Responding to comments regarding her artistic longevity, the legendary Aretha Franklin once was quoted as saying: “Don’t say Aretha is making a comeback because I’ve never been away!” Boxing icon Muhammad Ali (who knew something about comebacks) stated that “a true champion never forgets a real defeat.”
After taking his lumps some four years ago in a failed attempt to win re-election in 2007, Ernie Davis has proven that he deserves his adopted nickname: “The Comeback Kid.” I met with former Mayor Davis at his campaign office to discuss his return to the political landscape and his vision – should he be elected on November 8th – for the next four years.
In a stunning reaffirmation of his support among the electorate or, at least, those who decided to vote in the primary, Mr. Davis won the Democratic Party slot to run for mayor of Mount Vernon. That battle was hotly-contested by three other candidates: Mayor Clinton I. Young, City Comptroller Maureen Walker, and Councilman Yuhanna Edwards. Although Mayor Young has been gracious in defeat and has endorsed Mr. Davis’ run, Ms. Walker has refused to accept the electoral outcome and has belittled the Davis victory.
So in a city whose dominant interests clash with the politics of self-described conservatives, Ms. Walker apparently will be running as the Conservative Party nominee. This contrasts with Councilman Edwards who reported to me that his endorsement would be determined by the outcome of the Democratic Party process and, as such, he was supporting Ernie Davis to become the next mayor of Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon Today: Mayor, how will your past experience in office, your re-election defeat in 2007, and your opportunity to evaluate the past four years and what went wrong for you personally – how will all those things make you a better mayor in the next administration?
Mayor Davis: I think one has to look at why things work and why they don’t work. I’ve learned a lot in defeat. But I know more now than I have ever known. I will continue many of the policies and projects that I worked on previously: the master plan for Hartley Park, the hip-hop culture gallery, the upgrading of the firehouses. And I will bring this city together. I understand that the reason I was elected was because of the support of the people on the streets of Mount Vernon. And the push for me to run again came from all sectors of the city including the young people on the street as well as more affluent households. But we will be judged as a community by how we help the least fortunate among us. I feel that I can speak to the young as well as speak to the seniors – it’s very necessary for older citizens to counsel younger citizens. So maybe it was designed for me to do this at this time. I’m not perfect, and I may continue to make errors but hopefully not the one’s I made in the past.
Mount Vernon Today: Transit-oriented development around the Mount Vernon West and Mount Vernon East rail stations are two planning goals advanced during Mayor Young’s administration. As a former architect and a future mayor what would be your vision for those two districts?
Mayor Davis: We had plans at Mount Vernon West for shops – an environment something like what is in Fleetwood. At Mount Vernon East, we have to bring in more property tax ratables. We want to change the environment on 4th Avenue between 1st and 2nd Streets – for example, get the gates off the storefronts and improve the streetscape with planters. I’m jealous of what White Plains did in their downtown around the train station; I think they have done it well.
As an architect, I think that I’m uniquely qualified to be mayor. Architects are trained to be problem-solvers. When I walk the streets and look around, I can envision the possibilities for Mount Vernon. I think that Mount Vernon has the potential to be one of the most exciting cities in the region. In my opinion, more architects should be involved in politics (and less lawyers).
Mount Vernon Today: Many people believe it will be difficult for the city to move forward until the problems of the school system are aggressively tackled. Given that the school district is not under mayoral control, what are your thoughts regarding what can be done by the mayor’s office?
Mayor Davis: We are going to have to look at the issue of governance. I had proposed changes before when I was in office, and I was criticized for it. I want to meet with the superintendent when I am elected. One idea that might be implemented is for three seats on the board of trustees to be dedicated to the city administration. That may take some time to happen. But I will have someone from my office to serve as a liaison with the school district.
We can’t afford to have 63 cents out of every property tax dollar that the mayor can’t affect. In Mount Vernon, we spend $20,000 per student on education whereas in Pelham they spend $19,000 per student. I don’t think anyone would suggest that Pelham’s school system is inferior to Mount Vernon’s. But what is being done with the money here in Mount Vernon? No one looks at the waste; no one looks at the budget. Change is not going to happen overnight – I understand that. In New York City, it took some 40 years to change school governance. But you have to start somewhere.
Mount Vernon Today: One of Mount Vernon’s assets is the strength of its major church congregations. How can and should city government work with Mount Vernon’s myriad faith-based institutions to cultivate a better city environment?
Mayor Davis: I look at the Rev. Floyd Flake [of Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens] as an example of what churches can do. We are not maximizing the strength of the dollars that go into the churches. We previously worked on an initiative to establish a financial institution which, among other things, would be able to provide financing to Mount Vernon churches. But it didn’t get off the ground which is unfortunate since many banks seem reluctant to provide financing to churches.
Churches have a very important role. For example, the churches can take the role of teaching our children about black history. Churches can complement the work of the school system.
Mount Vernon Today: Many cities and towns across this nation have become more aggressive in their efforts to attract businesses to their communities. They have joined trade associations such as the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) to attract retailers and developers of retail property. They have attended conferences sponsored by groups such as the New York State Economic Development Council and the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) to network with other economic development officials as well as businesses in targeted business sectors. What steps would you take to build upon past accomplishments and put Mount Vernon on the radar screen of job-creating businesses?
Mayor Davis: I have attended the shopping center convention held by ICSC. What we were able to do in attracting retailers to Sanford Boulevard resulted in generating $5 million in sales taxes for the city. People have to know we are open for business. When I was a county legislator, I built relationships with some of the prominent developers in the region and they came to know me as someone with whom they could do business. But first, we have to get our public relations correct; we have to effectively sell the city. Cleaning up 4th Avenue has to be a priority along with developing locally-owned businesses. Also, we can’t afford to build Memorial Field as currently conceived because it will become a fiscal burden for the city. So more commercial development should be incorporated as part of that facility to generate revenues which can support it. That area of the city could also be a location for a hotel.
Mount Vernon Today: I understand that Mayor Young gave you a glowing endorsement. If elected, will you work with him during transition, and do you envision opportunities to work with him during your administration?
Mayor Davis: Absolutely! I'm too old to be vindictive about past politics.
Mount Vernon Today: Mayor, thank you for being generous with your time.
Lamont Blackstone is an award-winning commercial real estate consultant and a past dean of ICSC’s University of Shopping Centers sponsored by the 55,000-member global trade association. He is principal of G. L. Blackstone & Associates LLC which also provides telecom and energy expense solutions to small businesses, non-profit organizations and commercial property owners. He can be reached at (914) 663-0498 or