ITHACA, N.Y. – On the eve on the 2016 presidential election, one of the most longtime prominent women in Tompkins County politics, Irene Stein, hardly slept. She had a nightmare.
She’d forgotten to arrange a speaker on behalf of the annual Cheese and Wine Fundraiser for the Democratic party.
“Hillary had won the election and there were all the problems with the Trump people,” she said. So the Democrats had organized to have a speaker at the fundraiser to address the question, “What now?” Except, in the dream, Stein forgot to arrange for a speaker to show up.
Stein said she woke up with a jolt sometime in the early morning and has been awake since then.
First thing in the morning, she went to the 43rd annual Rotary Pancake Day at Coltivare, in downtown Ithaca where she brushed shoulders with the biggest Democratic names in the region: Barbra Lifton, Leslie Danks Burke, Mayor Svante Myrick and countless other local officials and, frankly, friends and fans of Stein.
Everybody greets her, looks for her and wants her ear for something.
So when asked about the cultural significance of having a woman as a presidential candidate for a major political party, she skips the question entirely and jumps straight to talking about policy.
She said, “Hillary has a record, a factual record, that’s documented all her life — starting with college and a maybe before. She has tried to help people. She worked for children. She worked with the disabled. She was the person who was probably most salient in getting CHIP to children’s health insurance programs.”
Clinton, who Stein once hosted overnight in her home while she was running for Senate, doesn’t come across on television as warmly as she does in person, Stein said.
“She was the most down to earth person you will ever want to meet.”
And then Stein wants to talk about Assembly woman Barbara Lifton.
“She explores an issue into great depth and knows what she’s talking about.”
Questions about herself, Stein called embarrassing, despite having 60 years of institutional knowledge about Tompkins County Democrats.
She coyly declined to say how old she is, but said she’ll never see her 70s again. She was born during the Great Depression to immigrant parents: Her father Hyman Wald moved to this county in 1936 from Ukraine to escape religious persecution. Her mother Eva Krock (later Eva Wald) came to the United States at the age of 6 from Lithuania.
“I think my mother is one of the first feminists,” Stein said. “My mother was a very strong woman, very opinionated, very expressive. But she had no interest in politics and she never voted.”
But Eva Wald was politically active. She once held a rally against a proposed bowling alley in their Boston neighborhood.
“They were all concerned about the noise and my mother organized them to protest,” Stein said, though she can’t remember whether that bowling alley ever got built.
Her mother used to call the family’s household money her ‘paycheck’, and periodically asked Hyman Wald for a raise.
“He thought it was funny and she was dead serious,” Stein said.
It wasn’t until her mother’s death that both Stein and her father became aware that her mother loaned out some of the money to her friends when they were going through hard times.
Her father was furious, Stein said, which is probably why her mother never told him about the money.
Stein’s own political journey began when she went to Boston University. She was never curious about politics, but became wrapped up with graduate students while she was a secretary in the Physics Department.
“I got very, very, very interested and that was it,” Stein said.
Eventually, Stein married and moved to Ithaca where she attended Cornell University and raised a family: She has two children and five grandchildren.
Stein has been involved with the local Democrats and worked for the party since the day she came to Ithaca.
Looking back on the strides women have made, Stein mused on how she perceived Clinton being unfairly targeted during the election, seemingly because she is a woman.
Stein points to the first presidential debate and Donald Trump’s demeanor and constant sniffling.
“The press did not make a mockery of Donald Trump. Maybe many people did because he deserved it, but if a woman had done that? Just picture it,” she said. “They would have made a mockery of her.”
She said, “The bar against women is so strong and everything we can do to start erasing that not only helps every woman, it helps every American.”
“We’ll have broken another sound barrier”
Stein walks into the TST- BOCES on Warren Road in the Town of Ithaca to vote.
She’s greeted by her first and last name by most of the volunteers. But as she checks in to vote, a new volunteer asks, “What’s you last name?”
“Stein! Irene Stein,” another volunteer tells her at the table.
She signs her name and chats with the volunteer about a local village board meeting that happened Monday night.
Then Stein takes her ballot, and in a private voting booth on the far side of the room, spent about three minutes checking off her choices before slipping it into an optical scan voting machine.
“The impact of this hasn’t hit me today as much as its going to,” Stein had said earlier. She predicted that she would become emotional at the polls, but immediately after casting her vote, she is all business.
“Most people think you’re crazy if you’re involved in politics. I’m often asked by people, ‘Are you still doing that?’ as if that’s strange,” Stein said.
Yes, even on Election Day, she’s still doing “that.”
After voting, Stein drove to the Tompkins County Democratic Headquarters at Clinton Plaza in Ithaca.
She walks in and instantly starts asking whether people have started making phone calls to voters. She said she’ll be calling Newfield residents. She wants to know if volunteers have checked messages and what people are doing for lunch. She’s arranging to take people to polling places in her personal vehicle.
Despite Clinton having an 85 percent chance of winning, this election isn’t over and Stein said she’s not celebrating until every vote is in.
“I am the kind of person who worries. I leave no stone un-turned no matter how it looks, and it looks good for Hillary,” she said.
After the polls close, she’ll head to Hotel Ithaca for the Tompkins County Democrats victory party in downtown Ithaca where she will wait, alongside everyone else, to see how the vote turns out.
“We’ll have broken another sound barrier,” she said, if Clinton becomes the first female president.
But win or lose, Stein will still be doing “that.”
She thought back on her dream and repeated the topic of the imagined fundraiser: “What now?”
Stein said it was such a good idea, she might start planning to host that exact fundraiser this spring.