Ithaca’s Common Council is made up of the mayor and 2 alderpersons from each of Ithaca’s 5 wards, and each position on the council has a term of 4 years. The mayor and half of the alderperson positions are up for re-election this year. (To see a map of Ithaca’s wards, click here.) The forum featured the incumbent mayor and 4 out of 5 of the candidates for alderperson.
The Council candidates focused heavily on discussion of affordable housing, overall infrastructure, and sustainable development.
The judicial candidates focused on making the justice system less adversarial and the necessities of judicial tolerance and impartiality.
The Ithaca City Democratic Committee hosted an election forum in the Borg Warner Room at the Tompkins County Public Library on Monday evening, to allow the public to become familiar with Democratic candidates on the November 5 ballot. City Democratic Chair Ed Swayze introduced the candidates present at the forum and later facilitated a Q&A session. Beginning with incumbent mayor Svante Myrick, Democratic candidates for the Ithaca Common Council introduced themselves, the office they are running for, and a summary of their platforms. Following the mayor and alderpersons, the judicial candidates for Tompkins County and the state Supreme Court gave their credentials, candidacy, and how they intend to reflect community values in judicial decisions if elected.
Alderperson Nguyen streamed the forum on Facebook, so it can be watched in its entirety here.
Running for Mayor: Svante Myrick (incumbent)
Myrick opened by explaining that he had been out of town for a few weeks attending to his grandfather, who recently passed at the age of 88. He spoke fondly of his late grandfather and his personal and progressive influences on Myrick’s values that have guided him through office. Using progressivism to transition from his grandfather to his political platform, Myrick then spoke of the city’s improvements during his time in office. Myrick referenced improvements in the city’s debt, the Water Treatment Plan, and Ithaca Commons’ infrastructure in the eight years since his initial election.
Running to represent the 1st Ward: George McGonigal (incumbent)
McGonigal told the room of his start in Ithaca roughly 25 years ago and rented housing through tough financial times. He championed the city’s public works staff editions, development of the waterfront near Cherry St., and the Council’s collaboration. Looking forward, McGonigal wants to push for infrastructure improvements, affordable family housing, and cultural enrichment on Cherry St. Tourism receives large amounts of attention and care, McGonigal pointed out, but he wants to focus more on improving the fun, music, arts, and culture for Ithaca residents. Along the same lines, he wants to invest not in more 1 bedroom apartments, but affordable family housing units.
Running to represent the 2nd Ward: Ducson Nguyen (incumbent)
Ducson “Duc” Nguyen spoke decisively about increased housing density in Ithaca. Nguyen reasoned that increasing population density via condominiums and townhouses was the most viable way to decrease commuting from outside communities. With further regard to transportation issues, Nguyen highlighted his involvement with the TCAT Board in electric bus initiatives that move away from diesel fueling, and the need for new bike lanes. Nguyen also expressed pride in working with Mayor Myrick to gain sanctuary city status for Ithaca in 2016.
Running to represent the 3rd Ward: Rob Gearhart (incumbent)
Gearhart spoke of the collaborative nature Council work that promotes respect and accountability for each member. If re-elected, Gearhart wants to further engage the Ithaca community in the Council’s activities, make community investments aligned with Ithaca’s Green New Deal, and further evaluate the sustainability impacts of housing and infrastructure improvements.
Running to represent the 4th Ward: Stephen Smith (incumbent)
Lewis and Gearhart stood together to speak for Stephen Smith of the 4th Ward, who was not in attendance at the forum. Smith also supports affordable housing and a focus on sustainability.
Running to Represent the 5th Ward: Laura Lewis (incumbent)
alderperson This December, Lewis is completing a term begun by Josephine Martel— Lewis won in a 2017 special election when Martel resigned as she moved with her family from Ithaca. Lewis emphasized that she was not only a first generation college graduate, but also a first generation high school graduate. Lewis’ issues of interest included affordable housing, public transportation (Lewis sits on the TCAT Board), and creative solutions for sustainability efforts.
Running for Tompkins County Judge: Scott Miller
The forum saw the judges take the stand following the alderpersons. Scott Miller, running for County Judge, began to explain how in his 30 years as a Tompkins County resident, he has lived in all five wards of Ithaca. Miller quoted Winston Churchill, who said,
“The independence of the judiciary from the executive is the prime defense against the tyranny and retrogression of a totalitarian government.”
The current Ithaca City Court Judge spoke of the hope he holds for the judicial system because of its separation from other branches of government. Miller also explained the improvements that have been made in Ithaca during his time in city court: all accused individuals in police custody and facing arraignment are given a lawyer within two hours, cutting down on time spent incarcerated. If elected, Miller wants to bring a ‘mental health court’ to all of Tompkins County.
Running for NYS Supreme Court: Pete Charnetsky and Claudette Newman
Pete Charnetsky and Claudette Newman, both Democratic candidates for NYS Supreme Court seats, spoke next with similar tones and topics, as they have been campaigning together for most of the past few months. Charnetsky asserted the need for NYS Supreme Court justices with prior judicial experience, which all of the Democratic candidates hold, but across the aisle, only one Republican candidate holds judicial experience. Newman continued the sentiment, pointing out that 3 of the 10 Supreme Court seats are up for election on November 5, and because the terms are 14 years, voters could change the look of the state’s highest court for many years to come. Newman’s proposals encompass a broad goal of making the justice system less adversarial, and she intends to accomplish this by modeling temperament in constituent interactions and adding presumptive mediation procedures in all disputes to find solutions that are more integrative and collaborative.
Question & Answer Session
Following the words from the judicial candidates, Swayze engaged the audience with a Q&A. The candidates discussed methodical, creative approaches to infrastructure problem solving, but also highlighted the logistical and technical difficulties of infrastructure, such as the seasonal availability of asphalt. Another question addressed the city’s approach to sustainability, and Myrick and Nguyen cited policies that are not viable, like increasing property taxes [Myrick reasoned that they ultimately hurt the middle and working class], and solutions that are promising, like incentivizing greener construction processes with new infrastructure. Wrapping up, Myrick commented on the need to prioritize road improvements, saying that Ithaca must “…help people who are, honest to God, just trying to get where they’re going.”
The judicial candidates fielded a more philosophical question regarding the intersection of political affiliation and judicial discretion. Miller insisted that when elected, judges should reflect community values when encountering grey legal matters, and that he would reflect progressivism if he were elected. Charnetsky and Newman chimed in, and Newman clarified that political ideologies are bound to permeate some grey areas of the law, but that judges must use discretion ethically and remain as impartial as possible.
Election Day is November 6, 2019, and polls are open from 6am-9pm. Particularly in local elections, every individual vote has an impact because everyday, these positions make decisions concerning Ithaca development, roadwork projects, and beyond. County and state judicial elections allow voters the chance to affect change in legal interpretations and practices. Be an informed voter to spur the change you want to see in Ithaca, Tompkins County, and New York State.
To find your polling place, click here.