City Eagle interview with Steve Kimatian

Walt Shepperd 10/16/09More articles
Running against the odds

It pains Steve Kimatian to see folks from his media profession fostering the notion that money is the factor in running a political race.

“It panders to simplicity,” he observes.

As a businessperson, he emphasizes the bottom line. In the Republican mayoral primary, for instance, he spent half as much money per vote in taking the party’s nomination away from Otis Jennings 1,741 to 1,364. Kimatian contends that message overcomes money, but he also has a significant registration factor to overcome. The day after last month’s primary, Democrats outnumbered Republicans on the city voter rolls 38,863 to 12,980.

“I do feel that the odds are uphill,” he notes, “but I also feel that I can beat the odds.” Kimatian also has the endorsement of the Independence Party, to which he belonged for ten years before returning to the ranks of the GOP to seek the city’s top spot.

A former media executive, Oprah Winfrey credits him with giving her a start as a television show host at an early age. Although he ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland state legislature in 1980, Kimatian was a political unknown locally when he announced his intention in April, less than a week before the Republican city committee gave the nomination to Jennings.

You seemed to come out of nowhere onto the local political scene. Did you just jump into this race?

That’s a fair statement. I’ve followed politics, and I’ve been interested in the issues that politicians deal with. But I hadn’t entered any races here. I will say that over the course of my time at Channel 9, I did have the opportunity to do a Sunday show. It was an interview show, and I saw to it that the issues affecting the community I had represented by individuals on the show. I follow politics, but I wasn’t involved from the politician’s perspective.

Now, I could give you one asterisk to that. When I was in Baltimore, I did run for political office. I was living in Baltimore City. I had run the ABC affiliate, Maryland Public Television, and I practiced law there. I ran for the House of Delegates for the state legislature. After that I went back to running companies and practicing law. The politician side of me, or the desire to effect change through politics, was kind of a seed that just lay dormant.

When Tom Young was elected mayor, he took his staff to Baltimore to view the harbor development, and tells the story of the mayor who fostered the human development by offering to support festivals for each population group, but demanding they all support each other’s to make it work.

It did work.

How can you get people together here, in such a segregated city as ours’?

First of all, you have to show them they have a common interest in this city, and that they care for each other.

People are not going to want to connect with another person unless they feel that the other person thinks of them with respect, thinks of them as a person with potential, has talent, is a person to be with. First we need exposure to each other. Once you get people to interact, they start to understand that they do have a lot in common. We have issues and we have good things to do that can involve the entire community.

Studies of the 2005 Census figures show Syracuse to be the third poorest city in the top 100 in the country, and to have the poorest African-American population. Is there a jump start or a quick fix for such an economic climate?

First of all, let me distinguish. Being poor doesn’t mean you can’t perform—can’t perform in school, can’t perform on the job, can’t perform in being a good parent. Except it places many obstacles. We need to bring all our neighborhoods up, and I’m talking about the poorest neighborhoods. In my campaign I literally walked around the streets. I don’t know how many shoes I took to be resoled. I knocked on two to three thousand doors to get the input. My conclusion is we have a city of very distinct neighborhoods, that have very distinct levels of income, of ability to raise children, of ability to provide for families. As a manager, and a leader, and a mayor we need to approach these neighborhoods, each one, and find a way to benchmark them and bring them up.

What input did you get when you knocked on the doors?

I asked questions like, “What is your greatest concern about your neighborhood?” Many times it was safety, security and crime. We know. We don’t have to even knock on doors for that. But it’s brought home to you when you’re standing on somebody’s front porch, and the door is open and they say the don’t feel comfortable walking out onto the street at 8 o’clock at night. You say, “Wow. But this is your home. How can you live in a city where people are actually concerned about walking outside their door.”

I thought that only happened in other countries. That was one.

Another one was jobs. The economy. We have a very poor city in terms of opportunity for employment. We’ve got to find ways to build the economy. I come from the business world. Managing companies, running organizations, talking to business people, dealing with other executives has been a large part of my life. I would do several things in order to bring greater economic prosperity to our city.

I’ll start with the smallest denominator. There are many ethnicities here who have an entrepreneurial spirit, they are the kind of people who want to start a business. The Asian community on the North Side. The African-Americans on the South Side. The Hispanic community. Starting a business in New York State is like solving a ten level anagram, where you’ve got to go through all these hoops.

I propose that we simplify the process. The city actually help those who want to take that step. That we find ways of getting over high insurance costs, bonding costs. One way is I propose that we create a municipal venture capital fund. We take $10 million of the $20 million left of the surplus, and we create a $10 million venture capital fund, which is used to jump start businesses.

