ITHACA, N.Y. — Two months ago, Anna Kelles was told by a small Democratic committee that she would not be representing the party on the ballot in November.
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Kelles ran for the Tompkins County Legislature anyway.
She didn’t expect to win. But she hit the campaign trail hard, working from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next morning for 7 days a week, every week. She did so from when she lost the party’s nomination until Tuesday night’s general election.
Along the way, Kelles says, she canvassed “almost every” house in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood. She promoted literature on her website, researched and outlined her stances on different county issues, and took to social media to reach new audiences.
She ordered 250 yard signs for her supporters. They ran out in couple days. Kelles ordered more.
By the time the campaign was over, the Democratic Party’s endorsement wouldn’t matter.
Kelles defeated Nate Shinagawa, a legislator of 10 years with a wide array of endorsements from key officials and the Democratic Party’s nomination, by 533 votes to 388 votes — a 56 to 44 margin.
“I’m the most tired I’ve ever been in my life,” Kelles said in an interview on Tuesday night. “I’m going to go to curl up with my cat and go to sleep.”
But Kelles, an exam administrator at the Board for the Certification of Nutrition Specialists, says her surprise victory speaks to more than her workhorse efforts over the last several weeks.
Instead, she pointed to a growing need among voters — one she had tapped into — to go beyond the confines of the Democrat/Republican divide that, she suggested, constrained and oversimplified voters’ political preferences.
“I think there’s something we’re hearing locally and nationally — that we need something beyond the two-party system, that we need to all get involved and learn about our candidates and see them as people and individuals and look at their values and what they stand for,” Kelles said.
” … People are struggling. We really need to work together to address these issues, and some are bigger than what government alone can do and will require the community coming together … to create solutions that are outside the box.”
As recently as 2012, Nate Shinagawa was widely seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party.
The Cornell graduate and county lawmaker came within a few points of beating Rep. Tom Reed and earning a seat in the U.S. Congress as a young man only a few years out of college.
At the Hotel Ithaca on Tuesday night, Shinagawa was upbeat after the election results came in — surrounded by old friends and his new wife.
“This has been a time in my life for positive change,” Shinagawa said. “And I think this is a good time for me to focus on, ‘What are the real priorities for me in my life?’ .. for me and for my family.”
Shinagawa, who congratulated Kelles and offered to help her as he could, said that there was “an anti-establishment mood” that had contributed to his loss.
“When you govern for 10 years, you have to make a lot of difficult and tough choices,” Shinagawa said. “If you want to be a legislator that’s popular, the recipe is to do very little.”
Shinagawa may have also been hurt by perceptions of how the local Democrats handled the process that gave him and Elie Kirshner, 19 — a Cornell student who also fell Tuesday night — the party’s nomination.
Irene Stein, chair of the Tompkins Democratic Party, said Tuesday night that critics who have accused party insiders of hand-picking its nominees shouldn’t feel vindicated by the election results.
“I think that they may feel validated,” she said of the critics of the elections process. “… (But) I firmly stand on the ground that we did not only what was legally required, but were open and responsive to the extent possible under the situation given by the law.”
However, Stein acknowledged that she would be working to improve the party’s nomination process in the wake of this year’s election, which saw a slate of outside candidates challenging the Democratic preferences.
“We can always do things better. I have asked the charter review committee of the county to look once again at the rules of special elections and see what they can do to improve them,” Stein said.
“I also think the Democratic committee can do a better job in publicizing our meetings. We do publicize many of them but I think I want to make them a consistent practice.”
She said that the results tonight “were very mixed,” noting that Mayor Svante Myrick beat a write-in challenge and that the party gained advances in the outlying Tompkins County towns, particularly in Newfield.
“I’d like to say that the two people who are victorious: I want to congratulate them. I hope they join us,” Stein said, in reference to Kelles and Rich John, the local attorney who beat Kirshner.
“I look forward to maintaining the good and responsive government we have provided in this county.”
Kelles said she was not sure what her exact relationship with the Democratic Party would be moving forward.
“Am I going to join the committee and hope they endorse me? I don’t know,” Kelles said. “We have a lot to talk about.”
On Tuesday night, Kelles’ supporters gathered at Polaris on the Northside of Ithaca.
It was before the results were in.
Many of the supporters said they were hopeful, but not optimistic, that Kelles would win. Several said that they had been inspired by Kelles’ independence and progressive idealism, with at least three comparing her to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“There’s this woven web of human beings who are trying to create power for themselves rather than represent people. When I see that web — whether it’s created in national politics or local politics — I’m very turned off,” said one Kelles supporter, Matteo Lundgren. “So what I see with Anna is something very different.”
Patrick Judson added, describing his support for Kelles: “For responsive government. Not for the Democratic machine.”
Another supporter at Kelles’ gathering, George Dillmann, said he very much liked Shinagawa and thought that Shinagawa was an effective leader.
But Kelles, said Dillmann, appealed more directly to what he was hoping to see.
“This is a really exceptionally driven person, whose got the skills on top of it. We need to get this person in the legislature,” Dillmann said, recounting his decision to support Kelles.
At that moment, Kelles walked into the room at Polaris to whoops and shouts. As she thanked her volunteers, a reporter asked Dillmann what it would mean to him if Kelles pulled off an upset victory.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, pausing for reflection. “Mainly, I guess, that it is possible to be elected as an outsider — as somebody who is, you know, not really in the inside group of the Democratic Party.”
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