ITHACA, N.Y. — Candidates for the New York State Assembly District 125 answered questions at the Virtual Black Town Hall hosted by the Southside Community Center Thursday. The event took a little over two hours with more than 250 viewers tuning in.

Moderated by Southside Board Chair Dr. Nia Nunn, candidates tackled issues ranging from police brutality to resources and local opportunities available to the black community. 

“A part of the purpose of bringing you all together is honoring the specificity of the black experience, and providing the dynamics of your racial consciousness,” Nunn said. 

The event comes on the heels of protests that have spanned more than two weeks over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Protests have led to communities across the country asking their elected officials for increased accountability when it comes to race-related issues.

In that spirit, the first question posed by Dr. Nunn was about what candidates are doing to actively combat anti-black racism in their current positions of power. Several of those in the race for the 125 seat are currently serving in elected offices including candidate Beau Harbin who is currently a Cortland County legislator, Tompkins County Legislator Anna KellesSeph Murtagh who is a City of Ithaca alderperson and Jason Leifer the Dryden town supervisor. 

Jordan Lesser, while not currently serving in an elected role was the former Legislative Counsel to Assemblymember Barbara Lifton.

The other candidates not in politics also have influential jobs within the community –– Lisa Hoeschele is currently the executive director and CEO of Family & Children’s Counseling Services and Sujata Gibson is a local attorney. 

In response to Nunn’s question Murtagh spoke about a six-week talking circle he participated in on race and racism, Leifer spoke about how as an attorney he has served on an alternative to incarceration board and Hoeschele said she’s actively working with the Cortland police on anti-bias training and de-escalation training.

Jordan Lesser, who answered third, fell flat in this opening question, referencing racial disparities he’s witnessed over the years while not offering any programs or solutions he’s been a part of –– although he did say he is attending local rallies and protests. 

Beau Harbin also emphasized attending rallies and listening to black leaders, but in addition, he mentioned working with the Cortland County Sheriff to publish their use of force policy in order to move towards more just community policing.

Legislator Kelles talked about her work on the workplace diversity and inclusion board over the last 6 years, and efforts to decrease the jail population and create alternatives to incarceration.

Sujata Gibson perhaps had the most experience under her belt in terms of serving the black community and local POC working as a civil rights attorney and directly with Black Lives Matter activists who have been brutalized by police. Gibson said she has also worked with Southside pro-bono and worked continuously to get more diversity in Tompkins County judges.

The primary will be held on June 23. Due to COVID-19, all voters are able to request absentee ballots and early voting begins on June 13.

Here are some of the highlights from the rest of the two-hour session.

Redistribution of police funding

“Budgets are moral documents,” said Beau Harbin, the Cortland County Legislator, when asked if he would be in support of defunding the police. Harbin stated that he would be against defunding the police saying he found it more effective to reform the role of police officers so that they would not have to take on any roles they were not trained for.

City of Ithaca Alderperson Seph Murtagh, shared a similar perspective, saying he believed in defunding the police so that proper funds can be used for other resources such as mental health and social services.

“We need to defund and demilitarize the police,” said Lisa Hoeschele of Cortland. She stated that if funding was redistributed to programs such as mental health and social services, the long term benefits would be far greater.   

Housing

“Housing is a human right,” noted Sujata Gibson, local attorney, questioned about the availability of affordable housing in the District. Gibson argued that we need to explore paths to ownership that are not inhibited by credit scores, which can be impacted by institutional racism. One idea she discussed was to have a public banking option that would allow different underwriting criteria that would be more inclusive.

Another was to come up with programs that would allow people to get loans and apply Section 8 payments to those mortgages in order to build equity. 

Jason Leifer, Dryden Town Supervisor, argued that more affordable housing needed to be provided in the district in addition to adjusting zoning laws to make this effective.  

Jordan Lesser, the former Legislative Counsel to Assemblymember Barbara Lifton, argued that a few factors were holding people back: lack of affordable housing, the ineffectiveness of current social services, and physical and mental health problems. Lesser argued that if tax money were to be redistributed from police budgets, funding for these underlying issues could be provided.

Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles said inequity in our criminal justice system contributes to housing access.

“If there is a disproportionate amount of people who are black and brown going to jail, there’s going to be a disproportionate amount of black and brown people who are going to be homeless,” said Kelles,

Kelles argued that jail destabilizes households and in order to address the homelessness issue, the issue of systemic racism needs to be addressed. She suggested shifting the funding from the police towards community services.  

Mental health and social services

“I don’t know of anybody who is not dealing with someone who has had some trauma, or some mental health, or some addiction issues that need to be addressed,” said Lisa Hoeschele, arguing that addiction and mental health issues were too common in the community. Hoeschele’s solution to combating these issues was to increase funding for those who work in these fields.  

Sujata Gibson vocalized her support for the New York Health Act so that the type of insurance that you have does not dictate the providers you can see. Additionally she said, we need to increase payments and incentives to alternative and complimentary providers under the Health Act so that alternative health care providers are able to accept insurance.

Jason Leifer was in support of pointing people towards specific types of mental health services rather than services currently provided by the County.  

Shifting funding and increasing the amount of money given to social services was agreed on by all candidates. 

Jason Leifer argued that transportation needed to be increased in order to decrease the unemployment rate and Anna Kelles suggested teachers needed to be prioritized in school and receive more funding. 

“We are putting investments in the police and the black and brown community does not feel safe,” noted Kelles. “That is a state where you are seeing more mental health issues and crisis, and stress that is a result of that.” 

Kelles suggested that if funding was to be shifted, many problems could be addressed at once in addition to addressing state laws in order to increase funding for mental health services to be placed into socially and economically marginalized communities.

“The education system needs to be well funded so that black girls can have a clear path to become a doctor,” noted Jordan Lesser. He argued that this will also improve the black community’s experience at hospitals because they would feel more supported. 

“There are entire slots of the black experience in America that don’t get enough attention in school curriculums,” said Seph Murtagh, arguing that curriculums needed to readjust. 

“We need to change the state curriculum to an anti-racist curriculum,” added Kelles. 

Watch the forum in its entirety below:

Selin Tuter contributed to this report.

Anna Lamb

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