ITHACA, N.Y.—In addition to the Mayor’s office being up for election in 2023, all of Ithaca’s Common Council seats will be up for grabs — an event that happens once every 10 years in city politics — setting up the potential for a massive reshuffling of Ithaca’s elected representatives. 

While a big shift on Common Council is by no means a guarantee, what is guaranteed is a change in the districts that candidates will be running to represent. The Common Council adopted a new ward map in July to reflect the results of the 2020 census, and this year’s local elections are the first where candidates will be running to represent the new districts. 

Both the new maps and the full slate of elections underpin what could become a pivotal election year as Ithaca readies to transition into a City Manager model.

The year has already seen a couple major campaign developments in the first two weeks: Mayor Laura Lewis announced that she would not be seeking reelection, opening up the race for Mayor of Ithaca, and Alderperson Rob Cantelmo (5th Ward) was the first candidate to announce a bid for Mayor, opening up the race for his Common Council seat.

Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis speaking with members of Common Council (01/04/2023). Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Ithaca’s voters will be choosing a candidate to set Ithaca’s policy prerogatives for a full four year term, and will be voting on Common Council members to fill a four and two year term in each ward. While the field is still yet to solidify, there are a range of issues that seem sure to define the election season. 

The Ithaca Green New Deal, the city’s sky-high goal of achieving city-wide carbon neutrality by 2030, and Reimagining Public Safety, Ithaca’s efforts to reform its public safety system by introducing an alternative crisis response among other measures — are both ambitious and complicated endeavors that have seen quite deliberate progress. With the departure of the city’s former Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres amid complaints that his work was restricted and undermined, it’s unclear at the moment what Ithaca’s next steps are going to be on the climate initiatives for which the city earned national, and even international, attention. 

The future of the police department is also uncertain, as it struggles under short staffing. Concern runs among some members in the community of the department’s ability to handle crime amid these staffing conditions, especially if they worsen. The city is wading through a messy process to identify a new police chief, and Ithaca’s RPS initiative has become an increasingly encumbered process that has yet to implement an alternative response model after a plan was outlined almost two years ago in April 2021.

Debate over good cause eviction laws have streaked through Ithaca politics in recent years. Good cause laws aim to further regulate the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant, and regulate the reasons a landlord can not renew a tenants lease. Currently under New York State law, landlords are not required to provide a reason for the nonrenewal of a lease. 

While tenants rights advocates have argued that the law would rectify an unbalanced dynamic between renters and landlords in Ithaca, landlords have argued that the law is unnecessarily cumbersome and would contribute to the overregulation of an already difficult business to be in. There are also concerns of preempting New York State’s authority to regulate rent and evictions. 

And in recent months, the City of Ithaca’s workers went public with their complaints of depressed wages, and the staffing issues that this has resulted in, particularly in the Department of Public Works which is short over 30 employees. One city worker told Ithaca’s Common Council that, “Maybe the city thinks that they can balance the budget on the backs of the workers and keep those costs artificially low. We’re here to tell you that that is a mistake.”

Resolving the tension between city government and its workforce has been one of the defining issues for Ithaca’s Common Council since the worker demonstration in early November, and stands to be a major issue as candidates gear up for election season.

Candidates that want to appear under the Democratic or Republican party will be able to start collecting signatures in March to appear in the June primaries. Independents will be able to start collecting signatures in April. 

Who’s going to be on the ballot?

So far, Common Council member Jorge Defendini (4th Ward), and Ducson Nguyen (2nd Ward) have confirmed that they will be running in 2023 for reelection to Common Council. Nguyen told The Ithaca Voice that he is seeking a final four year term on Council before hanging his hat up.

Alderpersons George McGonigal (1st Ward) and Cynthia Brock (1st Ward) declined to comment on whether they are running for reelection to Common Council. Brock previously told The Ithaca Voice that she will not be seeking the Mayor’s office.  Similarly, Alderpersons Tiffany Kumar (4th Ward) and Jeffrey Barken (3rd Ward) also declined to comment at this time. In a text message, Alderperson Phoebe Brown (2nd Ward) told The Ithaca Voice, she is “not sure yet if she’s running for reelection.”

So far, the only member of Common Council that has publicly stated that they will not be pursuing reelection, is Alderperson Rob Gearthart (3rd Ward). 

City of Ithaca Alderperson Rob Gearhart (right) listening to a speaker during Common Council’s public comment section (01/04/2023). Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Other potential candidates that have recently made their presence known on the local political scene include Zach Winn, who ran as a Republican against Laura Lewis in 2022’s special election for Ithaca Mayor. He built a campaign focused on stoking worry around crime in Ithaca, and calling for swift action to be taken in addressing the largely unmanaged homeless encampments on Ithaca’s West End, known colloquially as “The Jungle.”

