On November 3, 2009, Kim was elected the first African-American mayor of the City of York and was sworn in as York's 24th mayor in January 2010. In 2013, Mayor Bracey was successful in her bid for re-election and is now in the middle of her second term, representing 43,000 residents and overseeing a budget of $98 million. Kim is a US Force veteran, serving our country over a decade and earning the National Defense Service Medal and the Air Force Good Conduct Medal. In her role as mayor, Kim has championed a number of successful community initiatives such as Job One Citywide Customer Service, Zero Tolerance for Blight, Community Policing and Mentor York. She is also the founding President of the York Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a 30-year-old national organization whose mission is to develop leaders to rebuild their communities.
Craig: I am very pleased to have with me my guest today, Mayor Kim Bracey. Mayor of York, Pennsylvania.
On November 3rd 2009, Kim was elected the first African-American mayor of the City of York and was sworn in as York's 24th mayor in January 2010. In 2013, Mayor Bracey was successful in her bid for re-election and is now in the middle of her second term as mayor, where she represents 43,000 residents and oversees a budget of $98 million.
Kim is a US Force veteran, serving our country for over a decade and earning the National Defense Service Medal and the Air Force Good Conduct Medal.
In her role as mayor, Kim has championed a number of successful community initiatives such as Job One Citywide Customer Service, Zero Tolerance for Blight, Community Policing and Mentor York. She is also the founding President of the York Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a 30-year-old national organization whose mission is to develop leaders to rebuild their communities.
Mayor welcome, thank you so much for being here with us.
Kim Bracey: Thank you. I'm honored to be here with you.
Craig: Mayor, I'm extremely excited to get into this interview and I'm looking forward to digging into something I intentionally didn't mention in your bio because I want you to talk about it. Which is how your work in under-served communities in York built the foundation for your eventual election as mayor. Would you just do us the favor of filling in between the lines in my intro for our listeners? Tell us a little bit more about yourself and your experience in government and politics.
Kim Bracey: You've already mentioned I am a native Yorker. That's what we call ourselves. I think that added a lot of credibility to my candidacy and campaign and ultimate win.
I worked in the community, somewhat impoverished. It fell on some hard times. It's about 68 blocks of an area of our city, the south-east end of the city. There was a couple of the strong anchors in that area. We had our major hospital there, one of our major colleges, as well as a social service agency known to many in that area. It was a lot of forethought and wisdom around the table, and they came up with a need for somewhat of a grassroots community action, organizing agency that should be in place. To help people understand their role and taking back their neighborhoods. Getting rid of the blight. Becoming more accountable and responsible. Taking on leadership roles in that area.
After my return from the Air Force, I came back home – a place that I actually said I would never come back to. Here I am. I got involved with this organization and I ended up as the Executive Director as well. It was probably was my first foray into community organizing… As a coined phrase these days, thanks to President Obama.
There were many of us on the ground encouraging residents of the area to take back their neighborhood. Again, ridden with crime and dilapidated buildings. The negative elements and societal ills you often see in an urban community. That was my first community work, as an adult.
As a native Yorker, I did a number of community service projects here. As a young person, I worked as a candy-striper at our hospital. We don't even say that term anymore. I then thought I wanted to be a nurse. I'm in this nice little uniform and I had the hat that I had to wear and everything, so I went to school to be a nurse.
I knew I wanted to help people and be involved, if you will. When we got to that semester where we were doing some blood work, I knew it wasn't for me. "Okay, social working. I'll do that instead.” That's how I ended up really working with people. The South George Street Community Partnership was my introduction to community organizing and working. Rolling up my sleeves and working with AmeriCorps members and folks from all walks of life, to transform an area of the city.
At that time the mayor, my predecessor, served on the board of the organization. He saw the work I was doing and he named me as his Community Development Director. I guess he figured, "You could do this in 68 blocks of the city. We need you all over the city.” So, I was a member of his Cabinet. I won't say overnight, but at the time I wasn't thinking about politics or what it meant to be a Cabinet member of a city. So then I'm in politics all of a sudden. All I wanted to do is make my home, my community, the best that it can be. I had the respect of many in the neighborhoods in some of the work that I did, and their willingness to roll up their sleeves alongside of me.
When the mayor indicated that after his second term he wasn't going to run again, I thought, "We did a lot of work here together. What do you mean? What does that mean for your Cabinet Members?" You have to think about that, I think, in politics, that you do become a part of the administration. The next administration likely won't keep you. They have their folks that they believe can and do the job, or do it better in some cases.
After he said he wasn't going to run again, and lots of family consultation and key advisors and lots of prayer, I decided to put my hat in the ring to run for mayor.
