Jun 26, 2009 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Former quarterback has nostalgic game plan for the city of Syracuse
Carmen Harlow says he’s better off now than he was eight years ago. During the Mayoral Odyssey of 2001, he declared his intention to run for the city’s top spot and began the process of gathering signatures on nominating petitions, only to withdraw from the race and endorse current incumbent Matt Driscoll. After winning the election, Driscoll appointed Harlow Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Public Works.
“I’m better off due to that position,” he says now, “and I thank the Mayor for it.”
After declaring his intentions, Harlow got a phone call from the city personnel department informing him that one of Driscoll’s policies prohibited city employees from running for office.
“I was never told that was a policy,” Harlow maintains, “but it’s time to move on.”
Born and raised in Syracuse, Harlow grew up in Pioneer Homes and on Baker Avenue and now lives in the Valley. He was twice elected to represent the then 23rd District on the County Legislature.
“I’ve had many hats on,” he notes, “enjoyed myself. A lot of challenges, lot of ups and downs. A lot of positives.”
A product of city public schools, he was a standout quarterback for Nottingham, winning a scholarship to Syracuse University, where he was a reserve at that position.
Although three other candidates have been out campaigning for months for the Democrats’ nomination, Harlow does not see himself as a late comer to the race.
“I think they started too early,” he says, “But everybody has to get the petitions signed. I’ve been through this twice already.”
Perhaps reflecting on his situation eight years ago, he observes, “If there’s a really, really good outstanding candidate, and it’s a person I feel I can go ahead and back, then I’ll do that. But right now I don’t feel there’s a great, outstanding candidate that I could back.
So I’m the better candidate and I’m ready to take that risk. I’ve learned a lot more in the past eight years. I’m a free agent. You don’t always have to be drafted. You don’t always have to go through mini-camp. Not that you’re better than anybody, but you’ve been through that.”
From quarterback at Nottingham to the County Legislature to Deputy Commissioner for DPW, what does it take to maintain a leadership position in Syracuse?
It starts at home, your surroundings when you’re coming up. You could be a good person, you could be a bad person, but it starts at home. My father, my mother, my brothers and sisters. I’m the ninth out of twelve kids. That’s the foundation. I see what my father did.
Lee Alexander appointed him Deputy Commissioner (DPW) in 1970. I watched him get up at 3:30 in the morning, work two jobs with a bad back and then go referee. Raise twelve kids from Pioneer Homes to Baker Avenue. I see that leadership. I see leadership sitting around the table with my brothers. Athletics did a lot for us. Watching the coaches. My family and an athletic background got me where I am today and what I want to continue to do.
Born and raised and gone to college here, staying here, is that an advantage in running for mayor?
I think it is. You know where you were, you know where you are, you know where you want to be.
Where do you want the city to be?
You’ve got to mix it up. You’ve got to go into the future, of course. You can’t forget the past. In the past, things were booming. There was a lot going on. The downtown sidewalks were elbow to elbow. Theaters. Not that there’s anything wrong with downtown, but throughout the city. You could walk all the way down South Salina Street to Valley Plaza, bakeries, bowling alleys, little bars and shops. You remember those visions.
Can it be that way again?
I think it really can be. If we put our hearts and minds and money where it should go, I really think we can do it, because there are a lot of vacant lots, and a lot of vacant buildings. What was it before? Can we do this again? Yes. Where are we now? Let’s make it better, and rehab some things and create jobs. Let’s do this without always being reactive. Let’s be proactive.
During the past that you describe, there were 230,000 people living in the city. Now there are 130,000. Can you bring back those visions without all those people?
Yes we can. I’ve got a 25 year old daughter who is in New York City now. She got a bachelor’s degree and a master’s at Newhouse, but she didn’t want to stay around here. Now here’s a bright student who came through the Syracuse school district, but no one’s recruiting her. No one’s saying, “Hey, stay here, this is what we’ve got to offer you,” from government, to businesses, to communications. No one is saying, “We’ve got a job waiting on you when you graduate.” There’s nothing like that going on, whether it’s the University, or city government, or county government. I don’t see it. It didn’t happen to my daughter.
That past you describe was also a time when the factories were open and doing more than one shift. Now most of them are closed. Where will those job offers come from?
Technology is number one. We have government, not that you want bigger government, but we could do more with public works. You could have seasonal people. You could have part time people. When I was growing up you could work DPW in the summer. Parks and Rec has that, but DPW doesn’t. You might not have the benefits to begin with, but you could work up to full time. And you could pick up the litter and fix the potholes. We have to fight for stimulus money for the infrastructure and apprenticeship programs. That will help economic development.
