By Kathy Savolt -
The Mamaroneck Observer caught up with our co-Founder and Mayor-elect Sharon Torres after her recent election victory. Here’s our interview which has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
The Mamaroneck Observer (TMO): Just in a few words, who is Sharon Torres?
Torres: I think I'm a lot of things. I'm somebody who comes from a pretty diverse background and has a lot of interests. And one of those interests just happens to be that I love this village. I didn't come from here. I was born in the Bronx. I grew up in Yonkers and moved around a little bit. But when I found the village, I just fell in love with the feel of it, being near the water and how friendly the people were. And so, I think that is a part of who I am, that I like being a part of something that feels like community.
I like volunteering, and it was really important to me to be able to volunteer for the food pantry, and for New York pet rescue, because those are things that are just a part of who I am. When I was a kid, whenever I would stay with my grandmother (she lived in the projects), she would actually go out to this truck every week or so. That's where we would get cheese and bread. Being able to volunteer at the food pantry really means a lot to me, because it's giving back because I know when we needed it, people were there for us.
I volunteer at Pet Rescue; it touches my heart because I've always had a love of animals. I've always had cats and dogs and there was one point at which I had a horse for a little while. That's something that will just always be a part of me. Now I have two dogs and two kittens.
I think volunteering helps me as far as wanting to be mayor because it's a public service. I feel like I can take the things that are my strengths and the core of who I am and put them into something that will benefit the community that I love.
TMO: This election was historic for the Village of Mamaroneck. We have had three other women mayors before you, but you are our first mayor of Hispanic descent. And you are the first mayor in the modern era to be elected on third party line - has that sunk in yet?
Torres: I don't know if it's sunken in yet. I think people make a lot of assumptions based on the surface. They make assumptions about who you are and what they think they know about you.
My background, or my ethnicity, is really mixed. I am Puerto Rican, and other things. I grew up with family that was everything: West Indian, African American, Filipino. When you look at me, you might not notice that but growing up that was my normal.
I wish we were in a place where this was not historic, and it didn't matter. But being only the fourth female and being the first of Hispanic descent has made my family proud. I hope it shows other people in our village, who are immigrants or who came from situations like mine. People who are women, people who are just not normally looked at for leadership positions or political positions. I hope that gives them the inspiration that they can do it even if it feels hard, because representation matters. A big part of putting people into office who are different from the norm is that you bring in the expertise, you know, you broaden the field, and you could bring in a lot more people. I think if we're supposed to be a government, by and for the people, then you have to invite in all of us, not just some of us.
As for the third party, I am a lifelong Democrat. I never really thought I would be in politics but if I were, I would have naturally assumed I would be on the Democrat line. But I don't really support the extremes that I'm seeing in national politics today where the majority of us are probably more in the middle, really just trying to be logical, working together, trying to find a way for the community to come together.
And it's becoming so divisive because of these extremes. I think the independent line suited me because I was able to have hard conversations with people. I was able to work with people whom I don't necessarily always agree with, but we agree that we want the village to be better. And I think that's the first step of healing.
So, I don't know if it's hit me yet that it's important or historic or the first time. But I do feel like it's something we needed. And I think it's something Westchester County needs, because we have too many fights that are based on just party, and not enough focus is on who's going to be the best person to help in this community.
The best part of this, beyond working with people, was I didn't feel like at any point that I was compliant to a party, although, the Village (Democratic) Party was so supportive, and they understood that I really wanted to invite everyone. I think sometimes in other races, you get so tied up in what do I have to do for the party that you forget about the people that you represent. I'm hoping that we're not the only Building Bridges candidates who get elected, because I would love to see more people coming in with wanting to work with everyone.
TMO: Not quite a week has gone by since Election Day, things must be pretty overwhelming for you right now. How are you holding up? And do you have any coping tips that you think might benefit other people who feel overwhelmed at times?
Torres: It is a little overwhelming. I knew going into this that it would be a hard race. I never took anything for granted. And I thought, naively, that right after the election, I would probably have some days of just being able to sit back. Instead, I have been overwhelmed by the positivity, the gratitude and the breadth of people who are reaching out from conservative Republicans to progressive Democrats to Independents to Moderates. People who are my friends and people I've barely met. People have honked their horns at me to say hello. I am happily surprised by the overwhelming positivity especially after the last year or so of feeling so negative, that politics were so negative, and that social media was so negative.
It's still sinking in that I've been elected to office and that I'm going to have the opportunity to represent this wonderful village. But I can't complain because everything's been positive, and people have been excited.
As far as how do I deal with it, I make sure to find time to talk to friends, who I know are there and who were going to be there, whether I lost or won. I have my pets and you can never have a bad day if you're coming home to that smiling face.
I've also had times where I just had to unplug and give myself a few hours of not being on social media or attached to a phone or running to get somewhere where I just have to carve out pieces of time and just enjoy some nice weather or watch a movie.
TMO: There is a lot of dissatisfaction with how the previous Board of Trustees handled certain issues. Social media was full of not so nice comments; the expectations for you are quite high. In fact, people are already weighing in on your top priorities and posting your To Do lists for you. How are you going to manage expectations and deal with all of this?