In college, I was a member of the Black Student Union. We lobbied for federal aid – financial aid. We did some organizing on campus, but nothing, no formal political science was in my background or anything that I wanted to do. I got into politics in an unorthodox way I would say. That's how it started for me.
Craig: What's interesting in the whole story that you just told and your path to becoming mayor is that there's one way to interpret it if you're in your first term as mayor. There's another way to interpret it if you're in your second term as mayor. In your second term, it wasn't a surprise if you were elected. It was your leadership that got you there.
Let me ask about that first campaign. How did you launch your first campaign? One of the perspectives that I want to look at, because a lot of our listeners thinking about running for office are naturally in many cases looking at a town board or a village trustee seat. A legislative seat rather than the executive. Your first campaign was for the executive for a 43,000-resident city. Can you talk about how you approached that?
Kim Bracey: I did leave out one other piece here and I'm sorry about that Craig. I did take the opportunity to run for City Council, while serving as the Executive Director of South George Street Community Partnership. Our city counselors are at large, but I felt the need to have our voices heard from the southeast end of the city and tried. I lost by 7 votes.
It was legislative side of government, where the executives ran the legislative side in York, which has the strong mayor format as well too. This is an executive position that I hold now. The legislators help write the law, and the administration has to enforce it.
Losing that seat by 7 votes, yeah I remember it. But it didn't fit my personality, anyways.
Fast-forward to running for office of mayor. Again, having worked in the former mayor's administration, I knew some of the nuts and bolts. I was his Community Development Director for 6 years. I served as acting mayor in his absence on a couple of occasions, but you still don't know what’s going on until you're sitting in this chair.
As you've mentioned, the support of the residents and the leadership that I was able to demonstrate really was the voice that was missing here in York at the time. I don't take all credit for this either. I had a tremendous team of grassroots supporters that we did it from the ground. It was a groundswell of folks.
We were riding on, and I will say this again because it was our first election, riding on President's Obama's win, and the high that the nation, in my opinion, was on because of him. I would be, if elected, the first African-American to serve in a city that's seen it's share of racial strife and issues. Right here in the heart of central Pennsylvania. There were a lot of stars aligned for this to work so well, too.
The opportunity has to be something any would-be candidate and hopeful winner should look at. The timing has to be right. People always say, "Well you never know about the timing. It's never right,” but in politics I believe it is. You have to look at the numbers too. We are a majority Democratic city, as most third-class cities in Pennsylvania are. For a Republican to try to win in this city and this climate, they likely wouldn't.
On the flip side of that though, our county is predominantly Republican. Often times we see Democrats switch parties to win. More of a county-wide seat, sort of rural offices within a county because of those demographics. I think those kinds of things are very important when folks are thinking about running for either a state office or a local executive office.
Again, I like being able to get things done. I'm fortunate to have a great state representative, as well as a relationship with our current governor. The second term that I'm in, and I'm fast forwarding and then I'll go back, is feeling pretty good. We're doing some things right now that are only happening, again, because the stars are aligned.
To start off with the campaign, a lot of it began in my living room. Then at the time, my husband and I decided we better rent some space, because we had so many supporters and volunteers. People just knocking on the door wanting to be a part of it. It was refreshing. It was an open and honest campaign that embraced any and every one. I know that got us over the hump. We won every ward that we have in the city. Here I am, for the first term. Then the second term I had a challenge. We can talk about that whenever you're ready. I don't know if you have any other questions about that first term, run.
Craig: I do actually. That's a great story about working out of your living room and how refreshing it had to be to have people coming to support you. I hope that all of our listeners that are running for office experience the same kind of love when they're running.
You were involved in the city and you even had a position of leadership in the city, but all of a sudden as a candidate you were the person. So what, as you started running for mayor, what surprised you when you got out there during your campaign?
Kim Bracey: As you, and many of you listeners probably already know as well, too, I ended up having to resign from the Cabinet. We looked at that on the calendar and how the mayor could work without me for a number of months or whatever. But because of the funding and the fact of the matter is that York is a small city and everything that I do now, as mayor. I go to the grocery store and people don't think the mayor eats. Well, she does. She has to buy things. I'm still the mayor. I don't believe, we didn't want to chance anything that looked bad or was bad as Community Development Director campaigning for mayor. I stepped away from the Cabinet all together, number one.
Two surprises then were, "Okay, so you just abandoned your job to do this work. What happens?" Some of the response from concerned citizens became a little louder. While we had a great group of supporters. There were those that weren't quite ready for the change. I think I was even wearing dreadlocks at the time. Everything in central Pennsylvania were shifting a bit. Unfortunately, there were some things hurled our way that were racial. Ugly words and against women. That was a surprise.
