ITHACA, N.Y. – New York’s 23rd Congressional District stretches from the Finger Lakes to the shores of Lake Erie, encompassing Tompkins County and all or part of 10 other counties. Its current boundaries, which were drawn in 2012, give the district a red skew: registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 23,000 people.
Given its partisan leanings, most politicos expected the district to go easily to Republican incumbent Tom Reed in the 2018 election. According to the New York Times, the non-partisan Cook Political Report rated the district “solid Republican” until last week, when it was adjusted to “likely Republican.”
That adjustment reflects tightening poll numbers between Reed and Democratic challenger Tracy Mitrano. The latest forecasts from FiveThirtyEight, a non-partisan data journalism site, estimate a six-point gap between Reed and Mitrano with about an 18 percent chance Mitrano will upset Reed.
Reed won the district by 15 points in 2016 and 23 points in 2014. As recently as September, FiveThirtyEight estimated the gap between Reed and Mitrano at 15 points.
Regardless of how the district race ends up, Tompkins County voters will likely favor Mitrano by a large margin. The county, which makes up about 14 percent of the district’s electorate, is an anomaly in the 23rd. In 2016, Tompkins voters favored Democrat John Plumb over Reed by a 43-point margin, giving Plumb about a quarter of his total votes.
Reed and Mitrano have cast Tompkins voters in different lights. Reed has famously branded opponents “extreme Ithaca liberals,” while Mitrano cites the city’s economic growth as a model for and asset to the Southern Tier.
Ithaca Voice reporter Devon Magliozzi sat down with each candidate to discuss how they would address local issues and represent constituents in Tompkins and throughout the 23rd if elected on Nov. 6.
Tracy Mitrano’s “one district campaign”
Tracy Mitrano, who holds a Ph.D. in history, has a tendency to position single issues within larger trends. How will she stimulate economic growth? With a “comprehensive approach” rather than a “singular jobs plan or enterprise zone.” Is it the year of the woman? “(Modern media) would have said 1848 was the year of the woman with the Declaration of Sentiments. They might have said that 1920, well 1919 when the 19th Amendment was passed, or 1920 when federally women voted for the first time, was the year of the woman,” according to Mitrano.
Mitrano wants Tompkins voters to turn out for her on Nov. 6, not for the sake of their county alone, but rather to support broad economic development across the 23rd.
“What they are supporting is not just someone who is a Democrat. They are supporting the needs and the concerns of the rest of the people in this district, and I would and I want them to think that way,” Mitrano said.
Mitrano’s plan to foster economic development across the district includes investments in health, education and infrastructure. The former director of information technology policy for Cornell has prioritized bringing internet access and 21st-century job training to rural areas.
Regarding her economic platform, she said, “It’s a comprehensive approach at what it takes to foster economic opportunity. And that is healthy people, educated and skilled people, the underlying infrastructure, proper conservation of resources and a tax plan that is amenable to economic development. So in other words, what you’re doing is looking broadly to see what investors want to see, in order to excite them to come to this place.”
Mitrano acknowledges there is economic inequality between cities and counties in the district. She called Ithaca and Corning bubbles of economic growth in the midst of a downturn across much of the Southern Tier. She said she hopes her campaign can help bridge the gap between more and less affluent areas, calling her strategy a “one district campaign.”
“I think that working- and middle-class people, whether they live in Ithaca or Friendship, whether they live on a farm or in a city, have more in common, far more in common, than they have differences,” Mitrano said.
Mitrano supports policies to expand access to health care, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions, investments in preventative care and maintaining Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
She said she would push to reduce interest on student loans “to zero percent or very, very low” rates and work to expand 21st-century job training programs in the last years of high school and first years of college.
She said she would invest in basic infrastructure to prepare for extreme weather events, would work to improve access to public transportation for rural constituents and would bring internet access to parts of the district that are currently disconnected.
“One of the great barriers to economic opportunity,” she said, “is the absence of internet connectivity in most of the district. Now, of course, that’s not true in the municipalities. But once you get outside of those zones, the internet is either spotty, weak or nonexistent. And you cannot have competitive farming, you cannot expect people to want to invest in an area that doesn’t have this basic utility.”
Mitrano’s opponent has tried to brand her as an “extreme Ithaca liberal.” Mitrano, who resides in Penn Yan, embraces her years living and working in Ithaca and thinks the city should play a role in supporting economic growth across the district.
She chuckled at the suggestion that she is extreme, however.
“Some people, I would say people — maybe more along the line of Democratic Socialists — are thinking about (federal) programs as a way to sustain people in their communities,” she said. “I’m thinking of it differently… I’m thinking of it as, ‘This is where government has a role to play. To help a community lay down its foundation so that it would be a place in which investors want to bring good, solid, enduring jobs.’”
Tom Reed: “I’ve never been a bomb thrower”
Three-term Republican incumbent Tom Reed was the second New York representative to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential race and has voted largely in line with his party since. He said he wants voters across the 23rd to know, however, that he is not in lockstep with the Republican Party.
“What we’re really trying to focus on is what is good policy. Where can we find common ground?” Reed said.
Reed said he sees opportunities for compromise on the issues of immigration and infrastructure. He supports exploring “next generation” transportation technology, including driverless cars and the expansion of the ride-sharing service Uber into rural areas. He said he is not “a hardline build-the-wall kind of guy” and supports a path to citizenship for kids brought to the U.S. without legal documentation, as well as “some type of legal status” other than citizenship for undocumented adult immigrants.
For voters in Tompkins County, however, Reed’s moderate pitch might come as a surprise. He has famously labeled opponents “extreme Ithaca liberals.”
Reed said the term “extreme Ithaca liberal” is meant to describe an ideology, not a particular place.
“There is a cultural difference, an ideological difference, that is represented by that term,” Reed said. “I’m using that term not because of a place, not because of a geographic reference, but an ideology that I think is extreme… it’s been effective in describing what I believe we’re standing up against.”
Asked who the label “extreme Ithaca liberal” refers to, Reed named Mitrano, as well as Queens representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Reed said he tries to represent all constituents, including Tompkins residents, but that it is not possible to satisfy everyone.
“There is no way you are going to be able to represent 717,000 people with each and every one of them being 100 percent in agreement with you. So as I look at voters, that’s how I look at it. And then I just be straight with them,” he said.
Mitrano has accused Reed of failing to stand up to President Trump when he has denigrated immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities and women. Reed said he is willing to disagree with Trump, particularly when it comes to immigration policy and federal spending.
However, Reed said he is not inclined to challenge the president publicly. “I’ve never been a bomb-thrower,” he said. While he said he has expressed concerns personally to the president, he added, “I don’t do it in the press, I don’t do it publicly. I think it’s more productive, when you have that type of relationship with the president, to utilize it in a productive one-on-one type of situation.”
Reed said that going forward, he plans to build off current economic successes while pushing to further cut federal spending and eliminate business regulations. He said he sees opportunities to pass legislation around infrastructure, healthcare, immigration and the national debt. He said he will continue to work as a problem-solver to bring Congressional colleagues to the table.
The final stretch
With a week to go before the general election, Mitrano and Reed will square off in their second and third debates on Oct. 30 in Corning and Nov. 1 in Olean.
Voters casting absentee ballots should mail completed ballots by Nov. 5.
Polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 6 across the district.
Check your registration status and find your polling place on the N.Y. State Board of Elections site.