"I Did The Best I Could"
An exit interview with outgoing Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott
Four years ago, he wrestled with the decision to run for a third term. A decade before that, Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott hadn't envisioned himself running to become the city's chief executive at all. But with the city in crisis, on the brink of bankruptcy, he did run, leaning on his experience working for the city before earning a law degree and his brief experience on City Council.
In the Democratic primary of 2005, he ran to unseat incumbent Rick Filippi and did. In January of 2006, he walked through the doors of Room 500 of 626 State Street as the city's new mayor, and after winning both of his reelection bids in 2009 and 2013 – running both times unopposed – he remained there for 12 years. Now at the end of the final year of his final term, he must vacate the office not by decision by ballot but because he cannot seek reelection due to term limits. And even if he could, Sinnott, a proponent of term limits, says he wouldn't.
In a few short weeks, Erie voters will decide who will be the new occupant of the fifth floor of City Hall, after having narrowed the field from nine (seven Democrats, two Republicans) to two: Republican John Persinger and Democrat Joe Schember.
Sinnott's legacy remains too young for history to judge, but an early high watermark would clearly be converting an $11.7 million deficit into a $5 million surplus. Critics, as they have before, will likely continue to point to his quiet leadership and austere approach to public appearances compared to mayors before him.
In his office on a warm Tuesday afternoon, I had the chance to ask Mayor Sinnott an hour's worth questions, ranging from how his perception of Erie has changed over the last 12 years, what he sees as his biggest accomplishments, who he'd book if he could book anyone with an unlimited budget for Celebrate Erie, and whether or not, knowing then what he knows now, he'd do it all again.
Ben Speggen: Let's go back to the beginning: What was going through your mind at that moment when you walked through the doors of this office for the first time in January 2006?
Joe Sinnott: Well, it was a difficult time for the city then. There was a difficult financial crisis; City Hall was in turmoil – there was a lot to do. What was going through my mind at that time was to get right to it. We started work the first day; there was no standing on ceremony, we went to work. We were very much on the tasks at hand, and that took up our first year and a half. It was very time-consuming.
BS: How did you prioritize that? The city was on the brink of Act 47. I feel like that'd be jarring to a lot of people to take on that amount of work that quickly.
JS: There wasn't a lot of opportunity to prioritize because the crisis was pervasive. So it took reinventing the entire operation and getting our hands around all of the problems at once. It required me to work every day except for Christmas and Easter the first year. It took that kind of dedication to get a hold of everything. It wasn't a 9-to-5 job, it wasn't a five-day-a-week job. It truly was all-consuming for the first couple of years. And that's what it required and that's what we did.
Managing a crisis like that isn't really about picking which thing is more important; they're all important. We had to take it on as an (overall) overhaul of what was going on here. It all had to happen at once.
That said, I had a very good team who were able to take on the crisis and manage things from their perspective and start to get their hands around the philosophy we were bringing in and implement it. In other words, I didn't have to do everything myself; I just had to manage the overall and get my plan implemented.
BS: So what's the first vacation of 2018 look like?
JS: [Laughs] I haven't been on vacation in a long time, so I don't know; it's hard to say. I'd like to take a little time off, but really I have to see what I'm going to do next because that will dictate that. And if it's something I'm going to start immediately, I'm more than happy to start immediately.
BS: I want to get to that – what next looks like for you – later, but let's go back further to remind people the scope of your life in the civic realm, starting with City Council. I liken the call to run for office to getting the call to become a pastor or a priest in that not everyone gets that call. What was that like for you? When did you know you wanted to run for Council and then for Mayor?
JS: It wasn't in my plan originally, but I had spent eight years working for the city before I went back to law school, and I had some experience with the city. So when I saw some of the things happening with the city then, I decided to run for council to try to help. At that time, I had no intention of running for this office. But because of my experience, I thought they needed somebody who understood city government on council. I figured it would be something I [spend] some time doing and to help, I would continue to practice [law].
