ITHACA, N.Y.—With the 2022 New York State Senate Primary elections coming up on August 23, Southside Community Center hosted a forum last Tuesday for District 52’s Democratic candidates Leslie Danks Burke and Lea Webb to discuss their stances and goals with a focus on how their work will impact the Black community. A recording of the forum can be found at this link

The candidates took the stage, with Danks Burke speaking first. She reflected on her previous two attempts to run for Senate. In 2016, she decided to run as a Democratic candidate in a heavily gerrymandered district that was only 32% Democratic in an attempt to take a stand against the odds. She lost that race but took solace in securing 45% of the vote despite a majority of voters being Republican. She ran again in 2020, albeit unsuccessfully. She holds a J.D. from University of Chicago Law School and has an extensive background and experience in law, including teaching a course at Cornell University now.  

Webb has served two consecutive terms as a member of the Binghamton City Council, where she became the youngest person, and the first Black person, to be elected to city council. She recounted how her outreach efforts towards largely disenfranchised and politically inactive communities led to a 24% turnout for that election, an increase from the usual 8% turnout for city council elections. 

Webb described her affinity for public service, which began in her adolescence with community organizing at her local church and continued until college graduation, after which she became involved with healthcare policy, as well as electoral politics and other political campaigns.

The forum shifted to a question and answer format where each candidate received questions about how they planned to address several key issues. One of these was issues with the criminal justice system, namely mass incarceration. Danks Burke, who represented incarcerated women across New York State as a lawyer, spoke about her advocacy of incarcerated individuals’ right to vote in gerrymandered districts where they count towards the population size. 

Webb spoke about addressing recidivism through her efforts to establish a reentry task force that supports people coming out of prison to adjust and succeed (e.g., giving them good-paying jobs) rather than setting them up to return to prison. 

Another question posed to the candidates was how they would bring in more teachers, especially teachers of color, amid a state-wide and nationwide shortage of them. Webb stressed the importance of changing people’s attitudes towards teaching as an occupation, calling out the widespread cognitive dissonance where people can easily name a teacher who greatly impacted them but also believe teachers are paid too much. She called for more funding to be allocated to schools and teacher’s salaries.

Danks Burke delineated a plan for implementing single-payer healthcare to fund education. She explained how wealthier regions have nicer schools because property taxes fund education. To ensure uniform quality education regardless of income, she proposed removing the burden of Medicaid from property taxes, as they tax low-income families and consequently take money away from their schools. 

The candidates also addressed women’s reproductive rights. Webb touted education as a critical approach for getting voters to pass legislation that protects these rights. Danks Burke expressed that she has been passionately fighting for women’s rights for 20 years and will not stop. She spoke about her role in establishing the right to abortion into New York State law in 2019. 

“I began working on that way back in 2008 [or] 2009 when there were a lot of people who said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it, Roe versus Wade is not gonna get overturned,’” Danks Burke recounted. “Well, that is not true, we know that now, and I’m so glad that I stood up … to help get this passed in the nick of time three years before the Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade.” 

She added that she began working on a constitutional amendment for abortion a year and a half ago and is committed to seeing it to fruition. 

Reparations was another topic of discussion for the candidates. 

“I want to make it very clear, reparations isn’t just simply about putting money back into communities that have been marginalized,” Webb said. “It’s much deeper than that … It also looks at addressing the systems and institutions that keep it going.” 

She stated that people are uncomfortable with addressing race and racism and avoid speaking of reparations. 

“We have to have the difficult conversation around our own cultural blind spots,” Webb urged. 

She pushed for the passing of a reparations bill in New York, following in the footsteps of the establishment of a reparations task force in California. Danks Burke likewise argued that there are undoubtedly sufficient funds in the state’s hefty budget of hundreds of billions of dollars to distribute reparations to systematically disenfranchised communities.

Jacqueline Woo is a Cornell Daily Sun Fellow contributing to The Ithaca Voice.