ITHACA, N.Y.—One of Cornell University’s biggest critics in this year’s Common Council race—which has featured quite a bit of criticism of Cornell—has been one of its own: Michelle Song, a third-year undergraduate student hailing from San Francisco, running for the four-year seat on Common Council representing the Fifth Ward.
Song is facing Margaret Fabrizio, who has been similarly critical of Cornell’s contributions to Ithaca throughout the campaign, for the Democratic nomination. Early voting starts June 17 and runs until June 25, with primary Election Day taking place on June 27.
A queer child of immigrants, as she often cites, Song said she thinks Ithaca’s problems mirror some of what she has seen in her hometown in California, albeit at a much different scale. Song has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, Eleanor’s Legacy and the Cornell Democrats, and defines herself as between the Solidary Slate and the Democratic establishment candidates.
“I want to create an Ithaca where we all thrive,” Song said. “That includes tenants and homeowners, business owners, anyone in Ithaca. We need to make this an affordable city for people from all walks of life. So I put myself somewhere in the middle, between the two. Although Ithaca has many issues, I believe the issue of my campaign is bringing this disorganization and lack of planning to the forefront.”
The critiques of Cornell that have accompanied this campaign are not random. The 20-year Memorandum of Understanding between the university and the city of Ithaca, which stipulates that Cornell contribute $1.6 million to the city annually to mitigate Ithaca’s tax losses because Cornell’s property is tax-exempt, expires in the next year and is currently being renegotiated.
“The next cohort has a very large endeavor in prioritizing this issue, because otherwise they’re going to be locked into another inequitable agreement,” Song said.
Song plans to use a power-in-numbers strategy if elected to council. She argued the best strategy for leverage with Cornell is to unite students and faculty with non-Cornell permanent residents, all sharing the common goal of getting Ithaca higher contributions each year from the Ivy League school.
Specifically, Song said she thinks Cornell should be directing more money to the Community Housing Development Fund (to which the school does already donate $200K annually, according to a deal that expires in 2027), giving further assistance to TCAT and helping with a potential dredging project to mitigate flood risks closer to Ithaca’s downtown, Fall Creek, Southside and Northside neighborhoods.
Song took a fairly unconventional route with her campaign. Eschewing typical press releases or media appearances, Song said she wanted to form a connection with voters that couldn’t be made via the internet. So, while her schedule has been loaded with interviews during the past two weeks as the primary campaign winds down, she felt the approach had enabled her to make a better connection with voters, examining their concerns about burgeoning issues like flood insurance.
Despite her sharp rhetoric towards Cornell, Song emphasizes that her campaign ethos is “building bridges not walls.” Perhaps the most important bridge she has to build, then cross, is that between Cornell and Ithaca. While being a Cornell student may grant her easier access to other students and stakeholders on-campus, it can sometimes be a disadvantage for someone running for office. Being a college student comes with its own share of stereotypes generally, but Ithaca voters can also be wary of trusting too much involvement of Cornell in city government.
That being said, two current members of Common Council (Jorge DeFendini and Tiffany Kumar) were Cornell students when they were elected, and Song sees opportunity in the fraught dynamic between students and residents. (Correction: DeFendini was initially listed as a current student, but has now graduated since being elected)
“Ithaca, historically, has an issue where there’s a disconnect between Cornell students and the broader community, with this understanding that Cornell students don’t really care about the community,” Song said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth, Cornell students love Ithaca. There’s a perception that Cornell students are apathetic about the community, and I think we need to change that relationship.”