ITHACA, N.Y. — Patrick Mehler was officially seated to the City of Ithaca’s Common Council on Oct. 13. He was appointed to represent Ithaca’s 4th Ward through a selection process in order to fill a vacancy left by the sudden resignation of Alderperson Steven Smith.
Mehler is currently an undergraduate in the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell University. He’s stepping into his new position on council during budget season, and getting a crash course in city government.
He spoke with the Ithaca Voice to talk about how things have been going in his first week on the job and, in the absence of a campaign, to further introduce himself to the public.
Jimmy Jordan: Your enthusiasm for voter engagement, and the initiatives you’ve started at Cornell, like Cornell Votes, and your work on the Student Assembly…it gives this impression that you’ve been predisposed to thinking about politics and public service. So I want to know, when did you first think that you would want to enter office or work in the political world?
Patrick Mehler: That’s a great question. I don’t have some story of like, when I was seven, I met Obama and that was it. I guess it’s more along the lines of…I think throughout my advocacy that I sort of realized that this was what I wanted to, I guess become a decision maker, if that makes sense.
I’ve dedicated my collegiate career to—and I’m really trying to set myself up to dedicate my life and my real career—to being someone who helps people get civically engaged, right, not necessarily being the person you want to represent you, but being the person who says, Hey, I am here to help you get connected with your community.
Jimmy Jordan: So you’ve been serving the 4th Ward for just under a week. Is there anything that you already wish you could explain to your constituents? Something about city operations or a specific initiative? What do you want to tell people?
Patrick Mehler: I guess the first thing I’ll throw in there is come get involved now. Like me, I’ve jumped into the process of budgeting. There’s at least until— at least my understanding is—two weeks of space for public comments for people to talk about the budget.
There’s already been a lot of requests that we’re sort of getting about things to consider about the mayor’s line, accounting for things in the budget—but I guess the first thing I’d like to throw out there is come yell at me! Like I guess you know, come tell me what is the most important thing to you.
Jimmy Jordan: You’re serving Ward 4 of the city, which has some very low voter turnout compared to the other city districts. Your experience engaging voters in the Cornell community, which largely composes the Fourth Ward which you argued—and was received pleasantly by the Council—you argued puts you in the position to engage those voters.
I would like to hear about some of the strategies that you found successful when you were trying to engage people in the larger Cornell community, and in the Student Assembly, and how you think you’re going to have to adapt them as a Councilor to Ward 4.
Patrick Mehler: My hope is with the Fourth Ward and engaging people is it’s most certainly not going to be entirely focused on voting, because there are substantial populations within this district that can’t vote. I feel it’s unfair to exclude them because they can’t vote, you know, whether that is because they’re international students or whatever, whatever the reason may be—I don’t think they should be excluded because they can’t vote. I think it is even more imperative to include them to make sure that their voices are being heard through other channels.
To come back to the voting thing, I guess the biggest thing that I learned that was really impactful was the importance of the relationships you have. A lot of what I think will be helpful in getting folks in the 4thWard engaged are a lot of the same strategies that helped with getting folks involved in the Student Assembly.
So, for example, we worked stuff out with student campus life, and with the folks who are doing COVID testing with the university to get special permission to put things in the testing sites that showed people how to register to vote, that showed people how to do absentee ballots and got them in contact with us.
You know, we had those posters up for I think the last three weeks of last October, and the first week of November. We had over 1400 people use it to either request an absentee ballot, to check the registration status, to email us a question. But that’s a tangible number.
If we just put this information in front of people’s faces, a 10th of the people engaged will become even more engaged. One of the nice things about the 4th Ward, is it is a very densely residential area, which means there aren’t too many barriers to getting something in front of somebody’s face, right?
I live in Hans Bethe House at the moment. There’s a Dean here and an Assistant Dean that have direct communication to all 380 people that live in Bethe and McFadden; the same thing applies for Rhodes, for Keeton, and for Becker. That is 1500 of the 6000 constituents who are accessible by four people. So at least the way I look at this, and these are similar things that we did for Student Assembly elections as well, is we had these folks sending things out to residents.
For most of our Student Assembly election turnout, I probably spoke to maybe a couple 100 people. But I assure you, I didn’t speak to all 3300 people that voted. Probably most of them don’t have any idea who I am. That’s fine. They still got excited, they still were passionate enough to fill out the form and decided they wanted to vote because somebody convinced them to or they convinced themselves to. And I guess that’s my hope: to engage the domino effect
Jimmy Jordan: In your interview with the Selection Committee, you stressed that you felt the City’s communication was one of the biggest issues facing it. You said communication; you also mentioned housing, but you stressed communication. I’m wondering…now that you’ve started getting your crash course in city government, is there anything that you would add to that answer, and maybe even change?
Patrick Mehler: Yeah, I guess I think the word I would add is targeted communication. I think that is something that I would throw in there as well.
I’ll throw this example out there: like the whole Catherine Commons project, right? There’s the whole idea to redevelop the north and south side on Catherine Street.
I think a lot of people would be fascinated by the specific details of what’s happening next door. And I think the thing that I’ve learned is there is a strong amount of communication for sort of the big issues that are really front facing. People have been talking a lot about, you know, 5G and the same thing with the “right to renew legislation,” and people are really focused on what they can see immediately.
There are lots of folks who I think would be intrigued and fascinated by what’s going on next door, by what’s going on down in the block, but they don’t know.
Jimmy Jordan: And my last question is less attached to your role on council. What’s a general piece of advice you feel like you could give any one?
Patrick Mehler: The most fantastic piece of advice that I think I fail to take myself a lot of the time is to try and do more things that you’re afraid of.
Like, I don’t want to say take a gamble or take a risk. Take an intentional leap of faith in the sense of doing something you’re a little afraid of. You know, it’s worked out for me most of the time, so I encourage people to at least consider it a second time.
This interview was edited in some parts for the sake of clarity and brevity.