Fast-forward to a year-and-a-half later when the real trouble hit. Then I felt like the city's going to go down the tubes unless you get involved all the way. You're the only one with that experience, you know how these departments work, you know how budgeting works, you know how these things work. It's time to get involved and get things back on track and back online. If there's a learning curve, it's going to be too late, I felt, for somebody else. So I thought I needed to do that. And I was in a position in my life where I was able to give back. But it wasn't a long-term place for me to be involved in politics; it just kind of came up as a need at the moment.
BS: Last question on deciding to run for office: What led you to run again? And again?
JS: You know … when I ran [intially], [I anticipated that] a lot of things that we'd have to do may not lend themselves to me getting re-elected. But we did them and they worked out. The community and city government weren't going to be fixed in that one term, so it was a logical conclusion for me to run for a second term, so I did. But when we got to the end of the second term, everything here was good, but we did still have a lot of projects going on out in the community [and] I wanted to see [them] get to a point where they were [either] well on their way or ready to go forward. I'm talking about things like the GAF site and the Bayfront and some of the things we were doing in the neighborhoods, [but] weren't quite there yet. I wanted to get them to a point where they'd be easy for someone to take forward from there. So staying the third term was a big decision for me, because originally, I didn't know if I would do that. But there were still some things my team and I felt weren't finished, so we decided to run for one more term.
BS: Those things you did the first term, decisions that you thought might not lead to a re-election, what were those tough decisions?
JS: We had layoffs in uniformed services of all places, amongst others. There was a tax increase. All things that were efficiency-driven. We needed to make this operation cost-effective for the taxpayers or there wouldn't been anyone living in the city anymore, or there wouldn't be any businesses in the city, and we'd be completely non-competitive. So we needed to make this operation efficient so that it didn't fall on the taxpayers. What we got to was small tax increases periodically, which you have to have because your costs go up. But you need to get it to an efficiency so that those increases aren't exorbitant.
A lot of it was personnel-driven. We're a third smaller of an operation than we were. That's never popular. City government is not a job-providing operation; it's an operation to serve the taxpayers with the smallest organization [needed] to get the job done and get it done effectively. Those are the kinds of things that conventional wisdom [says] aren't popular.
BS: Your talked-about goal is to make government easier – to have fixed it – to hand it off to the next person. I see executive leadership less as a marathon and more like a relay race where we have to hand the baton off to the next person. Is that scary for you now that you're about to hand it off to the next person?
JS: I think it always is when you put this kind of time and effort into something. I've put 12 years of my life into this, and I've gone full into it. This has been my life for 12 years, and I've sacrificed a lot for the cause, so any time you then have to relinquish that, the control of where it goes, you get worried. But there are good candidates and I think they care about the community, and I think their goal will be to make the city a cost-effective, good place for people to live and a government that runs well. Those are very fundamental philosophies; it's all in how you implement them. And hopefully they'll continue to implement them. I think we've created a roadmap, for lack of a better term, on how to do that, and hopefully their policies will continue to follow that.
BS: Only question on the current election: Early on you said that you didn't want to get involved in it; still confident in that decision?
JS: Yes. When I say yes, that was in regards to the primary. Now that it's the general election, though, I'm still a Democrat. So my level of involvement will be different, because now it's partisan.
BS: When you started in 2006 in this office, would you say you were an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist?
JS: Optimist with a twist of realism. In other words, I thought that there had been too much pessimism for many years before that. What I saw was the community pulling away from government. Those who have memory long enough to go back to before 2006 would have seen a city where your businesses were hands-off and were cautious to get involved. It was a toxic situation. One of my goals was to get everyone back to rowing the boat in the same direction, so I was optimistic that the community would, as they saw us correcting our own issues … begin to engage.
The twist of realism comes in with really understanding what we had to do to make that happen. We had to show them that we were for real -- you know, that it wasn't just political rhetoric or smoke and mirrors or any of that. We had to show them that we were really working hard and that we were returning results. And now you see the level that the community is involved in these things, Emerge 2040, Erie Refocused, the different things in the downtown that everybody's coming together for – that wasn't around 12, 15 years ago. It is now. The thing is, to have optimism was correct, but you can't just tell people to get involved -- you have to show them why [they should]. You have to make the environment appropriate for them to want to be involved and for it to be beneficial for them to want to be involved, and I think we've done that.
