ITHACA, N.Y.—Phoebe Brown was first elected to Ithaca’s Common Council in 2021 as one of the inaugural members of the progressive Solidarity Slate.

She’s now running for a second, two-year term. If she wins, Brown said she anticipates this term will be her last on the Common Council.

“I’ll be 70 soon,” Brown said. “My grandkids are spread out, and I’m at an age where I think I want to spend more time [with them].”

Brown works as a regional coordinator and activist with the criminal justice reform group Alliance of Families for Justice. 

Brown is a longtime Ithaca resident. She arrived in town 27 years ago, seeking a new start. At the time, the Harlem native had been struggling with addiction. A friend suggested a change of scenery might help.

Brown said she found a strong support network in Ithaca.

“I’ve been able now to be clean for over 25 years, going on 26 years,” Brown said.

Brown said that it was the people she met during her recovery who inspired her to run for public office. She ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for mayor in 2015.

“I just want to let women, people who’ve ever been through recovery, people who’ve ever been arrested to see that [you should] never give up your voice,” Brown said. “You still need to be heard.”

Reflecting on her freshman term, Brown said there is a learning curve for new councilmembers, herself included. 

“These first two years have been a blessing to be a part of,” Brown said. “I am really excited and I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m still in the learning process of it.”

Some of Brown’s first-term proposals  — like reparations for Black Ithacans and limitations on Ithaca’s police budget — failed to gain traction.

This election, progressives are angling to shift the balance of power on the Common Council. After several long-time council members announced their retirement ahead of this year’s election cycle, the progressive Solidarity Slate fielded candidates in nearly every Democratic primary.

Brown said she hopes to revisit the issue of reparations in what she hopes will be a more receptive council.  Instead of calling for reparations directly, Brown said she will push for a more incremental approach, like starting with a feasibility study.

One of the largest issues facing council currently is a proposed land use policy surrounding the large homeless encampment known as “the Jungle.” She said she’s not happy with the current proposal, which is considerably changed from the original plan for the site. Brown said whatever plan the city adopts should prioritize safe and stable housing first.

Brown said she also wants to prioritize efforts to increase Cornell University’s financial contribution to city infrastructure and programs. She also listed accessible childcare, support for seniors and assistance with flood insurance as other priorities.

Brown intends to take a “more patient” approach to policymaking, she said, noting that she wants to be able to represent more of her constituents’ interests. 

“I came in wanting to just represent people who don’t usually have a voice,” Brown said. “Now I have a variety of community members that I have to think about.”

District lines have shifted since Brown was first elected. She is vying to represent a new First Ward that groups more affluent residents on the West Hill with the traditionally more working-class neighborhoods of the North and South sides of the city.

Brown was unchallenged in the Democratic primary. She will face Republican and conservative activist Zach Winn in November.

Unsure what ward you live in? Find out here.

This is one in a series of candidate profiles ahead of November’s Common Council elections. 

Phoebe Brown is running to represent Ithaca’s First Ward on the Common Council for the next two years. Brown, a Democrat and member of the Working Families Party, is part of Ithaca’s growing progressive Solidarity Slate. She will face Republican candidate Zachary Winn in November’s general elections.

Megan Zerez is a general assignment reporter at the Ithaca Voice. Reach her via email or social media @meganzerez