TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Democratic Committee (TCDC) hosted a forum for the seven Democratic Congressional candidates for New York’s 22nd District, giving locals their first chance to see the field as it stands now from the Democratic side — though it is expected to grow.

The candidates included in the panel were Vanessa Fajans-Turner from Ithaca, Tompkins County; Steven Holden, Francis Conole, Chol Majok and Sam Roberts from Syracuse, Onondaga County; Sarah Klee Hood from Dewitt, Onondaga County; and Josh Riley from Johnson City, Broome County, who now lives in Ithaca.

Moderating the forum was Fred Balfour, of WRFI, and Linda Hoffmann, chair of the TCDC. You can watch the full forum here on YouTube.

The candidates began by introducing themselves and giving their two-minute rundown of experiences, strengths and passions. Many of the topics were reiterated throughout, notably similar experiences being military that then led to seeking office, the desire to keep the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in power, bolster environmental advocacy and re-center politics around people rather than prioritizing them over people.

“I’ve spent my life confronting crisis and I made the decision to run in this moment because of the array of crises we face,” said Conole in his introduction.

The first question asked was how the candidates would ensure their respective campaign staffs would be fairly paid and compensated, including any interns working on the campaign.

“We don’t need to wait until elected to demonstrate our values, so we are running a campaign that aims to enact the kind of values we want to see in Washington,” Fajans-Turner said. She has already committed to doing so in her campaign announcement. The other candidates all answered similarly — they will be paying all campaign staff, including interns, a living wage or higher, and trying to source staff from their local district.

When asked what their first post-election priority would be, the candidates again had similar answers.

“Easy — Medicare for all, 100%,” Holden said without hesitation, sharing a story about how his father had been more concerned about his copay and premiums after receiving cancer care than he was with actually recovering.

Fajans-Turner noted that healthcare reform needs to include family and eldercare, and Klee Hood said, “I am a supporter of single-payer universal healthcare. Essentially, we can’t expect to have those jobs, we can’t attack climate change, we can’t look at the issues derived from systemic racism unless we have a healthy body and country to do that.”

Riley emphasized the importance of restoring democracy — “How can we address all the issues if we can’t even have a peaceful transition of power?” — and resolving to restore regulations rolled back by the Trump Administration.

Roberts’ primary policy focus in D.C. would be on supporting startups and existing small businesses as a way to aid the economy as well as job market. “If you don’t have strong business, you don’t have strong jobs. We need to put America back to work and make sure we have an inclusive and diverse workforce.”

Similarly, but from a different angle, Majok said he would invest in workforce development as a way to address poverty.

“It is important to know there is room to improve,” he said. “We forget that the bottom is left behind which is regular folks who are trying to make it every day.”

When asked about climate initiatives, there was a common theme in the answers: the need to acknowledging the threat of it, reimagine current policies and support the Green New Deal (something Fajans-Turner is helping implement, at a local level, in Ithaca).

Another topic candidates discussed with passion was addressing women’s rights, specifically codifying Roe v. Wade and seeking judicial reform for more thorough, permanent protection, and overturning the Hyde Amendment, which has blocked the use of federal funds for abortive services since 1976. “Bar none, abortion is healthcare,” Klee Hood said.

A discussion about voting rights and equal ballot access closed out the forum, including that Election Day should be a national holiday and that the democratic system doesn’t work unless everyone has a voice and a vote, including those who have served time and reentered society.

Zoë Freer-Hessler is the digital editor/reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Joining in November 2021, she has covered a wide range of topics related to local news. She can be reached at,...