BS: Do you think we're rowing quickly enough, if we are in fact all in the same boat, and if not, are we too fast, too slow? How do we adjust the pace appropriately moving forward?
JS: That goes back to your analogy of whether it's a marathon or a relay race. My theory is that it's a relay marathon. It's a process. It's not an event – it's a process. It takes time to get the boat going in the right direction and everyone rowing together.
Do I think it's going too fast or too slow? Our ambition tends to lend itself to go very fast, to run out front with the ambition and realism catches up. I don't think we're moving too fast, but I also don't think we're moving too slow. In 12 years, we've come a long way, which included a major reparation of what was happening here. We weren't able to just get the boat going; we had to get the boat off of the bottom first and patch it up. And now that we've got everybody involved, it's moving at a good pace ... but it's also moving at a realistic pace.
For instance, some of the stuff we're trying to do with the neighborhoods. We've been able to get some grants fairly quickly and were able to get started at a nice pace, which is exciting people and keeping them involved. But again, there are things in the system that are governing that speed. But keeping up with everything you can -- in other words, getting money in here [quickly] -- *that keeps us moving. If we weren't doing that, we'd be moving too slow. We've managed to capitalize on [the] opportunities available to us and that tends to be the governing factor when it comes to the speed of these things, so I think we're at a fair pace.
BS: As you're exiting office now, are you still optimistic with a twist of realism, or has that changed at all?
JS: No, I think it's getting better. I was optimistic and hopeful before, now I'm optimistic because I see the engagement. We were optimistic and hopeful in 2006, and now people are involved, so more good things can come [from] that. But everything still has to be realistic. You can't say that the next mayor is going to pave State Street with gold – it'd be very nice – but it's not realistic. What I think the key to moving all of this forward is keeping the community engaged, keeping the larger entities, the universities, the hospitals, Erie Insurance, all of these things that are stakeholders in this community – the nonprofits – everybody that [has] now come to the table to be a part of the solution, keeping them engaged. That's the realist part of it. That's a big part of the mechanism that moves things forward. If all of the sudden everybody walks away, it's going to be much more difficult for government to do it all alone.
BS: What would you say was the riskiest decision you made while in office that paid off?
JS: The riskiest thing was downsizing public safety, because as soon as people see you're downsizing public safety, they're concerned things are going to run rampant and you're not going to be able to protect them. That was risky politically and operationally. In all departments, downsizing was risky. What if you can't provide the services people need and require? We took a very calculated approach to that. I felt like we were going to be able to be successful, and ultimately we were. But rewind to 2006-2007, when the sky is falling every day and you're making decisions like that; they're very risky decisions because you're afraid the whole system could collapse, even though in your mind you believe it won't, because they're calculated decisions. Reinventing the way this operation worked was very risky – could we make it work? And what happens if it doesn't? You've then got a bigger problem than you did in the beginning, and then politically, you're not going to get re-elected.
But the political risk to me was never an issue. I came here to do a job, and if the people didn't like the way I did the job, then send me on my way. That was always my philosophy and anybody that's in this operation will tell you that. I said, "If we do it right, people will see the wisdom and the benefit in it and people will be fine; if they don't like it and they want a political system that simply appeases them as they travel down the road to hell, then I'm not the guy."
BS: I'd say Erie affirmed that. You were re-elected twice with no opposition for either of those terms.
JS: I think it showed that people appreciate you doing the job for them and showing them success with it. You don't have to glad-hand everyone and tell them that the world is great when it's not. If you're straightforward and honest with them and show them why you're doing it and they see a positive outcome, they appreciate that even though it's not "politically expedient."
BS: To you, what did you see Erie's best assets being when you entered office? How has that changed as you're now leaving it?
JS: Erie's best assets have always been first and foremost – and I've said this from the first day I took office – have always been its people. I believed when I started that Erie was strong enough to reinvent itself because the people here were strong enough to do it and strong enough to support it, and that turned out to be correct. We have other assets here, our natural resources, our lake, and all of those things we're able to build off of for other successes, but by far, Erie's strongest asset is the people. People tend to come together in crisis. It's a tightknit community with very small degrees of separation here. That is absolutely a strength when it comes to pulling a community together and getting people involved in things. Being able to pick up the phone – anybody out there to be able to pick up a phone and call somebody and call somebody by their first name to say we need you, that's strength.
