Jonathan Lewis has always been fascinated by the intersection of finance and history. A self-proclaimed history buff, he took an economics course during his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina and was captivated by the effects that the economy and markets made on real people, learning how history could help inform data and vice versa.
It’s an ethos that’s reflected his career in finance and his volunteer experience in Scarsdale, most notably his two years on the village board of trustees.
With his first term expiring, Lewis has set his sights on continuing in his role as a trustee, as he makes his run on the 2021 Citizens’ Non-Partisan Party ticket.
He is joined on the ticket by newcomers Karen Brew and Sameer Ahuja. Former trustee Jane Veron is running for mayor. Trustee Seth Ross is cycling off the board after fulfilling two terms and Trustee Rochelle Waldman is not seeking a second term. Unlike last year’s election, the March 16 ballot will be uncontested.
Born in Westchester, Lewis’ family made the move to Greenwich Village in the late 1960s and later put down roots in Great Neck on Long Island. He attended UNC Chapel Hill, where he studied history and international relations, and went on to Columbia University where he obtained his MBA and to New York University, where he got a master’s degree in history with a focus on U.S. foreign policy.
“I don’t think I would’ve arrived at where I have arrived … if I didn’t have both of those degrees and pursued both [of] those interests,” said Lewis. “My interest in policy gives me insights into markets that someone who focuses exclusively on data might not see.”
While living in Queens, his son was born and he and his wife began thinking about where they themselves wanted to plant their roots. Their main focus was on providing the best education and the best quality of life for their children. Lewis wanted to keep his commute to the city short and the pair came across Scarsdale. Enamored by the village’s beautiful architectural heritage, Lewis also fell in love with the “Scarsdale lifestyle,” which he defines as a thriving community of people that seeks to engage its residents and build community.
Always interested in how economics informed people’s decision-making, Lewis worked a few jobs in the financial sector before co-founding Samson Capital in 2004, where he served as the firm’s chief investment officer. The firm specialized in municipal finance and managing fixed income currency, with most of their assets focused on municipal bonds. The firm was acquired by Fiera Capital in 2015 and he continued in his role as chief investment officer.
Throughout that time though, Lewis was also getting involved locally, using his interest in history to join the Scarsdale Historical Society. Once he dipped his toes into the historical society things began to move quickly as he jumped around, volunteering in the Arthur Manor Neighborhood Association, serving on the Scarsdale Board of Education, presiding as president of the Scarsdale Forum and serving a stint on the School Board Nominating Committee.
“There’s a lot in the world that we can’t control,” said Lewis. “We can make a difference in our hometown.”
Outside of Scarsdale, Lewis serves as a trustee for the Yonkers Partners in Education and as treasurer and chair of the endowment for the Phi Beta Kappa Society & Foundation. He’s written two books that have been published by the Yale University Press and ran an unsuccessful campaign against former Congressman Eliot Engel in 2018, where he garnered 19% of the vote.
Of all the volunteer experience he’s had though, he said his professional financial experience and his time on the board of education prepared him most for his time as a trustee.
“The experience of not just opining on credit, but being actively engaged in the construction of budgets in a public forum … I think that process-based experience and that experience of understanding how the debate on public budgets moves, those two combined … [were] the two most important contributing factors to my preparation to being a trustee,” said Lewis.
When Lewis first ran for trustee in 2019, the election only drew 457 total votes, when more than 12,000 in the village were registered to vote. Lewis said that public participation was always something to champion and mentioned the nongovernmental organizations like the Scarsdale Forum and League of Women Voters who provide commentary on village matters.
“I think that our system of government and the nonpartisan process has been validated by people choosing to live here, by our credit rating, by the quality of our neighborhoods, our schools [and] our infrastructure,” said Lewis. “Perhaps because our form of government is different than most places, a lower participation rate here may in fact reflect the satisfaction of many people in the community with how things are managed.”