The other end of the spectrum, we have an economic development department in the city, we have one in the county. There’s really no need to have two separate ones.

United we’d be much stronger. I’ve spoken to the County Executive, and as long as Syracuse city can get a benefit of what we do, whether they happen to reside in Camillus or end up downtown Syracuse, we’ll benefit.

A third way. We all know we have some valuable universities: SU, LeMoyne, OCC just within the city.

That’s wealth of opportunity. We need to use these universities and colleges more toward finding ways for our population to link with them in what they’re doing. SU and Welch Allyn, there’s a lot of work they’re doing in research that could end up in jobs. We want to be there when they’re ready to turn that research into jobs, we want them to know that the city is ready with citizens who are ready to work at those jobs.

Take the Westside Initiative. Multiple issues in that community, which really has banded together, and wants to bring itself together. You’ve got vacant homes, drug houses, streets that need paving, the school issue with Blodgett. Why not take the human capital there and covert that to asset capital of building the homes. Do the training that would get those individuals in that community to a point where they can be put to work right inside that community.

Many are looking at the Say Yes Program in the city schools as almost a silver bullet, providing college scholarships to all who graduate. Others are cynical that it won’t reach the students who are in real need. How do you see it?

Say Yes is an outstanding program, but that is the top of the pyramid in terms of what the program represents.

That’s the end product, the end game, the goal line of the program. But the real guts of that program is what it does in the elementary schools, and in the middle schools, and in the high schools. The mentoring. The additional training. All the stuff we should be doing and should have been doing all along. This is where it makes a difference. You can’t automatically wave the wand when a child is in the 12th grade and say, “You’re now ready for college,” if you haven’t done the leg work and the hard teaching required early on.

You’ve mentioned the idea of creating “academies” with small numbers of students. What would they be like?

It’s an idea my wife and I have been talking about as she has taught in different schools. We constantly saw children ages six to twelve, that you know at the age of six there was no way they were going to have a chance.

They were behind the eight ball. Their parents weren’t home, or they didn’t have parents. No one cared for them, and if they cared for them they were so preoccupied with their own struggles they couldn’t care for their children.

So they grow up with no guidance, with no mentoring, with no one who really can show them what they could be, no one to help grow them to their whole potential. We talked about this as ways of dealing with this.

I talked to several foster mothers about the idea. They said we should do it because there aren’t enough good foster homes to take the number of children who need the care. I’ve spoken to some of the people in our District Attorney’s office to find out the laws that apply, about how to do something like that in Syracuse, in New York State. A response I’ve gotten in the African-American community is, “That’s how the very wealthiest of people brought up their kids. They sent them to a boarding school.”

You’ve also spoken of attracting the 18 to 24 year olds downtown. What will bring them?

Jobs is one of the great attractions. If you had the job, then you look at the quality of life. That’s a college age, but for those who aren’t in college, we need to afford them the skill training that will get them to a point where they can stand on their own and build their own life. I look at everything as growth. I run companies, businesses, to grow them. One of the greatest pleasures is growing a child, taking a blank slate and all of a sudden they come out the other side and they actually have an understanding and a vision for what they could become.

In the media business traditionally a white male has had the best opportunities in the past, and a white male coming out of sales would have the best opportunities. But I have looked over the years to cultivate a wider variety of people who could join in that. For example, right now the general manager of Channel 9 is a woman. The fellow who ran my Elmira station is African-American. He came out of news. He wasn’t traditional sales, but we gave him the learning opportunities to fill the role.

You have proposed creating a citywide broadband system for people to connect to the Internet wirelessly. Will that create jobs?
In the end, it will create jobs because in creating a municipal WiFi network throughout the city, you create a wireless infrastructure. Much can run over that infrastructure, although initially it might be used for individual use, corporate use, business use, tourist use.

It can be used for police activity, for surveillance activity, or creating small clusters for neighborhoods. It has many uses beyond its basic wireless structure.

Traditionally Republicans don’t win here without the Conservative Party endorsement. How much does having an opponent running on the Conservative line hurt you?

I do think that the Conservative line will take some votes away from me, and part of me says, “Why does Otis want to continue running, because it would be very helpful to me if he didn’t.” Buy then I say, “Well, that’s part of the Democratic process.” That’s the way it works. If a person wants to run, and has a feeling that they can contribute to the community, we should have as little barriers as possible. Because quite frankly, there aren’t enough there aren’t enough people who want to do that.

CATEGORY: Government
TAGS: steve kimatian,syracuse mayoral race,walt shepperd,Say Yes Syracuse,GOP Kimatian
EDITION: The Eagle

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