ITHACA, N.Y. — At least four candidates will be running against the favored choices of the local Democratic Party when voters head to the ballot box on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
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In each of the separate races, the Tompkins County Democratic Party has nominated one candidate who now faces a challenge from outside the party.
Are these independent candidacies a reflection of dissatisfaction with the way the Democratic Party — which enjoys an overwhelming built-in advantage among Tompkins voters — is running local government and local politics?
Some of the candidates challenging the status quo think so.
“Certainly, we share the view that having an independent voice — rather than having a large group of people that will always agree with each other — is better. It’s better to have a minority voice,” said local attorney Rich John, who is running a write-in candidacy against Democratic nominee and Cornell student Elie Kirshner.
John said there was significant frustration among local voters with how Democratic Party officials have handled the nominating process.
“In walking door-to-door, there’s a lot of anger,” John said. “If people have been following the whole process, often I don’t need to say anything — they’re just mad. And I think there’s basis for that.”
Sean Gannon, who is challenging Democratic nominee Ducson Nguyen in a race for Common Council, agreed. Gannon says that there is a link between the candidacies outside the party, and that this link is in part a recognition of the “need for transparency and communication in development decisions.”
“What I’m hearing from people is that the one-party town we have become is not sufficient for the robust discussion that campaigns are expected to bring,” Gannon said.
Similarly, Anna Kelles, who is running against Democratic nominee Nate Shinagawa in a race for the Fall Creek seat on the Tompkins County Legislature, said she thinks the independent candidacies may be a reflection of growing frustration with the Democratic Party — both nationally and locally.
“I think maybe it’s more of the frustration with the fact that we essentially have a one-party system here,” Kelles said.
“… I think what’s going on in the presidential campaigns shows a real parallel. I think that there’s a frustration with the entire way both our financial and political systems are right now, and it’s showing on every level.”
Reaction from Tompkins Democratic Party
Irene Stein, chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, said she wasn’t sure why there appear to be more independent campaigns this year.
Stein said that Mayor Svante Myrick (D) has “accomplished an enormous amount, but there’s a segment that’s not happy with that.” She also cited public discontent with the 11-story Trebloc building site proposal. (Myrick recently announced his opposition to tax abatements for the controversial plan.)
Stein added about the races: “I would have to look at them all individually, because the nature of each contest is so different … I just think each race is different, but why it’s happening now I’m not sure.”
“I don’t have hard data, but my impression is that there are different reasons.”
Deflecting criticism of the party, Stein noted that both Kelles and John sought to run on the Democratic line before announcing their independent candidacies.
“I think the Democratic Party is really open, and tries to be inclusive. But people who don’t share our values won’t be comfortable with it,” Stein said.
Here are the candidates, with those with party support listed first and the independent candidates listed second:
1 — Mayor Svante Myrick, who faces a write-in campaign from local activist Phoebe Brown;
2 — Cornell student Elie Kirshner, who faces a write-in campaign from local attorney Rich John in the race for the 4th District seat on the Tompkins County Legislature;
3 — Former legislator Nate Shinagawa, who faces the independent candidacy of local advocate Anna Kelles in a race for the 2nd District seat on the Tompkins County Legislature;
4 — Ducson Nguyen, the Democratic party favorite who faces an independent campaign from local advocate Sean Gannon in a race for Ithaca Common Council’s Second Ward.
Allegations of ‘machine politics’ made and denied
Nguyen won a contested Democratic primary against Isabelle Ramos, and Brown did not announce her run against Myrick until late in the race.
But the Shinagawa/Kelles and Kirshner/John races share an important similarity: Both Shinagawa and Kirshner won their nominations due to a vote by a little-known Democratic committee that decided its endorsement at a private meeting.
That process has proved highly controversial, with many area residents criticizing the Democratic Party for a nomination process that, they say, lacked transparency.
Democratic Party officials have responded that their hands were tied in the process by state law.
“I haven’t endorsed (Kirshner) yet but do support him,” Shinagawa said. “(Kirshner) won the endorsement of the party after both candidates had a fair hearing before the district’s Democratic committee.”
Many have found that explanation unpersuasive. These critics claim that the chain of events leading to the race between Kelles and Shinagawa — in which Shinagawa announced his intention to switch seats shortly after the resignation of Legislator Kathy Luz Herrera — at least had the appearance of being orchestrated.
That claim has been vehemently denied by Shinagawa, Stein, Myrick and other local Democrats. But the criticisms of the process has remained, and seems to have gained momentum after Kirshner, a 19-year-old intern who worked in Myrick’s office, was also chosen as the party’s nominee by the Democratic committee.
“The mayor himself must have surely discussed these matters with (Shinagawa) – his housemate and political ally. After all, the outcome of this closed process was that, with no input from the voters, the mayors’s housemate and a 19 year old acolyte of the mayor received the Democratic nomination for two vacant seats on the county legislature,” said Donald Beachler, associate professor of politics at Ithaca College, in a strongly-worded guest column sent to the Ithaca Voice and published by other media outlets.
“The result of all these machinations is that the Democratic nominations were settled in private meetings with no opportunity for public input and at dates … that made it difficult for anyone else to gain ballot access for the November election.”
“The Daleys no longer rule Chicago, but machine politics is alive and well in Ithaca.”
The Ithaca Voice has declined to run Beachler’s column because many of its claims cannot be verified. But while Beachler has been among the fiercest critics of the local Democrats, he’s hardly been alone; in just the last two weeks, the Ithaca Voice has received more than 20 letters-to-the-editor from residents who complain that the Democratic Party’s nomination process has been far too opaque.
Stein and other party Democrats have dismissed these criticisms as unfounded. But at a candidates’ forum in Collegetown on Tuesday, they surfaced again when Mayor Myrick was asked about the city’s “machine politics.”
The mayor began by saying that the question was a good one, and one he had been hearing frequently. But, he said, “machine politics” normally refer to party bosses who use their power to reward plush jobs and tow the cars of rival candidates.
Nothing close to that is happening in Ithaca, he said. The reality, according to Myrick, is that a small group of volunteers is doing its best amid difficult circumstances while constrained by election law.
“I’ve been in every basement and back-room in this city. I’ve never seen a back-room deal,” Myrick said.
“All I see is honest people making the best choices they can with the information they have. I understand what it means to be in a minority and to not be chosen, very much … you don’t get elected at 24 without a fair amount of ostracism and skepticism.
Myrick said it simply didn’t make sense to ascribe bad intentions to the committee members involved in the nomination process.
“Those committee volunteers have nothing to gain — nothing to gain at all, and nothing to lose — for choosing one person over another,” Myrick said. “When they voted to nominate (Shinagawa) … when they vote to endorse (Kirshner) — there is no pot of gold for them at the end of the rainbow or repercussions.”
America’s form of government, Myrick said, isn’t purely democratic. It relies instead on party systems.
“It’s too cynical to say any decision you don’t agree with is anti-democratic,” Myrick said. “It runs counter to the Ithacan philosophy.”
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