take care of things before they get out of control.
BS: The big thing for your administration in 2020 is "Activating the Vision." Take me back to the beginning for your mission statement ("build opportunity, restore hope, transform Erie"). Of all the six words in all the world, why choose those?
JS: We developed that over the course of campaigning. And once we came up with it, it really just rang true to me ... as a description of what I wanted to do as mayor, and that's what I want to accomplish.
BS: In addressing Erie's "Rich Cultural Diversity," you've got the goal to diversify the civilian workforce: Police officers, firefighters, citizen leadership. What sort of policy are you putting in place to make sure that happens? And — if you're re-elected to another four-year term — how will that be kept in place moving into the future so that workforces here continue to reflect the people in the community?
JS: Almost all of our 25 goals are to be accomplished by the end of next year — by the end of the first term. We intentionally did that, because there's no guarantee I'll be re-elected or what might happen. So the 26 percent attainment for a minority workforce of all new, non-bargaining hires in the civilian workforce is based on Erie's population, which is about 26 percent minorities. We are still going to always hire the best person for that position, but if we have two people that are comparable — one's a minority, one's white — we will hire the minority. And obviously, if the minority is the most qualified, they're going to get hired. We're hoping to get people applying because of the policy, and what I would plan to do, if re-elected — I do plan to run again — we will be setting new goals then for the next four years to measure outcomes.
I think it's really recognizing that the first step is that we need to get minorities interested in even taking these two tests for the fire department and police force. And this is something that Michael Outlaw can talk about in a lot more detail than I can, but most African-Americans, most minorities in Erie, do not want to be police or firefighters. That's one of the last things they'd ever consider because of how they've been treated over the years, even recently. I get complaints where minorities feel like they're not being treated fairly. And so they have no desire to join the force.
The Police Athletic League has been going on for several years, but it's really picked up under my administration. The number of youth participating are largely minorities, but not all; there are white kids in there as well. But Michael has a much bigger plan than what we have now. That is to start in seventh grade, and offer a different view of the police, and the Police Athletic League is a big part of that. They're going into five or six schools now every week, working with kids, helping with their homework, playing sports and games with them in the gym, and building a relationship. And then the one week in the summer when they're at Gannon, and you can just see the relationship being built between the police and these kids, which makes them more likely down the road to maybe want to be policemen or firefighters. So that's encouraging. But that's long-term — that's going to be at least six years before we see any result.
BS: The city is pursuing Welcoming City status. What would that mean for the city of Erie? Why is this something we should pursue?
JS: We want to be viewed as a Welcoming City so that immigrants and refugees want to come here and be successful and have a great life. For an American city, I feel Erie is extremely diverse. I learned that when we were interviewing nine candidates for the president position at the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, I wanted someone that believes in diversity. And so I would ask each candidate, 'What's the diversity like in your city?' There were three or four from the Midwest. And basically, the way they answered that question, they said, "Well, everybody in our city is white. So I don't really know much about diversity or what the value of it is." And that kind of opened my eyes to something I didn't know. In Erie, I think in the last five years, we've had about 2,500 New Americans sworn in at the federal courthouse, and they're from over 90 different countries all around the world. I had a chance during the campaign and since then to spend a lot of time with different segments of the New American population, and build relationships with them and I see the value.
BS: What's the administration doing to make sure folks are counted, what is its role? Why is the census so important?
JS: The number of our representatives in the House of Representatives for Pennsylvania is determined by that total number, and the amount of money that we get in federal aid is determined by the number of people living here. It is very important that we count everyone. The amount of that money that the federal government sends to cities is based on the headcount. We know that for every person not counted we lose $2,100 per year every year for the next 10 years. We know in 2010, there were literally thousands of people in Erie that weren't counted. And actually, the count was something like 97,000 in 2010, but Joe Sinnott, the mayor at the time, got evidence together that proved otherwise and so they increased us to over 100,000. And 100,000 is important. That count of people is important, because below that number you get less federally than above it. So that's why one of our key performance indicators [in the Welcoming and Vibrant Neighborhoods section of Activating the Vision] is to get Erie's population to at least 100,000 people in this year's count. If we can get everybody counted, I think we will. But people need to be comfortable in participating. An important thing people need to know is that there are nine questions in the census, that all the information is kept totally confidential for 72 years, and there are three ways you can do the census . You can do it by phone; you can do it electronically; or you can fill out a form and mail it in. So you never have to talk to another person to complete the census.
