TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Democratic Committee (TCDC) hosted a panel discussion with the Congressional candidates of NY-19 earlier this week, the first to hold all three Democratic candidates in one event locally.

Since the last forum, the redistricting process was completed, leaving Tompkins County in NY-19 instead of the previous NY-22, which had a larger candidate field.

You can keep up with all the lasted reporting on the 2022 elections here, and watch the full forum here. The primary is being held August 23.

Facing moderators TCDC Chair Linda Hoffman and Fred Balfour of WRFI were Josh Riley, Jamie Cheney and Osun Zotique (who uses they/them pronouns), the three Democratic candidates running to represent NY-19. Marc Molinaro is also running unopposed for the Republican nomination, but since this event was for Democratic candidates only, he did not participate.

The first question was on the recently redrawn district, which spans from Hudson, New York, to the Southern Tier, making it a very different district than Tompkins County had seen previously, when it was a heavily Republican district and known as NY-23.

Riley said that NY-19 stretches over counties that have unique needs, but have a shared issue of threatened democracy, “dominated by” peddled conspiracy theories. Before other issues, like dark money, can be addressed, democracy needs to be strengthened, he said.

Cheney agreed with Riley, citing the “existential threat to democracy,” but saying that it is essential to address the more urgent problems constituents feel every day first, like “pressure on their wallets” that comes from prices of gas and groceries rising.

Zotique said that there is “no reason” that a hardworking family should have to struggle with finding housing it can afford, functioning healthcare and other basic needs. “Chaotic times call for transformative leadership,” they said.

Campaigning in a New District

Cheney said that her campaign has moved some team members to Ithaca to learn the community and its needs more first-hand. “We can’t win this election on Dem turnout votes alone, we need crossover,” she said.

Zotique said that their location in Hudson is a quick commute to Albany, and that they plan to leverage the power of the internet to reach as many people as possible.

Riley, who is based in Ithaca, said that his campaign will stay the course its been utilizing over the past few months by showing up, listening (“particularly to those who don’t agree”) and drawing a stark contrast between GOP candidate Marc Molinaro.

Racial Justice and Campaign Diversity

Zotique said that their “entire team of staffers are BIPOC, LGBTQ+,” and that they will continue to work to get diverse individuals elected.

Cheney said that her campaign has been focusing on hiring district-local staff who want to be involved and not hiring individuals from different backgrounds for the sole purpose of being able to tout diversity.

Riley said that his campaign has made a conscious decision to have a diverse team because it allows for more opinions and conversations to happen that lead to better outcomes overall.

Healthcare Priorities

“Cost, proximity and transport” were Cheney’s top three, and she said that care can be prohibitively expensive all around, not just related to strict medical care. She also wants to bring the Medicare age to 60, lower drug costs and make change assistive care that families will feel “next week” rather than farther down the line.

Riley’s top priorities to healthcare is increasing access for rural communities, bettering mental healthcare opportunities and fighting for women’s health rights and against the draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Zotique’s interest lies in not “propping up profit corporations,” and said they are interested in the New York Essential Plan, which they believe not enough people know about or take advantage of. Adding to that, they said that having computers with healthcare portal access in municipal buildings would help in expanding access to the state’s healthcare opportunities.

Inflation Concerns

Riley said that short-term immediate relief is a necessary first step in helping families struggling with their weekly budgets. Lowering drug costs, reinstating the child tax credit and closing corporate loopholes that allow outsourcing that impacts the supply chain and raises prices on the ground.

Zotique said that short-term, gas prices need to be lowered, the economy needs to begin rebuilding and consumer protections must be expanded. They also said that they find the blaming of President Joe Biden’s administration for the rising gas prices is nonfactual and unhelpful.

Cheney said she wants to see the consumer fuel price gouging bill immediately passed, an increase in access to the strategic petroleum reserve to lower gas prices.

Top Criminal Justice Issues

Zotique said that restorative justice needs to be at the forefront with special attention paid to the national mental health crisis. They also said the correctional process should have a reintegrative component that helps individuals as they return to normal life on the “outside.”

Riley said that law enforcement puts their lives on the line every day, but that the intersection of mental health and law enforcement aren’t handled properly.

Cheney said that mental health must be addressed and that adding social workers to crises response teams might be a good first step. She also said that, as a mother, it’s unacceptable for children to be scared of going to school because of shootings.

Political Polarization of Topics

Riley disputed the focus on polarization, saying he wanted to focus on prioritizing unity and fight for principals without compromising women’s rights or children’s safety.

Cheney shared a similar thought, saying that she believes there are more commonalities than differences. While she wishes the Roe decision could be a top focus, the list of everyday things like gas, groceries and guns are much higher priority for many families in NY-19. She also said that gun owners, lots of whom work on farms and own a gun for their animal’s safety against predators, have been pushed away from the conversation about gun control, when the conversation should be focused on banning assault weapons to begin with.

Zotique also shared the sentiment of unity and said that they’ve witnessed the polarity between the labels of Democrat and Republican. They believe that framing specific discussions into a positive lens versus a negative one can aid in productive conversations. They said that using the terminology of “protect healthcare for people with uteruses” rather than “protect abortion” has opened the conversation with individuals who otherwise didn’t feel comfortable partaking.

Finally, the candidates responded to a question on climate change, sharing language and thoughts about the existential threat that fills them all with dread.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...