A presidential bag of peanuts brought Stephanie Miner into politics.
In 1976, when she was six years old, Miner recalls, she went to a political party with her maternal grandmother, Betty Cooney. Cooney, then a Democratic ward chair in Syracuse, gave Miner a bag of peanuts from Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. It was Miner’s earliest political memory and the first of many political experiences with her grandmother.
“Whenever my grandmother Cooney would pick me up on the weekends, I inevitably ended up doing political things with her,” Miner said. “She would bring me to meetings. We would stuff mailings. We would go to speeches. It was exciting to meet all kinds of different political figures.”
These experiences were the beginning of what Miner describes as a fascination with and a love of politics. Now, Miner, a Democrat, is making her first run for mayor after eight years on the Common Council. On May 6, she won the mayoral nomination from the Onondaga County Democratic Committee. She would be the first woman elected mayor.
In the mayor’s race, she faces fellow Democrats Joe Nicoletti, a former Common Councilor-at-Large and state assemblyman; and Alfonso Davis, a political consultant. Both have said they will challenge in a primary election for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, Miner faces Otis Jennings, a former Syracuse parks commissioner who has his party’s nomination; and Steve Kimatian, the general counsel for the corporate owners — Newport Television — of WSYR-TV.
With multiple candidates running for both parties, the mayoral race will start with a primary on Sept. 15. The general election is on Nov. 3. In the general election, the Democratic candidate will have the advantage in voter registration. There are 37,496 registered Democrats and 13,633 registered Republicans in the city, according to the Onondaga County Board of Elections.
Miner enters the mayor’s race with a long family history of political activism, nearly a decade of experience in public office, a reputation as a contrarian even within her own party and a goal of improving education in the city.
As mayor, she says, she would improve education through programs like the “Say Yes” initiative, spur economic development by providing incentives to businesses that meet certain environmental standards and fight crime by increasing neighborhood police patrols.
“I am running for mayor because I thought the city could benefit from a strong advocate who embraces innovation and change,” said Miner.
Miner is the oldest of five children. Her father Edward is a doctor; her mother Dianne is a nursing school dean. Her father is also an Army veteran. Miner spent three years living in Germany with her parents when her father was stationed there.
When she was growing up she used to give civics quizzes to three of her siblings, she recalls. She jokes that none of them wound up in politics: One is going to be an environmental lawyer, one is a doctor and one is a nurse.
Miner flirted with politics in high school and was elected president of her class at Homer High School. She graduated from Syracuse University in Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in political science and newspaper journalism. She earned a law degree from the University of Buffalo in 1994 and joined the Blitman & King Law firm in Syracuse in 1999.
Miner worked as a labor lawyer but resigned from the law firm in late March to focus on the mayoral race. In 2006, Miner married John F.X. Mannion, a heavy-hitter in Democratic politics who also used to run United Mutual Life Insurance Co.
Miner always looked destined for a career in politics because of the political atmosphere she grew up in, said her mother, Dianne Cooney Miner, the dean of the Wegmans School of Nursing at St. John Fisher College. When Miner was twelve, recalls her mother, Miner asked for subscriptions to two political-opinion magazines, liberal The New Republic and conservative National Review, for her birthday.
When Miner was 14 or 15, she sent a question about then-Congressman Dan Rostenkowski’s (D-Ill.) tax proposal into Gov. Mario Cuomo’s radio show and Cuomo decided to answer Miner’s question, with her live on the phone, on show. After high school, she worked on Sen. Bob Kerrey’s (D- Neb.) presidential campaign, Geraldine Ferraro’s senate campaign from New York, and as an aide for Gov. Cuomo.
For her own career in public office, Miner started as a Common Councilor in 2002 and won a tight race against Republican Jeff DeFrancisco, son of state senator John DeFrancisco. In 2005, she defeated Republican Bill Harper to remain a Common Councilor-at-Large.
She first ran for the Common Council, she said, because she thought there was a need for a change in the city. “I was getting frustrated about what I thought was a lack of vision for the city and a lack of ability to push the city forward,” said Miner. “I thought I had the ability to do that and that I was vocal enough to help the city do that.”
While on the Common Council, Miner has served as the chair of the finance committee and now is the chair of the education committee.
Miner has tackled issues relating to the environment, economic development and education. She is most proud, she said, of her work to allocate $1 million for the “Say Yes to Education Initiative” that pays for college for graduates of city schools.
But Miner’s work with the Common Council has also earned her a reputation as a vocal contrarian, even among fellow Democrats. For example, Miner fomented a rebellion with six Common Councilors to vote against a tax deal for the Destiny USA project. She was the most vocal of those Councilors in criticizing Mayor Matt Driscoll, a fellow Democrat, for what she said was an end-run around the Council to set up his own deal. Just this year in January, when the Common Council voted in favor of a 36 percent pay increase for the mayor, Miner was one of only two Councilors who voted against it.
“It’s never easy to vote in the minority,” Miner said. “One of the skills that I bring is that I am an advocate and I am willing to stand up and represent a point of view that may be difficult or unpopular but that I believe is the right thing to do.”
That’s won her some criticism from fellow government officials and city residents, who have argued that her long, drawn-out fights with government departments have cost time and taxpayer money.
In responding to Miner’s critics, Councilor-at-Large Bill Ryan says that Miner’s toughness is often misinterpreted. Miner urged Ryan to run for Councilor-at-Large when she met him in 2003.
“Sure she can she be shrill and be a bit aggressive. But I think you want that in a leader,” said Ryan. “You want someone who is tough and who stands up for what she believes in and I don’t think people always equate that toughness with a woman.”
When she ran for office, Miner said, she was clear that she would not be a “go along, get along” type of person. Instead, she said, she would be someone who would consistently “challenge the status quo.”
“I think it’s very fair to say that I have critics and there are people that don’t support me,” said Miner. “If you are happy with where the city of Syracuse is right now than I am probably not the candidate you are going to support.”
She gets her confidence and willingness to take a contrary stand from her grandmothers, Miner said. They are bigger role models to her than any office-holder or public figure. And it was those weekends stuffing envelopes and attending political events, said Miner, that had the biggest impression upon her.
“What I am profoundly grateful for is that every day they taught me through their own behavior and the way that they were, about respecting myself and respecting other people and being open to the world,” Miner said. “They also showed me that just because I am a woman doesn’t mean that they thought I wasn’t capable of doing anything as well as anybody else.”
Miner on the Issues:
Education would be her main focus, Miner says. “The things that I have accomplished in my life and the things my family has accomplished would not have been possible without a sound educational system,” she said. To improve education, Miner said, her goal would be to “fully implement and execute” the “Say Yes” initiative, a program that offers college scholarships to students in the Syracuse City School District. She calls the opportunities that “Say Yes” offers a potential “turning point” for the city of Syracuse.
To propel economic development, Miner said, she would provide tax breaks and resources to businesses that “embrace innovative environmental sustainability initiatives.” For example, she would “forgive” taxes on businesses that meet national Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — or LEED — environmental standards. Another option would be to provide resources to people who want to reuse or rebuild old buildings, she said. Under this plan, people who want to just tear down a building and build, for example, a parking lot in its place, would not receive any benefits.
Public safety could be improved by having more neighborhood police patrols and surveillance, said Miner. One way to tackle the public safety problem, Miner said, is to look at examples of programs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York that have been successful in reducing crime. “If those cities can figure it out, we can do the same,” she said.
(Jason Tarr is a senior with triple majors in broadcast journalism, international relations and Spanish.)