Every time I speak at anything, I always include something about the census to make that clear. And we're working with Michelle Jaggi, Erie County's census outreach coordinator. Her job is to make sure people get out, and she's going to have about 15 handheld devices that she can take to meetings, where the census is explained, and then people can actually go on the devices and get it completed with help from other people.
BS: So it's hard to ignore that we have a debate on TV tonight featuring the Democratic candidates vying for the party's nomination…
JS: Yes [laughs].
BS: … and it's a critical election year nationally. First, has the Trump administration paid their bill from the last time they were here?
JS: No, we have not heard anything directly from them.
BS: No response at all?
BS: So, if he says — noting that Pennsylvania's primary is April 28, and according to The Hill, Erie County is one of 10 counties to determine the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election — that he's showing up Monday, April 27 — because he's been showing up in states before their primary elections or caucuses — what does the city say to that?
JS: I think we'll still have to give them protection. With campaigning compared to rallies, it's a little bit different. So, you know, if we charged him when he comes here to campaign, we have to charge every Democratic candidate, too, to be fair. I'm leaning towards letting anyone who wants to come here and campaign come here and do it and give them police protection and keep them safe while they're here.
BS: There are three former mayors amongst the Dem candidates — Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont; Mike Bloomberg of New York City; and Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Do you feel a certain kinship with mayors who are seeking the presidential ticket?
JS: I guess I have no desire to do that. All I want to do is transform Erie; for me, that's my mission in life. I don't feel a closeness to them more than I would with any other — other than Mayor Pete, because I actually met him. I went up for an orientation after being elected and he was one of the speakers at the training at Harvard University. I had a chance to talk to him a little bit, and he does seem like a decent guy. So I know him a little bit as opposed to the others, which I have only seen on TV.
BS: Back to "Activating the Vision" — what are the things you're most excited to get going this spring and summer as you move forward in 2020, and what do you see as some of the biggest challenges that still lie ahead of you in order to meet those goals that you're benchmarking for 2021?
JS: One of the most important groups of goals in there is focused on providing "Excellent Education for Everyone," and the first four of the five goals are identical to what Erie's Public Schools has.
BS: And the fifth one: Community College.
JS: Yes, we need to do a better job educating our kids, and this is all related to that and our young adults. They're the future of Erie. I love what the Erie School District's doing; I think they're making great progress. They still have a long way to go, too, but I really like their commitment, the goals they set for themselves. That's why we adopted the same goals. We want to keep that moving, and I really believe that we need a community college. I would like it to be on the lower east side, because that would be within walking distance for a lot of people that need that kind of education.
BS: It's been a divisive issue, though, for our region. And you're vocal about it — the fact that it's included in here, where you take the school district's plan and then say '"we're adding one more thing and it has to be community college." So for you, why is that worth sticking your neck out a bit in terms of saying we really do need a community college?
JS: I believe it's going to help some of our people that need help the most right now. Because if you have had a bad experience through school, and even if you graduated, you maybe still aren't ready to go to college — there's nothing around here that can help you make that next step.
I know there are jobs available in the area right now — I find this as I talk to employers — and they don't require a college degree. For the most part, they're still good, family-sustaining jobs. We just need to get our 17- to 21-year-olds to a point where they can go in and at least do an application, get hired, and get the training they need and learn to do the job.
I can tell you every time I go out monthly with Chris Groner [director of the Department of Economic and Community Development] to meet with two or three businesses and every one of them says to me things like "I've got five job openings right now. I can't find anybody to fill them." And they might get a bunch of applications but none of them fit the criteria, or they hire somebody and they last a couple days and they stop coming. I think that community college is a big step towards fixing that.
BS: So final question here: If Erie is focused on one thing this year, what's the one thing you would want Erie to be talking about?
JS: Doing the census. Absolutely. Complete the census. Make sure everybody in your family's counted, encourage other people to do it. That's going to have a big impact on us for the next 10 years.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at Bspeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.