ITHACA, N.Y.—Laura Lewis did not ascend to the mayor’s office in a conventional way. She was appointed Acting Mayor by the outgoing Svante Myrick last month when he announced he would be stepping down.
Now in office, though, she is emphasizing the importance of city staff and those around her in helping Lewis adjust to the job, which she will hold for at least the next nine months. While she says she has not yet decided whether or not to run to be elected in November, which would allow her to finish Myrick’s remaining one year on his term, she said that continuity is important during an interview last week.
Lewis is a long-time Ithacan, and accepted when Myrick offered her the position because of her love for the city, she said. That, plus her belief that the initiatives Myrick had begun were worthy of further pursuit and needed the aforementioned continuity to be guided successfully, at least in the short term.
Though she’s been in the public eye for some time as a member of Common Council, we thought it would be good to get a glimpse of what kind of mayor Lewis wants to be, the notes she will take from her predecessor, and any limitations she thinks come along with being “Acting” Mayor.
Ithaca Voice: I know of your background largely from Common Council and serving on the INHS board, I believe. So what was your job, your actual career?
Laura Lewis: I was the director of undergraduate student services in the ILR School at Cornell. So my background is in counseling, and I worked at Cornell for 30 years.
IV: What brought you to Ithaca, if you’re not from here originally?
LL: Yeah, I’m not from Ithaca. I am not a Cornell alum. After my graduate program, which was at SUNY Albany, it was a requirement of my graduate program that I have a year internship, which I interviewed for and completed at Ithaca College setting up an advising program there in their Humanities and Sciences division. And I worked at IC for a few years and then took a position at Cornell.
So it was really job-related that brought me to Ithaca. And that was now many years ago. So I’ve lived in Ithaca for 40 plus years. All the time that I’ve worked, I’ve been involved in community service, you mentioned INHS. And I served on that board, including a stint as chair of that NHS board. I was on that board for actually almost 20 years. So my passion for affordable housing has been long, long-standing.
You’ve heard me say, I’m sure multiple times that I grew up in a single-parent household in Buffalo, always a renter. We never had enough money and we certainly never had enough money to buy a house. So housing issues have always been important to me. But other community service has been important to me, too. So even while I was working, I was involved in the Fifth Ward Democratic Committee, which I chaired for a time and then chaired the City Dems.
IV: And what brought you into politics then?
LL: I decided to run when Josephine Martell moved out of the Fifth Ward and had to give up her seat on Common Council. But one good thing to grow out of [the election of former President Donald Trump] is an incredible surge in people getting involved in all kinds of local government.
I was on the planning committee for the women’s March that was here in Ithaca. And you know what’s interesting? That Shawna Black was also one of the organizers and the planners for Ithacans who went to Washington, DC. So it’s interesting that Shawna was organizing for that women’s March. I was part of a planning group organizing the Women’s March in Ithaca, and now Shawna chairs the county legislature, and I’m the city of Ithaca acting Mayor. So we both got involved in local government as an outgrowth of that awful election.
IV: So that was what spurred you to try to get involved, going from watching government meetings on TV or following the news to actually sitting at the table?
LL: Well, speaking for myself, I had that seat at the table, but it became clear to me that I wanted a larger seat at the table. I wanted to take my concern for housing issues to city government.
IV: When you first ran, affordable housing was one of your main planks, and it’s obviously still a huge issue in the city. Would you say that was the issue that really first propelled you to get involved?
LL: It certainly was one of the major factors that impelled me into running for city office. Not the only one, but a key issue. And I have been concerned about and advocating for housing in the four years that I’ve been on Council.
IV: Speaking of your time on Common Council, you are not the longest-serving member on there currently. Cynthia Brock, Ducson Nguyen, George McGonigal and Rob Gearhart have all been on the council for longer. So were you surprised that Myrick asked you and how did that conversation go? Why do you think he chose you?
LL: I think he chose me because he has seen my active engagement in the community, broad-based and my interest in working collaboratively and building coalitions as we tackle some really tough issues. That’s not to say other members of Council don’t bring that same skill set. But it’s interesting, Svante and I have some similarities in our backgrounds. Single-parent household, poor family, not having advantages growing up. He had the added layer of being a person of color. But we share certain similarities in our backgrounds and some similar approaches to tackling some of these tough issues, like housing, affordable housing in particular.
But it is also important to me that we have housing at all price points in the city. I actually appreciate that there are some market-rate projects in the housing I want to see housing in the downtown center of the city that brings people into a vibrant
downtown community where there’s as much diversity as possible. Just to put a finer point on some of my interest in housing.
IV: You’re going to serve for a pretty significant amount of time. Even if you decide not to run again, you’ve got nine months before there’s even an election. So what are your priorities during that time, particularly with so many big efforts already in the works?
LL: Well, one of the priorities is a smooth transition. There are a lot of changes with Svante’s announcement, and so I want the transition to be smooth. I want to continue to work on current initiatives. We’ve already touched upon the need to continue to look at ways of supporting housing in the city. But we also have the Reimagining Public Safety. I’m on the working group. I’ve been on a couple of working groups for Reimagining Public Safety, and that is going to be a major initiative. The recommendations will be coming to Council in March. March will be the first common Council meeting that I’ll be presiding over.
Another priority is our Green New Deal implementation. So, you know, I’m sure that we’ve hired an absolutely wonderful sustainability director. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to talk with or to interview Luis Aguirre-Torres. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s one of those people who makes things happen. I think of Svante as someone who looks at an issue or a challenge and immediately then thinks about, okay, how do we address it? Not backing away from challenges. And Luis is very similar in that regard. I will say too that we’ve got incredibly talented and dedicated city staff. Our Department heads are really strong. Luis is one example.
