ITHACA, N.Y.—The candidate forum between the City of Ithaca’s Fourth Ward Democratic primary opponents Tiffany Kumar, and current Alderperson Patrick Mehler developed into a fierce, strongly-worded back-and-forth as both Cornell undergraduates compete to win the Democratic nomination on June 28’s election.

The forum took place at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Collegetown. The format of the forum was laid out by moderator Stacey Dimas, First Vice Chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. She posed ten questions to the candidates, one of which she described as a “fun” one and, the others, serious questions related to the actual job of serving on the City of Ithaca’s Common Council. 

Not every question asked of Kumar and Mehler is covered here. A full recording of the event is available on the Tompkins County Democratic Committee YouTube channel.

Each candidate was allowed a one minute response to each question and, when requested, a 30 second rebuttal to their opponent’s statements.

But first, each candidate was allowed a three minute introduction, which Kumar was first to make, setting an adversarial tone that would percolate throughout the forum. She called Mehler a “fake progressive,” adding that that type of candidate “is something Ithaca politics is infamous for, and that we don’t believe in anymore.”

Kumar transferred to Cornell from American University for the Fall Semester of 2021, and has quickly become a part of local activist circles such as the Ithaca Tenants Union.

Kumar chose to highlight that Mehler was not elected, but appointed to serve on Council to temporarily fill a sudden vacancy left by former Ithaca Alderperson Stephen Smith. The appointment process was competitive, with Mehler being chosen over Katie Sims who is now running as an independent for in the special election for Ithaca Mayor.

Kumar and Mehler are competing to serve a single year to round out the rest of the four-year term left unfinished by Smith. Mehler’s appointment to council ends with 2022.

In her opening remarks, Kumar also strongly established her identity and the perspective she is working from as a politician, bringing up her mother who she said immigrated to the U.S. with just “$400 sewn into the lining of her jacket.”

Kumar continued, “No one could have imagined that her daughter would be here today fighting for change. […] I will not be the kind of politician whose version of looking smart boils down to throwing their hands up and giving excuses about why change is impossible.”

Kumar has been endorsed by the New York Working Families Party (WFP), the Democratic Socialists of America’s Ithaca Chapter, the Ithaca Tenant’s Union, and is a member of the Solidarity Slate, a progressive activist group of politicians that saw two candidates elected to the City of Ithaca’s Common Council in 2021, Fourth Ward Alderperson Jorge Defendini and First Ward Alderperson Phoebe Brown.

In his opening remarks, Mehler struck a more congenial tone, starting with some basic facts about his biography: he has a younger brother and a younger sister, his parents he said, were outspoken union members and that’s what led him to choose to focus on conflict resolution in Cornell’s Industrial Labor Relations School (ILR), where Kumar is also earning her undergraduate degree.

He said that he was, “fortunate” to have earned the trust of the City of Ithaca’s Common Council in appointing a college student to the represent the Fourth Ward, and would like to keep building on the relationships he’s established representing the district while listing bread-and-butter community projects that he’s been involved with and wants to see pushed forward, such as improving trash removal, communicating the timelines for road work, and bolstering the relationship between Cornell and the City of Ithaca to do those things. 

City of Ithaca Alderperson Patrick Mehler speaking 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)

Mehler has been endorsed by many long-time Ithaca Democrats that serve or have served on the Common Council, such as Alderpersons George McGonigal, Cynthia Brock, Ducson Nguyen, Rob Gearhart, and Robert Cantelmo, as well as current Acting Mayor Laura Lewis and former Mayor Svante Myrick. 

While Mehler kept it friendly for his first remarks, the rest of the forum would be characterized by sparring and rebuttals — barring a quick “fun” question about what the candidate’s favorite comfort food is —  on issues ranging from housing, Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) plan, and the city’s unhoused population. 

Engaging voters

The first question to prompt a strong exchange between the candidates stems from the relatively lower turnout that Ithaca’s Fourth Ward sees in council elections. The total number of voters have been sometimes four times lower in the Fourth Ward versus more active districts, the First and Second Wards. 

Dimas asked Mehler and Kumar what their plans were to engage students and young people in local politics, with both choosing to talk about their past experience registering voters as an indication of how they would tackle the issue.

Mehler cited his experience as the president and one of the founders of Cornell Votes, a non-partisan student-led initiative to increase voter registration, voter turnout, and civic engagement in the Cornell Community. 

“My opponent […] has said that she’s registered more voters than anybody else,” Mehler opened, but he continued that Cornell Votes contributed to an over “18.6%” increase in voter turnout among Cornell students in the 2020 election over the 2016 election, citing a total of “15,432” people that were registered to vote as a result of the organizations work. 