BS: You mentioned earlier that this is not a 9-to-5 job, but I think a lot of folks wonder what civic leaders look like when they're "off," what "5 o'clock" looks like for you? How do you unwind? Are there hobbies you have that we've never learned about? Are you ever "off?"
JS: You know, I'm not ever "off." When I leave here there's still things in the evening I think about or work on for the next day. My hobbies, I work out to relieve some of the stress, but one of the things that tends to go away when you work at something like this are your hobbies, and it has for me. But that's been okay; I'll find those again in my next career. I really have spent a lot of time doing this and I still enjoy the things that I enjoyed before. I still golf now and again, but not nearly as much. I still enjoy the martial arts as I did before, but not as much. My friends, my family, that's how I spend my off time now. That for me, that's what grounds me; that's what my roots are.
BS: What would you personally say your biggest accomplishment as mayor has been?
JS: I think the city is (much more) different than it was when I came in here. Yes, we're stable here and the operation is good for the betterment of the community, but if you look around this community, very little is the way it was when we started. And again, that would take rewinding to 2006 and taking a look around and talking to people to see what the mindset was, and there aren't a lot of people who remember that anymore, but I do. When I look around the community now, I see a lot of positivity, a lot of forward thinking, a lot of people involved, and I think that's what I feel best about as I leave office. There were a lot of bumps in the road to get there, but we got there.
BS: You mentioned golf. If you could have a mulligan on any of the decisions you made or actions your administration took, what would it be?
JS: You know, off of the top of my head, I don't know of anything I'd do differently. I know that that sounds bad, and I'm sure there are little things here and there, but the major things that needed to be done got done. Some of the things that didn't happen the way I wanted them to still ended up being a part of an overall success – a process of success, a longer-term success.
When I first got elected, I went to all of the unions and said that "we need to start paying 15 percent for our health insurance, management's going to, starting today," thinking that they're all going say "okay" and get on board, and they didn't. However, that was step one in a process that as I sit here today everyone's paying the 15 percent for their health insurance. That started the process. There were things like that that at first blush didn't go exactly how I had envisioned but over time they developed. So there isn't one thing that I'd say that I failed really badly at and I wish I had the opportunity to do a different way, because most of the things I thought were important and we had to do over these 12 years have one way or another come to fruition.
BS: If you had to write the lede for the chapter of your story in the book of Erie's history, what would you start with?
JS: I think I would start by saying that a lot can be accomplished by a single person that has only in their heart the betterment of a community.
BS: You've said that in multiple interviews I've had with you.
JS: It's true, you know, this hasn't been about me. It's been about the community for me.
BS: I imagine picking a term is like picking a favorite kid, but do you think one term was more successful than the other two?
JS: [Laughs] I think it's been a process, but so many important things happened in that first term that allowed us to do what we were able to do in the second and third term. Had we not been successful with some of the things we were doing in the first term, where we are today would not be possible. So much happened that was key to the long-term success of this community in the first term that I think that would be the favorite of my children if I were picking one [laughs].
BS: If you could wave a magic wand to extend time or make the process easier, what's one thing you weren't able to get done that you wish you could've in these 12 years?
JS: I wish I had more time to see more of the Bayfront and the economic impact things we've been working on come more to fruition. Again, those are long-term things, and I knew that when we started. My part of that, for instance, let's say in regard to the GAF site, was to work with the company, secure the site, see it through to clean-up, and get it ready for the next step. Now the next person will have to see the development of that go forward. I know that, but because I was on the front end of that, I'd like to have been there to see it to finish, but time just doesn't permit that. Time runs out of the process for me. But it's also a never-ending process, so there'll never be enough time to see everything to the end, because there'll always be new things happening.
BS: I think there are two types of executives once they're out of office: Those who try to still govern from outside of the office, and those who are honestly able to walk away from it. Do you have a sense of which you'll be yet?
