ITHACA, N.Y.—Leslie Danks Burke and Lea Webb are competing for the best chance a Democrat has had to represent the Southern Tier in New York’s State Senate in decades. The 52nd district has a strong left lean, with President Joe Biden winning 60.5% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election. 

Webb, who served in Binghamton’s City Council for two terms, and Ithaca-based Danks Burke, whose made a name contesting Republicans in right leaning districts, have both mounted  strong campaigns. Canvassers for both candidates have been flocking to doors in Ithaca, Binghamton, and Cortland for the last two weeks.

As of late July, Danks Burke had outpaced Webb financially, and both had garnered a wide array of prominent endorsements. Webb had also continued to pick up big-name support late in the race from groups like the Civil Service Employees Association and Workers United Upstate. 

Both candidates appear to agree on many issues, but often highlight different areas of focus. On the issue of public safety for example, both candidates believe that the judicial and criminal justice systems in New York State needs reform.  

Danks Burke said that she wants to see a community policing model implemented on the ground, and in the courts, she believes that the mechanisms and guidance for Judges determining when to keep someone jailed ahead of trial need to be reviewed in order to address racism within the system, and hold someone who shows a threat to public safety. The recent changes to New York’s cash bail system, Dank Burke, believes are improvements, though she doesn’t believe the work is done. 

“As a lawyer, I am acutely aware that black and brown people are locked up incessantly for things that white people get off scot free for,” said Danks Burke. “But that said, we also have to deal with the realities of our situation today, and we see crime increasing.”

“I believe that we do need to reimagine how public safety is done in this country. But I do not agree with a platform of eliminating police,” said Danks Burke.

Webb, when asked for her views on how to improve public safety, moved to broaden the conversation past the lens of criminal justice. She points towards the need to invest in mental health services and improving “access to good paying jobs.”

“There’s national calls, as well as calls here in New York for […] providing more resources for mental health services, support for people who suffer from substance use challenges, also helping provide more resources around, you know, domestic violence.”

On New York’s cash bail system, Webb said that bringing people who are the most affected by those policies into the room and leveraging their insights needs to be a part of the solution.

“We need to have a conversation,” she said. “It has to be more comprehensive and look at what are the factors that put people into our criminal justice system.”

Lea Webb Credit: Provided

Danks Burke agrees with that, too. 

“I want to see us have a conversation that is long overdue that includes everyone who is affected by our current pretrial incarceration system.”

When news that the U.S. supreme court would likely overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade that bolstered women’s rights to have an abortion, New York quickly became one of the leading states in the country pushing to expand and protect abortion proctions. Bothe Danks Burke and Webb have marked themselves as ardent supporters of a woman’s reproductive rights, though Webb has attracted the endorsement of key organizations working to promote those protections. 

The Planned Parenthood Empire State Votes PAC and Eleanor’s Legacy both put their weight behind Webb. 

Webb’s supporters have been working to put  Danks Burke’s time at the Trailblazer PAC under  a microscope in recent weeks as reported by WSKG. The PAC, which Danks Burke founded in 2016, was dedicated to mentoring and supporting candidates of all political stripes who were committed to a heightened level of fiscal transparency. 

In Oct. 2020, Trailblazers endorsed Scott Nichols, a Republican candidate for sheriff in Franklin County Maine who had previously become aligned with extremist groups, like the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Nichols would become known for flaunting enforcement of emergency COVID-19 protections and ties to groups that stormed the U.S. capitol on Jan. 6, 2020. Soon after Jan. 6, Trailblazers revoked its endorsement of Nichols.

Danks Burke defends the work Trailblazers did to promote financial transparency in politics. She cites that when Nichols would not rescind “an endorsement by an organization that was involved with the denial of the will of the voters, and January 6” he broke from Trailblzers criteria and lost the PAC’s support.

“As a partisan Democrat, I was wholly comfortable with participating in an organization that held the opposing party accountable,” said Danks Burke. “So when a candidate chose to follow those objective criteria, then we got to see behind the curtain and know where that candidate’s money came from.”

She added, “It’s very clear […] that the people who are bringing this attack forward are supporters of one of the candidates in this race.”

Leslie Danks Burke Credit: Provided

The passage of a statewide good cause eviction law might be the biggest breaking point for Webb and Danks Burke. Good cause eviction, or right to renew laws, are defined by two components: setting a percentage that rent on a unit can be increased by year over year; and making it a tenant’s right to choose to renew their leases or not. Under New York State law, landlords are not required to supply an explanation if they choose not to renew a tenant’s lease.

The laws also come with other provisions, such as making it illegal for landlords to evict tenants that fail to pay their rent if they’re unable to afford the cost of rent due to an unfair hike in rent.

Webb launched her candidacy with her support behind the measure, and has maintained it as a central tenet of her platform 

Danks Burke is more cautious of good cause laws. She’s wary that the regulatory environment a law like that creates for small landlords while trying to address housing issues that are driven by conglomerates.

“When you have those sort of one size fits all approaches that are designed to target the bad actors at the top, and it bankrupts well meaning actors in the middle class and working class, then you have a huge problem.”

The district that Danks Burke and Webb are running to represent includes the cities of Binghamton, Ithaca, and Cortland — three towns that are known for their institutions of higher education — which are surrounded by large rural areas. Both candidates emphasize the issues that connect the two types of communities, like improving broadband access, or advocating for support for small agricultural businesses competing against the scale corporate operations act on.  

To fight for a region that she says Albany has left behind, Danks Burke said she wants to go to Albany to fight for a region that she says Albany has left behind. “We need leaders willing to stand up, stay the course, recognize that we have serious challenges right now and who are willing to take action to fix those. That’s what I’ve been demonstrating for the last 15 years”

Webb, for her part, is proud to be running a campaign she emphasizes as “people powered.”

“The support and grassroots efforts that we have been engaging in with the campaign I find to really resonate with folks.”

Primaries are Tuesday. Aug 23. The winner of the Democratic primary for NY52 will face Republican Rich David, the former Mayor of Binghamton, in November’s general election. 

Jimmy Jordan

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