By Dave McCleary –
“What’s great about our race is that it’s very grassroots, “she explained. “We’ve made it a point of trying to get to as many people as possible… church groups, graduation parties, wherever the people are.”
Born to a family of Mexican immigrants, Perez Williams is currently poised to become the first Latina mayor in New York state.
She said she is humbled by the possibilities.
“It’s not about me though,” Perez Williams said. “It’s about the people. This is a diverse city with diverse issues—all significant—and this is the first time, I believe, people have a choice to have someone that will not only hear them through as to what they need for their neighborhood, but will actually effectuate the change.”
Perez Williams, 53, said her candidacy has also brought notoriety to a city that has long been in need of attention.
“Everywhere I go people want to talk about the fact that this city is the heart of New York state, and we need to start putting ourselves out there. We can prove to the rest of the state what we can do right here in Syracuse, NY,” she stated.
And, neighborhood revitalization is at the top of her agenda.
“Our neighborhoods are the core to everyone being able to prosper and have some opportunity here,” Perez Williams said. “Like many people in this city, I come from a place of poverty. I’m a beneficiary of democratic programs like head-start, free school lunches, free college education; initiatives that are the bread and butter of getting our kids to better opportunity.”
“I’ve got to focus on deer management in one part of the city,” she added, jokingly. “And, I’ve got to focus on lead poisoning our children in another part of the city. The point is, what we do on Gifford St. is gonna’ be different from what we do on Westcott St., and it should be that way.”
Perez Williams has a background in law, and, she previously served as the top attorney for the city of Syracuse.
Still, she said she never planned to run for public office.
“About two years ago, I started having my closest friends saying to me, ‘Would you consider running?’ And, at first I laughed about it, but I was easily persuaded,” she reminisced. “But, I don’t think it was a coincidence though. At the same time, I was going through a new journey with my faith, and I started to feel a calling. I started to hear purpose.”
A recent Syracuse.com/Spectrum News/Siena College poll shows Perez gaining a slight lead over Independent candidate Ben Walsh (35% to 28% respectively), with the other candidates – Republican candidate Laura Lavine, Working Families Party candidate Joe Nicolette, and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins – all polling in the single digits.
Yet, while Perez Williams appears to have a broad range of support across racial and ethnic lines, several prominent African Americans have recently voiced their support for her opponent, Ben Walsh.
Walt Dixie, president of the Alliance Network, Syracuse Common Councilor At-Large Helen Hudson, Onondaga County Legislator Monica Williams, and Sharon Owens, director of the Southwest Community Center, have all said they are supporting Walsh.
“This year, the mayoral race is important because the City of Syracuse will face challenges that require a leader with the temperament and compassion to unite all sectors of the city to address them,” Dixie said in a statement. “It is imperative that we support the political representatives who work within the community to make good decisions and policies for the people in our neighborhoods.”
However, not all the dissenting voices have been so civil.
The discussion heated up on Facebook recently, after Sharon Owens posted a comment that was critical of Perez Williams.
Paul Driscoll, a Perez Williams supporter, subsequently chimed in, and defended Williams’ character while challenging Owens’ record.
The post led to a back and forth, ultimately including other prominent African Americans who are also supporting Walsh.
According to Perez Williams, the social media commentary is indicative of decade-old Syracuse political practices.
“The day several community members came out in support of my opponent was the same day a poll came out citing that I had the support of 68 percent of African American voters, while my opponent only had 3 percent,” she said. “I truly believe it’s indicative of the way politics have been handled in this city for many years. Often some who are part of the population that are marginalized will tend to get on the horse of someone else.”
But, despite the recent social media fracas, Perez Williams says she wants to be a mayor for everyone.
“I’m a new face. I’m an outsider, but I understand the issues,” she said. “I can meet with the family who is a victim of gun violence, and at the same time I can sit with the governor to discuss economic initiatives.”
Perez Williams has recently received nine mayoral endorsements, including support from mayors in Buffalo, Rochester and Ithaca.
“I get it!” she said. “I get the struggle. I get the challenges but I know it’s possible to overcome if we do this together.”