JS: It's funny you ask that question, because I've thought a lot of about that lately. Will I be able to detach myself? I won't involve myself. I won't be calling the new mayor on the phone saying, "Well, I think…" I won't get in his way, or speak publicly against things of any nature, but inside, it's: "Can you let things go?" Or is it something I'll always be armchair quarterbacking? I don't know the answer to that yet. In my mind, when I say I'm leaving, I'm still going to care; I'm still going to watch; I'm still going to be a great cheerleader for whoever comes next, but I'm going to stay away. I'm going to take my place in the history of the community and try to let that go forward and try to detach myself from this as much as I can, but it's always going to be a part of me.
BS: I think one of the things that Americans love to read are the letters outgoing presidents leave for incoming presidents. Is that something Erie does? Did you get a letter? Will you leave one?
JS: I did not get a letter, as you can imagine. Until right now I hadn't really thought of that; I'm sure I would've as time got closer. I may. I talk regularly to Mr. Schember, and I've talked to Mr. Persinger on several occasions. After the November election, I hope to spend quite a bit of time with them to help orient them to operation as much as I can the last couple of months. Will there be a letter if we have those conversations personally? We'll see what time brings with that.
BS: If even just for fun, is there another city you'd like to be mayor of – for a day, for a year, for a full term?
JS: [Laughs] Oh my…
BS: You don't have to go through the election process; you'd just go and they welcome you.
JS: The answer in none, and I'll tell you why: The reason I did this is because of my love and attachment to this community. It wasn't to be mayor of a community, it was to make this community better. I learned a long time ago that in order to be important and to be relevant you don't have to change the whole world, you just have to change the world you care about, and this is the world I care about. For me, this was a labor for this community. I don't have an interest in being mayor anywhere else.
BS: Celebrate Erie, unlimited budget, everyone's available during the dates you've chosen. What's your lineup look like?
JS: Wow… [Laughs] okay.
BS: But they have to be touring right now. You could book Paul McCartney, but not The Beatles.
JS: Okay, wow, we have to throw The Stones in there somewhere. They have to be touring now, so Motley Crue's out … Friday night, which tends to be oldies, would be McCartney absolutely. Saturday would be the Stones, and Sunday would probably be Florida Georgia Line, or somebody like that.
BS: Who was cooler to hang out with: Brett Michaels or Danny Trejo?
JS: They were both really cool, very cool. I got along well with both of them, but I spent more time with Brett Michaels. I didn't have a lot of exposure to Danny Trejo – just a short time. On spending time and getting to know him, I'd say Brett Michaels. He's from the Butler area so there's some commonality and I enjoyed spending time with him.
Fortunately, as you see in all of these pictures [points to his office wall covered with photos of celebrities, politicians, and dignitaries who've visited Erie], there's nobody who's come through this town that I'd say I didn't care for.
They were all really cool and really nice and I've had a lot of fun with each of them individually.
BS: Who's your favorite celebrity you've been able to meet?
JS: If I had to pick just one… Ace Frehley, whom I still talk to now and again. When he's in this part of the country, I go to his shows and hang out with him. So he's certainly one of my favorites. B.B. King was a very, very nice man. The Cheap Trick guys were great – they were a lot of fun. Viggo Mortensen…
BS: Was that when he was here filming The Road?
JS: Yes. He was really a good guy. He ended up inviting me to a birthday party they were having for the director and it was a lot of fun.
Obviously meeting political figures – Presidents Clinton and Obama were great guys. Gov. Rendell I was really close to. He was in office when I started and he was very helpful to me as I developed in the office. I'm proud to know all of them.
BS: If you got to have a beer with either Clinton or Obama, who would it be?
JS: That's a hard question, actually, [laughs] because they both have a fun side to them…
BS: Or… if you could invite them both, what do you talk about?
JS: Sports. They both have an interest in sports. I've been around Bill Clinton more than Obama, so if I had to pick one, it'd be him simply on the familiarity. But I think President Obama would be a lot of fun to hang out with. He had a good sense of humor – an easy guy to talk to.
BS: BayHawks, Otters, or SeaWolves?
JS: Oh, is that a fair question? [Laughs] I know if I say one the others are going to get angry with me [laughs].
