Meeting the moment: J. Ryan McMahon II leads Onondaga County through its darkest days

By David Tyler

Photos by Alice G. Patterson

In late January, at the height of the second wave of the  pandemic, Onondaga County Executive J. Ryan McMahon II was home on a Saturday feeling deflated. He had just received a phone call letting him know that 13 county residents had died that day. The number of daily positive COVID-19 cases had surged to nearly 500. The county health department was getting overrun and local hospitals were nearing their breaking point. With the test positivity rate nearing 9 percent, he realized that the county was nearing the threshold that would require another complete shutdown.

“In my own head that was really one of the darkest moments,” he said. “I knew we had to do something different. We had to take our stand.”

And so on that Saturday, McMahon came up with a Hail Mary idea to provide the health department with the necessary resources to track and trace the spread of the virus and get the number of new cases under control. He mobilized every county employee from every department and quickly converted them to case investigators.

“We had hundreds of employees doing the work, so we could get our arms around it,” he said. “It worked. We were able to box it in.”

Daily case numbers dropped, and by the beginning of March the test positivity rate dropped to between 1 and 2 percent.

In the long saga that has been this pandemic, McMahon sees that moment as a turning point, and believes it’s one of the main reasons that Onondaga County has fared better than other large counties in the state.

A rising political star

McMahon grew up on Wellesley Road in the Strathmore neighborhood. His parents both worked for the city of Syracuse – his father a codes inspector and his mother working in neighborhood community development. It was a big family, with his adopted older brother and three younger siblings and extended family living all around.

“The McMahon family’s been on Wellesley Road for generations. At different times, there would be five or six McMahons on Wellesley Road at a time. I think there’s three there now,” he said. “It was a big Irish Catholic family that was always ingrained in their community and I kind of learned a little bit about service through that.”

When he was a teenager, the family came together to found the McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy site, an organization focused on ending child abuse in the community. McMahon was an active volunteer as the fledgling organization got off the ground, giving him a taste of public service.

A few years later, after his junior year at LeMoyne College, he began to work in Assemblyman Hal Brown’s office, where he got a feel for the political side of community service. And by the time he graduated, he said he was   and beginning to think about a career in politics.

As luck would have it, a seat on the Syracuse Common Council soon became available, and at 23, McMahon tossed his hat in the ring.

He worked hard, meeting with community groups, knocking on doors, learning the different issues that affect different neighborhoods. When the campaign was over, he expected to win, but when the votes were tallied, McMahon had lost in a close race. He took the setback hard.

“I was 23 – young, had always had things go my way for the most part, and I lost – I lost a close race,” he said. “It was my first real big failure in a public setting, and you can’t hide that.”

He had to decide if he wanted to stay the course with politics or do something different.

“I made a lot of connections in the neighborhoods, and a lot of people invested in me, with their time and their support,” McMahon said. “I had to decide, did I mean what I said? These people believed what I said. Do I stick with it and get back up?”

And so within a month of his first electoral defeat, he began going back into the neighborhoods, meeting with community groups, paving the way for the 2005 campaign, which, eventually, he won.

“That was a big moment in my career.” he said.

McMahon served for six years on the Syracuse Common Council before successfully running for the Onondaga County Legislature in 2011. The day he was sworn in as a legislator, he was also voted in as chairman.

“We had a lot of success at the legislature, we had a good team,” he said. But after a few years, he set his sights on higher office – the county executive position.

In 2018, then-County Executive Joanie Mahoney left the post for a position in state government. With the support of the Republican caucus in the legislature, McMahon was quickly appointed to fill the remainder of her term. A year later, he   to the position after a hard-fought campaign in which he focused on his PIE agenda – tackling poverty, infrastructure, and economic development.

But that agenda – and everything else – was about to hit a brick wall.

“We were off and running,” McMahon said. “Going into 2020, our agenda, we were flying high, great stuff going on in ‘19, and then [COVID] happened.”

 

Meeting the moment

Across the country, executive leaders at all levels of government have seen their fortunes fall because of their handling of the pandemic. Many have argued that former President Donald Trump’s fate in the November election was sealed by his handling of the crisis. Gov. Andrew Cuomo – once the darling of cable news – now faces calls for his impeachment, in part because of policies and cover ups related to COVID deaths in nursing homes. Like most everything in the United States today, the pandemic has become a political football, and leaders from both parties have come under heavy scrutiny for either being too restrictive or too laissez faire about their handling of the virus.

Through this period, however, McMahon has stayed largely above the fray.

“We talk about meeting the moment. Every day you have to meet the moment,” he said. “  and a different issue every day that  a lot to someone in the community.”

Beginning last spring, McMahon began holding near-daily briefings that were livestreamed on Facebook. His philosophy during these briefings is simple – be honest with the public and have your tone match the tone in the community.

“It was our job to communicate where we were, what the fed rules were, what the state rules were, what our role was,” he said. “This was all about a relationship with the community, so that they could trust me and when we would ask them to make sacrifices they would respond. And I think for the most part that has worked, and that’s why our community has fared much, much better than other large communities in the state.”

And he has purposefully avoided any of the partisan battles that have boiled over during the past year, sometimes offering praise to both Democrats and Republicans who have aided in Onondaga County’s recovery and leveling criticism at members of both parties for policies he believed impeded the county’s progress.

“I saw what happened with this pandemic and the politics that were injected into it on the right and the left, and you can’t get good results that way, and I think people are sick of it,” McMahon said. “This has been a war. By not getting into that fray, we kept more troops working toward the goal to win this thing.”

Throughout the pandemic, he has taken a hands-on role, and as the focus moved from reducing the rate of transmission to vaccine distribution, that role has been even greater.

