ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislator Leslyn McBean Clairborne is seeking re-election for District 1 this year.

Since being elected in 2001, McBean Clairborne has served on a variety of committees and held numerous roles.

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Ithaca Voice reporter Jolene Almendarez sat down with McBean Clairborne to discuss housing, the living wage and other local issues.

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from and how did you end up in Ithaca involved in politics? 

I’m originally from Guyana in South America … I came to the United States in 1989 to visit my mother who had already immigrated here. She was here for about five years. My mom was my best friend and she left, she left just before I graduated from high school to come to a U.S., as a matter of fact she was on her way to Canada for better opportunity, my mom is a nurse…She was a physician’s assistant and I came to visit her with a permanent visa. I was teaching, I’m a teacher by profession.

And I thought, “Oh, I’ll just visit her and I’d go back home. And I saw my mother and I didn’t want to leave her again. That is the hoenst truth”

She wasn’t there for my graduation in college because she couldn’t come home. I just wanted to be..with my buddy….We were everything to each other. There’s some things that just can’t make it into your story.

(Leslyn spent time working with younger children in Syracuse and eventually landed a position working with older children, her preference. She eventually moved to Syracuse with the help of a local pastor but still commuted to Auburn on the weekends to be with her mother. But it was a rough commute that left her exhausted. Eventually, the pastor asked her where she wanted to work aside from Syracuse and Auburn.) 

She asked me where I wanted to go. I said I don’t know the area. I don’t know any place. I know Auburn and now I know Syracuse.  She said, “Well, pick some places.” Again, you couldn’t write this. She pulled out a map and said, “Here are all the places around where you are…” I close my eyes and I pointed. The first three places I landed on, I put in applications. Ithaca was the first place that had an opening that called me… That’s how I ended up in Ithaca.

How did you decide to run as a legislator candidate?

Well I came from a socialist, communist country. I knew nothing about Democrats or Republicans or what any of that the stuff was about, or Green, or any of it. There was a friend of mine who held the legislature seat that I eventually got into…I was working at the community dispute resolution center … I’m sitting in my office listening to the radio, like I always did, and on the radio it said that Susan Davis has had to resign her legislature seat because she moved to Syracuse… I was on her vacancy committee.

And then I got a phone call that the committee is goign to meet at the drop-in center and I was like, “Ok, I can’t meet at the time y’all are saying because I’m still at work. But I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

I got there and the committee said, “We decided that we would like you to replace her on the ballot.

And I said, “Oh? What does that mean?”

This is September. Elections are (in) November.

Stupid me, I don’t understand any of this and I said, “Oh, well,I guess I will So what do I have to do?”

and I have seen a lot of time in all honesty and if there’s a set up. Well I guess I will. So what do I have to do.

And they said, “We will help you run a campaign and everything else.”

I got  busy learning what it meant to be a Democrat, what it meant to be a Republican.

(After she was elected:)

I was doing a lot of work in the community … and I was one of the people showing up at legislature meetings and throwing stones of them about, “Why aren’t you doing this? You should pay attention to that.”

I said, “Why not have my voice in their with things that I have been complaining about, the things that mattered to the community I live in. So why not be there?”

What do you think are the biggest issues facing Tompkins County currently and what can Tompkins County Legislators do to address them?

I’m sure every colleague of mine that you talk to will say housing and affordable housing. For me, affordable housing is a number one priority.

When I say “affordable housing,” I don’t mean, like someone had said, “People are paying for it so that means they can afford it.” I truly mean the housing in the core, economic core of Tompkins County, which is primarily city of Ithaca, affordable housing for low-income folks. It is so important. People can’t afford to live here.

What can we do?

We as a body have the wherewithal to be one: encourage and incentive developers to do just that – to develop property that is for low-income folks or mixed-use (buildings). That’s my preference so that we don’t have all the low income folks in one place…

I believe that we have an obligation to insist that developers who are developing housing in the county include in that, units that are affordable.

And please do not tell me that $1,600 for a one-bedroom is affordable. It’s not. We are not New York City. So that for me is one of the biggest issue.

So that for me is the biggest issue.

The next issue that looms right up there with that is childcare. Most low-income folks who are working two three jobs cannot afford childcare.

One they can;t afford it and two we have a lack of, and especially in-home childcare for infants to three-year-olds. We don’t have childcare.

Childcare is very expensive. Again, if not from my mother, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would not because I could pay my mother a little bit of money versus having to pay $250 hours a week for one child for childcare. It’s outrageous, and that’s on the cheaper end.

Last but not least in public, and these three things are probably on the same level for me, is the living wage issue. That people in Tompkins County…should not be living in poverty.

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, you’d be all right. But it didn’t. And we hope people can ill afford to feed their children who have to decide between: Do I pay the water bill or do I buy bread? That should not be an option — should not be an option.

I work at GIAC and I see some of those families, you know, about 75 to 80 percent of the people who we serve qualify for meals free or reduce at schools which tells me that they are below the poverty line. And the are working three and four jobs to make ends meet.

Do you think any voices or communities are underrepresented in Tompkins County?

In most places you don’t hear youth voices as much … there was a point in time we had a lot of that. And it was happening and I think we’re sort of getting back there…so it will be nice have youth voices present and loud in these places.

And the second group that I think is finally getting louder and heard is the LGBT+ community and needs, safety issues around ownership, housing, that’s a voice that has kind of been absent. We’re getting to that place where it’s getting heard but we have to do more…

I think honestly, we have been a very pretentious progressive county…and I think those voices have not been as heard because they haven’t been as accepted.

Featured image by Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.