ITHACA, N.Y.—A candidate forum was held June 9 in preparation for the five Democratic primaries on Tuesday, June 27, when residents will vote on who they want to run in the November elections.
All 11 Democratic candidates running for Common Council were seated at tables with their respective competitors in each ward on the gymnasium stage at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) at the start of the event.
At 7 p.m., candidates were given three minutes each to give their opening remarks to a crowded room of civic-minded Ithacans before the crowd and the candidates separated into individual, small rooms according to ward to answer debate-style questions for the remainder of the night.
Affordability of housing and basic living expenses, steady increases in property taxes that have resulted in unstainable tax burdens for permanent residents and Cornell University’s financial and moral responsibility to Ithaca were challenges and concerns most echoed by the candidates in opening statements.
Understaffing in city government departments, new floodplain maps that increase insurance costs for residents and the upcoming transition to a city manager model of government were also points of concern cited in opening statements.
Jason Houghton, a 17-year resident and candidate running for the two-year seat on Common Council in Ward 5, spoke of he and his husband’s growing concerns about their ability to retire in Ithaca.
“I hope to make Ithaca my home for the rest of my life,” Houghton said. “We have to really address our affordability issue head-on.”
David Shapiro, candidate for the four- year seat in Ward 3, said in his statement that his family relocated to Ithaca from Brooklyn, N.Y. 13 years ago because it was a more affordable place to raise their boys. If they tried to move to Ithaca today, he said, they would not be able to.
“Our income really is not much different from what it was 13 years ago,” Shapiro said. “But with a whole lot more expenses.”
Both Shapiro and Houghton said the decrease in housing affordability in Ithaca is one of the main reasons they chose to run for Common Council, a sentiment shared widely by candidates in their opening statements. In particular, by Kayla Matos, a candidate running for the four-year term in Ward 1.
Matos was born and raised by her single mother and siblings in Ithaca and said that unfortunately, she and her family have “faced many of Ithaca’s ‘not so gorgeous’ realities.” She said she knows how it feels to lose her home because “the property owner wanted my single mother out.”
Increasing tax burdens felt among long-term residents in relation to Cornell’s contract with the city was mentioned continuously as a point of concern for candidates.
Margaret Fabrizio, long-term resident and candidate for Ward 5’s 4-year seat, said she believes in order for Ithaca to be an affordable and equitable place, it needs to be properly resourced in another way that does not increase taxes for residents.
“We cannot make up the gap that is created by 60% of our city property being tax exempt,” Fabrizio said. “Cornell owns 80% of that and they must pay their fair share.”
Michelle Song, an undergraduate Cornell student and candidate for the 4-year seat in Ward 5, emphasized that the next cohort of Common Council members will be responsible for renegotiating the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Cornell and the city.
Song called Cornell’s contribution to the city “shameful” and the relationship between the two “parasitic.”
The debate-style event was organized and run by the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County, and was co-sponsored by Your Voice + Your Vote- Tompkins Civil Engagement Coalition (YV2).
June 17 is the deadline to register to vote in the Democratic primaries on June 27 to decide who advances to the November 7 general election. The November election will be the first time in 10 years that all City of Ithaca Common Council seats, as well as the mayor, will be up for election.
More coverage to come from The Ithaca Voice on this forum, including individual deep dives into the latter portion of the night, when residents and candidates were separated into small rooms according to ward.
The full slate of Democratic candidates in contested primaries who participated in Thursday’s forum (excludes uncontested Ward 4 seats):
Ward 1 (for a four-year term): Kayla Matos and Cynthia Brock
Ward 2 (for a two-year term): Aryeal Jackson, West Fox and Kris Haines-Sharp
Ward 3 (for a four-year term): David Shapiro and Nathan Sitaraman
Ward 5 (for a two-year term): Clyde Lederman and D. Jason Houghton
Ward 5 (for a four-year term): Michelle Song and Margaret Fabrizio