Editor’s Note: Rick Wallace would go on to be elected Ithaca’s City Court Judge. His term is set to begin in January. This story was published during the campaign.
Ithaca, N.Y. — For Rick Wallace, it’s long been about Ithaca.
The Ithaca native says that it was the strength of this community that made him stay in his hometown after graduating from McGill law school.
“My connection to Ithaca was so strong, it kept me here,” Wallace said.
Wallace is an attorney in private practice at Guttman & Wallace and former president of the Tompkins County Bar Association. During his 24 years of practice, he has worked with cases ranging from civil rights litigation to criminal defense, small claims to landlord-tenant disputes.
Wallace’s grassroots campaign has received support ranging from former high ranking police officials to local activists, representing both sides of what he dubs “Ithaca’s political spectrum,” he said.
Father’s death takes Wallace home to Ithaca
Wallace grew up “on the hill” on Triphammer Road and attended Cayuga Heights Elementary School.
His father ran a scrapyard which was started by his grandparents on Cherry Street.
He attended MgGill Univeristy in Montreal, majoring in philosophy.
“If there had been an opportunity to do something philosophy orientated that I felt that there was a good job, I probably would’ve taken that route,” Wallace said, “But back then, there weren’t lots of jobs for philosophers.”
Wallace was accepted to McGill University Faculty of Law after completing his undergraduate degree. He was planning on using his degree as a launch pad to pursue a practice in international law, but he was called back to Ithaca.
“My last day of my final exam at law school, my father passed away unexpectedly from cancer,” Wallace said. “I had to defer my last exam and came home to be with my family.”
Wallace stayed in Ithaca with his mother, who was sick with emphysema, for the 14 months in between his father’s and then mother’s passing.
“So the next thing I knew, both of my parents were gone and I was here in Ithaca,” Wallace said. “I felt a very strong connection to Ithaca, in fact, arguably stronger than ever, because with my parents gone, that was what I had left to look to. Surprisingly, it was more than enough.”
Wallace got a job with a local attorney and has lived in Ithaca ever since.
Putting his hat in the ring
Wallace has been in private practice with his partner, Charles Guttman, for the past 12 years.
He called their partnership a “match made in heaven.”
“For fun, growing up in the city, Chuck would attend math club. For fun, mind you,” Wallace said. “For fun growing up in Ithaca, I would play basketball and try not to get arrested.”
Today in their practice, Guttman conducts most of the transactional cases, cases that involve numbers, real estate, and wills, while Wallace conducts all of the court cases, almost all of the criminal cases and all of the injury cases.
Wallace said as the city court judgeships came up, several members of the Ithaca community approached him and asked him to run.
“I’m pretty happy in my private practice,” Wallace said. “But enough people approached me and said, ‘Rick, you really need to go do this,’ that I said ‘Okay, I will put my hat in the ring.’”
When Wallace told one of his daughters about his impending candidacy, she told him that he would have to “go hard. Go hard or go home.”
“She’s absolutely right,” Wallace said. “If I’m going to do this – and I’ve obviously made the commitment to do this — I have to really make the effort to do it.”
Working with OAR
Outside of the courtroom, Wallace has been heavily involved with support for inmates and restorative justice in Tompkins County through Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR).
“These local jail residents, unlike penitentiary inmates, are coming back to our community,” Wallace said. “They are our neighbors, and our neighbors’ children. We don’t want them to be disconnected, we don’t want them to be disenfranchised. We want to help them, we want to restore them, thus the name ‘restorative justice.’”
Wallace served as the president of Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) for ten years, and was a board member before his term as president.
“At OAR, we connect inmates with jobs, make sure their landlords don’t cancel their apartment, try to make sure that their employers maybe keep their jobs open for them, if they’re in jail for 30, 60 or 90 days,” Wallace said.
In addition, Wallace helped start and currently serves on the board on Community Housing of Ithaca (CHI) — a non-profit that provides low-income and homeless housing for the Ithaca community.
“We own several properties – like the former Red Cross Shelter down on West State Street,” Wallace said. “We buy old properties and rehabilitate them and make them assessable price-wise and quality-wise for people who otherwise wouldn’t have shelter.”
The confidence to do ‘tremendous good’
Wallace said that his broad range of support from the Ithaca community, from “former high ranking police officials on one hand to local activists on the other,” comes from his decades of experience in Ithaca.
“Constituencies have come to know that I can be trusted to be fair, to be honest, and to really try to do the right thing, no matter what anybody else thinks,” Wallace said.
“My campaign is a grassroots campaign,” Wallace said. “I’ve been here a long time, and I believe that I’ve earned the respect of the people across the board.”
As a long-time Ithacan, Wallace has watched the community evolve, and he says that the city court has a large role in ensuring the well-being of the area.
“Ithaca is not the same as it was when I was younger,” Wallace said. “There are tremendous problems of crime and substance abuse that are going unaddressed. I believe that city court is a major player in the effort to address drug and alcohol-related crime and therefore the health and safety of our community.”
Wallace said that he was humbled by the support he has received from the community.
“The more I’ve been in this process, the more I believe that this is the right thing for me to do,” Wallace said. “I believe that I can do tremendous good.”