ITHACA, N.Y.—With the Democratic primaries coming to a close this week in Ithaca in a series of elections poised to potentially change the city’s government dramatically, campaign finance reports show emerging tactics in local politics and one race in particular generating very much financial interest.
Overall, more than $20,000 has been donated in Common Council races this year, a very high number seemingly representative of the stakes at hand: Four of the five Common Council wards have contested Democratic primaries, with different factions within the party grappling for control. Conventionally, in heavily Democratic Ithaca, the primaries essentially serve as the de facto general election—though the formation of new independent parties could circumvent some of the significance, since some candidates who fall short in the primary can still find their way to the general election ballot.
The numbers used in this story are sourced from the New York State Board of Elections’ 11-day and 32-day pre-primary reports on contributions and expenses from candidates in the races, meaning fundraising numbers are current as of Friday, June 16.
The Quirks of this year’s Campaign Spending
The heightened visibility and stakes of this year’s race can be seen in the amount of money flowing into and out of the campaigns during the primaries.
For instance, throughout the year 2023, the Solidarity Slate reported $12,666.66 in total contributions to the New York State Board of Elections (NYBOE). Three candidates on the Democratic Primary ballot, West Fox, Kayla Matos and Nathan Sitaraman, are running as part of the Ithaca Solidarity Slate, which has already helped push two members of Common Council (Ward 4’s Jorge DeFendini and Ward 2’s Phoebe Brown, both unopposed in their primaries) to their current positions. The three candidates have, so far, financed their campaigns only using funds allocated to them from the slate’s overall pot of money, determined by slate leadership and candidate need.
Of the $12,000+ raised this year by the slate, $6,871 has been spent, largely on printing costs.
The slate is fundraising under the authorized multi-candidate committee “Common Council Slate.” Multi-Candidate Committees allow two or more candidates to accept donations and pool them instead of them being directed to one specific candidate, as is conventionally done. While this method is in wide use this year, it does cloud the amounts raised by each candidate in the race through individual donations, since those donations are pooled together instead of sent to that candidate directly and thus are categorized, by the Board of Elections, as a donation to the “Common Council Slate” committee.
The slate is not the only example of this phenomenon locally this election season—the strategy is also being employed by all the candidates in the two Democratic primary races in Ward 5, none of whom are part of the Solidarity Slate, as further explained below. One of those committees, the Ithaca Student Alliance representing Michelle Song and Clyde Lederman, has rivaled the financial success of the Slate, pulling in almost $10,000 and has pumping another $6,373.83 into the race.
The sheer amount of spending on races so far this year is seemingly unprecedented in local races in Ithaca in recent history.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock’s fundraising this election cycle is supported by a handful of donors. The incumbent’s challenger, Kayla Matos, who is running on the Solidarity Slate, has seen the most funds contributed to her campaign from the slate’s finance committee than any of her slate counterparts. Funds among slate candidates are divvied out based on the candidate’s need in their particular race, though Matos has also received an extra boost from the Working Families Party in non-monetary ways so far.
The 32-day and 11-day pre-primary disclosures show that Matos has received a total of $2,282.68 through the Solidarity Slate’s joint fundraising committee.
Brock has raised a total of $1,625.83 in 2023 as reflected by her last two campaign finance disclosures. That figure was amassed from just six donations, the largest of which was a $1,000 contribution from Ithaca’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, IBEW Local Union 241. Edward Kopko, a prominent attorney in the City of Ithaca, donated $200 to Brock’s campaign for office.
Brock’s disclosures reflect little in the way of spending, just $96.25.
Fox’s campaign budget, like other candidates running with the Solidarity Slate, is made up entirely of funds donated to the Slate as a whole. In 2023, Fox spent $2,142.12 on their campaigning efforts from donations made to the slate. They received $795.84 in May and $1,346.37 in June from the Solidarity Slate.
Fox told The Ithaca Voice that the Solidarity Slate campaign fund gets divided between candidates based on specific needs and ward size. For example, Fox and fellow Solidarity Slate member and Third Ward candidate Kayla Matos, are running in the largest, most populous wards. Therefore, the two have been allocated the most from the donations, according to Fox.
In the month of June, Fox received $1,346.37 from the Solidarity Slate. That same month, Matos received $1,613.14.
Jackson’s filings are not posted on the NYSBOE website. An election board official verified Jackson’s name was not included in the data sets during a phone call, and said her financial disclosure paperwork filed back in March was partially incomplete. The lack of filings is a campaign finance violation, though Jackson has been in contact with the NYBOE to resolve the matter.
In lieu of the filings, Jackson sent The Ithaca Voice screenshots of her ActBlue account, a non-profit fundraising portal used by Democrats and progressives, as verification she raised a total of $2,215.00 over the course of the campaign cycle, with an additional $300 from checks sent outside of ActBlue. She said about “20 people or so” have donated to her campaign, with one out-of-state donor accounting for $600.
Her donors are mostly local residents, with the exception of her treasurer, Samantha Lushtak, who ran her own campaign in 2021 when she ran for Tompkins County Legislature but now lives elsewhere. Jackson said former Mayor Svante Myrick, who also publicly endorsed her last month, donated personally to her campaign efforts, along with a couple local business owners who support her cause. Former Mayor Myrick has not contributed to another candidate’s campaign in this race, according to NYBOE data.