I had been in the Air Force. Really? I come home, and my hometown, this is how we're still at it at the 21st century? It was surprising of a community perhaps not fully ready to embrace the change that was happening. I had been living in a world where I'm assisting in helping with issues that came forward. Getting things done. Now you're going to run for the highest office in the city, I think came with a different sort of twist for some people.
Craig: That kind of stuff blows your mind, too.
Kim Bracey: It does. Of course when it gets personal you have to make sure the ground rules are really set and reiterated if need be. Family's off limits. That sort of thing.
Craig: You've talked about your re-election campaign. Let's fast forward to that. Let's talk a little bit about how that was different than your initial campaign, and some of the tactics and strategies that played into that.
Kim Bracey: We knew what worked the first time out. Our campaign strategist was immediately engaged again to… Oh, I didn't indicate that. Yeah. Limited knowledge on how this stuff is run, so you've got raise some money. I needed to pay for someone to help me develop this strategy through my words, through my eyes and what I wanted to accomplish. While it is a small city, it was a necessity.
I was running against several people the first time around. The second time around, with the campaign strategist engaged, next thing you know we have an opponent who happens to be the sitting President for City Counsel. Who happens to be an African-American woman. Did we have some shifting in the community? It concerned so many – that there's a division going on, that we're not as unified to really create change. There were lots of concerns from many in the community about this.
I had the same support. In the business community, the grassroots folks. We really didn't let up any momentum, none. We had carried out our first four years with energy and passion. We kept that up through the campaign as well, too. We went back to what we knew well. Knocking on doors, and sitting in people's living rooms having coffee chats. That's what were calling them. My mom arranged those. We had family members still engaged. It was still a fun experience. We won all but one ward this time. That's been a little bit interesting as well, too. That was the ward where my opponent lived.
Craig: You touched on something I want to revisit. You said that there were concerns in the community about the unity and the ability to get things done. One of the things that we run into a lot at the local level is the game of politics. You look at elections as a contest and a game, but really there are things happening in the election that have impacts in government. People forget that when it's all about mail pieces, and attacking, and radio ads, and things. There are things to consider as you’re saying things. Can you talk a little about how that re-election campaign affected your role as mayor, and your ability to get things done during that time?
Kim Bracey: To your point, many thought everything we were doing was an election piece or a way to be out there. "She's using our taxpayer time to get her message out.” The record definitely proved that was not the case, but it was something that was thrown out, number one.
Two, again, the person was a formidable opponent if you will, as the City Counsel's sitting President. Both sides of government have to work in the City of York to get things done. Here you have these two people who are also running against each other, that are still trying to move the city along in a positive way.
There was a natural strain. First of all, we're women. We're not going to fake it, okay? Two, again, it's a small town and somebody wants my job. What is that about? There's a human person behind these political figures, as much as we try to keep our face straight and the persona that we have this all together. These are human beings here. She and I ended up having to sit and talk and realized that, "Okay, we're doing what we have to do here. At the end of the day this is about what's best for the City of York, and we at least still have to work together and move this along.” It was very awkward.
Bigger picture, folks wanted to make sure the temperament in the community, the city, was going to be cordial. We have had our share of crazy, if you will. City Counsel meetings and things happening in our communit,y just like every other community. No one wanted that sort of rank or behaviors to be prevalent again in the City of York. There's much to be done and there's a lot of great things happening. Let's keep that happening.
Craig: It's very easy to lose sight of the reason that you're actually running for office, because you're running for office. It really is incumbent on the candidates to help people maintain that focus.
Let me switch to forward thinking.
I'm going to ask two questions and you can answer them in either order that you want. For our listeners that are kicking off their campaigns or thinking of running, maybe they haven't even committed to anything yet, is there a mistake that you might've made along that way that you were able to learn something from? The second question would be, is there a piece of advice that you would offer to those candidates?
Kim Bracey: It's probably the same. One in the same. The mistake is not listening as intently or as closely as you possibly can. The advice is to listen. As best as you can to everything.
It's only 11:00 here, yet. We still have a good day yet to get a couple of good mistakes in, and they happen every day. Case to support that, I had a meeting recently and we were trying to develop a list of folks who we can seek money from for a city project. It was a new member to this table, sitting with us, and she was one of the people I said, "Well what about that lady. Has anyone ever reached out to her yet?" And they pointed and said, "Mayor, she's sitting right next to you.” I heard her name, listened to it when I walked into the room, but I didn't. I just wanted to get in this meeting and start developing the list. You have to pay attention to the smallest details. That's probably the main advice.
