Saturday, June 12

Syracuse’s Columbus statue group escalates political war against Ben Walsh

Syracuse, N.Y. — A group of politically powerful Columbus statue supporters have ramped up their fight against Mayor Ben Walsh, who last year announced he will remove the Christopher Columbus statue from downtown Syracuse.

The Columbus Monument Corporation sent letters to leaders of every permanent political party in Syracuse in recent weeks. Those letters outlined the group’s disgust with Walsh’s decision and came with a message:

“We want you to know that this is a very important issue to our group of supporters, and we plan to fight Walsh’s plan,” the letter said. “We are well organized, well-funded, and highly motivated.”

The letters are the latest escalation in the group’s fight against Walsh. In recent months, they’ve blasted the mayor frequently on social media, organized letter writing efforts to the newspaper and dedicated a page on their website to Walsh.

Greg Loh, a spokesman for Walsh, said the group’s ongoing fight is only serving to divide the community.

“It’s disappointing the Corporation continues ignore the community concerns that have existed about the statue for decades,” Loh said. “Instead of using their energy and resources to help bring people together to honor our Italian American heritage in a way that respects all cultures, as is happening in Buffalo, they are instead personalizing the issue and further dividing the community.”

The Corporation delivered letters to leaders of the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Working Families Parties, according to Nick Pirro, a spokesman for the group and former Onondaga County Executive.

Pirro said the organization has no plans to endorse in the mayor’s race, nor are they looking to wade into politics. They haven’t spoken with other mayoral hopefuls like Michael Greene or Khalid Bey, he said, and don’t plan to.

“We just wanted people picking candidates to know what our position is,” he said. “We’re not trying to get involved in the political side of it.”

Still, the overtures to political committees reflect a group that clearly understands how to pull the levers of power in city politics.

They sent a letter to leaders of the Working Families Party two days after a report that Walsh would seek that party’s ballot line. Walsh will need to either earn the WFP endorsement or create his own line if he wants to be on the ballot in November.

David Knapp, head of WFP’s local chapter, said he expects the removal of the Columbus statue will be part of his party’s agenda for Syracuse this year. He added that the party appreciates Walsh’s “principled” stance on the topic.

“I’m guessing the Columbus Monument Corporation did not take the time to read our party platform before hand delivering us this letter,” Knapp said. “I am also personally taken aback by their statement in the letter that they support racial justice, but want it ‘equally applied.’ They clearly don’t understand the complex issue of racism, and I hope they take this opportunity to examine these historic harms more deeply.”

In addition to the pressure on local political parties, the Columbus group has organized a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and more than a dozen state legislators. That letter asks Cuomo to stop Walsh’s “cancel culture” act.

The public and political pressure on Walsh is in addition to the group’s fight to stop the statue’s removal through legal action. They filed a notice of claim last month announcing their intent to sue the city. They’ve argued Walsh doesn’t have the legal authority to remove the statue, and that taking it down will cost a cash-strapped city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Columbus Monument Corporation is a non-for-profit that has organized the annual Columbus Day luncheon and wreath-laying ceremony for years. They have a nine-member board of directors whose president is Mark Nicotra, a former town supervisor who now works in County Executive Ryan McMahon’s administration. Pirro is vice president.

Other board members include Bob Gardino, a former chairman of the Syracuse Republican Committee, and Richard Pietrafesa, who was one of Walsh’s top campaign donors in 2017.

“We’re approaching this not as a political thing, but as an attack on our heritage,” Pirro said. “[Walsh] didn’t take that into regard at all when he made his decision…it’s unacceptable and there are thousands who are going to join us in fighting it.”

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