But we helped to bring the BayHawks here and the D-League folks came here and met with myself and Fred Rush originally – we were the ones who got them hooked up with the eventual ownership and all that, so I take a lot of pride in that that franchise came to this community and that we were part of selling this community and getting them here. There's a special place in my heart for them.
The others, I like as well and am glad they're here, but personally, I tend to be more of a basketball fan, I'm a basketball guy. So I gravitate towards them because that's one of my favorite sports.
BS: If they offered you the job to coach The Golden Knights for a season just for fun, would you take it?
JS: I'd probably be the worst coach in history [laughs], so based on my ability, I'd have to say no, but it'd be a lot of fun.
BS: Now that you'll have some free time coming up, where do you plan to spend it?
JS: You know where I like to go? I like to go to Jr.'s Last Laugh. I love standup comedy – I always have since I was a kid.
BS: Who's your favorite comedian?
JS: One of my favorite comedians is Bobcat Goldthwait. He's been here several times, and I've enjoyed that very much.
BS: I'd assume you've got to meet him, right? That's one of the times you pull the mayor card.
JS: Jr. knows and appreciates my love for stand-up comedy, so whenever I say "oh, I really like…" he makes sure I get a chance to meet them.
BS: If you could press the pause button on one season in Erie to give us a consistent season year-round, which would it be?
JS: Summer is my favorite here.
BS: If you had to describe Erie to another mayor in six words or less, what would they be?
JS: I've actually done this before – I don't know if I've done it in six words or less – but I always tell them it's the best place in the world. And that goes into: We have the lake and the sunsets and the people and… maybe this is the answer: We have the amenities of a big city with the hometown fabric of a small community.
BS: Six words or less for your tenure as mayor?
JS: I did the best I could.
BS: One item in your office that most symbolizes you as a person.
JS: Interesting… [points to a statuette of "The Thinker" on his desk.]
BS: So why that?
JS: I try to be very cerebral about everything I do.
BS: Did you get that when you came into this office?
JS: I've had that awhile. It was on my law desk when I was practicing.
BS: If you could go back and study a different career – other than law or chemistry – what would you pick? A mulligan on your career choice – do you change it up or do you stick with it?
JS: I think I stick with it. I was very science-oriented and physics and chemistry were always my thing. My second education with the law degree was designed to create a circumstance where I could do a lot of different things, whether it would be practice law or another series of other opportunities. That panned out practicing law and now this. I think the way I was educated worked out best for what I wanted to do.
BS: Being mayor forces anyone into a public role. What's something the Erie public would be surprised to learn about you that they don't already know?
JS: Maybe that as I'm not as complicated as people think. You know, I have simple likes and dislikes. When it comes to my work, I'm very complicated, but when it comes to my personal life, I'm fairly simple with the way I handle life.
BS: Is that a misperception through the media, just general assumptions, or does it come with the territory?
JS: Eh, I think it comes with the territory. And I think it's fine. When I talk to people they seem to be surprised that I'm actually very much like them.
BS: I've always appreciated that you've been generous with your time and let me ask you a lot of questions. You get asked a lot of questions by the media. What's the one question we in the media haven't asked you that you wished we would've asked?
JS: One of the things I think falls short in the media whether by design because of the nature of it or otherwise, I think the media tends to be short on asking "the why" of it – they don't delve into the "why" of it anymore. And I think that that's important. The old saying: "You think you'd understand me better if you were standing in my shoes?" – that.
BS: Hypothetical question: Erie wins the PowerBall with a gazillion dollars and suddenly you have virtually unlimited funds. What would be the last three investments on behalf of the city you'd make before leaving?
JS: Boy, that's a really hard question, because public sector investment is so different from private sector investment. I would like to say I would see the Bayfront move along more quickly, but I'm not sure that that's a public sector investment. I would want to see the transformation of the inner community move along more quickly because that's so much fund-driven.
BS: Another hypothetical question: If there weren't term limits, would you run again?
JS: Probably not.
BS: Twelve is enough?
JS: I'm actually a believer in term limits. I think you have to have a purpose for each of your steps, and when you get to the end of said purpose, it's time to pass it along to somebody else. I think I'm there. I think I've got it going where I need it to go. I could say, "Well, I want to see this done and that done and I could stay forever," if that's the way it went, but, no, I think three terms was right.
