Eric Lerner

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Eric Lerner – Politics, Philosophy, Philately

Lerner came to Ithaca in 1970 for grad school at Cornell and “never made it out.”

Since then, he’s been involved in the Ithaca community and local politics, including a mayoral run in 2003. We talk to Lerner about his philosophy studies, his history of community work, his political victories and defeats and his transition into running his own eBay-based philately (that is, stamp collecting) business.

Below are 5 interesting snippets from the interview:

1 – How Lerner has seen the political scene in Ithaca evolve over the years.
2 – How the Recycling & Solid Waste Center may have spelled doom for the Republican legislature in Tompkins County, and Lerner’s role in that.
3 -Lerner’s work for Offender Aid and Restoration and his problems with the jail system.
4 -Lerner’s advice for those looking to get involved in human services.
5 – What’s paper thin, hails from Slovakia and is worth almost $8,000?


1 – How Lerner has seen the political scene in Ithaca evolve over the years

These days, we tend to think of Ithaca as a haven for liberal thought – at least Tom Reed thinks so – but it wasn’t always so. When Lerner came to Ithaca in the 70s, it had been riding a long wave of conservative republican mayors and legislators.Lerner believes that the academic community played a part in this sea change. “There’ve been generations of students – a fraction of whom have stuck around – so that overall the whole tone of the community has become a whole lot more progressive than it once was. Then it becomes a magnet because it’s a hip place to live.”

2 – How the Recycling & Solid Waste Center may have spelled doom for the Republican legislature in Tompkins County, and Lerner’s role in that

Lerner explained that due to a number of environmental laws passed in the 70s, the cost of solid waste disposal had gone way up for most citizens. The Republican-led legislature had struggled with this issue and was facing severe criticism.Lerner felt he could tackle the issue, so he volunteered and was given control of the committee.

Lerner told us, “It was a monstrously large job… [the ultimate result was] the Recycling and Solid Waste Center. Certainly, I did not design it, I did not lay the groundwork, but I chaired the committee that got the thing built. I think it’s done a hell of a job and I’m very proud of it…

… and that uproar was enough that the past 3 republican chairs of the legislature did not run for reelection.”

Ithaca’s legislature has been held by a Democratic majority since. Coincidence?

3 -Lerner’s work for Offender Aid and Restoration and his problems with the jail system

Lerner served as the director of OAR, which at the time stood for “Offender Aid and Restoration”. The name has changed but the acronym and mission are the same: it’s an organization which assists and advocates for people incarcerated in the Tompkins County Jail. He was instrumental in creating the OAR bail fund. The fund runs strong to this day, offering zero-interest loans for those who need to pay bail but cannot afford it.

Lerner says, “In the American justice system, if you’re arrested and have money, you can bail yourself out. If you’re arrested under the same circumstances for the same crime but you don’t have money, then you wait for trial in jail. The whole pre-trial bail system is fundamentally a way of locking up poor people. I think that’s offensive.”

4 – Lerner’s advice for those looking to get involved in human services

While Lerner recommends following one’s passion when it comes to community service, he also advocates looking at it pragmatically. “The other advice there would be, for someone who wants to get involved in the community and wants to volunteer: think about what’s in it for you. What do you want to get out of this experience of giving to others? … If you think you’re just being selfless and helping others and there’s nothing for yourself in it, that might feel good for a couple months but it’s gonna wear off, you’re gonna burn out. The way to keep going is to volunteer in a way that’s nourishing for you.”

Contact The Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County if you’re interested in volunteering.

5 – What’s paper thin, hails from Slovakia and is worth almost $8,000?

“Once – this was in 2006 and I’m still waiting for it to happen again – I had one stamp that was not quite like anything in the reference books, so I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. I put it on eBay as a no-reserve auction starting at $5 and watched as it jumped upward and upward and finally sold for $7,800 and change.”

Turns out the stamp had been a spectacularly rare government issue from Slovakia – rare because it was issued just before it’s government collapsed in the mid-20th century. The buyer was understandably cautious: “He was in was in Bratislava – which I now know is the capital of Slovakia – and he arranged for his friend from Toronto to drive down to Ithaca to pick up this $7,800 stamp, then drive it back to Toronto and fly it to Slovakia.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.