Kumar followed not by citing specific numbers but by evoking the national scale on which she’s worked to register voters as a high school student serving as the Voter Registration Representative for the United States Association of Secretaries of State.

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

Mehler rebutted by making the point that the question was how to engage voters locally, and turned to the work he did with Cornell Votes to engage community members and university administrators to set up more polling locations more accessible, and distribute absentee ballots.

On the last rebuttal of the topic, Kumar downplayed the effects of Mehler’s work with Cornell Votes, citing its concurrence with the 2020 election — an election that had the highest rate of voter turnout in the 21st century, according to the U.S. census.

In an added dig, Kumar ended her rebuttal saying to Mehler, “Now, I know that you’re comfortable taking credit for other people’s achievements. When you told people that I am only running, because you paved the way for me. As an immigrant, first-gen, woman of color, you don’t know how many times people try to discredit the work I’ve done to get to where I am today.”

Kumar confirmed with The Voice that she was referencing an Ithaca Times article where Mehler is paraphrased and quoted having said that he felt “successful” in a sense that another student was running against him for council. Mehler initially based his pitch in the selection process to fill former Alderperson Smith’s seat on the fact that he would be able to build stronger relationships between the City of Ithaca’s government and the student population. 

https://twitter.com/DefendiniGeorge/status/1524900471978315795

Mehler said that he definitely hasn’t “paved the way at all for students,” citing previous student common council members, Eddie Rooker, Michael Taylor, and former Mayor Svante Myrick. 

“I’m by no means the first student to do it,” said Mehler, adding that “I wanted students to be more engaged with the political process […] and students being involved, I think, is a hallmark of success with the political process.”

Housing

The next question posed to both candidates was in regards to Ithaca’s housing issues. Dimas asked how each candidate would advance zoning reform to grow the housing stock, and how would they “advance legislation on good cause eviction,” also known as right to renew laws.

Both candidates spoke generally to the first part of the question, citing the importance of finding where housing can be built upwards to increase density in the Fourth Ward, and the importance of there being affordable housing as well. 

Mehler focused on the need for housing to be developed with access to public transportation, services and amenities, and honed in on the need for zoning laws in Collegetown to be carefully considered or potentially reconsidered as the city works to develop housing in a neighborhood that fits the needs of workers, business owners, students, and year-round residents.

In his minute to answer the question, Mehler did not speak to the second part of the question regarding good cause eviction laws in the City of Ithaca. 

Kumar, on the other hand, pointed towards the displacement of Ithaca’s communities as a result of the rising cost of housing, particularly Black residents, and pushed a good cause eviction law as an “adequate tenant protection” that would prevent that from happening. 

Good Cause Eviction laws have two primary components: setting a limit on the annual rent increases landlords can impose, and making it a tenant’s right to choose to renew their leases or not. Landlords are currently not required to supply an explanation if they choose to not renew a tenant’s lease under New York State law.

Ithaca’s Common Council has stopped considering a good cause eviction law out of concern that they would be preempting New York’s authority to regulate rent and eviction. While that matter may be determined in part through a lawsuit against the City of Albany for passing the law, good cause remains a pressing debate for its proponents and opponents. The lawsuit against the City of Albany has not yet gone to trial.

The next housing question Dimas posed to Mehler and Kumar was how they planned to create more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the City of Ithaca, and in particular, if they thought that they should be permitted in the city.

The exchange began with Mehler, who directed the question to a different topic: short-term rentals in the City of Ithaca.

Mehler said that he thinks exploring ADUs is important to expand housing stock in Ithaca, “but it’s almost more important to give the city staff the time they need to investigate AirBnB rentals as they’ve been doing for the last couple of months.” Mehler’s point, he confirmed with The Voice after the debate, was that if the city isn’t getting a firm understanding of how much of its housing stock is being occupied by short-term rentals and then potentially develop the appropriate regulations for short-term rentals, all before allowing ADUs to be built, then ADUs could just as well be built for short-term rentals.

One of Mehler’s clear edges in the forum is the experience he’s developed while on Common Council, and his ability to reference the work currently happening within City Hall.

Kumar called herself a staunch supporter of ADUs being allowed in the city, saying that it would be good for the elderly members of families and help to address the houseless population on top of expanding the City’s housing stock.

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

Mehler, in a rebuttal, expanded on the topic of Ithaca’s unhoused population brought up by Kumar, talking about how he believed the proposed TIDES program  — a proposed sanctioned site for people to live in tents or other temporary structures, but would formalize the encampment, known as “the Jungle” with some housing and hygiene structures and services personnel.

Mehler’s comments prompted Kumar to respond that he makes “long convoluted explanations as to why we can’t do something” in reference to ADUs. 

