ITHACA, N.Y. — Local attorney Rich John cited his decades of legal and administrative work in arguing for his candidacy for the Tompkins County Legislature.

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The subtext was clear. John will face Elie Kirshner, a 19-year-old Cornell student, in a general election this Nov. 3 for the legislature’s 4th Ward.

“I didn’t mean to be harsh or flippant with (Kirshner) when I said I couldn’t do the things I want to do when I was 19,” John said at a candidates’ forum Tuesday afternoon.

“You wouldn’t hire a builder to build your house that hadn’t built a house.”

Kirshner, speaking next, was ready with a rejoinder.

“I don’t think this is my first time building houses,” Kirshner said.

Cornell student Elie Kirshner, right, faces local attorney Rich John in a race for Tompkins County Legislature

Kirshner listed the following experiences as evidence that he has the background it takes to serve on the Legislature: Writing state and federal grants while working in Ithaca’s City Hall; coordinating efforts among Collegetown businesses; and helping plan the Commons re-opening celebration.

“I’ve been endorsed by many of the people I’ve worked with,” Kirshner said, citing his time as an intern under Mayor Svante Myrick and connection to Kevin Sutherland, Myrick’s former chief of staff.

“…My age does not define my passion for the city of Ithaca … or my commitment to the residents of the 4th District.”

The forum, held Tuesday in St. Luke’s Church in Collegetown, saw an overwhelmingly friendly conversation between Kirshner and John.

Unopposed Common Council candidate Rob Gearhart also spoke at the event, as did Mayor Svante Myrick. Myrick faces a write-in candidate who did not appear at the forum.

Later on Tuesday, local advocate Anna Kelles and Democratic nominee Nate Shinagawa will meet at a forum. They are competing for a seat on the Tompkins County Legislature.

A few other observations about the Kirshner/John race from Tuesday’s forum:

— Minimum wage

The candidates both reacted to an audience question about a proposed county-wide minimum wage hike with cautious support.

“I’m absolutely inclined to support minimum wage increases,” Kirshner said, but said that a county-wide hike would be better if first made the subject of a study by TCAD.

Similarly, John said he in general supports raising the minimum wage but worries that a county-specific hike would hurt small businesses in Tompkins County.

“I think Elie and I are fairly close on this,” he said. “i would want to make sure it was thoroughly studied.”

— “Old Library” site

Both candidates said that they would have preferred the Franklin Properties proposal for the “Old Library” site.

The issue bitterly divided the Legislature earlier this year. The Legislature ultimately chose to choose a competing proposal from Travis Hyde for the prominent real estate.

“I’m not sure I would have gone with that project; I would favor more mixed-use,” John said.

Kirshner had a similar response. “I favor the Franklin proposal because it lines up with my priorities of smart and environmentally sustainable growth,” he said.

— Biggest divide: Kirshner’s experience

As mentioned above, the biggest divide between Kirshner and John seemed to be over whether Kirshner’s experience working was sufficient to help steer the Tompkins County Legislature.

“If I was going to serve this position I would give all myself to it,” Kirshner said. “…I am ready to dedicate a really significant portion of my life to serving the residents of the 4th district.”

Kirshner said he was running in part because of a “love for my community and a feeling that my community has already done so much for me.”

John, meanwhile, spoke about years of experience helping the State Theatre of Ithaca, working as the Lansing town attorney, and years of serving as general counsel for Intertech.

John said that he and Kirshner actually had a lot in common, but that John had accumulated significant experience over his lifetime that would better position him to achieve his goals.

“I could not have done those things at 19. It takes a lot of experience to be able to push projects through to their completion,” he said.

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Jeff Stein

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