This is the second article in a three-part series on the candidates for New York State Senate in what is currently the 53rd New York State Senate District. These races continue to be impacted by the volatile state redistricting process.

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—One of the most familiar faces running for office around Tompkins County this year is Leslie Danks Burke, a lawyer, frequent candidate for office and political organizer for the last several years around the area.

Danks Burke’s previous campaigns have been unsuccessful, but those experiences have continued to inform her strategy in this current race, as she vies for the Democratic nomination against former Binghamton City Council member Lea Webb to represent the 53rd New York State Senate district, though the district lines are still in a seemingly-perpetual limbo. Republican Rich David, the former mayor of Binghamton, is also running on the other main party ticket.

A class-centric message runs through Danks Burke’s platform, who maintains a top priority list that includes the following: jobs and wages, schools, and farms and food. The themes, she said, are the same, but the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the necessity for overhaul.

“It’s the stuff we’ve been hammering at for 10 years,” she said. “And then we had a pandemic in there which accelerated everything. All the problems also accelerated people looking at solutions. We have to put those into place. We see now that our supply chains for hospitals are decrepit. We see now that our educational resources are vastly inadequate.”

Danks Burke’s first order of business, she says, is to introduce legislation that would cut property taxes in half, an oft-touted goal of hers that she says would help address each of the three aforementioned challenges she wants to prioritize. She reiterates the critique that property taxes are regressive and hurt lower-income people more than others and should be replaced with a higher focus on income taxes and argues that cutting the amount of taxes demanded by New York State would enable more money to be kept in local municipalities to go to schools, infrastructure, and more.

To facilitate this, she proposes separating statewide Medicaid funding from property taxes, meaning less money would need to be sent to Albany from municipalities.

“I build coalitions. It’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years. And I know how to listen to groups of people who think that they may be very different from each other and help them discover that they have common ground,” she said. “I love getting two groups of people who may think that they are diametrically opposed on something and helping them hear each other and hear how we’re going to come to a resolution.”

As for hyper-local issues, Danks Burke feels that Tompkins County’s housing and transportation issues could soon threaten the county’s economy. While said economy is doing relatively well, particularly compared to other nearby counties, Danks Burke said that as more people are forced out of the area because of myriad living expenses, the local workforce can become increasingly destabilized and reliant on out-of-county labor.

“So Tompkins County’s economy may look on paper like it’s doing okay, but it’s leaving a lot of people out,” she said. “And it’s a bubble that is dependent on the poorer counties around it. So we have to fix those housing and transit issues if we want Tompkins County to continue to thrive.”

There’s almost always a sense of political optimism with Danks Burke, something that has been evident in previous campaigns and this one. That has been newly fueled by the widespread social and political engagement she’s seen over the last few years, from the racial justice protests in 2020 to a wider interest in activism and organizing she said has permeated through political spaces recently.

“That, to me, is the most optimistic thing I see happening in our political discourse right now,” Danks Burke said. “Ten years ago, if you had asked me what the biggest challenge facing American democracy was, I would have said apathy. I wouldn’t say that anymore.”

Matt Butler

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