TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—With a unanimous vote last week, Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) has assumed the role of Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature.

Black succeeds Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, a longtime legislative staple from Ithaca who led the legislature for the last two years. Black was first elected to the legislature as part of the sweeping turnover in 2017, and became vice chair of the legislature in 2019, a position she had been re-elected to by her colleagues each of the last two years.

“I’m honored to be chosen by you, my colleagues, to be the chair of this incredible legislature,” Black said after her colleagues voted her to the top spot. “As we embark upon the upcoming year, we will continue to be challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we will need to create a new normal going forward, and work towards a life with COVID to create goals and purpose for our county government.”

After Black was approved to the chair position, Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) was unanimously voted to the vice chair role. Black laid out her legislative priorities for the upcoming year, or at least what she believes could dominate the legislature’s time: hiring a new county administrator, grappling with the pandemic, deciding how to spend federal aid money, the ongoing Reimagining Public Safety effort, a potential jail renovation and “being accountable to our constituents.”

Shawna Black (Photo by Rachel Philipson)

The last time a new chair was elected was 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. McBean-Clairborne stepped up to fill the void at the time after the body could not come to a consensus between Anna Kelles and former president Mike Lane, who were both vying for the legislature’s top spot. Kelles eventually left, successfully running for a seat in the New York State Assembly.

Last Tuesday’s proceedings were much more cordial and expedient. During the nomination process, Legislator Anne Koreman (D-Ulysses, Enfield) touted Black’s work since joining the legislature, including immediately being assigned a chair position leading the Health and Human Services Committee, as well as her work on a variety of other topics, some of which fall under the umbrella of HHS. Legislator Mike Sigler seconded the nomination.

“These last two years have been extremely challenging for all of us as we navigated this pandemic and renewed our efforts in social justice, and we have greatly benefited from Shawna’s position in leadership,” Koreman said. “In the words of Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, our previous legislative chair who she worked side-by-side with: ‘Shawna is even-handed and understands how to balance the needs of staff and residents with policy. She is always willing to roll up her sleeves and do the heavy lifting necessary and at the same time manage conflicting challenges by being straight-forward.'”

McBean-Clairborne’s statement of support continued by commending Black’s work with her family and noting that Black would be the first LGBT leader of the legislature.

Sigler, a Lansing Republican, followed with his own words, saying that he appreciates that Black comes “from a place of kindness” while dealing with government work, and through that manages to prioritize the needs and wants of her constituents whenever possible.

Additionally, new legislators were all sworn in: Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton), Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Randy Brown (R-Newfield), Veronica Pillar (D-Ithaca), and Greg Mezey (D-Dryden).

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com