A Q&A With Millennial Mayor Svante Myrick
Ten years ago, Svante Myrick would have been considered an unlikely candidate to become the youngest mayor in Ithaca, New York's history. Raised by a single mother, Myrick and his three siblings spent nights in homeless shelters and relied on the local food pantry when money was tight. Yet, inspired by his mother's perseverance and work ethic, Myrick worked his way through Cornell University and at 24 was elected mayor of the City of Ithaca. Now 26, the mayor spends his days trying to close the budget gap he inherited, speaking with civic groups and constituents, and ensuring the day-to-day operations of this city of 30,000 run smoothly.
With his high-profile election and passion for government, Myrick's future seems limitless, and many have speculated on what his political future holds. In an interview with PolicyMic pundit Danielle Schlanger, Myrick spoke about his election's historical significance, his political role model, and how, on many nights, he ends his days watching Sportscenter:
Danielle Schlanger (DS): In interviews, you've talked about some of your early struggles growing up.
Svante Myrick (SM): Growing up, I was lucky because I had a mother who had at least a couple of jobs. I was lucky that I had a big family, aunts, uncles, we had a lot of love but never had a lot of money. A few times we were very, very poor and a few times we were homeless. We spent weeks or months in homeless shelters, the longest stints lasted a few months. It was tough. [Going through that], you can see how powerful a community of support is. How a family has to be part of that, friends have to be part of that, the government has to be part of that. I still believe a smart energetic government is a positive thing for our society.
DS: You had never heard of Cornell University before a high school guidance teacher encouraged you to apply. What do you think that says about the education gap in New York State?
SM: I think [the education gap] is huge. The truth is too many of us, where we're born and the family we're born into, determines where will end up for the rest of our lives. When you have family who has been to the Ivy League, you are groomed for it, trained for it. I never thought I could go to Cornell because I didn't know anyone who went to an Ivy League school. I didn't think I could become a lawyer because I didn't know any lawyers. I didn't think I could become a doctor because the only doctor I knew was our family doctor. It limits what you can dream for yourself.
DS: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the city of Ithaca right now?
SM: Our budget right now is very tight. I inherited a $3 million dollar budget deficit in a budget of $60 million, and you know, taxes are extremely high in Ithaca. We can't just raise taxes. The work force has also been cut over the past five years. These things are very tough right now.
DS: Describe a day in the life as mayor of the city.
SM: No two days are alike, which is great. Most days are very long. My first meeting will be at 8 in the morning, and I usually make it home around 10. It's a 12-14 hour day. I grab breakfast on the go, usually Collegetown Bagels. I have about a dozen meetings, everything from formal City Council meetings to senior staff meetings. There are 26 people who report directly to me, in over 12 different departments. This includes the police and fire chiefs. I meet with the city attorney three times a week. I end up giving speeches quite a bit, at least one or two small ones a day, whether it's a ribbon cutting or a business luncheon. Every month I have pizza with each member of the City Council individually. This helps them stay connected to the executive branch, and keep the lines of the communication open. Then I go home, watch Sportscenter, and wake up and do it again. It's more tiring when you describe than when you actually do it. It's pretty fun.
DS: Why did you decide to run for office while you were still in College?
SM: I thought I had something to contribute. I loved [Ithaca], and I wanted to be useful, and I thought I could be useful. The average age in Ithaca is only 20 years old, and there weren't any students on the ten-person City Council. There were a lot of issues that were being ignored, renters right to infrastructure upgrades, and a number of issues in the teenage community in Ithaca.
[During college] I was a tutor and mentor in the schools, and would go four times a week. At the time, we were seeing a lot of racial strife between students of color and their white, rural counterparts. This actually sparked the idea for creating a youth council. The Ithaca Youth Council is now in its fifth year, and is a group that mimics the City Council. It's entirely made up of teenagers. Some of them attend our meetings. They design resolutions they think can help the teen population. Through spoken resolutions, they have banned smoking outdoors, in playground and dining areas. They're currently working on health and wellness initiative to change the way they eat, as obesity has become a bigger problem.
DS: Did people have doubts about your age?
SM: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I ran, and still to this day. But you know, there's not much you can do about that. You just have to do a good job, and have the work speak for itself.
DS: You are also one of the youngest elected African-Americans in U.S. history. How do you see this achievement?
SM: It's overwhelming a bit. A large part of that achievement doesn't belong to me. I'm only allowed to be elected because of what black Americans did before me. It was not something I used to think about a lot, but once a teenage boy told me that he was in City Hall, and he was stopped in the elevator and asked "Hey, are you the mayor?" As a young black teenager in this country, he gets confused for a lot of things. People follow him around in stores, people walk on the other side of the street when they see him, but he was never assumed to be a figure of authority. He was never mistaken for someone who should be looked up to and respected. It changed the way he saw himself, and I think that's pretty cool.
DS: According to the last census, your city is only 6.1% African American. Are there racial tensions in the City? In Tompkins County?
SM: It's one of the larger issues facing the City. The historical injustices are still alive today. They are alive in the minds of the people. We are working to try to fix this at the local level, the way things are expressed, the attention people of color receive, the infrastructure upgrades, the kind of attention with housing.
DS: Who are your role models? Your political role models?
SM: My political role model is Mayor Cory Booker. He's terrific. He's coming to Cornell next week for the commencement address. He shows the way on how you can take a city in a very difficult situation, with financial problems and limited resources, and bring people together. He was a role model from afar for a really long time, and he is now gives me advice fairly often.
DS: What do you see yourself doing in 20, 30 years?
SM: Oh my goodness, if I'm not the mayor, I have no idea. I could see myself being the mayor. I would be in my 6th term. If I'm not doing that, I really don't know. Being the mayor is the coolest job you could imagine. You're working in government, but you're working directly with the people. I'm very happy about where I am. [At one point] I considered law school because that's what everyone sort of told me to do, "you're on the city council, the next logical thing is law school," but I didn't want to. I wanted to continue serving and continue being helpful.
DS: What advice would you give to Millennials interested in pursuing a career in politics?
SM: There's this myth that says serving in government has to be a second career. Young people have something valuable to contribute right now with their energy, with their creativity, and with their moral authority. Government needs these values right now. So if you want to serve, jump right in.
Interview has been condensed and edited.