ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick will be leaving office in a month in a surprising turn of events announced Wednesday night at Common Council. Alderperson Laura Lewis will take over as acting mayor on Feb. 7, 2022.
Myrick will stay in Ithaca, which he said was an important factor in his decision, but is taking a job as the executive director of People for the American Way (PFAW). PFAW is a liberal think-tank and nationwide organization that Myrick has worked with since 2017, when he was appointed to be its Director of Youth Leadership Programs. He made the announcement, fighting back emotion, during Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, and had notified senior staff earlier in the day.
“I’ve given a state of the city address nine times before, and it is with deeply mixed emotions that this will be my final state of the city address,” Myrick said, before an extended list of thank yous to unsung city staff members. “Fighting for this community is all I’ve done in my adult life. It’s my only passion and it’s what has kept me motivated. […] I believe we can do everything we set out to do.”
He finished with a reading of the poem ITHACA by Constantine Cavafy. Lewis then accepted the role of acting mayor, and Alderperson Ducson Nguyen will serve as alternate acting mayor.
Myrick, Ithaca’s 44th mayor, held the office for longer than any of his predecessors. With 10 years since his first election, he surpassed Ed Conley and Carolyn Peterson, who both served eight years. He made history when he was elected as well, becoming the state’s youngest-ever mayor and Ithaca’s first Black mayor.
“I love Ithaca. I’ve loved serving this City, and I believe my service has made a difference,” said Myrick. “I also love this country. The American democratic experiment is the reason that someone like me — born into homelessness, and raised by a single mother — was able to attend an institution like Cornell, and serve the city he loves. But I am alarmed at the full frontal assault our democracy. I believe my service can make a difference in the struggle ahead, and I want to protect that American dream for people of all backgrounds.”
Lewis will not serve the rest of Myrick’s term, which was scheduled to last until the end of 2023. There will be primaries held this year, with a general election held in November 2022. Coincidentally, that is also when the fate of the proposed city manager position will be decided, which will greatly affect the mayoral role.
City colleagues followed Myrick’s announcement with their own gratitude for his service. Nguyen called it the “honor of his life” to have worked with him, while Alderperson George McGonigal offered his admiration of Myrick’s approach and work with the homeless population.
“One thing I’ve always admired about the mayor is if he thinks something isn’t working, he’ll try something different,” McGonigal said. “He has the courage to try new things and new ways to go about them, and I admire that very much.”
New member Phoebe Brown, who was sworn in earlier in the morning, lamented that she wouldn’t get the chance to work with the mayor while she serves on Common Council. Brown, who ran against Myrick previously, commended him for his work and for his leadership as a Black politician and community leader.
PFAW President and CEO Ben Jealous wrote in an announcement that Myrick’s duties with the organization will include “fundraising, donor cultivation, media and public speaking roles as well as continuing the important work he has already initiated to build strategic partnerships and advance People For’s democracy reform initiatives.”
“There are few leaders in our nation who possess Svante’s ability to build big broad coalitions for change, and the courage necessary to see those changes through regardless of the politics of the moment,” Jealous said. “Despite his youth, Svante has consistently demonstrated the wisdom and steadiness of a seasoned leader well beyond his years. Svante’s record speaks for itself. Ithaca has prospered and his leadership has helped to set national models for how we can reimagine public safety. Our nation is now at a crossroads as our democracy suffers from voter suppression and right wing assaults on our most valued institutions. There is no more critical moment to have Svante expand his role with People For as we seek to permanently repair the damage being done to our democracy by right wing extremists.”
“I want to thank Ben for his continued faith, support, and leadership,” Myrick said. “I am looking forward to working with him against ‘the big lie,’ and to protect and defend the right to vote.”
Myrick leaves as a still-popular figure, having won his last election with over 75 percent of the vote in 2019. Plus, the Ithaca economy is still relatively booming, especially considering that its one of the only growing economies around central New York. There was a large fiscal turnaround for the city under his leadership, as Ithaca had been struggling mightily after the 2008 global recession. He was also able to consistently lower property tax rates, at least in part due to the amount of development that has taken place under his watch, and the Commons reconstruction was one of the flagship projects of his early tenure.
But significant parts of his legacy in the city remain unfinished. While development has been rampant around the city, the local housing crisis has remained acutely burdensome for people trying to live here—though Myrick has long maintained that it would take a long time to see market change there, and several affordable housing projects have been approved and come online during his term, including the underway Asteri Ithaca project atop the Green Street Garage.
Other initiatives, too, remain started but not finished. Myrick’s Ithaca Plan, which was widely applauded when it was introduced as a progressive, harm-reduction approach to helping people using drugs. But New York City introduced its overdose prevention sites late last year while Ithaca has still not introduced its own.
The Ithaca Green New Deal, a historic step for environmentalism and sustainability for a municipality, seems to be cruising along, particularly under the leadership of Luis Aguirre Torres. The Reimagining Public Safety remains in motion, though its progress has been slower than initially anticipated and has garnered criticism from both sides of the aisle—from the right, saying it is too punitive and harms the police, and from the left, saying it is too lackadaisical.
Read Myrick’s full open letter here.