ITHACA, N.Y.—Running on the Republican ticket for local office in the notoriously liberal City of Ithaca can be called a long shot. A less charitable definition would be political suicide.
Republicans barely make up more than 6% of the registered voters in the city, but Zach Winn stands under the banner of the GOP. He thinks he has a chance as he runs to pick up a single year term for Mayor to finish out the term Svante Myrick left unfinished.
Winn, a pizza chef, is a known quantity among Ithaca’s activist circles and local politicos. He’s run for local office before and regularly speaks at public comment during meetings of the Tompkins County Legislature Ithaca’s Common Council. He has claimed an uncommon title in Ithaca as a right-wing activist, making appearances at the Back the Blue rallies hosted on the Ithaca Commons in 2020 and 2021 and frequently counter-protesting the racial justice rallies throughout summer and fall 2020.
Local government, he believes, no longer represents its community.
“The [Common] Council and the government of the city has, I believe, gone so far left that it is not representative of the average person whatsoever,” said Winn.
Winn runs a website called Ithaca Crime, where he posts under the alias Chip Daley about criminal activity he gleans from listening to police scanners, local law enforcement reform efforts, former Mayor Svante Myrick and more — all topics that Winn says are connected to the “decay of his hometown.”
With the added allure of complimentary root beer floats, Winn launched his campaign for mayor on Friday at a community room in Nate’s Floral Estates, a mobile home park marketed to retirees. It was a two hour, forum-style meeting with Winn — a frenetic speaker — engaging in a dialogue with middle aged and elderly attendees about crime and homelessness in Ithaca. The event garnered a crowd of just under 20 people.
The location was chosen for its proximity to “the Jungle,” an informal tent encampment on city land behind Walmart and Lowes. Residents at Nate’s Floral Estates have reported trespassing, their property stolen, their homes broken into, even physical altercations with the population that lives at the encampment. Many in the elderly community, at least those who live in that neighborhood, are fed up with the city of Ithaca’s approach to addressing the Jungle.
Issues of mental health and drug addiction run through the Jungle’s population, which peaks around 50 or so in the warm weather months. Ithaca has largely avoided criminalizing the group that lives there, preferring to support services that can move them away from substance if that’s an issue, and into stable housing.
Winn thinks this approach has been a failure, and the growing encampments on Ithaca’s West End are his evidence. He’s advocating for the wooded flood plain where the encampments are located to be completely cleared of trees and for the area to be made so that it cannot be reoccupied. Winn said that the city “should not be outright hostile” towards people who are dealing with drug addiction, mental illness or homelessness, but that Ithaca has become too accommodating.
“People should have to face the consequences of their actions. Ending up in jail for somebody in the spiral of drug addiction can be a positive thing,” said Winn, adding, “It’s not an ideal situation. But until there is some sort of facility where you can do detox then all of this is for nothing. This is just a big waste of time and money.”
Winn, overall, believes that crime in the City of Ithaca is poorly reported on and understood in context and frequency, which is why he started Ithaca Crime. He wants to reframe the public’s perception of the issue, and reverse course on the Reimagining Public Safety plan, which he believes has demoralized the Ithaca Police Department to the point of degrading its functionality.
When asked to speak to the conflict of interest that stems from a political candidate building a platform focused on addressing crime in the city, while also attempting to run a website that provides news and information on crime in the city, Winn told The Voice, “Of all the potential conflicts of interests going on right now in the city, they got me running for office, while simultaneously documenting the decay of my hometown is not one I would be concerned about.”
Winn’s views and public demonstrations have brought him plenty of scrutiny locally. In March 2021, Winn burned a Black Lives Matter flag at a Back the Blue rally, provoking some to condemn him as a “racist” and “fascist.”
Winn’s initial attempt to burn the Black Lives Matter flag developed into an altercation before he was able to eventually light it. He defends the action, calling the Black Lives Matter flag a “Marxist symbol” and arguing that racial justice protestors had burned an American flag that was hanging at the Ithaca Police Department on Clinton Street months prior.
Winn believes that Ithaca and the county’s Reimagining Public Safety plan has hurt police morale and that it should be reversed promptly. He feels similarly about the Ithaca Green New Deal, and its electrification program, which he called a “boondoggle.”
“I think Ithaca needs to give up on the whole doing-things-first. It is not this community’s obligation to be the guinea pig for every bleeding heart cause that there is,” said Winn.
Winn claims that he entered the race for mayor because he didn’t like the idea of Acting Mayor Laura Lewis running unopposed. After getting on the ballot in November, an independent candidate, Katie Sims, has also established a campaign.
Winn is critical of Sims for being affiliated with groups like the Ithaca Tenants Union and the Democratic Socialists of America but, he admits, “I’ve learned quite a few lessons from them.” He said that they are highly organized, and fears what the Common Council will look like in 2023 when not half, but all of the seats on Ithaca’s Common Council will go up for reelection.
He believes the Ithaca that disagrees with more progressive or leftist politics needs to speak up, and get involved. And he believes he’s found his constituency.
“I think that if I can get these people in this [mobile home] park to vote for me and to support me, then I actually have a chance,” said Winn. “If they are open to my message, then I have a chance.”
Correction (09/01/2022): This story originally stated that an American flag burned by activists was done so in front of Ithaca’s City Hall. The flag was taken down from a pole in front of the Ithaca Police Department.