You've got to make sure this is something that you can lift. As mayor, where you're the Chief Executive Officer and not some form of counsel mayor, you're in this 24 hours a day in many cases. You're probably the most recognizable face in the area, in the county. Folks come up to you all the time, your family has to be prepared for that. You've got to have thick skin, and in my case, a strong face connection. I know that's not politically correct, but you have to be grounded in something.
Craig: On the topic of listening, in these days listening is a monumental task. There's people talking, there's social media, there's news, there's all different ways to get and give information. How do you stay in the know on the pulse of what your community is?
Kim Bracey: That's interesting, because one of the things I had active while in the campaign mode was a Facebook account. While mayor, I do not. Our city has one, and there's active engagement there. If there's a professional social media account for me, it's Twitter. I do stay engaged with the US Conference of Mayors, of which I am a member, and other professional organizations that way. Obviously, I see and hear everything else on Twitter as well, too.
I have a Director of Community Relations and I have Town Hall meeting every quarter, in some part of the city. I'm out doing the things that mayors would do. That would come to a surprise, I'm sure, to your listeners. It's about everything from, in our schools reading to our kids, having open dialogue with them. To, at the market with the vendors listening to their concerns of how they're struggling to keep their stands afloat, if you will. You have to be there for the people, even on the days where you're like, "Oh, I just need a break.” There usually isn't a break, but I try to be as engaged as possible with our constituents and be on the founding board as well.
Craig: Let me take you again to forward thinking again. What's on the horizon for you? You entered office with a very specific, I don't want to say a mission, but a theme that included some missions. You've been able to have some success in getting some programs started. As mayor, and maybe a candidate for maybe a third term, what are you plans going forward?
Kim Bracey: Many people want to know that answer. I'm still trying to determine my next direction. There are no term limits here in our city and I could run again. We have a lot of great things happening right now and it seems a little awkward to not want to finish that, and I do. I'm still trying to determine that. There's definitely more that I would like to do as well, too. I can't say I have any desire to hold any other office, state seat, or anything like that. I am committed to my hometown and making it the best that it can be. Probably would do this before I would seek any other sort of office.
We have, as you indicated, I don't see any number, but some key things that we've worked on since I've been in the office, that I still want to see followed through. It has a lot to do with the blight and the appearance of our city. Even the poverty rate. We want to keep creating job opportunities for people. Introducing folks to new concepts. Opportunities that will assist them to have a better life. There's a lot of reuse that we're looking at with some of the buildings that we've determined to be blight. Then some land use that we're looking at instilling with some great housing too.
I'm having fun. I'm enjoying what we're doing right now. That's key, too. It is not always about the next election. It seldom is for me. I've got to enjoy what I'm doing to really, in my opinion, make an impact. To do it where people are also the benefactors. That's as forward as I want to go at this time, Craig, with it.
I think about the people that I am responsible to. Not only the taxpayers and constituents, but I have a Cabinet of great people who make me look good with the tremendous work that they do. Much like my predecessor, when he said he wasn't going to run again, he gave us a good little bit of notice and folks had a chance to adjust their lives. I want to make sure they are in this conversation should we decide to go a different direction.
Craig: That's a perfect answer. That's like that first re-election, as far as being able to get things done as such a vote of confidence, that you can move forward. You can tell, just by the way you talk about the initiatives that you're engaged in, the enthusiasm that you have. The voters are lucky to have you.
Kim Bracey: Thank you.
Craig: Mayor, where can anyone listening to this podcast find out more information about you or about York?
Kim Bracey: We do have a website in the City of York, it is yorkcity.org. My bio, previous speeches, things I've been engaged in and accomplished are located there as well. I indicated I'm on Twitter. It'd be a year in about 2 weeks. I did it my last State of the City, as of last April and I'm still there, @mayorbracey. See what we're doing and those sorts of things. Or, better yet, relocate to the City of York and buy a home and then I'll be your mayor.
Craig: That's the best answer yet.
Kim Bracey: I really appreciate this time, Craig.
Craig: Mayor, thank you so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed talking with you. I appreciate you taking some time to spend with us. I wish you the best of luck in all your political, personal endeavors going forward. I'm going to stay in touch. As soon as I sign off here, I'm going to go on Twitter and follow you.
Remember you can learn more about mayor Bracey. Connect with her on the York, Pennsylvania website which is www.yorkcity.org, or @mayorbracey on Twitter.
Mayor thank you again so much.
Kim Bracey: You're welcome. Thank you, Craig.