While the village was dealing with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York last year, trustees were also trying to pass the village budget. The village eventually passed a $59 million budget, which included a 1.46% tax hike. Lewis was the only dissenting voice on the board on the budget’s passage and called for the village to “show solidarity” with residents who did not want an increase due to the hardships caused by coronavirus.
Lewis said he stood by his dissenting vote, because last spring the economy was in “free fall looking into an abyss.” Though he admits there is still difficulty going into this budget season (trustees and village staff are trying to plug a $1.6 million revenue gap), Lewis said the economy’s recovery is a hopeful step.
“People are still in pain, but we’ve turned the corner. We’re not staring into the abyss,” he said. “It’s too early to say precisely what I’m thinking about this budget. I do think the tax rate needs to come down.”
Lewis said he doesn’t believe the conversation is over on lowering taxes and thinks a conversation should be had about savings with department head budget proposals, village service reductions and use of reserves. Most importantly, he said, is getting community input so the board can hear what is most important.
“Everybody who lives in Scarsdale, everybody who lives in the United States of America, has suffered significant trauma and challenge,” said Lewis. “I do believe it remains incumbent upon us to try to achieve the lowest possible tax increase consistent with a Scarsdale quality of life.”
With mandatory lockdowns and social distancing requirements, local businesses in Scarsdale’s downtown have been met with major challenges. Lewis said he wanted to continue engaging with small businesses and “promoting a business-friendly environment.”
Last year, the board voted to amend the sidewalk code to allow merchants to sell goods outside and erected a tent on Spencer Place to encourage outdoor dining. On top of the village center component of the village’s comprehensive plan, Lewis said he would support a long-term strategic revitalization plan for the downtown in a post-COVID world.
“Hope is not a strategy. Planning is a strategy,” he said. “We need to be rethinking what does it mean to have a vibrant downtown post-pandemic. It’s not what it was pre-pandemic. We’re all trying to figure out what post-pandemic looks like and so this needs to be an iterative, dynamic, long-term commitment to understanding it.”
Lewis also served on the board during the controversial Freightway Garage public meeting in December 2019 after two village-selected developers made preliminary presentations for a multi-use development at the site. Looking back at the meeting, Lewis said he thought there could have been more public engagement and that he was personally unsatisfied with the developer’s presentations. During a presentation in December 2020, which outlined more than $8 million in repairs for the garage over the next 25 years, Lewis said he didn’t want to move forward with any public fact-finding mission on the future use of the garage until the budget process was completed.
“Many municipalities find themselves in the trap of making too many deferrals and then playing catch-up at a later date. We don’t want to do that,” he said. “But, there’s a difference between putting off repairs for years and years and years or just saying, ‘Let’s get through the next year and reassess.’”
More recently, Lewis recommended reducing funds further in the Freightway planning, management and redevelopment services budget line item.
“Freightway is a long-term strategic asset of the village and to manage it well, in my view, means having a very deep and detailed understanding of our future economic landscape,” he said. “Since we haven’t come out of the pandemic, by definition, we don’t know what that landscape is and for something of that significance we should not be guessing.”
Police reform has also been on the eyes of the village after New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued mandatory internal reviews from all municipal police departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Lewis said he thought the village’s Police Reform and Reinvention Committee report was “excellent” and “will stand the test of time.”
Many activists have also been rallying to “defund the police,” a proposal that would shift some police resources to community-focused groups. Lewis said he understands the legitimate concerns brought up by activists who support the mantra, but doesn’t believe defunding police solves the problem.
“As our own police chief noted and as national experts have noted, there’s an important role for social services and we as a nation came to rely too heavily on police to do too many things,” he said. “So we need to plug that hole with social services and be willing to spend on social services.”
Reflecting on his first term, Lewis said he was always focused on rethinking municipal services, infrastructure and maintaining a sustainable cost structure. Hoping for a second term, the thought process is still in the forefront of his mind.
“When people think of Scarsdale they think about our school district being a national model,” he said. “I would like them to say that… their village government is the national model for how a government should function into the 21st century.”