Editor’s Note: This is part one of  two stories covering the 23rd congressional district straw poll vote in Tompkins County for Democratic candidates.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Six candidates for the 23rd Congressional District squared off to discuss issues ranging from job creation to gun regulation at the State Theatre Monday night in front of hundreds of registered Tompkins County Democrats. All are seeking endorsement from local political groups before the primary vote on June 26, and the event was the largest opportunity to address key democrats in the district.

The candidates are all vying for the chance to take on Republican incumbent Tom Reed, who is running for his fifth term in office this year. Reed has steadily beat out Democratic  candidates in the district, including former Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa, current Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson, and most recently, John Plumb, a former Navy Reserve Commander and White House adviser.

Reed, while popular in a district that includes rural western New York, has little support in the Democratic stronghold of Tompkins County, making it a must-win spot for congressional candidates.

Around 700 people crowded the theater Monday and 571 of them voted.The results are as follows:

  • Tracy Mitrano: 297
  • Max Della Pia: 80
  • Ian Golden: 69
  • Linda Andrei: 64
  • Eddie Sundquist: 38
  • Charles Whalen: 22
  • Rick Gallant (not in attendance): 1

Mitrano has consistently been a front runner in this congressional race, winning a Geneva straw poll last month and an online poll organized by a group called Reed’s Last Term. The online poll was open from Feb. 1 – 8 and more than 1,000 people participated.

But Mitrano isn’t the only one who has won local support lately. Golden won the endorsement of the Tompkins County Progressives, winning 54 percent of the vote. The rest of the votes were split between Mitrano and Della Pia. And Sundquist has won some local endorsements as well.

What mattered most to local Tompkins County voters Monday night, though, was not endorsements. Former Tompkins County Legislator and journalist Barbara Mink moderated the event where job creation, the economy, gun control and health care took center stage.

Here are some of the biggest issues addressed Monday night:

Economy and job creation

Aside from last week, the stock market has been high and unemployment has been down. Mink asked the candidates how they would address that issue and what it really means for people living in the district.

Mitrano said the stock market only represents about 20 percent of the population, and they’re the most affluent 20 percent in most cases. The people in the 23rd district, however, are mostly working class people.

“It does not really reflect what life is like for them in any specific respect,” Mitrano said.

She said numbers that better reflect the struggles of the district would be looking at how about 45 percent of children in most counties are on free or reduced lunch and don’t have enough to eat on weekends an during holidays.

“These are the kinds of realities that we have in the economy that we have today,” she said.

As for the recently passed tax bill that Reed was instrumental in crafting, the candidates repeatedly called the bill a “Trojan horse.”

Multiple candidates pointed out that 87 percent of that $1.5 trillion is going to the top 1 percent and corporations.

Sundquist said, “I want to first off just be clear that this is a tax scam, not a tax deal.”

He asked people to look around them at their friends and family members who are out of work. He asked people to look at local businesses that have closed down.

“When I actually start seeing jobs in this district, when I start seeing people back to work then I’ll believe it’s a real tax break,” he said.

Gun regulation

New York State has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, in part because of the 2013 SAFE Act, a series of gun control regulations that was passed after 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.

Candidates were asked how they would address gun control measures with two groups of people in the district: those who want the SAFE act repealed an those who advocate for more gun laws.

Della Pia, a retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force, said he respects the constitution and people’s second amendment rights.

“But there are things that we need to do that make us safer as a society,” he said.

While in the military, he said he made sure that people were qualified and trained before receiving firearms.

“I shoot guns, I have guns, and there are other things, like the background check, that should be national and without loopholes,” he said. “What we’re talking about is bad people using our freedom to make us less safe.”

Golden said that a recent scare with a domestic violence incident in his neighborhood brought the realities of gun safety home for him. While on his way to pick up his daughter from South Hill Elementary in late November, the SWAT team was assembled almost directly in front of the school as a barricaded suspect refused to leave a home across the street. The standoff lasted hours until the suspect finally gave himself up.

“It was very much real. It wasn’t in some news clip. It wasn’t some far off community. It was right here. It think it hit home very much,” he said.

Golden said that in order to have a conversation about what gun regulations need to be put into place, legal gun owners need to be at the table and a part of crafting gun laws.

Mitrano said the availability of so many guns is the foundation of why the United States has the largest number of mass murders in the world.

“The country that has the next largest number off mass murders is Yemen and they are in the middle of a civil war so that speaks to something about this country that we need to seriously inspect and discuss,” Mitrano said.

She said, however, she is against the SAFE Act because it discriminates against people with mental illness, violates privacy laws, and is written in an overly broad way.

But accessibility to guns, she said, needs to be addressed.

Opioid Epidemic

The number of people who have died from overdose or opioid related causes has skyrocketed across the country, putting a strain on families, first responders and medical providers. In 2017, Tompkins County saw the most deaths from overdoses than it has in 10 years, with 22 people dying. In 2007, only two people died from drug overdoses in the county.

As a former doctor, Andrei said the problem is complex in many ways. And while it’s a progressive step for municipalities to sue opioid manufacturers, as many counties including Tompkins have done, that issue will be tied up in court for years.

Communities have to act now to address the crisis, she said.

“First of all, we have to destigmatize it so that people will come to treatment sooner,” Andrei said. “Second of all we have to have clinics with doctors and nurses and healthcare providers who are educated in addiction. Third of all, we need to have money to fund the whole thing.”

She said closing the loopholes in corporate tax law and getting money away from defense spending would be a start to prioritizing healthcare for people with addiction.

Della Pia said, “It’s destroying our families. It’s killing people and it shows a difference of world view between us up here and Tom Reed.”

He said he supports implementing methods to prevent people form dying, not executing drug dealers who have sold fentanyl-laced heroin, as Reed has supported doing.

Related: Tom Reed calls for life in prison, death penalty for fentanyl-laced heroin dealers, cop killers

Whalen said, “A lot of companies pushed things they knew were more dangerous than they indicated, and we should go after them as hard as we would go after drug pushers on the playground.”

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.