ITHACA, N.Y.—As June’s primary date approaches, the customary lawn signs advertising the candidacy of would-be members of the City of Ithaca’s Common Council are beginning to appear; leaflets are being wedged into the creases of door frames; and canvassers are treading from door to door, trying to catch the ears of voters in the city.
All are the traditional marks of an election season in motion. But, for close observers of Ithaca’s political landscape, it’s clear that amidst a year in which all 10 of the city’s Common Council seats are up for a election — a once in a decade event in city politics — progressive organizers and activists are trying to tilt the balance further to the left in the City of Gorges.
The year 2023 may prove to be a bellwether when it comes to Ithaca’s appetite for the type of progressive platform that’s being offered up. Perhaps more than any other issue, the new wave of progressives in the city, which includes a group of self-defined socialists, have built their charge on expanding tenants rights and protections. If anything, however, this election year is at least a clear sound off that the brand of liberals and Democrats that have run Ithaca over the last few election cycles have company.
“Factions are emerging,” said Donna Fleming, a Democrat who served on Ithaca’s Common Council from 2012 through the end of 2021. She said that she’s found her friends and other city residents to be “surprised” when she tells them that distinct groups within the local Democratic party have formed, and are now competing for office in the city.
“I think because they’re accustomed to Ithaca being just a solid, liberal Democratic city,” said Flemming. Of her friends and neighbors, Fleming said she tells them “it’s really time to pay attention to who they’re voting for.”
Of the 16 Democratic candidates that are running for Common Council this year, nine of them have received the endorsement of the Working Families Party (WFP), a third party generally viewed as further left than the traditional Democratic party. Five of those nine endorsed candidates are already sitting members of Common Council, including Alderperson Rob Cantelmo, who is running for Mayor of the city. Only one of the 10 races for Common Council is without a WFP endorsed candidate.
And of those nine candidates endorsed by the WFP, five have also banded together as a unified political front, dubbed the Solidarity Slate. Along with the WFP’s endorsement, the slate has the endorsements of the political and advocacy groups the Ithaca Tenants Union and the Ithaca Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
While separate and distinct, these three groups have some overlapping memberships, and through their synergy have become the organizing engines that are propelling forward new currents in the city’s political sphere.
With five socialists running for office, two of which are already seated on Ithaca’s Common Council, Ithaca has the potential to receive the kind of leftist notoriety it once did under the leadership of Ben Nichols, a socialist that served as Ithaca’s Mayor from 1989 to 1995.
“People whose politics are progressive or socialist are looking more toward the city government as a way to express those values and to work toward the change that they want to see,” said Katie Sims, an organizer with the the Ithaca Tenant’s Union and chair the Ithaca DSA’s Electoral Legislative Committee.
The city’s progressives have effectively organized around expanding tenant’s rights and protections in the city. Their efforts successfully pushed into the city’s policy conversation right to renew or good cause eviction laws, which would prevent landlords from denying tenants a lease renewal outside of a few clear conditions, like failure to pay rent.
Laws like good cause, and other initiatives like rent stabilization which the Solidarity Slate candidates plan on pushing, are about recentering power, said Sims.
“When we think about laws like good cause, what it does is it gives tenants the ability to have more power over staying in their homes. And it takes some of the decision making power away from landlords,” said Sims.
With 74% of residents in the City of Ithaca being renters — more than double the national average — Sims said that advocating around tenants issues is a matter of meeting the needs of a majority of the people that call Ithaca home. But Good Cause has remained on the back burner due the city’s hesitancy to invite in a lawsuit. The question of whether local municipalities can remove a landlord’s power to withhold a lease renewal has seen repeated decisions at the appellate court level determine that it is not within a municipality’s authority — that doing so supersedes New York State’s governing authority. Those decisions are currently being appealed.
Former Common Council member Seph Murtagh, whose tenure was parallel with Fleming’s from 2012 to 2021, said he isn’t surprised that tenants rights have become a defining platform issue for many of the candidates running for office.
“The council has always been kind of skewed towards the homeowner class in this town, right? So I think part of what’s just kind of going on right now is almost like a natural balancing, where the council is starting to look more like the population of the city,” said Murtagh.
That dynamic has met with rent rates continuing to climb in Ithaca. According to U.S. census data, the median gross rent — which includes the cost of utilities — in the City of Ithaca for a 1 bedroom apartment steadily rose from an estimated $890 in 2015 to $1,129 in 2021, which is the most recent year data is available. The U.S. Census’ estimate for the median household income of city residents in 2021 is $40,973.
