SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Ben Walsh is gaining momentum in his bid to become the first independent mayor in Syracuse history not affiliated with a political party.
Walsh is a rarity: A politically viable, unaffiliated candidate in a major American city. He’s raised far more money than all of his opponents and has attracted support from leaders of both major political parties in the city as well as a pair of upstart independent parties.
For Walsh, it’s an unusual position — a politically connected son of a prominent Republican family seeking to upend the city’s established two-party system.
Winning party chairs
Past chairs of both the city Democratic and Republican Committees are renouncing their parties’ candidates to back Walsh, an independent. One is going so far as to quit his party’s leadership committee.
Tim Carroll resigned his post with the Onondaga County Democratic Committee after the party endorsed Joe Nicoletti for mayor. He’s been on the committee for 20 years and spent four of those as the city chairman.
Bob Andrews, former city chair for the Onondaga County Republican Committee, is also bucking his party this year. He won’t support Laura Lavine, the designated GOP candidate.
In November, both will back Walsh, an independent, for mayor.
In major American cities, independent mayors are nearly non-existent.
Of the top 100 largest cities in America, only four are headed by somebody who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, including San Antonio, Texas, and Las Vegas Nevada. Some of those cities, like San Antonio, hold nonpartisan elections.
Syracuse has never had an unaffiliated mayor. In 170 years, there have been two Whig mayors and one Progressive mayor. The rest have all been Democrats or Republicans.
On November’s ballot, Walsh’s name will likely appear twice, though he’ll be at the very bottom, alongside a pair of unknown upstart parties.
The Reform Party and the Upstate Jobs Party have lent their names and support to Walsh. Upstate Jobs was founded by Martin Babinec, who mounted an unsuccessful independent campaign for the 22nd Congressional district last fall. National political action committees spent millions against Babinec, who self-funded.
Babinec himself poured more than $2 million into his campaign last year, as he emerged as a serious third-party contender in a hotly contested Congressional race. He has donated $3,400 to Walsh.
An insider, outside
While he campaigns as an outsider not beholden to a party, Walsh has tentacles reaching deep into each organization.
Walsh comes from one of Syracuse’s most well-known Republican families. His grandfather was a Republican mayor in the 1960s and his father represented Central New York as a Republican in Congress for 20 years. His aunt and uncle were elected countywide Republican judges.
Earlier this year, Walsh sought the endorsement of the GOP to run for mayor. He refused, however, to register as a Republican, a move that he said irked party leadership.
When it came time for the GOP to pick a candidate, his name was not included on the ballot. That frustrated some committee members, who had told Walsh he would get a shot at the endorsement. The committee’s chairwoman abruptly resigned hours before that vote. Others, like Andrews, decided to back Walsh anyways.
Andrews passed petitions for Lavine, in order to “do his duty,” and will remain on the GOP committee. But he is backing Walsh in the election
“I would have liked to have seen an open discussion and debate among the people interested in the nomination,” he said. “I would have liked to see the committee members have that interaction and that option available to them.”
Walsh also spent six years as a top official in the administration of Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat. It was there he worked closely with Tim Carroll and the rest of the Democratically-controlled City Hall.
Carroll is a lifelong Democrat who said he’s always voted for blue mayors. He spent six years as policy director for Miner during which time he worked closely with Walsh. He was also a top adviser under former Democratic mayors Matt Driscoll and Tom Young. Until recently, he was chairman of the city’s 14th ward.
“I’ll vote for every other Democrat on the ballot this year, but Ben is the best of the field, and what’s best for the city is not always what’s best for the party,” Carroll said.
Carroll is part of a group of Democrats sidestepping the party to support Walsh, he said. Some were supporters of Andrew Maxwell, who came up short for the party’s endorsement by a handful of votes in May.
Jennifer Owens, who lives in the Strathmore neighborhood, is also resigning from the Democratic Committee to support Walsh. She has been a committee member for about two years.
“The committee is about process and rewarding loyalty,” Owens said. “That feels like an outmoded way of thinking about what’s best for our city. I don’t feel like they’re looking for the next innovative candidate. They’re looking for people who have stuck with the system.”
Owens described a system of patronage with the city’s Democratic Party: Whoever has been around longest is owed the most support. Nicoletti has been a cog in city politics since the 1970s and run for mayor four times before.
Democratic committee members were banned from passing petitions for any non-Democrats, which Owens said made her decision to leave easy. She’s supported Walsh from the beginning and has volunteered with his campaign.
A fight for the vote
The November election will be a tooth-and-nail fight for every vote. Turnout in local elections is traditionally low, especially in years like this when there are no national races. In the last open election in 2009, 22,384 people voted for mayor in a city of more than 140,000. Miner won that three-way race with 11,253 votes, just more than half the vote.
Whoever is elected this year could do so with far less than that.
November’s ballot promises to be crowded. There will likely be four candidates spread across up to 10 ballot lines. There could be five, if Chris Fowler can scrape together enough petition signatures to run as a Libertarian (he failed to submit enough to run as a Democrat).
If that’s the case, it’s highly unlikely any candidate will win a majority. Someone could win this election with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Democratic voters have plenty of party options in the race. There are five Democrats seeking the nomination in September: Nicoletti, Raymond Blackwell, Alfonso Davis, Marty Masterpole and Juanita Perez Williams.
Howie Hawkins is running on the Green Party line and Lavine is the Republican candidate.