In an answer to the next question asked by Dimas which regarded infrastructure issues in the Fourth Ward, Mehler fired back at Kumar’s comment, saying, “Trusting city staff is not a ‘convoluted’ way of getting around a problem. It is to admit that we’re not experts in these fields.”

Reimagining Public Safety

Dimas asked of Mehler and Kumar, “What is your overall position on the Reimagining Public Safety plan and the Working Group’s recommendation to the City?”

On stage, the answers that both candidates gave did not include any direct acknowledgment of the investigation that began under the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board at the request of Alderperson Cynthia Brock. A second investigation into the City of Ithaca’s controls, also originally requested by Brock, is now being initiated by an outside lawyer. However, Mehler did speak to the importance of increased transparency in the RPS process.

Kumar answered Dimas first, saying in effect that the RPS plan does not go far enough in reallocating resources away from the Ithaca Police Department and toward other means of ensuring public safety, such as social workers, unarmed responders, and other social service experts that can handle some of the police departments duties. She particularly took issue with the low number of unarmed responders that were originally proposed as the first cohort of the program, criticizing Ithaca’s Common Council for not pushing for further alterations to IPD’s budget.

Mehler started his answer to the question with a strong thanks to the members of the working group, starting with Karen Yearwood and Eric Rosario, the group’s co-leads. But he emphasized the importance, in his view, of increasing the transparency that Ithaca’s RPS process as it goes forward. The working group led by Rosario and Yearwood produced a draft report recommending structural changes to IPD staff and rough plans for call responses, meeting out of the public eye, which is legal for working groups. That, though, has become a double edged sword as scrutiny has increased on the report, and Brock has sought for the county’s Ethics Advisory Board to determine the influence that third-party interests have had on Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety process.

Mehler emphasized the importance of RPS’ goals while also ensuring a just transition for IPD officers to a new department.

“I fully agree that we should have more than unarmed responders to deal with mental health issues that police aren’t trained for, but it does worry me that if we’re, as a community, deciding what we’re going to do with our policing that there isn’t a just transition for these officers,” said Mehler.

“Almost a year ago today I lost a close friend of mine to an act of police brutality. I watched it happen.” began Kumar in a rebuttal. “And to me, there is no bigger importance of ensuring that our marginalized communities feel safe. Patrick, I ask you, where was his ‘just transition’?”

Tiffany Kumar speaking 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

Mehler responded saying he was sorry this ever happened and that “it shouldn’t happen to anybody.”

“But what’s really important to me is that for those who have done something wrong, we do still need to have accountability,” continued Mehler. He then raised that Kumar has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, who hold the stance on public safety, Mehler read out loud, is to “defund the police by rejecting any expansion to police budgets or scope of enforcement or cutting budgets and toward zero.”

“It’s not community policing if you’re taking from a national organization’s tenets,” Mehler said.

After the forum, Kumar told The Voice that she felt that an investigation by a third party is important in determining how the RPS process may or may not have been influenced, but said that this issue “has nothing to do with the criminal justice reform.”

“I really do think people see these as two separate issues. […] This is a very important issue. But in addition, we have to be making sure that our government systems are transparent,” said Kumar, emphasizing that the RPS should continue to move forward as it is.

The race might go on?

The Fourth Ward’s Democratic Primary will be decided on June 28, but if Mehler wins Kumar may run against him on the Working Families Party line in November. 

When asked if they would pledge their support to the winner of the Democratic primary, Kumar did not confirm or deny that she would. She said, “My team and I have worked hard this election and we fully expect to win the Democratic primary on June 28. Until that time we don’t feel the need to make any rash decisions.”

Mehler and Kumar had both applied for the WFP nomination. Kumar received it but had Mehler, the local WFP party would have collected signatures for him to appear on the ballot under the party’s ticket, and he could have potentially run on that line.

Mehler followed Kumar, saying to her, “Of course I’m a Democrat and no matter what, I’m going to support the Democrat that wins. It concerns me immensely, if you’re really a Democrat, why are you pledging to run against one in the primary?”

In April, Kumar told the Cornell Daily Sun that she would run on the Working Family Party ticket if she did not win the primary against Mehler, though she clarified to The Voice that her statements at Monday’s candidate forum are where she stands on the topic.

In closing remarks, Kumar said that when she first came to Ithaca, she felt she found a place she could belong. Mehler closed saying that he wanted to earn the seat to get deals done, and work with the community.

Update (06/15/2022): Third Ward Alderperson Jeffrey Barken was originally listed as an endorsee of Alderperson Patrick Mehler, though Barken told The Voice that as a personal policy he does not make endorsements. Mehler has removed Barken from the website citing a misunderstanding at the origin of the mistake.

Update (06/15/2022): A video of the candidate forum was uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday, then embedded in this story.

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