ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca’s newly former Mayor Svante Myrick spent most of last week’s snowstorm cleaning out his office on the third floor of City Hall, where he had spent the previous 10 years while leading the city during the longest mayoral term in Ithaca’s history.
His resignation for another job was a stunning announcement, although not completely out of the blue. Many city constituents, if not most, had assumed Myrick would be attempting a run for higher office when he left Ithaca, further fulfilling the wunderkind label plastered to him since he first won a Common Council spot while still a Cornell University student, and then won the mayor’s office just three years later in 2011.
As it turns out, he won’t be leaving Ithaca at all — not yet at least. Myrick announced in January that he would be stepping down from his position as mayor, opting instead to take a job leading People for the American Way (PFAW), a national organization focusing on progressive advocacy and voting rights, particularly the latter for this upcoming election cycle, it appears.
While the title and organization are undoubtedly prestigious, and more lucrative than the job of Ithaca mayor, it was still a surprising decision to city residents and staffers. In speaking about the move, Myrick has previously cited the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building as one of his main motivators for getting involved in the voting rights push. But while the fall-out of the riot (which injured over 100 people and resulted in the deaths of at least four people) was tragic and continues in the form of prosecutions of its participants, its immediate, political impact was dubious. Joe Biden did become President of the United States, the election was not overturned, and a Congressional committee has been tasked with investigating those in power who fueled it.
Yet, in Myrick’s mind, the incident did not stop simply when those who stormed the Capitol grounds packed up and went home. To him, it was indicative of something larger, more potent and more pernicious.
“It’s two-fold. I don’t think January 6 is over,” Myrick said. “The Trumpian movement is alive and well and is going to come roaring back in 2024 if we don’t do what we can to stop it. But who’s we? So you have to ask yourself, ‘Where can I be useful?’ […] But I had to think where I could have maximum positive impact or leverage. I want to have impact on races across the country, and I think that will help us achieve our goals more than me running for any one particular office and holding that office. Over the years, I’ve had to remind myself that the work is more important than the title.”
So thus ends the Myrick era. In an interview with the Ithaca Voice during his last business day in office, Myrick — at times emotional — recounted his decade in office and some of its most pivotal moments, speaking optimistically about its future and detailing the circumstances that led him to leave. He also hinted at a future back in elected office, indicating that while being part of a legislative body doesn’t hold much appeal for him (neither at the state or national level), running for an executive position like Governor or State Comptroller “is something [he’d] be interested in.”
Myrick confirmed that he has turned down previous opportunities to leave office, most notably with former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2014 for a job in which he would have been “working in the West Wing.” He declined the offer because he did not want to leave office in Ithaca while the Commons reconstruction was still in progress. The downtown overhaul was a painful time for the city, as downtown businesses struggled to stay afloat amid the construction, but ultimately stands as Myrick’s most indelible and visible mark on the city’s public infrastructure, not counting the rampant private development that took place during his tenure.
There were also certainly calls, very recently, from supporters and those within the political machine for Myrick to pursue those aforementioned higher offices or a job in the upper echelon of state government, making a split from the mayor’s role seem almost inevitable. But in the end, the PFAW opportunity presented a chance for Myrick to do something that appears important to him in conversation: drastically reducing his impact in one area to expand it, even slightly, on vastly more races and roles beyond the confines of Ithaca, Tompkins County and even New York.
Some observers, including this reporter, speculated that the evolutions of some of Myrick’s larger initiatives and Myrick’s continued forcefulness in advancing them, like the Ithaca Green New Deal’s building decarbonization program and the Reimagining Public Safety effort — to name two of the most prominent — were evidence that he was getting ready to leave office with something higher in mind. With the “legacy projects” in motion, the theory went, Myrick might feel more comfortable that the memory of his reign was solidified, thus making him more likely to depart.
