A General's Next Campaign

Retired Army leader launches longshot bid to become city’s first female mayor

27 Dec 2019 | 02:59

After a decades-long career in the military, and the transient lifestyle that accompanied it, retired Army brigadier general Loree Sutton’s six years in New York has been the longest period of time she’s called any one place home during her adult life.

During this time, part of which she spent running New York City’s Department of Veterans’ Services, Sutton says she and her wife have come to see the city as their home, but at the same time, they’ve become worried about its future. It wasn’t until she saw hundreds of servicemen and women across the country stepping up in the 2018 midterm elections to run for office that she also saw an opening for herself to bring a different type of leadership to New York, and more specifically, to the mayor’s office.

In November, Sutton, 60, announced her candidacy to become the 110th mayor of New York City, running as a Democrat.

“We love our city. We love its quirks, its characters, its traditions, its teams — and we're very worried,” Sutton said in an interview with Our Town. “As I started to imagine our city's future, I became even more worried. And I had a hunch. The hunch was: as our city goes, so goes our country; and as our country goes, so goes much of our world. I can't fix the world. I can't fix the country. But I started thinking, ‘Well, what about stepping up to serve right here in our city?’”

Sutton acknowledges that with little name recognition and limited political experience it will be an extraordinary challenge to be elected as the city’s first female mayor. In the process, she will have to take down two skilled politicians in the city’s comptroller, Scott Stringer, and City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who are both expected to enter the race.

But Sutton believes she has the right approach, experience and strategy to win over voters come 2021.

“In this time, this most unusual moment — it didn't exist just a recent time ago, it may not exist going forward — there is a hunger for a different type of leader and a different type of leadership,” said Sutton. “And this is a time when politics as usual seems to have run its course. And, as a non-politician ... I can look at older and during problems through fresh eyes. I can look at new and emerging challenges with a fresh vision.”

Criticizing Her Former Boss

This vision is grounded in both her military and government experience. During her 30-year tenure she served as the commander for various army hospitals, went to Iraq during the first gulf was and retired as the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist. She worked as the director of Defense Centers for Excellence, which provides guidance to the defense department on psychological health and traumatic brain injuries, until 2010. Most recently, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, she helped expand the city’s veterans’ services into a municipal agency.

In this role, she was able to bring down the number of street homeless veterans, and she wants to replicate that effort of outreach to the rest of the city’s homeless population. Sutton said her approach to this problem — and the other challenges such as closing Rikers Island, criminal justice reform, real estate development, keeping storefronts open — is from the neighborhood and community level.

“I think that community members have to be engaged early and often, not just as a hasty afterthought, which is all too often the case,” said Sutton. “I think that the next layer is going to have to be someone who is committed to cultivating, honoring, nurturing relationships — and not just transactional relationships.”

Sutton said traditionally leaders have taken a piecemeal approach to solving these issues, and she thinks it hasn’t been successful.

She also hasn’t been shy in criticizing establishment politicians, including her former boss. The New York Post reported last week, Sutton angered de Blasio’s chief of staff, Emma Wolfe, after she sent out an email to supporters critical of ThriveNYC, the mayor’s $1 billion-dollar mental health initiative, which is run by his wife, Chirlane McCray.

“What I've seen over these last several years is a piecemeal pattern of leadership, reactive leadership, probably the crisis, big ideas that are not followed by implementation and operations,” said Sutton.

"Get Points on the Board"

In her own campaigning so far she’s attempted to set herself apart from the other potential candidates. First, by announcing her own candidacy early, which she said has given her a heads up to “get points on the board.” And, second, by reaching out to voters directly by making cold calls.

“You got New Yorkers, you know, carrying on with their everyday busy, frenetic New Yorker lives, and they get a cold call in the middle of all these distractions of the presidential race, impeachment proceedings, and yes, the holiday season,” said Sutton. But she makes that call, she said, and introduces herself, tells them she’s running for mayor and asks them to meet to talk about her campaign, she says they take her up on that offer.

She thinks this approach has given her campaign a shot at success.

“I started out with no war chest, but that’s changing. What I am learning and experiencing is this hunger for a different kind of leadership that I felt myself. I looked around and I didn't see anyone else who was stepping up to provide a different kind of leadership. And so I'm giving this everything I got,” said Sutton. “I'm not playing it safe here. I'm playing to win.”

"I'm giving this everything I got. I'm not playing it safe here. I'm playing to win.” Loree Sutton