Due to the aforementioned circumstances, The Ithaca Voice cannot verify this information from campaign finance data gathered by the NYSBOE. The only method of verification used for these amounts were screenshots provided from Jackson via text.
Haines-Sharp has raised a total of $2,983.28 from April to June of this year, according to NY State Board of Elections data. 29 people donated to her campaign, mostly in small-dollar amounts, with the exception of a $400.00 contribution from a single donor, Fred Schoeps, who owns property on the Commons in downtown Ithaca and served on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance before stepping down in April.
NYBOE data shows Haines-Sharp’s campaign was funded overwhelmingly by Ithaca residents. Only about $300.00 of Haines-Sharp’s total donations were contributed by individuals who reside outside of Ithaca, mainly in Massachusetts and Brooklyn.
Mayor Laura Lewis contributed $100 to Haines-Sharp’s campaign in April of this year.
Despite having raised nearly $3,000, NYBOE data shows Haines-Sharp reported spending $1,001.60 of it throughout the year. Over half of her expenditures were allocated to printing fees and postage for mailers.
The Third Ward primary pits Second Wind Village Executive Director David Shapiro against Cornell scientist Nathan Sitaraman, who is running as a member of the Solidarity Slate.
Shapiro has collected money from five donors throughout his campaign for Common Council — separate from his 2017 run for the Tompkins County Legislature, though the donations are listed in the same place — raising $1,046.07 overall for this race. Shapiro’s latest official filing is his 32-day pre-primary report, meaning his 11-day pre-primary report has not yet been submitted despite the deadline on June 16.
When contacted this week, Shapiro said he was preparing his 11-day pre-primary report currently and would be submitting it to the state. He said the disclosure will show an additional $1,407.65 in contributions from five donors from Tompkins County, meaning his total raised as of the 11-day pre-primary deadline will be $2,453.72 during the cycle to that point.
Prominent Tompkins County Democratic figure Ann Sullivan and current Alderperson Donna Fleming — who was recently appointed to Common Council after leaving the governing body in 2021 — have both donated to Shapiro’s campaign. His largest listed donor is Robert Thorne, a Cornell professor who gave $500 to the campaign.
As for Sitaraman, since he is a Solidary Slate candidate, there is some murkiness over what donations were actually directed for his campaign—as mentioned previously, since the donations go to the slate as a whole. But Sitaraman was allocated $1,679.25 total by the slate for expenses throughout the campaign season, at least up until June 16, seemingly showing the lowest allocation among the three slate candidates.
The Fifth Ward is the only race for Common Council that does not have a Solidarity Slate-endorsed candidate running in the primary, but it does have four candidates (Margaret Fabrizio, Jason Houghton, Clyde Lederman and Michelle Song) who have seemingly split into two teams of two—Fabrizio (pursuing the four-year seat) and Houghton (two-year) on one side, Lederman (two-year) and Song (four-year) on the other.
Fabrizio and Houghton are, essentially, running as a tandem. Contributions to their campaigns go to a committee called Friends of Fabrizio and Houghton, though those contributions have almost exclusively come from two sources: Houghton himself and student real estate company Ithaca Living Solutions. Of the $1,592.70 that has been given to the campaign, $1,000 came from a single donation from Ithaca Living Solutions, while Houghton has given $432.86. Fabrizio also donated to round out the money, giving $159.84.
Houghton said the two, who are neighbors, have not actively sought outside donations. Friends of Fabrizio and Houghton has spent $1,156.54, almost entirely on printing and campaign literature.
Lederman and Song, both Cornell undergraduate students, have their own joint campaign as well, called The Ithaca Student Alliance. Lederman and Song have gathered $9,863 dollars since late December, an eye-popping amount for a primary race for Common Council, particularly for two newcomers to the local political scene.
Propelling that impressive number are several donations from either candidate’s family: of the $9,863, over $4,300 came from family members of either Song or Lederman, as categorized by the NYSBOE.
Despite the high money rolling in, campaign finance disclosures show that virtually none of it is local. The Ithaca Student Alliance has raised all of $2 from donations within Tompkins County—accumulated through two separate $1 donations made by Clyde Lederman. The rest have largely come from the Rockland County/Hudson Valley area of New York, where Lederman is from, as well as a few from out of state.
The largest single donation to the alliance is from Dr. Raj Mulpuri, an Arizona-based pulmonologist who gave $2,000 in January 2023—though that same amount was refunded to Mulpuri in March.
Of note, one of the largest donations to the Ithaca Student Alliance came from Batson for Assembly, which contributed $500. That is the political committee for Bill Batson, who unsuccessfully ran for New York State Senate as a Democrat in 2022 in the 97th District, which is where Lederman is from originally.
Of the $9,863 in contributions to the Ithaca Students Alliance, $6,373.83 has been spent as of June 16, according to the BOE. Much of that spending has been on printing expenses, but additionally on several OurBus and Uber trips, as well as about $1,500 paid to a Nyack-based digital communications specialist for materials related to a campaign launch event.
Corrections (06/27/2023): Alderperson Cynthia Brock was reported to have paid off a $500 loan to herself through her campaign. The loan she made to her campaign remains outstanding. Fred Schoeps was originally reported to be on the Board of Directors of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. His term on the board ended in April.