In 2012 Svante Myrick became, at age 24, the youngest ever mayor of the city of Ithaca. He won reelection in 2015. In his tenure as mayor he has closed the city’s budget deficit, while lowering taxes and adding affordable housing. Below he talks knocking doors, figuring out self care, and the importance of inviting young people to run.
Obviously you’ve been involved in politics since a very young age — you’re still young, but was there a particular event or issue that made you want to get involved, or was that always a goal for you? When did you know this was for you?
It’s funny, I think I was always interested in government. Growing up, growing up poor especially, is a good way to become acquainted with the way the government can affect us. From walking into the store carrying food stamps and struggling to understand the difference between food stamps and money, and why it was we didn’t have enough money, just the way it affects us.
Living at times in homeless shelters, realizing there’s this collective effort out there to help people and that some people oppose those efforts. So I was just always interested in government. The incitement to run happened, like it did for so many people, is that I was invited to run. I think that’s what’s great about initiatives like Run for Something is that they are doing what it takes, which is inviting people. You know, people don’t show up to parties unless they’re invited to them and it’s often young people especially who are not really invited to this particular party.
What made you feel ready? Or did you?
It’s different in each case. I ran for the city council when I was 20 and for mayor when I was 24. In both cases I really had to trust in the confidence that other people placed in me. Before you’re confident in yourself, the fact that other people want you to succeed and believe you can do the job helps a great deal.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you ran?
To some degree, in some cases, ignorance is bliss. I didn’t know how tough it would be when I began, particularly when I began the mayoral race. I think that’s a good thing. If I had known how tough it would be I think maybe I would not have done it. Sometimes that’s the beauty of youth is that you’re too naive to know what you can’t do. Sometimes you just do it, you pull it off. Before taking the job, before actually winning the seat, there’s this balance between work and life — between achieving your professional goals and achieving your public goals, the things you want to help the community do. It’s important too to have personal goals. I didn’t know that, I didn’t learn that until just recently. It’s been challenging through my time in public office to maintain relationships and take care of myself. I’m learning how to do that and if I wish I knew anything before, I wish that was it.
How do you do that? Taking care of yourself and balancing?
Oh boy, I’m still — I’m figuring that out. It’s not easy because it’s — when the public trusts you with something, it’s an awesome responsibility and it can feel more important than anything you have going on in your own life. So if you have to break dates or lose touch with people or delay routine maintenance on yourself you do that. But I’ve learned that you can take the best care of other people when you yourself are taken care of. I try to remind myself of that.
But yeah, if you figure out how to do that, let me know.
What was the best advice about campaigning that you got?
I guess to listen more than you talk. Most people who run for these jobs, it’s because you’ve got a lot of ideas rolling around in your head, you’ve got a lot of things that you think should be done and that you want to be done. You’re going to get a chance to share those ideas. It just happens, you’ll get a chance, but when you have a voter in front of you don’t be eager to impress them with how many ideas you have. Just be eager to listen. What will happen is that however smart you are or however smart you think you are, every single voter you’ll learn something you didn’t know before and what you learn will make you better prepared for the job you’re stepping into. That was the best advice I got.
What was the most gratifying part of campaigning for you?
Winning. No question, it was winning. Actually, the single most gratifying part of campaigning is fulfilling campaign promises. When you run for reelection and people say, “I didn’t vote for you the first time but I’m going to vote for you this time because you actually did what you said you were going to.” Or when you go back to the door of a couple that’s frustrated by the city sidewalk policy and you promise them you’ll make a difference but you can tell they’re weary because nobody’s ever figured it out before. Then that same couple comes to the office a few months later and says, “Thank you, you actually pulled it off.” There’s nothing more gratifying than that.
What is the thing you least expected about campaigning, or about serving as mayor?
I think how little the voters care about things the media cares about. There’s a huge disconnect between the things the press covers, certainly both in campaigns and in office, and things that drive people to vote. The best way to test it is to show up directly at their doorstep and to listen directly to them and not try to understand them through the lens of the media. (Not to sound too much like Donald Trump.)
In retrospect, what do you think contributed most to the success of your campaign? Obviously it’s a multi-tiered effort, but what do you think set you apart?
Like you said, it is multi-tiered. It had to be the right person for the right place at the right time. In a very contested race, with tons of people in it. I think though ultimately we just worked harder. I had a full-time job and I left it three months before the campaign to work around the clock. My team was tenacious. I knocked on every door in the city of Ithaca two and a half times. And then a team of volunteers knocked on every door in the city twelve or thirteen times. I think that was old fashioned shoe leather.
If there was anything you could share with a first time candidate or someone thinking about running, what would that be?
A first time candidate: get to people’s doors. Don’t spend so much time online, don’t even spend too much time at events, go to people’s doors and listen to them on their cares.
You mentioned that the campaign was hard and I’m wondering what kept you motivated? Any songs on repeat?
We had a playlist for sure, we had an entire playlist, which is surely by now dated enough to be embarrassing — if it weren’t embarrassing at the time. I think, too, being surrounded by good people. They will keep you motivated because when you run out of energy they will have it. When you lack confidence, they’ll give it to you. And when you need somebody to just complain to, they’ll be there. I think having good people around you is the best form of motivation.
What are you proudest of in the campaign — any of them?
The thing I’m proudest of is that we won while the other campaigns made more — how to say this — grandiose promises. There were campaigns that promised things that were, quite frankly, unrealistic. There were campaigns that relied on name recognition, somebody who’s been around a long time. What I like most about it is that the hallmark of our campaign was hard work and hard listening. Those were the two things people knew they were going to get from us and I was very proud of that. That we got more petitions than anybody else in the race, we knocked on more doors than anybody else in the race by far. We prepared harder and longer for the candidate forums and the debates and that makes me proud.
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