Exile on State Street: May 24. 2017
Frank advice from a former mayor to a future one
"If you're not part of the future then get out of the way" – John Mellencamp
So the election is over, what comes next?
Well, I had hoped to return to the pages of the Erie Reader prior to the May 16 primary election, but as things have it, family issues prevented me from doing so. Nevertheless, the primary did in fact provide a host of candidates in many races in the city and county, many new, who offered some really hopeful and encouraging positions regarding the almost overwhelming issues facing our region, particularly the city.
With the Erie School District in a state of rapid transformation (read: near collapse), and the city attempting to embark on a reinvention of itself through the new comprehensive plan, known as Erie Refocused, the stakes were enormous. My hope, and that of many others who have hung on for years in the city, was that the primary – particularly in the mayor's race – would produce a new cadre of leaders that could move the city forward. Time will tell if that will be the case. And, with all due respect to my friends on the other side of the aisle, the spring primary really is the election for the city, given the Democratic Party's registration edge.
This election had been billed as the most significant in more than a generation. At its conclusion though, I am not sure that anyone emerged who can bring about transformative change that the city needs to survive. Nonetheless, I do remain hopeful on that account.
However, there was one major result from this election, aside from the people who received the electoral nod, that has a telling and, perhaps, foreboding implication for our city.
Despite the fact that the city would be nominating someone to be the first new mayor in 12 years; despite the fact that there were at least two open seats up for grabs on an essentially do-nothing city council; despite the fact of the city's continued population decline; despite the fact of the increasing poverty level of the citizens; despite the fact of increasing job losses; despite the fact of the collapse of the school district; despite the fact of the inequitable and outrageous tax burden on the city's tax base including the relentless onslaught of tax exempt properties; despite the fact of the explosion of violent crime and neighborhood blight; despite all of these facts, less than 30 percent of city of Erie voters even bothered to get out of their recliners and go to the polls – not just to perform their constitutional duty, but to have a say and support candidates that could potentially lead a broad coalition of citizens, civic leaders, business leaders, and politicians in moving the city out of its 40-year malaise. Incredibly, seven out of 10 people did not give a damn enough about the city's situation to bother to get out and vote in this election!
The Erie County Election Office's early estimate of the city's voter turnout was approximately 29 percent. With some other big races at issue outside the city, such as the Millcreek supervisor race and district judge race, the county's overall turnout was even more dismal, at around 26 percent.
Thus, almost three-fourths of the county's voters and about 70 percent of the city's electorate either didn't care what happened or were too bothered with other things to take the time to get off their behinds and vote in what was arguably the most pivotal election in the last 50 years. We now have fewer people in all of Erie County than we did in 1980! No wonder. It appears people don't care.
Thus, as a city, and as a community, I believe we really have to take a hard look at whether the people of this city, not just the elected officials, have the guts and fortitude to take on the Erie Refocused plan and try to reverse the social, economic, and demographic trends that have eviscerated the city for more than a generation.
And why has it come to this? Has hope evaporated so much that the majority of voters are simply apathetic, or possibly so consumed with making their own ends meet that they can't be bothered? I'm sure it's a bit of both of those things, and others, including the fact that most of the city's neighborhoods are unrepresented, an issue I wrote about more than a year ago when I advocated district, rather than citywide, election of council members. The disconnect has become palpable. Despite this disconnect, or perhaps partly because of it, change, of monumental proportion, must come now.
To that end, many of the candidates have given at least vocal support to the Erie Refocused plan, but as we all know, that amounts to little. What is really critical is whether these candidates, one of whom will be elected in November, are willing to take the chances, stick out their necks, fend off persistent criticism, and yes, sometimes threats, to make this plan the one that finally, after years of decline, turns the city around. Again, we will see how these candidates, now nominees and likely soon-to-be elected officials, carry out their role in revitalizing the city. What is it worth if the vast majority of the people in this city are indifferent to the task at hand? Does this voter turnout reflect an acceptance of the city's decline? Is it an inevitable conclusion? I pray not!
I for one am not ready to give up the fight. As Bluto said from one of my favorite movies, "[w]as it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Obviously, not. So the question is this: Does the likely new mayor, Joe Schember, have what it takes in terms of vision, raw courage and steel-like persistence in the face of what will be unrelenting opposition and flak to make the Erie Refocused plan a reality? Does a retired banker have what it takes to get this messy, painful job done?
Regulars to the Reader know that I like to tell it like it is. The task ahead of us is difficult, if not impossible in my lifetime. But it is a task we must undertake. And now, we must place our hope in a leader that we must believe in to give it the best effort. There is at least hope, and faith, that he can get the job done.
But it's not a job for one person alone. On the City Council side, thankfully two new faces entered the scene as Democratic primary winners likely to gain a seat in the fall. Newcomers Liz Allen and Kathleen Schaaf join returning incumbents Jim Winarski and Kaz Kwitowski on the seven-member City Council. The same question applies here: Do these new City Council members have what it takes to join with their existing members to support the vision for a new Erie, and importantly, to support the potential new mayor in making the hard, gritty choices that are necessary, and almost inevitable, to make Erie a growing, vibrant city again?
Overall, I was encouraged by the number of candidates running for all offices, especially in the city. Many offered a coherent vision for Erie and adopted the Erie Refocused plan as a way to get there. Most, including those elected in the primary, have publically supported the plan. Again, however, time will tell if they are still willing to make the tough decisions when the rubber hits the road.
The candidates, and now nominees, have spoken. Twenty-nine percent of city voters have spoken. We know the nominees' positions. But what of the 70 percent of city voters who did not turn out? Do they have the stomach to take some of the tough medicine that will be required to cure the ailments that have afflicted us for so many years?
And we don't have much time to tell. The time is now to get mobilized as a neighborhood, as a community, as a city, and to get involved and participate in the rigorous, daunting road ahead of us. I remain hopeful, that even if they did not show up for this election, they may yet be brought on board. But if not, the reality is that the future is here, and now we must act.
We can take the challenges of the Erie Refocused plan on and make its fulfillment a centerpiece of our civic duty and the groundwork for our future, and our children's future. But, ladies and gentlemen, if you don't care to be part of the future, if you don't want to be bothered, if you don't have the time, then please, please get out of the way and let those who do have at it.
Rick Filippi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.