ITHACA, N.Y.—Alongside the primaries for New York State Governor and Lt. Governor, the Democratic primary in a special election to serve on the City of Ithaca’s Common Council will be settled after Tuesday.

Alderperson Patrick Mehler and Tiffany Kumar — both undergraduate students at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations — have been locked in a competitive race to represent Ithaca’s Fourth Ward for a single year term. 

And the race may go on past the primary once the results are in. Kumar may or may not continue her bid for council on the Working Families Party line if she loses the Democratic primary. When asked at a June 13 candidate forum if she would endorse Mehler if she lost, she said she didn’t want to make any “rash decisions” as she works to push her policy goals.

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
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

The race between Mehler and Kumar represents two factions of Ithaca’s local left-leaning politics. 

Kumar’s rise in local politics comes on the Solidarity Slate, a progressive coalition that more closely aligns itself with activist circles and grassroots movements like the Ithaca Tenants Union. The slate formed and was first able to win elections in 2021 when Alderpersons Jorge DeFendini and Phoebe Brown won their seats on council. Kumar has reportedly been a consistent presence at local rallies since starting at Cornell in the fall of 2021.

With Kumar’s campaign, the slate’s movement has shown to have some persistence in local politics. 

As for Mehler, his allies on the Common Council have been quick to endorse and praise him for quickly learning the rules and systems of local government, and building working relationships in the community. He often evoked the knowledge he’s built serving on Common Council in the candidate forum with Kumar. 

The two candidates’ differences of view each have on issues are often not vast, but more nuanced.

On housing, for example, both agree that Ithaca needs more all around — more apartments, more single family homes. Mehler, in a candidate forum, stressed the importance of finding a configuration of housing, and zoning updates if need be, that accommodates long time residents, the student population and business. 

Kumar has stressed the need to prioritize tenant’s rights in the city and is a vocal proponent of a good case eviction or right to renew law coming into effect in the city. 

On Reimagining Public Safety (RPS), Mehler has stated his support for plan in the City of Ithaca, but emphasized the need for transparency to be emphasized as ethics investigations loom, and has also stated his tandem support for a “just transition” for officers in the Ithaca Police Department as it is restructured into the Department of Public Safety.

Kumar has also emphasized the importance of transparency being developed in the RPS process, but rebuked Mehler’s advocacy for a just transition as a priority. She ultimately does not think that the plan goes far enough.

Campaign Finance

Campaign fundraising reached a high water mark in terms of local council elections with Mehler raising $1,025 and Kumar raising a whopping $3,876.46 as of their June 17 disclosure filing. 

Fundraising was marked with irregularities on both sides. 

Mehler filed both pre-primary disclosures late. The June 17 filing, he said, was late due to a misunderstanding with the New York State Board of Elections. The first filing, which was due on May 27, was late because Mehler said he did not know he had to prepare a filing even if he did not raise any funds. 

For Kumar’s part, she was a couple days late on her first filing, and she previously told The Voice that a $1,000 donation she received from a family member, her Mom, represented a number of smaller donations that were pooled together from her home community, which is in New York City. 

This would be in violation of New York Election Law, which reads that no person can make a contribution under another person’s name, and no person or candidate can knowingly receive a contribution “in any name other than that of the person or persons by whom it is made.” However, Kumar said that she believes there was a “misunderstanding” or that she “misspoke” when she previously said that the donation was pooled, clarifying the matter with The Voice late Thursday.

“The $1,000 donation […] that is for my mom. I’m super grateful and fortunate to have a mom like I do. She’s my best friend,” said Kumar. She further said that “My campaign is funded by people in my community, but I don’t believe there was any paperwork issue with the filing itself with the $1,000.”

On Tuesday polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Democrats registered with addresses in the City of Ithaca’s Fourth Ward can vote for Mehler or Kumar at the ward’s sole polling place, the Ithaca Town Hall

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