ITHACA, N.Y.—Tompkins County Legislature candidates Travis Brooks and Nicole LaFave squared off in a forum last week as their campaign for the District 1 seat, representing the City of Ithaca, comes to a gradual end.

The event was hosted and moderated by Dr. Nia Nunn, the president of Southside Community Center’s Board of Directors, plus Southside’s new Executive Director Chavon Bunch, Regional Director for Alliance of Families for Justice Phoebe Brown (who’s also running for Common Council) and Black Hands Universal Director Harry O. Smith. Nunn presented the event as an opportunity for voters and the wider community to get to know LaFave and Brooks better.

This article is a summary of most of the points discussed in the forum, but the full event can be viewed here. LaFave and Brooks are running to replace the outgoing Tompkins County Legislature District 1 representative, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne. Early voting is now open until June 20, and the primary election will be held on June 22.

Throughout the event, it was clear that LaFave, who’s worked at Cornell University and was just re-elected to the Ithaca City School District Board of Education, and Brooks, a longtime staff member at Greater Ithaca Activities Center and now the deputy director, have a good deal of respect for one another despite their current opposition. Brooks even articulated at one point his wish that they lived in different districts so they didn’t have to compete against one another to represent District 1.

Despite that, they are still slated to compete, with questions alternatively sent their way throughout the forum by Bunch, Smith, Nunn and Brown. They began by naming Black national leaders who inspire them: LaFave chose Congresswoman Maxine Waters and voting rights advocate Stacy Abrams; Brooks chose Vice President Kamala Harris, the Obama family, and the late Congressman John Lewis. Subsequently, Brooks said that the color orange would best exemplify his energy when entering a room, while LaFave answered yellow.

After the normal Southside brand of ice-breaker questions, the panel pivoted to questions that dealt more directly with the job of county legislature, starting with Brown asking what motivated the two to get into the race.

“Leslyn’s legacy and the work that she has done in that position, and thinking about the legacy and how to continue that work, thinking about how many people live downtown in the district that I love and care about,” LaFave answered, mentioning her other personal connections to the education and housing systems in the district. “I believe in this community because it’s the community of my children.”

LaFave further said that the primary topic driving her interest in county government is housing, especially in downtown Ithaca. Brooks said, in part, he was pushed to run for office by a desire, like LaFave, to see McBean-Clairborne’s legacy carried on by another person of color.

“I decided to run because over the years I’ve been involved in some of the bigger picture processes in this community,” Brooks said. “Municipal drug policy was one, and one of the things that came out of that that I’m very proud of was the LEAD program and who it would help.”

Among other issues, particularly child care, Brooks also pointed out that any housing solution needs to be one that addresses the downtown concerns in Ithaca but also those of people in the more rural stretches of Tompkins County, since both are facing the same general issue but with different nuances.

Nunn then asked a question that was posed by Pastor Sonya Hicks, dealing with employment: what would the candidates’ plan be to foster professional growth for young adults and keep them in Ithaca for the future?

Redefining and framing the conventional sense of “success” should be one focus, LaFave said, arguing that students who finish high school shouldn’t necessarily be pushed on to college or beyond if their interest lies elsewhere, like working in a trade or for a non-profit organization. She floated the idea of Workforce New York providing tours for young people to show them different career options, but noting that job development going forward should be done with an eye towards being sustainable, perhaps working in conjunction with the local Green New Deal initiative.

Brooks, on the other hand, seemed to place less of an overall emphasis on keeping workers local if their career takes them outside of the area. He agreed with LaFave’s assessment that raising awareness of trades jobs would be a beneficial step, adding that he has worked with Smith’s Black Hands Universal group to connect young people to union careers.

“We have so many opportunities in this community for our young people, but those opportunities are not realized,” he said. “We don’t do enough work, collectively, to show these young kids where they could go, what they could be, and we have to really start building their passions earlier on in their high school, middle school careers.”

Nunn then asked another question about public safety, trying to get the candidates to commit to a plan of how to ensure that outcomes change for people of color under the recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety plan. Brooks was adamant that the plan does not go far enough to reform policing, but that he had come to terms with it as a “starting point,” advancing his belief that the only way to affect change is to have a seat at the table, which has led him to try to build relationships with the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association to convert more police to advocate for change.

LaFave, meanwhile, said she viewed the recommendations through the lens of whether or not she felt it would keep her two Black sons safe from law enforcement—it did not appear so, as she echoed some of Brooks’ critiques of the plan and went further. LaFave would have more prominently included, at the start of the recommendation process, insight from peopleof color about what safety from police would mean to them and then formulate the recommendations with achieving that safety in mind—specifically pointing out that diversity and inclusion measures at Ithaca Police Department may not be very impactful in current policing culture.

“I think there’s some recommendations in that proposal that is a starting point, but I’m also frustrated and tired of waiting,” LaFave said. “Starting somewhere isn’t going to get us to the promised land. It’s not going to get my children to a place where they can live with no fear.”

Gentrification is a vital, constant topic in Ithaca, and was broached during the event. LaFave pointed out that affordable housing in Ithaca, including some of that which is being proposed or constructed now, is being built in undesirable and underserved locations. She said as a county legislator representing the City of Ithaca, she would try to strengthen the relationship between the county and the city to better facilitate affordable housing development, aided by tax abatements, within the city limits.

Brooks specifically pointed out his desire to retain and attract families to come downtown as part of a housing strategy. He pushed the possibility of giving property tax breaks to homeowners as opposed to large developers. To earn those tax breaks, through a plan to bring 100-150 families back downtown into the community (valuing communities over apartment developments) in the next three years by convincing Ithaca homeowners to build expansions or second structures on their properties (as plenty have already) and renting to people who are receiving assistance through Department of Social Services or Section 8 housing vouchers. Brooks also mentioned low- or no-interest loans to help assist with expansion construction costs.

LaFave pushed Brooks on the plan, resulting in the most contentious exchange in a relatively congenial forum. She questioned how Brooks’ housing strategy wouldn’t just fuel housing inequality by giving white homeowners more money without accountability; Brooks said because of the rental demographic requirements, there wouldn’t be ways to manipulate the system.

The event finished off more light-heartedly, with Brown asking who are the Black elders locally that have guided Brooks and LaFave through their lives and careers, and Bunch asking both candidates to give her toddler son advice if he was ever to run for office. LaFave said to “stay yourself,” and Brooks said to get involved in other people’s campaigns first, to get a taste for the grind and the dedication needed.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com