As “difficult as it was” to resign as Youngstown mayor, Jay Williams said the opportunity to help other struggling cities “weighed very heavily” on his decision to accept an executive position in the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order Wednesday appointing Williams — Youngstown mayor since January 2006 — as the executive director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, effective Aug. 8. Williams’ resignation as mayor is effective Aug. 1. He’ll be replaced by council President Charles Sammarone.
“Certainly there was not a more difficult decision in my political career than to take this position and no longer be mayor of Youngstown,” Williams told The Vindicator on Wednesday. “But I see this as an opportunity to elevate Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. The office is created to help cities across the country. I won’t play favorites, but I will always be a mayor of Youngstown.”
Williams, the city’s former Community Development Agency director before being elected mayor, said he “spent a decade working in a community — Youngstown, Ohio — that’s seen the devastating effects” of a declining manufacturing base.
Acknowledging “there is still a lot of work to be done in Youngstown,” Williams said there have also been “successes” in the city and he wants to “help replicate” them in other industrial cities. Among those cities, he said, is Flint, Mich., where the official announcement of his new job, also referred to as auto czar, was made Wednesday.
The main responsibilities of the job are to coordinate a federal response to factors that adversely impact automotive communities and workers, provide advice to high-level government officials on the potential impact pending legislation could have on those communities and workers, make recommendations on executive-policy proposals to help those communities and workers, and conduct outreach programs and develop policies to revitalize those areas, according to Obama’s executive order.
“I’m not a stranger to the issues auto communities have had to endure over the last couple years,” Williams said.
Williams, 39, gained national attention among Rust Belt cities for Youngstown 2010, a comprehensive land-redevelopment plan for the city that embraced its shrinking population. Despite the attention, the plan has met with mixed results.
Williams said that plan was unique to Youngstown, but he encourages other communities to “follow a similar path” to bring people together and formulate their own proposals to help them move forward.
Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said Williams’ “proven leadership skills will be invaluable to advancing the work of the office.”
Should Obama be re-elected, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, said he sees Williams as a cabinet member, perhaps as secretary of the transportation or housing and urban development.
“He’s such a dynamic guy; the sky’s the limit,” Ryan said of Williams.
Williams also could play a key role in Obama’s re-election, Ryan said, as the Mahoning Valley benefited from the auto bailout — which kept General Motors in Lordstown and expanded its presence there — and the stimulus bill — V&M Star received about $19 million to help its $650 million expansion project here. But V&M officials have said the stimulus money wasn’t a key reason for the expansion in the Valley.
Williams said he plans to do what’s needed to get Obama re-elected, but his appointment isn’t a political patronage job.
“I wouldn’t have joined the administration if I wasn’t convinced this president is committed to doing the work that needs to be done to turn around this country,” Williams said.
Jim Graham, president of the United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the Lordstown GM complex, praised Obama’s appointment of Williams as auto czar.
“He’s very familiar with Lordstown,” Graham said. “That’s a big, big plus. He knows the auto industry. He’s from the area and he’ll be a needed voice for the Valley in Washington.”
State Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, who lost the 2005 mayoral race to Williams, said the appointment “is proof positive that this president knows we need the help and is ready to give it.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, said he’s “enjoyed working with the mayor on job-creation efforts in the Mahoning Valley, and I look forward to continuing that while he’s in the administration.”
Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras called Williams “one of our shining stars” who will always “remember where he’s from.”
Councilman Jamael Tito Brown, D-3rd, who served as Williams’ campaign manager during his 2005 mayoral victory, said the outgoing mayor’s new job is “a great thing for the Valley. You have someone at the table making decisions that impact the area.”
Williams will be able to teach other cities how to use some of the economic tools used by Youngstown, such as brownfield redevelopment, improving downtown and providing low-interest guaranteed loans to companies looking to locate or expand in the city, said David Bozanich, the city’s finance director.
City Law Director Iris Torres Guglucello said Williams is a “visionary” and “Washington is very fortunate to have him.”
Williams quit his job as the city’s CDA director to run for mayor in 2005 as an independent. He is the city’s first black mayor and was the first independent to win the seat since 1922.
He was re-elected in November 2009 to his second term as Youngstown mayor, running as a Democrat.
Because of the city’s term-limits law, Williams couldn’t run for another term in 2013.