ITHACA, N.Y. –– With election day around the corner, Democrats that made the ballot this year had a chance to address their constituents at a forum Monday, tackling issues of development, affordable housing and sustainability. 

The Borg Warner room at the Tompkins County Public Library was full as people listened to city candidates, as well as those vying for judicial positions, and submitted questions. Alderpersons running for re-election in Wards 1, 2, 3 and 5 spoke at the forum, as well as Mayor Svante Myrick and the candidates running for state supreme court and county court judgeships. 

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5, but early voting – a new statewide initiative – is underway. Learn more about early voting here. Not sure what ward you’re in? Use this map. And to see a sample ballot, visit the Tompkins County Board of Elections website.

For Ward 1, George McGonigal is running for a third term on council. 

McGonigal stressed the importance of maintaining the identity of each neighborhood in the City of Ithaca. The first ward has seen a heavy share of the recent redevelopment taking place in the city. It includes both the West End/Waterfront and Cherry Street development areas. 

McGonigal said he wants to find a balance in his ward between business and culture. On the waterfront, he’s fought to maintain the portion of Cherry Street that’s a light industrial zone for warehouses and wholesalers, one of last areas of the city zoned to allow those uses. McGonigal said he would also like to encourage, “music art and fun in the west end,” –– as well as jobs on Cherry Street. 

His biggest accomplishment in office, he said, was his work to increase staff for the city department of public works. 

For Ward 2, Ducson Nguyen is running for a second term.

Nguyen outlined his three priorities: housing, transportation and communication. His ward includes the Northside, part of Fall Creek and part of the Southside neighborhoods. 

He discussed his position on improving housing affordability.

“I’m unapologetic about my support for density in all its forms,” he said. “That’s not just supporting the tall buildings all around us, but townhouses and condominiums.” 

Nguyen, who also chairs the TCAT board, highlighted the ways the bus system is improving. “We’ve started a new strategic plan –– planning for the six new electric buses,” he said. He also mentioned TCAT’s plans to move its headquarters in the near future and phase out buses running on fossil fuels.

Nguyen said he also wants to make the city safer for bikers and pedestrians.

“I navigate the city almost exclusively by bike and foot so it’s one of my highest priorities,” he said. 

On the communication front, Nguyen mentioned his very visible social media presence, live tweeting council meetings and starting a podcast with fellow Ward 2 Alderperson Seph Murtagh, that he hopes to continue. “I’m willing to put my opinions out there for everyone to engage with,” he said.  

For Ward 3, Rob Gearhart is also running for reelection. The third ward consists primarily of the Belle Sherman neighborhood.

Gearhart made his priority sustainability. He wants to make investments in city infrastructure that is, “aligned with the green new deal.”

Like McGonigal, Gearhart is also cautious of new development. “I want us to be very smart about what we do, including when we are looking to grow housing opportunities,” he said. “I want to respect the different characters of our neighborhoods.” 

Gearhart believes citizen engagement is a priority. He proposed citizen advisory commissions as a way to improve in the future. “Those are really important ways for people to get engaged in what we do here,” he said. 

Laura Lewis, running for reelection in the Ward 5, representing Fall Creek and Collegetown, also explained the importance of housing, transportation and sustainability for her constituents. 

“The issues that have been of most importance to me are housing in the city, particularly affordable housing–– I spent a number of years on the board of directors for Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services and know the good work they do,” Lewis said.

“I’m also very concerned about public transportation. I currently sit on the TCAT board. I’m serving currently also on the special joint committee that meets at the wastewater treatment facility,” she said. The joint committee is looking at new ways to use the treatment facility to provide heating and cooling to new housing developments. 

Lewis took the mic at the forum to say that herself, Rob Gearhart, and Stephen Smith of the Ward 4 who was unable to be attend the forum due to a work commitment, support adding more money to the city budget to support staffing to facilitate the city’s Green New Deal. 

Recently, members of the Sunrise Movement climate activist group announced that they are challenging the three incumbents through write-in campaigns in the upcoming election. They believe that the city’s proposed budget doesn’t go far enough in addressing climate change and the implementation of the city’s Green New Deal.

Ellie Pfeffer is challenging Rob Gearhart in Ward 3, Thea Kozakis is challenging Stephen Smith in Ward 4 and Cheyanne Carter is challenging Laura Lewis in Ward 5. 

Scott Miller, the candidate for county court judge in Tompkins, is running unopposed for the newly added seat. 

Five candidates are vying for three open seats on the state supreme court. Candidates Pete Charnetsky and Claudette Newman were in attendance at the forum making their case to Tompkins County voters that they are the best candidates to sit on the state’s highest trial court.

Charnetsky served for 9 years as an Acting Supreme Court Justice where he presided over contested and uncontested divorces, foreclosures and the Integrated Domestic Violence Court. Newman is the court attorney for the Chenango County Court, where she handles criminal and civil cases as well as cases from the County’s Family and Surrogate’s Court. From 1999 through 2018, Newman served as the Principal Law Clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dowd.

Early voting as already underway and polls will open at 6 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5. More information can be found on the Tompkins County Board of Elections website.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com