But Myrick pushed back on that thought in a December interview with the Voice when his name was being mentioned as a potential Lieutenant Governor pick for the upcoming election. He expanded on it more last week, insisting that these larger moves were not a “final push,” but the result of his increasing energy level and engagement in the job of mayor — which wasn’t always the case during his term.
“That might have been partly true, it might have been that I sensed — not an ending, but a transition coming,” Myrick said. “But it was also that I just had more energy. […] I had to ask myself, ‘Do you want to be useful? Do you still believe in the mission?’”
To understand why Myrick had to ask himself those questions, you have to take a few steps back in his tenure. During the last few months, Myrick has hinted at some personal struggles that afflicted him during the latter portion of his term — specifically, around 2018 and 2019. He mentioned it during his last remarks as mayor before the Ithaca Rotary Club on Feb. 2 and again during his last interview as mayor with the Ithaca Voice last week.
“I had to figure out how to grow up,” Myrick said. “Figure out how to take better care of myself and the people around me. I threw myself into my work from the time I was 15 and I sort of thought that would save me. […] I’d sleep four hours a night. I was manic, frankly. It caught up to me.”
Essentially, Myrick burned out, though the public may not have noticed unless they were examining the bags under his eyes or some fluctuating weight. The feeling is familiar to many. For Myrick, who was working three jobs while he was at Cornell and serving on Common Council, then jumped to the mayoral role, the drive came from a fairly unhealthy place: a pervasive desire for other people’s approval, which helped fuel that productive then destructive tendency.
It took a while, and some ongoing therapy, before he was able to strike what he calls “an uneasy truce with [himself].”
“I said, ‘Look, if you commit to taking better care of yourself, having a healthier relationship with sleep, a healthier relationship with food, and a healthier relationship with alcohol, then you will be a better public servant,’ which was something I cared about,” he said.
Myrick, who frequently cites quotes from pop culture or politicians he’s drawn inspiration from, here takes a quote from long-time U.S. House of Representatives member Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, to explain some of the struggles during that time. Frank said that once the constituent concerns, voter issues, fielding requests and demands on the street, etc., became more burdensome than rewarding, he knew it was time to step away.
“There was a point, the lowest point, in that 2018 to 2019 range, where it was honestly 50-50,” Myrick said. “Every email that came in, I didn’t see it as an opportunity to serve, I saw it as a chore. Every constituent phone call didn’t excite me. […] But by taking better care of myself, I started getting that joy back. […] The Reimagining, the city manager stuff, this project next door [Asteri Ithaca, an ongoing downtown monument to Ithaca’s affordable housing needs], a lot of big stuff, I just didn’t feel like ducking it anymore. It felt like I could take it on.”
Of course, taking those on means finishing them, ideally. Myrick departs without being able to say that for this latest surge of activity, with the next significant step in the Reimagining process still a month away, the city manager/government restructuring proposal still nine months from a public referendum, the Ithaca Guaranteed Income pilot program in its nascent stages, etc.
Ithaca was also beaten to the punch on one of Myrick’s earliest and most significant initiatives, trying to be the first city in New York to bring overdose prevention sites (also known as safe injection facilities) to the city, after New York City introduced theirs late last year. And housing, while in a better spot than 10 years ago and on pace to keep improving, is still extremely burdensome or outright unattainable for large swaths of the population who are driven from the city elsewhere. Myrick spent much of his time in office addressing the housing shortage, but it’s impossible to claim he solved it during that period.
“It’s an uncomfortable part of being in public office,” Myrick said. “There’s always something that you’re in the middle of, something that you want to see through. So I came to terms with two facts: There will always be a project, so unless I can run for mayor for the next 200 years, there will always be something that I’m leaving unfinished. And the harder fact was realizing that I’m not indispensable. Other people can carry on work and can often do it better than you can.”
Laura Lewis, Myrick’s chosen replacement for the next nine months, has already expressed her support for the Reimagining Public Safety, as well as others like working group leaders Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood to carry out the work necessary of the mayor to help guide that process to success.
