ITHACA, N.Y.—After a hand count and more than a week of waiting, data from the Tompkins County Board of Elections indicates a near certain victory for surprise write-in candidate Patrick Kuehl.
Kuehl, a Cornell University senior, unseated incumbent Fourth Ward Common Council member Jorge DeFendini, a member of the progressive Solidary Slate who was first elected in 2021. As of noon Thursday, Kuehl had received 49 votes to DeFendini’s 40.
That margin, since it is below 20 votes, would require a manual recount conducted in the near future.
While there are some votes still unaccounted for, it is not enough to change the tide for DeFendini. Tompkins County Board of Elections Commissioner Steve DeWitt said there are just two ballots remaining to tally, both of which have signature issues.
“I appreciate the people of Ithaca for voting for me and I look forward to serving them in the coming years,” Kuehl told The Ithaca Voice Thursday.
Kuehl, who will graduate from Cornell this summer, has stated that his “future in Ithaca is uncertain.”
In an interview with The Ithaca Voice on Wednesday, DeFendini said he would call on Kuehl to step down if elected and face him again in an “open election.”
“The people of Ward Four deserve a representative who runs openly, in public, and who makes clear what policies they are running on before election day,” DeFendini said in a statement Thursday. “Patrick has already failed the people of our ward by hiding his campaign from the greater voting public and lying to the press to keep it a secret. He should do right by the Fourth Ward and our democratic processes and run in an open and honest election.”
Kuehl’s unconventional campaign was not publicly announced ahead of Election Day. He has since become the object of intense criticism.
Cornell sophomore Clyde Lederman also narrowly won his election to represent the Fifth Ward over opponent Jason Houghton, a software engineer for PNC Bank. After a manual recount, Houghton texted Lederman to congratulate him and inform him of the news. Neither Lederman nor Kuehl were present for the recount. While the final vote numbers were not fully clear, it appears Lederman prevailed by more than 20 votes, meaning that race will not trigger an automatic recount.
Houghton, who lost the Democratic primary to Lederman in June, said he was very happy with the number of permanent residents who turned out to support him.
The Tompkins County Board of Elections did not call a winner in either race on election night due to a significant number of affidavit or absentee ballots being cast in both races, prompting Thursday’s hand count. Addresses listed on many of Kuehl’s ballots match those of two Cornell fraternity houses.
Lederman and Kuehl serve together on the Cornell Student Assembly. Multiple sources have described the two as particularly close and named Lederman as a major player in the write-in campaign that won Kuehl a seat on council. Lederman spoke to The Ithaca Voice on Tuesday but would not confirm or deny the claims on record.
Kuehl’s intent to run only became apparent to the general public on or after Election Day. He did not have a website or social media presence for his campaign. He largely did not disclose his intent to run to any local media outlets (including denying he was running in early October to the Cornell Daily Sun), the Tompkins County Board of Elections or the wider public ahead of election day, and didn’t participate in any pre-election candidate forum or debate.
Kuehl first detailed specifics about his platform and positions to The Ithaca Voice about a week after election day, despite multiple earlier requests. He also submitted a draft of an op-ed disputing the coverage of his write-in campaign, and detailing his stance on issues. The Ithaca Voice declined to publish the piece; it was later published on the Ithaca Crime blog, which is operated by former Republican candidate for Common Council Zachary Winn.
Kuehl has forcefully disagreed with his critics’ characterization of his campaign as “secret.” In an emailed statement, Kuehl said that he has “spoken to hundreds of Cornell Students and numerous community members who live in the ward over the course of the last month and a half.”
DeFendini said he intends to continue working as an advocate in Ithaca for the foreseeable future, even if not on council.
DeFendini had the endorsement from both the Democratic party and the Working Families Party. Stephanie Heslop, the Tompkins County chair for the Working Families Party, called on Kuehl to decline the seat.
“The democratic process is not a game,” Heslop wrote in a statement. “It has real life implications for working families in our city. By running a secret write-in campaign with his college friends, unbeknownst to most constituents, Kuehl undermined that process and showed a shocking lack of integrity and character. We hope that Kuehl thinks carefully about what’s best for the Ithaca community, especially as he hasn’t committed to remaining in the city, and declines the seat.”
Kuehl told The Voice he fully intends to take the oath of office come Jan. 1.
DeFendini’s coalition, the Solidarity Slate, largely did not focus their campaigning efforts in the Fourth Ward, instead opting to focus shared campaign resources on contested races in the First Ward, opening the door for Kuehl’s unconventional approach.
The Slate has enjoyed significant support from Ithaca’s progressive voters and small political donors but has also generated criticism among some moderate Democrats.
Several now-outgoing members of Common Council have been outspoken critics of the Slate’s campaign tactics and sometimes fiery rhetoric as overly aggressive. The Slate employs extensive door-knocking, phone banking, and pamphletting efforts.
Kuehl cited criticism of the Slate as a major motivating factor behind his campaign. He told The Voice that several community members critical of the Slate had independently approached him and asked him to run a write-in campaign. Many of the people Kuehl identified to The Voice as supporters denied or downplayed their involvement in his campaign. Others declined to confirm their support of Kuehl on the record.
To date, none of the supporters Kuehl named were willing to be named or speak on the record, with many disputing their involvement altogether. Those who The Ithaca Voice were able to confirm as involved in the campaign have sought to distance their affiliation with Kuehl.
County Board of Elections officials said final, certified results would not be available until at least next week.
Ithaca Voice Senior Reporter Jimmy Jordan contributed to this story.
Update 3:00 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Working Families Party, which endorsed DeFendini.
Correction 4:37 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that DeFendini was not available for comment ahead of publication. Due to an error in how DeFendini’s contact information was stored, The Ithaca Voice used an incorrect number in our attempts to contact him. We regret this mistake. The story has also been updated to reflect a statement from DeFendini provided after initial publication.
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