“I know that this is how we end this. I know that this is the most important thing, likely, I hope, that we will ever do,” he said. “I’m responsible for that. And so if there are mistakes made, they need to be mine.”

 

‘It consumes you’

In one way or another, every American has been affected by the pandemic. For some, it was death, illness or the loss of a loved one. For others it was economic calamity, or the mental health challenges that result from anxiety and isolation. For Ryan McMahon, it was the stress of leading a county of nearly half a million people through crisis, and the serious health implications that ensued.

“It consumes you, always trying to stay ahead of it,” he said. “You can’t turn it off. It doesn’t go away.”

On Feb. 4, a Thursday, Gov. Cuomo made everyone 65 and older eligible for the vaccine. It was good news, but at the same time vaccines were in very limited supply compared with the demand, and the phones at the county executive’s office rang off the hook with people trying to get vaccinated.

“ people looking for a shot, and I had 1,200 to give away,” he said. “People were desperate. And there was nothing I could do to change the outcome.”

The following day, after a sleepless night, he said he felt blinded by some light and his equilibrium was off. On that Friday evening, he met with his team and was seeing double. He asked for a ride home, thinking it was likely a migraine, even though he hadn’t suffered from migraines in the past. By Saturday, his double vision and the vertigo sensation were even worse.

“I woke up the next day, and I couldn’t see. I saw so much that I just couldn’t see,” he said. “I actually tried to shovel my front porch and I couldn’t even stand. It was so off, I kept on falling in the snow.”

He called his doctor, who suggested he get his blood pressure taken. It was through the roof.

McMahon spent that Sunday going through a battery of tests, including multiple MRIs and CT scans and a spinal tap. A brain tumor was ruled out and his physicians didn’t think it was stroke. After a couple of days of testing, he had a diagnosis. He had thyroid dysfunction and excessively high blood pressure that caused a nerve that controls his left eye to break away from the muscle, effectively leaving him unable to control his left eye. The most likely cause is stress.

On Monday, he did his regular public briefing, keeping county residents up to date with information about cases and vaccine distribution. Within days, he gave the State of the County address, which he had to memorize because he couldn’t read his notes. Throughout it all, he was up front about his health, even at the potential cost of having the public lose confidence in his ability to lead.

“I felt like I had to be honest with what happened to me. It could be used as a credible messenger moment for others   and address the fact that we’ve all gone through something none of us have ever gone through,” he said. “Everybody’s been impacted by it and that’s ok. It’s ok to get help.”

He gets emotional when he talks about the “overwhelming” community response to the news of illness.

“We got a lot of letters,” he said. “A lot of people reaching out sharing their stories. That was a pretty good feeling.”

More than three months later, McMahon estimates about 65 percent of his vision has returned. He still has a blind spot on the left side and sees double when trying to look to the left, but he has lost weight, can now run on a treadmill without losing his balance, and is getting his blood pressure under control.

 

A family’s sacrifice

McMahon met his wife, Kate, at a restaurant on the west side. They both came from large west-end families although they didn’t know each other until this chance meeting. After dating for a few months, when the holidays came around, they spent a lot of time with each other’s families, and it dawned on McMahon that this relationship would be more than just dating.

“There was a pretty good reaction,” he said. “I felt like I could see a future.”

Kate is a teacher in the Baldwinsville school district and the couple now lives with their three children, Jack, 13, Madeleine, 11 and Andrew, 4, in the Winkworth neighborhood on the west side.

They’re great kids, he said. But in addition to the sacrifices that all kids have made during the pandemic, it has been especially difficult for them because of how consuming his role has been the past 14 months.

“When you are home, sometimes you’re really not home,” he said. “And for [Kate], she’s had to sacrifice a lot because she really hasn’t had a husband there to address what she’s been going through as an adult in this pandemic,

McMahon heaps praise on several women in his administration who have helped lead the county through this crisis and has often given his briefings standing shoulder to shoulder with Commissioner of Health Dr. Indu Gupta. The female members of his executive leadership team include two of his deputy county executives, Ann Rooney and Mary Beth Premo, and his chief of staff, Sue Stanczyk. He calls his economic development specialist Isabelle Harris and his communications and research specialist TeNesha Murphy “complete rock stars.”

Developing a diverse staff, he said, has been easy, because the women in his administration have proven to be the most competent and qualified for their respective jobs.

“They are some of the most competent employees we have in all of government. You want to have a diverse staff, but I want the best,” he said. “There’s intention, but at the same time it’s easy when they’re the best.”

 

Beyond the pandemic

Before the pandemic began, McMahon felt that Onondaga County was on track to make a difference in the three focus areas of his agenda – fighting poverty, replacing aging infrastructure and economic development. As the virus slowly fades away, he hopes to be turning his attention back to those core areas in short order.

“The big thing is, number one, we’ve got to end this pandemic. Number two, we’ve got to keep schools open for full in-person learning,” he said. “But at some point we just want to fully go into the recovery.”

McMahon sees future targeted investments in the economic sectors that were “decimated” by the pandemic to keep recovery steaming ahead, like the restaurant program where the county used $500,000 to double the value of gift certificates purchased for use at locally-owned restaurants.

There is a lot to do to get Onondaga County back on track, but at 40 years old, McMahon could have several decades remaining in his political career, and his name has been mentioned as a potential candidate for higher state or federal offices. He’s been asked to run for congress three times, he said, and has turned the opportunity down three times. It’s flattering, he said, that his name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. While he’s not shy about discussing a potential political leap, for now he is solely focused on the county’s needs.

“I love this job. I absolutely love this job. I have a vision and an agenda I want to get accomplished, and I feel if we can get these things done, this community will be better for the next generation,” he said. “As long as we do a good job and we’re honest with people, I think other opportunities could be there at other points in our lifetime.”