Danene Sorace: Lancaster’s New Mayor
While driving home recently, I heard an exit interview with thirty-year NPR veteran journalist Robert Siegel. He shared that the toughest and most frustrating interviews he conducted over his many years were always with politicians. Basically, he found them to be opaque, generally quite condescending, and always communicating with an agenda behind each word. Siegel’s questions were rarely answered with any degree of truth or clarity. Even through my car radio, his sense of defeat was palpable. Before Siegel hangs up his notepad and recorder for good, I suggest he end on a high-note and make the trip to Lancaster City, to interview our newly inaugurated (as of January 2, 2018) Mayor, Danene Sorace. He will find what I found: a smart, totally transparent, philosophically thoughtful, and meticulously pragmatic politician.
Over a cup of hot tea that Ms. Sorace would not let me buy her (because of the rules of the office and her stalwart sense of morality) we spent a few hours chatting about how she got here — meaning both Lancaster itself and her position as Mayor — and where she is leading us, her constituents. What became clear pretty quickly is that Danene never imagined herself in politics. This rather recent turn into the political arena is exactly that: new, exciting, and challenging. It is a challenge which she appears entirely ready to take on with energy, vitality, and an awareness of the changing and expanding landscape that still demands what has always been demanded of local governments. That is, “fundamental services like fire and police protection, trash pick-up, street repair, and clean and safe neighborhoods.”
One idea she wants to implement as soon as possible is the introduction of a Neighborhood Liaison (Director of Neighborhood engagement). This cabinet level position will coordinate the needs and services of each neighborhood, with a recognition that each presents its own set of challenges, and thus making sure to listen and understand the uniqueness of each area. It is here in our conversation that we reminisce about the elections and some of the proposed ideas and complaints expressed by other candidates, dealing with shelters, public health facilities, mental health, affordable housing, and poverty. “There are fundamental boundaries,” she explains. “We can do more, but there are boxes, limitations we must work within. As long as the City’s main source of revenue is property taxes, we are limited. There is not much in discretionary spending after we pay for core services. I have always set clear expectations; but we must do more to leverage our collective resources.”
She also recognizes that in this age of technology, Lancaster City must improve its level of communication with its citizens by improving the city’s website, developing a clear social media presence, and, in general, developing a thoughtful, engaged, and engaging system of communication between residents and their local government. The traditional newsletter may work for some, but for so many, that is not enough. For this undertaking, she is depending on her Chief of Staff Matt Johnson, a philosophy professor who ran his own campaign for city council last fall, whom she says is, “an incredible writer, super smart, and whose moral compass points true north.”
The New York Post may write that Lancaster is “the new Brooklyn” and television Chef and Celebrity Alton Brown may call out Lancaster’s restaurants as his new favorites, but this attention and press might do little to perpetuate the economic growth of the city. Or, it may do a lot — but then an evaluation of the equity of growth within the city has to be examined. Are all areas of town going to benefit from growth, and what of preserving the heritage, traditions, and even the landmarks of the town? All of these are questions Mayor Sorace will have to answer, but she tell me clearly now that she is working towards inclusion of all neighborhoods. She acknowledges that the oft-debated concept of gentrification must be faced head on. She recounts her experience seeing parts of New Orleans that have not been returned to the citizens who were forced to flee from Katrina, but instead turned over to investors who rebuilt only a sanitized, slick version of the city. It is not what she wants for Lancaster. “Can you imagine our town without Stan’s Records? No. It’s a landmark a part of our city,” Danene says. With the announced arrival of chains like Starbucks coming into Lancaster City — a town full of local, competing coffee shops — I ask her about the downtown migration of these types of chain stores. “We lucky enough to have options. Vote with your feet and dollars,” she suggests. But, she also acknowledges that it’s complicated. We all benefit from growth, and we can’t stop investment (and the opposite is just depressing and scary) but as she says, “It comes down to agency [writer’s note: agency is defined as the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power]. Neighborhoods must have a say, and also benefit from the growth.”
2017 has been a pretty turbulent year. It is one for the history books, one we are all grateful to have survived. Each day, we awoke and went straight to our phones or televisions in the hopes of not seeing a headline or tweet that pushed us all into the abyss. Our country’s ethos continues to devolve into factions, each at once wanting peace and prosperity, but disagreeing on how we best arrive those ideals. As the quicksand of political unease continues to create more and more anxiety, which no upwardly trending Dow Jones can truly assuage, we look for those lights within the darkness that can guide us. Danene Sorace — mother, wife, professional who had youthful dreams of being a psycho-neuro immunologist, who struggled out of situational poverty and went on to earn a graduate degree in Public Policy from Rutgers University, who never thought of running for office until she ‘passed’ an online course called She Should Run — may just be that light, a true mix of stability and transparency blended with intelligence, we are all looking for. As Danene says, “There’s a lot going on out there, but here [in Lancaster], I want to provide steady leadership, a focus on what matters, with a high degree of integrity. I don’t want people to have to worry about what’s going on in our backyard.”
I really wish she had let me buy her that cup of tea. It’s the least I could do to repay her for her gift to me: hope and excitement for the future, a belief in a world where smart, strong people win and politicians wish to serve their constituents and not themselves, where integrity and morality are to be fought for, and not bargained with (even if it’s just passing on a two-dollar cup of tea), where there is holistic thinking and pragmatic decisiveness, and kindness, good old fashion kindness, towards others.
An email has been sent to NPR and, more specifically, Robert Siegel. He deserves to end his career on a high note — to be able to interview a politician and actually get real answers. Danene Sorace will make him feel about his journalistic skills as she made me feel better about our future; we all deserve a little Danene in our future.
By: Marian Pontz