The biggest economic development project in years, Destiny, seems to have stalled. What role do you see it playing in the future of the city?
I think it plays a good role. Mr. Congel’s taking his own money, basically, his own vision, and bringing it to our city. It has to be a positive. Could it hurt other business, retail? It could. But he has put people to work. He’s got a vision for retail, which is sales tax. I’m a supporter of it. People are working, and that’s a positive.
You need an educated workforce and the school system admits to a 50 percent dropout rate. As Mayor, what do you do with that system?
I’m a product of the Syracuse City School District, and I was no brain coming up. I was learning disabled before they even started testing people. My wife was learning disable. But we both got to Syracuse University, where we met, and now she’s principal at Bellevue Elementary School. I go from my own experiences from Washington Irving and Brighton School, Percy Huges after they torn down Brighton, Roosevelt, two years at St. Anthony’s to Nottingham. I struggled, and I know what kept me in school. The sports, the good teachers that really cared, the ones that went the extra yard with me. Coming home and having someone to help me with the homework. Going to Beauchamp Library if I needed extra help. You’ve got to have the teachers that call the mothers and fathers. You’ve got to have the parents to feel welcome to go into those schools for the PTA meetings. You’ve got to have collaboration.
There wasn’t a lot of bussing back then. We all walked to school. I look at things right now, and I drive my children to school. They don’t want to get on the bus because of the chaos. You don’t know what goes on with a kid standing on a corner, freezing, hungry, waiting on a bus, then getting on a bus without a monitor, the bus driver going crazy with 30 to 40 kids. You’ve got to look at all that. Not just the books, but where is the person coming from before they get into the school? If you knew you were being bullied every day, the psychological part of it breaks your spirit.
We put the cart before the horse sometimes, and leapfrog over things. Look at what’s going on step by step with these children before they even get into the building. They’re hungry, they’re cold, ribbing on each other, bullying, fighting on the buses, then you expect them to learn. Then they have to go through it again before they get home. Now they get home. Who’s home? Let’s take a hard look at it. Home alone, hungry, with homework and needing help. I was fortunate to have a mother and a father and some siblings that helped out. We found a way. We had a support system. My parents knew what I did before I got home. There was a community awareness.
When you look at the dropout rate, don’t just look at the scores. Look at it all. Parents find out what’s going on. Find out how to get extra help. We have the Say Yes Program coming.
There is some cynicism about the Say Yes Program, with critics saying the major aim is to attract white folks back into the city.
I don’t think it has a color on it. If that’s the case, I’ll keep track of it. But people who are in the city now can’t allow that. But people in the city now can benefit from it. You’ve got to do the work, too, now. You’ve got to keep the grades up. You’ve got to take the right courses. They won’t be handing it to you. You’ve got to make sure they’re doing what they’re suppose to do, and you won’t have to worry about a color barrier.
Visitors often comment on Syracuse as a surprisingly segregated city.
I’m a product of that, also. I’ve also felt isolated, not going out for beers with the boys all the time. I’ve always had a support system. Everybody needs a support system, someone who they can relate to, who might understand where they’re coming from, or who has experienced the same issues. It doesn’t have to be someone who looks like I look. I don’t like that. Everybody’s different. Whatever color, whatever. I go by what have you experienced. Have you met the same challenges I have? Have you made the same mistakes I have? Have you had they same stresses and successes?
One place where color was a factor was the Obama election. People of color who traditionally didn’t vote turned out in droves. Do you hope for a similar response to your campaign?
I think it’s the issues. It’s who do people trust? Right now people need hope. It’s who can help us with the things that we need? It could be a white person. It could be a black person. It could be a female. It’s who can have the vision and the ideas, and have the know-how and the energy and the vision to help folks create the American dream.
What vision does the mayor have to have?
A variety of visions. You’ve got a melting pot here is Syracuse. We’re all one residence, but different groups of people with different needs on different sides of town. Of course public safety is there, but people want their garbage picked up, too, their potholes fixed. You can’t always look at the big picture. You’ve got to look at the little things, too. The vision starts, like I said earlier, with where were we before. Where are we now. What is our future. What does each individual neighborhood want? Not just dog and pony shows. Not just ribbon cutting and nothing happens. What do they really need? If we have to plan, let’s plan. But if we can do something now, let’s get it done.