TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Democratic Committee announced the death of former chair Jim Gustafson, just weeks after he resigned his post because of personal health issues.

Gustafson passed away on Dec. 21, 2021, surrounded by family, according to the TCDC’s executive committee. Gustafson had served as chair of the committee from Feb. 2019 until Dec. 2021, taking over for long-time local Democratic figure Irene Stein. Before resigning, he was slated to serve until at least Sept. 2022.

Gustafson had long been active in local Democratic politics, leading the Dryden Democratic Committee and working as local liaison with the campaigns of former President Barack Obama and former Congressional candidate Tracy Mitrano. The TCDC wrote a lengthy memorial to Gustafson, describing his dedication to “grassroots politics” and connecting with the broadest swaths of the population possible, highlighting a video Gustafson recorded this summer calling on them to do just that.

“Jim described himself as a ‘grandpa, a golfer, a gardener, a political junkie, a farmer philosopher, and a red neck liberal,'” wrote TCDC officials in their announcement. “We knew him as a gentle soul with a very endearing sense of humor who knew how to cut through the nonsense.”

Stacey Dimas will take over as the interim leader of the TCDC. She is quoted in the announcement calling Gustafson “a wonderful mentor to me and to so many others.”

“As a leader and a friend, he encouraged, inspired, and believed in our power to work together to fight for a stronger democracy,” Dimas said. “For women of color like myself, entering politics can be challenging but Jim welcomed me and helped me to grow and find my place as a party leader here in Tompkins County. Jim was true to his belief in lifting up people of color like myself and making sure we have a seat at the table. I will always be grateful to Jim for his friendship, his mentorship, and his commitment to our community. His dedication to service will be passed on and his light will shine through.”

Several other Democratic figures reacted online to the news of Gustafson’s passing, including New York State Assembly member Anna Kelles and Democratic New York State Senate candidate Leslie Danks Burke.

“Jim Gustafson, you’ve brightened my life for 15 years, and I’ll miss you deeply,” Danks Burke wrote. “My heart hurts that you’ve passed on. Still, because you taught me to, I’m going to keep looking at the light.”

Matt Butler

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