“The community wants this. With Reimagining, it’s something I care about, I hope I’ve made a difference on it, but it’s something the community is doing, not the mayor,” Myrick said. To varying degrees, similar sentiments can be applied to each of the projects he is leaving behind.
Myrick has captured headlines plenty of times since 2011. Some of them were met with widespread applause, like declaring Ithaca a sanctuary city in 2017 in the face of budgetary threats from the federal government at the time. Others were met with skepticism or scorn, like Myrick’s longstanding friendliness to development, to name one. When asked of his toughest, or outright worst, days in office, Myrick selects a few, but all of them surround injuries or death to young people.
The city’s finances, and the pandemic, both generated some sleepless nights, he said, but the three incidents he specifically cites are the death of Amanda Bush, a pregnant mother, in the Simeon’s crash in June 2014, the stabbing death of Ithaca College student Anthony Nazaire in August 2016 and the shooting of Ithaca Police Department officer Tony Augustine in 2012.
“No day was worse than the day Officer Augustine was shot, injured in the line of duty and nearly died,” Myrick said. “The fear that we felt, the anger, and the hurting for him and his family. […] Other troubles are solvable. Money trouble was real, but manageable. But when you feel powerless like that, powerless yet responsible, that’s a tough mix.”
Myrick detailed responding to the Augustine incident, arriving on the scene in West Hill and, though impromptu, helping direct traffic while officers investigated the scene. The shooting forced Augustine off of the force, despite his best efforts to return. Jamel Booker, who was convicted in 2013 of shooting Augustine, died in 2019 while serving a 23 to 27-year sentence in Shawangunk Correctional Facility.
Beyond issues, Myrick leaves in his wake a Common Council that looks significantly different than it did just four months ago, with six new members elected in November and several allies of Myrick, like Stephen Smith, Deborah Mohlenoff and Seph Murtagh, declining to run again for various reasons. Two of those six new members, Jorge DeFendini and Phoebe Brown, were part of the Solidarity Slate and heavily backed by the Ithaca Tenants Union and the local Democratic Socialists of America, the former of which has made mocking Myrick’s action on housing and criminal justice issues a part-time hobby.
Is this all indicative of dimming influence for Myrick? Of a politician who spent ample time campaigning, listening and working for constituents to realize when they’ve had enough of him? It can be pondered, but without any real answer. Myrick maintains his confidence that he would have won another term if he sought re-election in 2023 — further evidence that the initiatives he started will be popular enough to continue and be fulfilled even when he’s gone and Lewis is in charge. This is, of course, difficult to gauge in any exact terms. There’s no approval ratings poll being conducted, though the 2019 elections (about as serviceable of an approval ratings poll as there is locally), which Myrick won handily, could suffice. He also maintains that even with recently increased scrutiny from left of the aisle, as opposed to the familiar criticism from the right, he would have been able to accomplish more of his agenda, not less.
In closing, Myrick particularly thanks his family: Leslie, Neith, Mykel and Shalita, and additionally people with roots in the City of Ithaca government: the Executive Assistant to the Mayor Annie Sherman, City Attorney Ari Lavine, the three chiefs of staff who have worked for Myrick (Kevin Sutherland, Dan Cogan and Faith Vavra) and previous mayors Carolyn Peterson, Alan Cohen and John Gutenberger.
But now, with a commitment to avoid meddling (and no real desire to, he claims), Myrick leaves office in favor of restoring what he believes to be a crucial but flagging element of democracy in America — and perhaps finding a little more stability and clarity through the job, helping others try to connect with voters like he has always been able to.
“Elections are very useful, it’s hard to separate the chatter from the truth otherwise,” Myrick said. He’s speaking locally, but it sounds as if it could easily apply to the job he’s about to enter. “For me, it’s always been very clarifying to go and knock on the doors of people in Ithaca, and ask them what they care about, and tell them what your plans are, and let them sort it out.”