ITHACA, N.Y.—Campaign finance disclosures show that the majority of the funds raised by the candidates in  what has become a heated Democratic primary in a special election to represent the City of Ithaca’s Fourth Ward are coming from outside the City of Ithaca.

Tiffany Kumar leads incumbent Patrick Mehler by leaps and bounds in fundraising efforts. According to campaign finance disclosures filed with the New York State Board of Elections (BOE), Kumar’s total funds raised was $3,876.46 as of the last filing deadline of June 17. Mehler’s significantly behind with a total of $1,025 raised and has spent about $462 so far.

At this point, Kumar’s spending is greater than the total Mehler has raised thus far, coming in at about $1,835.

Mehler and Kumar are running to represent the Fourth Ward from Jan 2023 to Dec 2023. Mehler was appointed to Common Council in Oct. 2021 after former Alderperson Steve Smith suddenly left the position. Mehler’s appointment ends in Dec. 2022, and Mehler and Kumar are racing to fill the rest of the term Smith was elected to serve. The special Democratic primary election between Kumar and Mehler will take place on June 28 in the Fourth Ward. 

Mehler has largely been embraced by the city’s Democratic old-guard, while Kumar is more closely affiliated with more vocal activist progressives. 

Tiffany Kumar at Monday’s candidate forum for Ithaca’s 4th Ward Democratic Primary. The race is a special election to fill a one year term. (06/13/2022) Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice
Alderperson Patrick Mehler at Monday’s candidate forum for Ithaca’s 4th Ward Democratic Primary. The race is a special election to fill a one year term. (06/13/2022) Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Both Mehler and Kumar’s campaign funds are bolstered by individual donors largely from outside of the Ithaca area. Of Kumar’s $3,876.46 campaign funds, just a single contribution of $106 out of her 17 total individual donations comes from someone with an address listed inside Ithaca: her political ally, Alderperson Jorge Defendini.

Kumar’s campaign received $382 in financial and property contributions that were under $99 and did not have a name or address attached to them. New York State campaign finance law does not require a name or address to be attached to a donor until an individual contributes $99 or more in aggregate.

Mehler’s campaign lists two donations from City of Ithaca addresses: both $100 donations, one of which is from Alderperson Ducson Nguyen. In total, Mehler’s campaign received 14 individual donations. 

The number of contributions coming to Mehler and Kumar’s campaigns from outside the city of Ithaca could be explained by their relatively short time as residents of Ithaca, both being college students with much of their lives spent outside of the city.

The average sized donation that Mehler received as of June 17 is $73.20, and the average size that Kumar received is $268. However, Kumar’s average may appear inflated due to a large $1,000 contribution received from a family member, which she told The Voice was collected by her relatives from groups and community organizations in her hometown neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen New York City.

Update (06/27/2022): Kumar told The Voice that the $1,000 contribution represents a single relative’s donation, and not multiple individuals. Otherwise, this would by in violation of New York State’s Election Law.

On top of this pooled $1,000 donation, Kumar received two $250 contributions from family members for a total of $1,500 raised for, or directly donated to her campaign by her family.

As of June 17, Mehler has received $125 from family members.

Mehler told The Ithaca Voice that he did not begin fundraising efforts until after May 27, which was the first filing period. Due to a misunderstanding with the BOE, Mehler filed his no-activity report late on June 13. Kumar’s campaign also filed their first pre-primary disclosure late, though only a couple of days late on June 1.

Mehler has not yet technically filed his June 17 disclosure report with the BOE and, as a result, his disclosures are not appearing on the BOE’s website at the time of this report’s publication. Mehler believed it had been properly filed, and supplied a copy of his full period report to The Voice, which was verified by a BOE official as an authentic draft that originated from their official reporting system.

(Update 3:00 p.m.): At the time of this report’s publication, Mehler had not yet technically filed his June 17 disclosure report with the BOE and, as a result, his disclosures was not appearing on the BOE’s website. Mehler believed it had been properly filed, and supplied a copy of his full period report to The Voice, which was verified by a BOE official as an authentic draft that originated from their official reporting system. Mehler has since resolved the issue and his campaign finance disclosure is now publicly available through the BOE’s candidate disclosure search tool.

Political campaigns for local office, at least for city-level office in Ithaca, rarely see this level of fundraising. Though both campaigns have expressed the importance that face-to-face interactions with voters and constituents have over fundraising efforts.

“I find it more valuable to spend my time going door to door or trying to do community events,” Mehler said, adding, “I’d rather have people’s time than their money.”

Defendini is helping run Kumar’s campaign for Common Council. A member of the Solidarity Slate, a local political group which Tiffany Kumar is also running as a part of, Defendini said that Kumar has been focused on door knocking and engaging with Fourth Ward residents. “But the money has been very helpful,” he added.

Kumar and Mehler are both ambitious undergraduate students at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, being just 20 and 21 years of age, respectively. Both candidates have long careers ahead of them, likely outside of the City of Ithaca, but have each expressed a commitment to serve the city if they’re elected to office. 

The city’s Fourth Ward is largely defined by Ithaca’s Collegetown neighborhood, which has seen large amounts of development in recent years. Housing is being added, year-round residents and homeowners are declining in the area in favor of renters, and neighborhood streets are frequently the site of construction projects in the last several years.

A forum in which both candidates made their case for why they should be elected to represent the ward gave each the opportunity to express their views on Ithaca’s leading issues including housing, Reimagining Public Safety, and the Ithaca Green New Deal. The event led to strongly worded rebuttals by each. 

During the forum, Kumar pitched herself as a strong progressive voice that would join the likes of Alderperson Jorge Defendini and Phoebe Brown and Common Council, while she called Mehler as a “fake progressive.” She characterized him as having not been aggressive or productive with his time on Common Council.

During the Candidate forum, Mehler leaned into the experience he’s developed while serving on Common Council to display a deeper knowledge of city operations and history around certain issues, while also stressing his commitment to represent the needs his constituents come to him with. 

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn