ITHACA, N.Y. — Six people decided the Democratic nominee for an open seat on the Tompkins County Legislature last night.

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There was no public notice of the meeting, at which former Legislator Nate Shinagawa was chosen to represent the Democratic Party line in an upcoming general election for the legislature’s Second District.

Democrat Anna Kelles also wanted to run on the party line for the Second District seat, which encompasses Fall Creek.

Kelles says she will run in the general election as an independent, but the odds are stacked against her given that — according to Board of Election officials — Democrats comprise more than 65 percent of voters in the area.

Anna Kelles

Kelles said in an interview Friday that she was disappointed that a small group — a committee of local officials — was able to decide the outcome of the nomination under election law.

Kelles, who stressed that she was optimistic and focused on winning the race, said she would have preferred the nomination to be decided through an open primary involving the full electorate. (The nominating committee voted for Shinagawa after interviews with the two candidates.)

“The community was unable to choose their nominee to run on the Democratic ticket,” Kelles said in a statement.

She added in an interview: “I was disappointed because people need a choice — that’s the whole point of the democratic process. This didn’t allow for them to make the choice for the Democratic candidate.”

Shinagawa said in an interview on Friday that he had previously worked with about half of the members of the nominating committee.

Those involved in the vote were: Laura Lewis, the chair of the committee; Common Council members Deb Mohlenhoff and Josephine Martell; former Common Council member Dan Cogan; Patty Sipman, former candidate for county Legislator; John Shortle, a local resident; and Chibo Shinagawa, Nate Shinagawa’s sister. (Chibo Shinagawa abstained from Thursday’s vote.)

Shinagawa said he recognized the imperfection of a system in which such a small group had a major hand in an election for a seat to represent thousands of Ithacans.

“Frankly, I would have preferred a primary — because I think that’s the most fair thing because then you can have everyday voters deciding the nominee,” Shinagawa said.

“If there was a more democratic way to do it I’d be in favor of something like that. But this is how the process works.”

Whenever a legislator resigns while in office, it is always the Democratic committee that chooses the party’s nominee, according to Shiangawa. Legislator Kathy Luz Herrera announced this fall that she would be stepping down from the seat amid questions about her attendance record.

So, what is that process?

There’s been some confusion surrounding the nominating process. A press release from the Tompkins County Democratic Committee released Friday morning said that Shinagawa was nominated at a meeting of the Fifth Ward Democratic Committee.

However, Tompkins Board of Elections Chair Stephen Dewitt said Friday that this information was almost certainly incorrect.

“I think there’s a misquote there: I don’t believe it’s the 5th Ward … they should have said from the Second Legislative District,” Dewitt said.

Nate Shiangawa. (provided photo)

There’s a small geographic difference between the City of Ithaca’s “Fifth Ward” and Tompkins County’s “Second Legislative District.” But because the officials of the city’s Fifth Ward represent the same “sub-divisions” that comprise the county’s Second Legislative District, they are also the ones who nominate the Democratic candidate.

Kelles and Shinagawa met with the committee members of the Second Legislative District at the committee chair’s house last night. They each pitched their candidacies and platforms to the committee and why they should be the party’s representative.

Shinagawa said that the elections process wasn’t changed from prior years ahead of this election. Shinagawa said that he and Kelles “were both informed about how the process would work.”

Democratic committee: No smoke-filled rooms anymore

Kathy Zahler, director of communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, defended the nomination process as a less-than-preferable outcome but not particularly unusual.

The Democratic Donkey

“Unfortunately, in this particular case, because of the timing of the resignation there couldn’t be a primary in the formal sense,” Zahler said.

She added in an email that vacancies on town boards are often filled by appointments; in some states, she noted, vacancies on state legislatures are filled by governors.

“It might help to remember that each member of the Democratic committee is essentially an elected official … chosen to represent the Democrats in our election districts,” Zahler said.

“That fact gives us the ability to make decisions on the fly as in this particular case … Is that fair? Is it democratic? It’s NYS law not smoke-filled rooms any more.”

Dewitt, of the Board of Elections, added that — despite the error in the press release — the correct officials had convened to give Shinagawa the primary nomination.

“In some ways it may not seem fair,” but it follows the election law’s dictates, Dewitt said.

Kelles says she is focused on issues, priorities of campaign

Kelles says she will be continuing her campaign as an independent Democrat on the Ithaca Community Party ticket.

“This has been a very educational experience; this has been a very fast learning curve about how the system works,” she said.

Kelles said she looks forward to continuing to campaign on the principles that spurred her to run for the Tompkins County Legislature in the first place.

“I will do my best job — within the system that exists — and present my case as cleanly and honorably as I can,” she said.

The Democratic nomination, she acknowledged, gives Shinagawa a major advantage.

“But,” she added, “I feel like I have a really good shot at this.”

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Jeff Stein

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