Torres: I think people are so excited that they feel like they had a voice -- like a really strong voice -- and that they feel like change is coming, so they want to put it all out there. They want to say what they want to change. I invite that in because I never, never think that I know everything. And I never think that what I want is what everyone else wants. So, I don't get offended by any of the posts that either ask questions or tell me what they want. I take it as information. I put it all together and figure out where I see priorities. The same way when I go to a Board of Trustees meeting, I listened to every single person who gets up there and I look for what are the wants, what are the needs, where are the priorities, so that I have an idea of what I need to do.
I know that there are high expectations. The way I am approaching it is that it's a reset. I can't walk into the Board of Trustees, criticizing what the four trustees who were there before may have done or not done, because then we'll never get anywhere and nothing will change. I'm walking into this with a very open mind. I want to hear what's important to the other trustees. I want to see how they feel about the experience and bring together what I hear from residents then see how my skill sets can help us bridge that gap. I feel like there is a gap right now. It doesn't really matter why that gap is there -- it exists, and we need to move past it. I don't see any benefit to attacking the trustees who are still there.
I think people have been very clear about what they want, they voted, they want change. They have been outspoken on social media and at the board of trustee meetings and that is their right.
It's time for us to do what we said we wanted to do. And that is to start the healing and bring people together and accomplish something that the entire village wants and needs. You can't do that while you're still hating or criticizing or being angry with other people. You have to bring everybody together and say we're not going to accomplish everything but there are some things we can accomplish and what do we need to do to get there?
TMO: What are your top priorities as you enter office at the beginning of December?
Torres: In order to accomplish any of my other priorities, I think the first thing I need to do is find a way to make information much more transparent and make sure that the communication between the board and residents is toned down or calmed to a point where we can hear each other, because you can't just yell back and forth at each other and expect to resolve anything.
My first thing is to make sure that everyone is welcome. We open up as many avenues as possible for communication, and we are as transparent as possible. That will lead to my next priorities, which are flooding, and making sure that again, we're very transparent with communication on what's happening or not happening. And that we're listening to not just the residents and what they want, but to experts because I don't think anyone on the board is an engineer or hydrologist. I want to make sure we have expert opinions and we're talking with the county officials and state officials and other municipalities where we can find some way to come up with the money.
Also, I think if we can do small projects, even that helped 10 or 20, or 30 homes as opposed to 700, it's still making a move forward. With everything we fix, there's less of a burden on our emergency responders. So, as you fix one thing, it helps fix other things. As you fix flooding, you alleviate some of the affordable housing issues, because if they're not flooding out all the time, you can now have buildings that are viable for people to live in.
So, my third priority would be finding a way to support the desire for affordable housing, and making sure people understand what it is. Let’s do a project that makes sense, not just the first project that comes through. We have this project with the Hunter Tier, and after looking at these proposals, they're not in the best interest of this village. But I think people are so desperate to see movement on something that they want to push this through without realizing that there are consequences for every decision we make. Sometimes, when you decide on something in haste, there's usually consequences that were unintended that follow. I would prefer to slow down, fix the things that need to be fixed, and try to figure out what are the other consequences like traffic and kids in schools and the services needed. And also educate the public on the different terms that are being used so that we're all on the same page. I think that is lacking and there's a lot of misconceptions out there.
TMO: How will you work with all four trustees and the village manager to reduce the drama and address these priorities?
Torres: I'm walking in just ready to work with them. That's the best that I can do. I met Jerry years ago. I met Nora years ago. Manny and Leilani are newer to me, but I have every intention of walking in ready to work with them. Lou, I've known also for a couple of years.
The village manager is under contract and he plans to retire. But while he's here I plan to work closely with him to make sure that we are watching our budget, and we are maintaining our village making the best use of the resources we have.
I'm looking at getting someone else who can help with the floods. So, we can maybe take some of that off his (the manager) plate and allow him to focus on other things. I also want to just make sure we're putting the village in the best possible position for when he does retire.
I think whenever there's a change, there's growing pains, but I don't foresee the divisiveness or animosity that we had before because I think I'm just a different personality and I'm coming in without some of the baggage that might have existed before.
TMO: I have one last question for you. What's the one thing people don't know about you that you would like to share?
Torres: I love board games. I play backgammon. And I played a lot of sports; I'm a team person but I'm also competitive.
I really do believe in democracy and participation and communication. I really don't understand why we're not being more transparent with public information.
I also want to work with Republicans, Democrats, Independents, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm a lifelong Democrat. And I think in this day and age, we become so cynical about things that I think there are people out there who just think it's another politician saying another thing to get voted into office, as opposed to that's who she really is as a person.
I also love to read, my animals, and I really love being in this community.
I think you just gave me opportunity to add anything I want: my favorite season is Christmas, My favorite holiday. Love, love, love it. I will be putting my tree up early and I will have everything decorated because it's about family and friends and it's my favorite holiday.