Then there’s economic development, and we’re still recovering from the financial impact of the pandemic. Sales tax revenue is turning out to be quite strong. But we’ve got the Green Street Garage multiuse project coming on board that will provide housing. All affordable housing, will provide parking and will provide a conference center. So these are things that are initiatives Svante and others in the city started and that I will be continuing to work on.
IV: It occurred to me the other day that there’s now an acting mayor, an acting police chief, Planning Department Director JoAnn Cornish just retired. Do you take the fact that you are an acting mayor, as opposed to a duly elected mayor, into account when thinking if you should be making those decisions, in terms of who will fill those roles of police chief and planning director, etc.? Should those things be decided by someone who wasn’t elected?
LL: Yeah, that’s certainly a very fair question. And I’ll respond by saying that it’s not the case that one person will be making decisions in a vacuum. So, yes, JoAnn Cornish, retired and the acting director of the Planning Department, Lisa Nicholas, had been the deputy director. That search is ongoing for the permanent director of planning. And there will be a search committee, an interview committee. So there will be recommendations coming from very informed and broad-based groups or in this case, interview teams.
In terms of IPD, yes, we have an acting chief. We also have not yet seen the recommendations from Reimagining Public Safety. So the organizational structure is not finalized. And there are some things that thinking of Reimagining Public Safety. There are some things that will be going to referendum in November. November is going to be a very busy election.
If you think about it, and I hope I’m not omitting anything, but we’ve got the reorganization of city government, going from Mayor-Council organization to a city manager structure. In some ways that would be more similar to the county organization, but it also allows for a better division of resources and expertise. We don’t elect a mayor for managerial skills necessarily at all, and a city manager would have those dedicated managerial responsibilities. With 500 employees, it’s not feasible for that to be overseen by a mayor. Mayor is a part-time position that’s compensated part-time, even though it requires full-time attention. I’m very hopeful that particular referendum will pass.
IV: Turmoil has a negative connotation, but it’s kind of a time of turmoil in the city.
LL: Well, it’s a transition. There’s a lot of transition, yes.
IV: How do you view that kind of thing? I know the obvious answer would be that it excites you, but does it make you nervous?
LL: Well, it makes me attuned to the fact that there’s a lot of transition and there will be a lot of transition in the next year. And I’m interested in relying on the expertise of staff, and I don’t see myself making any major changes from initiatives that are currently in place. I’m okay with change. I actually think that change can bring about some very positive results, being able to look at how we conduct city
business. If we shied away from change, we wouldn’t be looking at a green New Deal. If we shied away from change, we wouldn’t be looking at this really deep dive into Reimagining Public Safety.
So, yes, there’s some anxiety that comes along with transition and change. I think that’s just a reality. But I’m not sure what more to say about that. To use your word, Matt, I’m excited about the possibilities that are before us that are in front of our city because I see some very positive changes coming about. One of the things that I have appreciated about Svante is that the changes he has spearheaded will have long-term positive effects for our community. You look at the rebuild of the Commons, and yes, everybody had construction fatigue, but we’ve got a pedestrian Commons with sufficient infrastructure to serve the city well into the future.
I mean, our infrastructure is really aging. The pipes, all the things that none of us ever see unless there’s a water main break or there’s a bridge being built and you’re ripping up the road. But Svante’s impact is going to be long-standing and positive, and I just want to continue on many of these initiatives that have been put in place. So I am excited about continuing on some of these initiatives.
IV: Is there anything where you significantly differ from him on some of the efforts that are currently ongoing? Like the good-cause eviction push, for one. Obviously, you’ve already expressed your support for the Reimagining Public Safety process, but outside of that, is there anything that you think people can expect to be significantly different from Myrick?
LL: There is nothing that comes to mind immediately. I mean, I don’t know that he has publicly stated his opinion on good-cause/right to renew and as you’ve seen, no doubt, I’ve been a staunch supporter of right to Council, and that is a program that we’re working on, the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and LAWNY, we don’t have good information on evictions from eviction court.
I’m concerned that good-cause/right to renew has potential unintended consequences that would not, in fact, benefit tenants that we most want to see benefit. So I don’t know that Svante and I disagree. I’ve been more open with my position on good cause. There’s also litigation [regarding good cause eviction laws] in Albany right now, and the attorney general has not issued an opinion on the question of preemption. No, I’m not immediately thinking of anything where there are significant differences. No.
IV: Anything else? Any other goals or questions you’d want to address to Ithacans?
LL: So we’re in a transition right now, but we’re looking at significant transition going forward and significant transition in 2023, going into 2024. We don’t know if Common Council will be configured as it currently is. We have these referendums that will be on the ballot in November. It’s challenging, and exciting is one lens to look at it through. But it’s also stressful. It’s stressful just communicating to everyone in the city all that is on the plate. I had one person ask me if, as acting Mayor, if I have two votes because I’m acting Mayor and I retain my seat on common Council, and I kind of chuckled and I said, no, I got one vote. This is not Putin’s Ithaca. This is our Ithaca.
But it revealed to me that people have a lot of questions about all these changes. And so one of my goals is to clarify information, offer whatever I can for continuity and stability. I really enjoy working as part of a team. Let me just say that I have always enjoyed working as part of a team, whether that was in my role at Cornell, in my role at INHS, even when I was the board chair at INHS, and now as the TCAT board chair.
So people have asked me, and it’s certainly a more than fair question, how am I balancing multiple responsibilities? And my first response is, nobody does it alone. Good staff can make things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. And I see myself as part of the team. Yes. I will be put in a position of making decisions, some of which will be aligned with certain members of the community and others that will be in opposition to what certain members of the community might want to see. One of the things I’ve always loved about Ithaca is that we have healthy debates and discussions and even arguments about various topics.