How to Rise Above
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
Ben Walsh, 54th mayor of the city of Syracuse, has some words of wisdom for anyone thinking of entering the public service sector.
“I think it’s important that you don’t predetermine your destiny or pursue one option at the expense of all others,” he said.
It’s that thoughtful approach that landed Ben — a man who strives to lead by example — where he is now.
Growing up on the west side of Syracuse, public service was part of everyday life for him. His grandfather, William Walsh, was the city’s mayor from 1962 to 1969. His father, James Walsh, spent time on Syracuse’s common council in the late 1970s and then served as Republican congressman for two decades.
Despite his political pedigree, Ben didn’t grow up dreaming of being an elected official. It wasn’t until he was working in former Mayor Stephanie Miner’s office that Ben even considered running for public office. He was driven by a desire to enable change and fix problems, and inspired by what people could accomplish when working together toward a common goal.
“We were able to accomplish some pretty remarkable things,” he said.
The tools for change
Ben uses the phrase “public service” rather than “politics” to describe his family’s drive to make a difference.
“If they saw something in the community that they felt needed to be changed, they did something about it,” he remembered. “And the unique perspective for me was that, oftentimes, they were in a position to actually do something about it.”
Now that Ben and his wife, Lindsay, have two daughters of their own, he has a better perspective on the path that led him to public office, he remarked.
The girls, ages 4 and 8, have already begun to mention issues they think their father should fix. His older daughter has been pointing out dilapidated houses for years, since Ben was working for the city in neighborhood and business development. For a while, she probably pictured her father with a hammer and nails each day, Ben joked.
“Now, seeing that she’s very civically conscious, as I look back on my own childhood, I guess I was, too,” he said. “It’s hard not to be when you live that kind of life.”
After graduating from Westhill High School, Ben earned a bachelor’s degree in politics from Ithaca College. While he spent some time living in Albany and eventually Ireland, he kept coming back to his hometown. It always felt like home, he remembered.
From 2003 to 2004, Ben worked at the SUNY Center for Brownfield Studies at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. It was there his passion for cities — Syracuse, in particular — crystalized, he said. He returned to school at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2005.
“The reason I was going back to school was to get those tools to enact the change that I wanted to see in my hometown,” he said.
Bringing the community together
After earning a master’s degree, Ben worked for the Metropolitan Development Association and then the city of Syracuse as deputy commissioner of neighborhood and business development.
He was inspired by what could be accomplished when the people around him worked together. That’s what drove him toward public service.
The Hotel Syracuse revitalization project solidified that notion, he said. For twoand-a-half years, he spent every Monday morning working with other members of the venture. Once the financing was in place and the project started officially moving forward, something occurred to Ben.
“If you took any one of those people out of room, the project wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “The only way it worked was when everybody was working together. Maybe that sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but that’s how I felt.” In April 2016, Ben left city hall to work as business development director at the Mackenzie Hughes law firm. Soon after, though, he was drawn back to government work.
As Mayor Miner’s second term came to a close, Ben wondered who would next take the position. It had to be someone who could bring the community together, he remembered thinking. He believed that, on a smaller scale, he’d accomplished that during his time in Mayor Miner’s administration.
“Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was the best person to do it on a city-wide scale,” he said.
Ben ran a successful mayoral campaign and, on Nov. 7, 2017, won the election with 54 percent of the vote, becoming the first independent mayor in the city’s history.
He attributes a large part of his success to having run an inclusive campaign. People from different political parties and different parts of the community felt comfortable coming together to support him, he said.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact that we brought together a very diverse, broad coalition,” he said.
Creating inclusive growth
During his campaign, Ben was reminded of something he’d generally been aware of during his six years in Mayor Miner’s administration: despite the billions of dollars invested in the city during that time, some people didn’t feel connected to the economic activity happening in Syracuse.
“Depending on where you are in the city, you can walk for blocks, knock on doors and talk to people who don’t feel any connection whatsoever from that investment and haven’t benefited from it, frankly,” he said.
As mayor, Ben hopes to connect those people with their city. He stressed the importance of inclusive growth. His goal is to ensure investment and economic development are done in such a way that opportunity is created for all people, he said.
He added this extends to minority- and women-owned businesses. It’s important to be intentional in providing opportunities for local business, Ben explained.
“We know that there are a lot of entrepreneurs and businesses in the city that aren’t exposed to many of the opportunities that are here,” he said. “A lot of that just has to do with who’s in your network.”
While he was growing up, Ben’s mother often talked about the importance of networking, he recalled. As a child, he didn’t put much thought into the concept. Once he got older, though, he began to understand the correlation between networking and opportunities.
If people stay within their comfort zones and small networks, opportunities stay limited to small groups of people, he explained. He emphasized the importance of being more inclusive and extending opportunities to those who have been historically marginalized.
Leading by example, Ben extends this philosophy to his office, as well.
“In the same way that we have to be intentional about providing opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses, you have to be intentional about empowering women to take leadership roles in government,” he said. “And I’m trying to do that.”
Like many other industries, in the past, government was a male-dominated sector, but in both his campaign and in the administration, Ben has empowered a significant number of women.
The first hire of his administration was Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens. The two met years ago, when they worked together in Mayor Miner’s administration. Sharon eventually left to run the Southwest Community Center. Ben was excited to gain her support during his campaign but never thought he’d have the opportunity to bring her on board after he won.
He was pleasantly surprised when, shortly after he was elected, she expressed interest in joining the team. He hadn’t necessarily planned to have a deputy mayor.
“I didn’t plan to fill it unless I had the right person,” he explained. “When I found out that Sharon was an option, it was really the only role that I thought was worthy of her. It happened pretty quickly, and the city is much better off for that.”
While Ben’s path wasn’t always clear, his innate dedication to public service was. Right now, serving as mayor is the best way he can give back, he said, adding that in the future, it could be something completely different.
For anyone interested in entering the field of public service, the first step is to be an engaged citizen, he said.
“Read the newspaper. Be aware of what’s happening in your own community and be a part of it,” Ben said. “And I think, by doing that, you will figure out what the right role for you within the world of public service is.” SWM
To connect with Mayor Ben Walsh, visit syrgov.net or email email@example.com.