BS: In 20 years, at least two, if not more, people will have held this office. What do you think Erie's economy, our competitive advantage, our demographics, our population – what do you think that looks like? Because the person you're handing it off to will have had to themselves hand it off.
JS: If they stay on the trajectory it's headed, we stay in a positive direction; if it stays stable, then I expect some very good things to happen. Erie is still in a transition. We have a lot of unrealized opportunities that we're beginning to tap into now that'll hopefully come to fruition over time. I think that the economic fabric of this community is changing, and I think we'll really see what that's going to become in the next 5 to 10 years. I'm optimistic and confident in those things.
BS: I've always found it interesting how elected officials exiting office are treated once they're out of office. Do you think Erie citizens will treat you differently out of office?
JS: I think that once you're a household name people do treat you differently, but I'm hoping that people will treat me the way they treated me before office. I'm back to just being a private citizen.
BS: What do you hope the one thing that the citizens of Erie remember you for decades later? For the 12 years you gave, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of hours, a lot of work…
JS: I don't feel like they need to know that or remember that. That was my responsibility to them, and if they never know about that, that's fine with me. But what I do hope as I leave office, whether they remember it long-term or not, that they feel like they're better off, that their lives are a little bit better for the time I spent here. To me, that would be enough.
BS: We've danced around it the whole time: What is next? Running for another office? Back to the private sector? Nice long vacation in the Caribbean?
JS: First off, I don't know if I know how to vacation anymore [laughs]. I'd have to learn that over time because I haven't done it in so long. I don't expect to take any significant time off because I've been working and it's tough to go from a million miles an hour a day to [a complete] stop. I don't want to do that; I want to be busy and I want to keep working right away. It'll be in the private sector. I can go back to the private sector and practice, but I'm also waiting to see what else comes along in the next few months. I'm very much challenge-driven; that's why I did this. I wanted to do it for the community, but the challenge of making it happen against what seemed like at the time insurmountable odds was appealing to me, so I'd like to take on another type of challenge if one comes along. And that's what'll be the determining factor.
BS: You have a good record: Four victories.
JS: I'm not going to sit here and say I wouldn't run for office again, but today, I'm going back to the private sector for a while. When we started talking, I said I never expected to run for this office. It presented itself in such a way that I felt like I should, that I needed to and wanted to, so I did it. That day may come again in something else.
BS: We talked about the economic crisis driving you to run…
JS: It wasn't just an economic crisis. The city was turning into a sad city and I didn't like what I saw, I didn't like how people were, and how people viewed this city anymore. It was very much driven by the economic crisis and the turmoil here, but all of those things, it was more than that, it was about getting the city turned back to a positive direction.
BS: Still, there are crises.
JS: Always will be.
BS: What do you think the most pressing crisis for the next mayor is?
JS: We have the GE issue – potentially losing the majority of GE and that's going to be an issue for this community. There are always the economic challenges that face government. The blight and neighborhood decay – there are large projects that have started but are going to be long-term and are going to take a lot of effort on behalf of the new mayor to get a total revitalization of this community. And that's a process that may go beyond a full term of the next mayor and into another.
BS: If you create a law to say "this is something I've done or created that works well and you can't touch it or change it," what would that be?
JS: [Laughs] I would say how the government runs, how the finances and operations here run. We spent all of the 12 years refining that to make it efficient and effective.
BS: Knowing all that you know how 12 years later, would you do it again
JS: You know, I would. After all of the hardship, I would still do it again for the reason I did it: I did it because I wanted to do something for this community, and I feel like I have. My goal and what I accomplished match, so why wouldn't I do it again?
BS: Was it worth it? The long nights. The long weeks. Many hours.
JS: It was a lot of sacrifice on the side of my personal life, but yeah, it was. Because my goal was – and as strange as this might sound – for the people of this community to be doing better now from when I entered office and not know why. They shouldn't have to know why; that's my responsibility. And I feel like leaving here, they're doing better now – they may not know exactly why – but they're doing better.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @BenSpeggen.