Nate Shinagawa, a candidate for county legislature. Provided pic

ITHACA, N.Y. — Nate Shinagawa recently resigned from the Tompkins County Legislature to run for another seat in the Fall Creek district.

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Shinagawa, formerly the Democratic nominee for Congress, has owned a house in District 2’s Fall Creek since 2011 and has served on the county legislature for 10 years.

Nominated by the local Democrats, Shinagawa will face local resident and advocate Anna Kelles in a general election on Nov. 3.

Here are Shinagawa’s answers to 9 questions; click on the one you’re interested in to see his answer, or read the entire story in order.

You can read our interview with Kelles here.

1 – Why are you running for the Legislature? What are your priorities? What should people vote for you?
2 — Why are you moving districts?
3 — The previous county legislator for Fall Creek was criticized widely for her attendance. Is it a problem for you?
4 – Why did you switch votes on the Old Library?
5 — What do you think of tax abatements for developers?
6 — What do you think of the jail expansion?
7 — What do you think of the new budget?
8 — What do you think of police body cameras for sheriff’s deputies?
9 — Last silly question… what’s your typical night out in Ithaca?

(Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)


1 — Why are you running for the Legislature? What are your priorities? What should people vote for you?

I’m running because I believe that government should be compassionate, thoughtful and just. When I was 13 years old, my father’s friend, a Taiwanese American man named Kuan Kao, was shot outside of his California home by an officer who feared Kao knew martial arts and would use it against him. Over the next year, my family and I spent time with his wife and three fatherless children. I will never forget how his wife felt. They lost him to a government that should have protected and served them. I almost lost faith in public service, but my activist dad encouraged me to get involved so I could someday be in a position to make government more compassionate and just.

In too many places across America, my story isn’t unique. Injustice exists and hard working people are genuinely suffering. While it’s harder to make a difference at the national level, at the local level, we have the power to make laws that can genuinely improve the lives of our neighbors. I have a ten-year, public record of bringing people together, listening to their concerns and turning progressive ideas into reality. I’m an activist that follows through for my constituents.

Nate Shinagawa, a candidate for county legislature. Provided pic

For example, at the local level, fighting for a living wage is the best way we can tackle the injustice of vast social inequality in our society. While I hope that the state and federal government acts to raise the minimum wage, the people of our community cannot wait. In 2013, I worked with the Tompkins County Workers Center to sponsor a $100,000 fund to bring employees of county contractors up to a living wage. In 2014, I chaired the committee that brought a living wage to the workers of the Solid Waste and Recycling Center and the Foodnet Meals on Wheels program. This is one of many examples where I’ve taken a progressive idea and turned it into real public policy.

2 — Why are you moving districts?

I’ve been an Ithacan for twelve years, representative for ten, and a homeowner for four years. My old district includes Fall Creek, specifically parts of Cayuga, Linn and Farm Streets. Two Saturdays ago, I got married. Janine lives in a house we now own together on East Falls St., which is a different district, so I decided the most ethical thing to do was resign from my old legislature seat so I can move in with her. I did not want to live in one area and then represent another. When Kathy Luz Herrera announced her resignation, I discussed it with Janine and decided to run in the special election to represent our neighborhood.

My top priority is to complete the unfinished business that I was working on prior to my resignation, specifically implementing police body cameras, creating a county-wide living wage ordinance and reforming our tax abatement policy.

3 — The previous county legislator for Fall Creek was criticized widely for her attendance. Is it a problem for you?

Questioning attendance is absolutely important. Since I started on the Legislature, I’ve attended 91% of the 252 meetings of the County Legislature. If you add committees and informational sessions, I’ve attended another 330 meetings. It’s been hard to keep up my attendance as one of the few legislators with a full-time job, but I make it a priority only second to my family.

I think attendance and effectiveness need to be considered together. There are legislators who make all meetings but don’t serve in leadership roles. I’m part of the leadership because I’m an effective legislator who delivers for my constituents. I asked Legislature Chairman Michael Lane what he thinks about my service on the Legislature and he said, “The old adage that when you need something done, you should ask a busy person, describes Nate in a nutshell. He works very hard at private employment, and yet devotes the time he needs to do his elected job right.”