Winn told The Ithaca Voice, “I don’t think I’m going to be running for mayor” in 2023, but when asked if he would be running for Common Council, Winn said he was still assessing the landscape. 

In Ithaca, where only about 6% of registered voters are Republicans, Winn managed to net 8.6% of the vote in 2022. Referencing these numbers, Winn said that, “the likelihood of anyone who is not a Democrat or progressive being able to assume one of those seats is extremely minute.” He acknowledged that his campaign was more of “a mechanism to put out a different viewpoint and give people an alternative to vote for.”

When asked by The Ithaca Voice if she would be running for office, Katie Sims — who ran against Lewis and Winn on the Progressive line in 2022’s special election for Mayor of Ithaca — said that she is waiting to see a more fleshed out platform to emerge from the Cantelmo campaign before making any decisions. Sims indicated that she felt that Cantelmo is “correctly identifying the issues,” but wanted to hear more from him particularly on his stance on tenants protections.

Sims declined to speak to whether she is considering running for Common Council, but did say that she is “still very invested in city politics and I’m going to go where my effort can be best used to pass policies that are going to help tenants and working people in the City of Ithaca.”

Speaking with The Voice, Sims also injected a comment on the impact Winn had in 2022’s special election, calling his messaging around crime in Ithaca a “fear mongering” tactic. Sims added that she is “concerned about what he’s accomplishing even if he’s getting low numbers in the polls.”

Mike Sigler, Tompkins County Legislator and Chairs of the Tompkins County Republican Committee, said that if Winn were to run for office again, he would have the support of the county GOP. But he also added that the Tompkins County GOP would consider supporting and advising a candidate even if they weren’t running as a Republican in the Democrat-dominated City of Ithaca.

“If we could find someone who was well known in the City who had more conservative viewpoints — frankly not even conservative viewpoints just someone who believe in a functioning government — who was able to make the argument that right now the Common Council is not functioning as well as it could,” Sigler said. 

While the Republican Party is just trying to eke out a position in the City of Ithaca’s politics, the Working Families Party (WFP) — which generally stands to the left of many Democrats — saw a strong signal of growth in Tompkins County during 2022’s elections. 

Core to the WFP’s strategy in New York are the state’s fusion voting laws, which allow for candidates to appear on multiple political parties on the ballot. Citizens are able to cast their vote for a Democratic but along the WFP line. With those numbers in hand, the WFP aims to relay that as a demonstration of the electorates desire for a more progressive policy agenda.

While the WFP only captured 8% of the votes for Governor Kathy Hochul across the state, in the City of Ithaca, about 27% of votes cast for Hochul came in along the WFP line in 2022 — a big jump from 2018, when just 8% of the votes for former Governor Andrew Cuomo came in on the WFP line in the City of Ithaca.

Still, it’s a rarity for the WFP to run candidates solely on its line. The expressed reason being that the party wants to avoid spoiling an election by splitting it three ways. Stephanie Heslop, Chair of the Tompkins County Working Families Party club, said that while 2022’s results are promising, “the results show that it’s still quite hard to run in Ithaca not on the Democratic party line.”

 “We will be focusing on supporting candidates running in the Democratic primary,” said Heslop.

Speaking with The Ithaca Voice, Sims, who was endorsed by the WFP in her 2022 bid for Ithaca Mayor, said that she knows “a lot of people” who are considering a run for local office. “It’s been exciting to see that people are interested in bringing progressive policy to Common Council.”

The local WFP club will be interviewing candidates to make its endorsements throughout January and February. 

When asked what he thought of the WFP growing presence in Ithaca politics, the City of Ithaca’s Democratic Committee Chair Ed Swayze said he didn’t think of it as a cause for concern. Swayze, who self identifies as a progressive, said he thinks local races are still going to be defined by candidates running as Democrats but added that “if anything the WFP is not going to go away. It’s only going to get stronger.”

Of Cantelmo’s bid for Mayor, Swayze said, “I don’t expect someone better to come along […] He has the chops for the job.”

Some elections in local governments have seen just one candidate come forward, which was the case in 2021’s race in Ithaca’s 3rd Ward when freshman Alderperson Jeffrey Barken glided into office unchallenged. The issue of voting and participation in local government is multi faceted. In Ithaca specifically, wards where large swaths of students live tend to have abysmally low voter turnout and civic participation is generally low.  

But Swayze acknowledged that “We’ve had some ward chairs that haven’t been very active” in recent years. The hope for the City’s Democratic Committee is to identify and encourage strong candidates to run for office locally, and avoid a situation where voters are left without a choice on the ballot come 2023’s big election season. 

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