The rents of many of the most visible development projects are far out of reach of the average Ithacan. On the apartment listing website Apartments.com, the lowest price for a one bedroom apartment at Harold’s Square on the Ithaca Commons is listed at $2,875. City Centre in Downtown Ithaca’s lowest listed one bedroom comes in at a cool $2,883. Ironworks Ithaca on West State Street is listing a 1 bedroom starting at $2,590.
While affordable and purpose built housing has come up in the city, like the 210 Hancock Project and Founders Way, Murtagh noted that the lack of affordable housing for people of middle and lower income living in the city is evident.
Murtagh said, “For a while there was this idea that we can just change the zoning and we can build enough housing. And it doesn’t matter if it’s affordable, if it’s lower income housing, or if it’s market rate housing or luxury housing — it’s going to shake out. Like this is trickle down theory of housing development, right? And I’m not sure [if] that has really come to fruition. I mean, the rents are still really high.”
The cost of some of the high end housing projects that have been built in the city have sowed a palpable discontent into the city populace, which in turn is being expressed in the campaigning of the progressives running for office. Campaign leaflets for 1st Ward candidate Kayla Matos of the Solidarity Slate pitch her intention to invest in community organizations while calling out the “disruption that profit-seeking development has brought to Ithaca.”
The call for addressing housing affordability in the city is nothing new. It’s effectively become an evergreen issue for those seeking office. But Matos and her compatriots on the Solidarity Slate are notably striking a somewhat harder edge in the campaign literature that they’re starting to roll out, setting up framing for issues along the lines of people versus profits.
On the Ithaca Solidarity Slate website, the issues category lists “Tax the Rich — And Cornell” as core policy of the slate’s platform. The description of the policy goal reads that “it’ll take a city-wide effort to make sure Cornell pays their fair share.” It is easier said than done. Increasing the money that Cornell — an Ivy League University with close to a $10 billion endowment — contributes to city coffers has remained a perennial goal of city officials.
The benchmarks available to help predict the success of the Solidarity Slate at the polls are few and far between. Sims, who is now operating in the city’s political space solely as an organizer, ran against Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis in 2022 for a single year term for the Mayor’s Office. She lost by a wide margin, gaining just about 25% of the total votes cast in a city wide race. Lewis’ victory came with plenty of breathing room, but Sims taking a quarter of the votes signals that she was more than a fringe candidate and that a challenge to the priorities of recent iterations of the city’s Common Council could generate support in Ithaca.
In 2021, slate members Jorge DeFendini and Phoebe Brown were elected to represent Ithaca’s 4th and 2nd Wards, respectively. Now both are running for reelection — Brown in the new 1st Ward, due to district lines being redrawn.
DeFendini remains unopposed. Brown is being challenged by Republican Zach Winn who, given Ithaca’s strong liberal leaning, has an uphill battle to get within striking distance of his incumbent opponent.
But the slate’s other three candidates, Matos in the 1st Ward, Dr. Nathan Sitaraman in the 3rd Ward, and West Fox in the 2nd Ward, are all running against opponents in the Democratic primary that are either incumbents or strongly established in the community. The races seem poised to be competitive.
Matos, a lifelong Ithaca resident and Deputy Director of the Southside Community Center, is seeking a four year term representing the 1st Ward on the Common Council. She faces incumbent Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who has served on Common Council since 2011 and built a reputation as a workhorse.
In the 2nd Ward, competing for a two year term on Council alongside the slate’s Fox, are Aryeal Jackson, a local business owner, as well as Kris Haines-Sharp, who in February was appointed to fill a vacancy on council through the end of the year. Both Haines-Sharp and Jackson have clocked many years of community building in the city, compared to Fox. Fox moved to Ithaca only in 2020, but has quickly integrated into civic life, having joined, among other things, the Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council.
Sitaraman and David Shapiro are vying for the four year term representing the 3rd Ward. Shapiro is a long time Ithaca resident who has led various non-profits in the city and region, including Second Wind Cottages where he currently serves as Executive Director. Sitaraman is a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University in physics, and worked as an organizer with Cornell Graduate Students United.
The united muscle that the Solidarity Slate is exercising could stand to be a large, organizational advantage compared to the Democrats they are running against, whose campaigns for local office usually seem more individualistic.
When reached out to comment on the left-wing political developments in the City of Ithaca, the Tompkins County Democratic Committee referred The Ithaca Voice to Ed Swayze, the chair of the City Democratic Committee. As June 27 approaches, Swayze said that the local Democratic party is “not telling you who to vote for” in the primaries.
Swayze said that the city Democratic Committee will act as a facilitator, informing people on how and where to vote, and who’s running to represent them. Local Democrats, Swayze, said “will not support any individual candidate until after there’s a primary.”