4 — Why did you switch votes on the Old Library?

If I didn’t change my vote, the Old Library site would have been left vacant or sold off to the highest bidder. I thought both alternatives were bad for the community.

I originally supported the Franklin project because I liked the environmental benefits of reusing the Old Library structure and building condominiums in the downtown core. Only five other legislators agreed with me.  Seven legislators supported the Travis Hyde project, a project that includes over 60 units of housing and a new space for the Lifelong Senior Center.  

On the night of the final vote, I saw that if I didn’t change my vote, no project would move forward because 8 votes are required to pass anything. I decided to make a vote for progress, for moving forward, so I made the difficult decision to change my vote to Travis Hyde. I knew this would not be a politically popular choice, but it was the right choice for people needing housing and our senior citizens who rely on Lifelong Senior Center.

5 — What do you think of tax abatements for developers?

Tax abatements are a tool, but they should not be the norm. I only support tax abatements when a project supports key goals of the city like revitalizing the downtown core or providing needed housing.  I think abatements should also be used to incentivize developers to pay a living wage, use local labor and utilize green building practices. For example, with the Marriott hotel project, I only supported it after city officials negotiated that housekeepers get paid  156% of the minimum wage.

I’ve also advocated for changes to our abatement policy. This past year, I voted against developer Jason Fane’s tax abatement request and joined with other leaders calling for a change to our abatement policy. Since this meeting, Mayor Svante Myrick has started a task force to reform to the City Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP). I also have been a vocal proponent of a local labor provision for all Industrial Development projects. I have been asked about the Trebloc building’s request for abatements. I do not support abatements for this project.

6 — What do you think of the jail expansion?

Jail expansion is a symptom, not a remedy. For ten years, I’ve been a stalwart supporter of alternatives to incarceration, day-reporting programs, drug court and a larger bail fund for Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR). Despite investments in these programs, we still have more people going to jail because prosecutors and judges are sending people there. That’s why I support the Tompkins County Council of Government’s task force improving our local justice system.

Last year, we had an immediate problem with the jail. We were rightfully criticized for having no outside recreation area for the inmates. We also had too many people being boarded out to other counties because the jail’s capacity was met. When an inmate is boarded out to another county, they have less access to their defense attorney and their families.

I think this is a civil rights issue.  I voted for a new recreation space for the inmates and an additional space for seven inmates to reduce board outs. This is a short term fix. We need to keep the focus on supporting alternative to incarceration and educating our justices on choices other than jail.

7 — What do you think of the new budget?

I’m proud of the job that county employees have done to keep costs down while improving the quality of services. This year’s recommended budget is a 1.3% increase to the tax levy, which is well below the tax cap and the lowest increase since 2006. To put it in perspective, before I joined the Legislature, 2004 had 17.8% and 2005 had a  23.7% increase to the tax levy. We’ve turned around the county budget for local taxpayers.

The major budget opportunity to me is solidifying the living wage for county employees. The administrator moved the living wage for the Foodnet Meals on Wheels employees out of the recommended budget. I think the living wage should be a permanent part of the budget.

8 — What do you think of body cameras for sheriff’s deputies?

I’ve been the Legislature’s driver for implementing body cameras in the Sheriff’s department. In January, I became Public Safety Chair and said that body cameras would be a top priority for the committee. I worked closely with the Sheriff and Under-Sheriff as they aligned their body camera implementation with the Ithaca City Police Department.

Today, we have a body camera policy, have chosen the equipment and are setting a timeline for its launch. We’ve also made numerous improvements to the policy to make it clear how defense attorneys and the public can access footage. I want to return to the Legislature to see body cameras fully implemented by the end of the year.

9 — Last silly question, what’s your typical night out in Ithaca?

Janine (my wife) and I are typically homebodies but we love eating out at our regular spots. We love breakfast for dinner, so we usually go out to State Street Diner at least once a week. Our favorite nights are gathering with friends and family at Northstar, which is just down the block from our house on E. Falls Street.

We almost always share tofu wings and a veggie burger, with a pint of Ithaca Beer each (Cascazilla is amazing).

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Jeff Stein

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