Correction: In 2017, Anthony Hayton ran for the First Ward against Cynthia Brock, not for George McGonigal's other First Ward seat. Second correction: Newfield has an uncontested Town Council race, not Enfield.
A lot changed about the future and president of the United States in November 2016. With the election of President Donald Trump, Republicans solidified a judicial advantage that will likely last for decades through Supreme Court appointments. Though the common narrative is that 2020 is “the most important election of our lifetimes,” but there’s at least an argument that the 2016 election was the actual event that carried that importance.
In some ways, not much has changed since then. In 2019, Trump is still the main topic of conversation for a large portion of the population, particularly those who can’t stand him. He generates virtually the same headlines he did in 2016, though with the added weight of the presidency. That, of course, creates backlash. One of the more impactful rallying cries from left-wingers in the wake of the 2016 election was that Democrats had forgotten their ground game, and that building a local infrastructure was going to be a main priority going forward. Winning local elections was supposed to come with that, and the heightened interest and excitement was quite evident in Tompkins County.
The City of Ithaca held elections in November 2017, one year after Trump’s electoral victory, and fielded a full roster of candidates and challengers. Anthony Hayton built a platform on promoting the residents of West Village, trying to represent the First Ward, while Jim Lukasavage brought his notorious brand of anarchy. Both ran against incumbent Cynthia Brock to take the ward’s seat. Both of those incumbents all retained their seats. A three-way race for one of the Fifth Ward seats, which had been vacated by Josephine Martell, brought Aryeal Jackson, Melissa Hall and Laura Lewis into the picture, a race eventually won by Lewis.
Meanwhile, Tompkins County saw arguably even more interest. A wave of female newcomer candidates were victorious, building upon a year of momentum that had started with the successful Women’s March in Ithaca that coincided with similar events around the country. Anne Koreman, Amanda Champion, Deborah Dawson and Shawna Black were all elected to the legislature for the first time, along with fellow rookie Henry Granison. Overall, of the 12 total races in 2017 for the Tompkins County Legislature, six were contested. Perhaps to match the interest in running or due to the general political climate, voter turnout was also quite high compared to the three elections before it.
Fast forward to this year. In the City of Ithaca, although all the eligible incumbent Common Council members have declared their candidacies for re-election, if the vote was being held today they would all be unchallenged (Laura Lewis, George McGonigal, Rob Gearhart, Steve Smith and Ducson Nguyen are all running). Mayor Svante Myrick does have a nominal challenger in Adam Levine, running on the WE Party ticket (which he founded), though if anything, Levine is challenging Myrick from a farther-left position as opposed to from a conservative stance. City Judge Scott Miller is also running uncontested for the newly-created third Tompkins County Judge spot.
“The fact that we’re not having a primary kind of dilutes things,” City Chair for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee Ed Swayze said. “There is a Trump effect, we’re not seeing it in challenges in the city since we pretty much know that in the city, Democrats run on the same side as far as Trump is concerned. [...] A lot of the energy right now is in shaking up the core of the county democratic committee.”
In total in the county, just 13 of 52 races are being contested. The excitement hasn’t completely fallen since 2017, Swayze said, but it’s taken on a different form, one of involvement in local political groups instead of the more front-facing running for office. TCDC spokesperson Kathy Zahler admitted she wasn’t sure how to diagnose the lack of candidates in the city, although she did note that in other municipalities in the county the Democrats have actually had more success than normal in finding candidates to run.
“In the towns, I’m definitely seeing a lot of people come out of the woodwork to run for office, that’s really gratifying,” Zahler said. “It’s possible that people are just happy with what’s going on in the City of Ithaca [...] In terms of Common Council, we honestly did not have folks coming out, and I think that’s interesting but I don’t know exactly why it is.”
Zahler said the lack of candidates could also be simply a regression to the mean. Before 2017, it wasn’t that uncommon for a Common Council member to run unchallenged, especially with the City of Ithaca being so heavily tilted towards Democrats (currently, the city’s Common Council is unanimously Democratic). The push toward involvement in Ithaca was absolutely fueled by Trump’s election, and now with just over a year until the next presidential election, it’s possible people have turned their eyes to that. While normalcy may have returned, at least for this year, to the city, Zahler said the past few years may have created a stronger base in the more rural parts of Tompkins County.
“To be honest, in all the years that I’ve been doing this we haven’t had a lot of competition in the city,” Zahler said. “It was unusual in 2017. Then usually, in the towns, you don’t really get a lot of people out unless it’s about a specific issue. But now, I think we’ve got this base of people that are interested.”
It’s true that the relative quiet of Ithaca’s elections does not necessarily hold true in other Tompkins County municipalities, though the overall picture is uneven. Only two of the seven supervisor races are contested, which are in Lansing and Caroline. Groton has uncontested town council races including only Republicans; Newfield has uncontested town council races including only Democrats. Overall, there are 52 total positions available throughout Tompkins County that will be voted on in November, but only 64 total candidates entered into those races combined, according to the Tompkins County Board of Election sample ballots.
“[The city’s] not contested because people are not invested in preventative politics instead of reactionary politics,” former candidate Jackson said. After her loss, she was selected to serve as chair of the Public Safety and Information Commission, a position she still holds. “And in such a ‘liberal, progressive’ city, there just needs to be more appetite. [...] My big frustration as a journalist, originally, was that people don’t show up to the planning meetings, but they show up to complain about the construction.”
Jackson points out a common point of contention for city officials with the public, and it’s likely not something unique to Ithacans or Tompkins County residents. Part of that is the softening shock of Trump’s rule, part is natural ebb and flow of interest, and part, Jackson and Lewis said, is the amount of work that is necessary to be involved. That’s part of why Lewis, the only victorious member of that 2017 wave of city candidates, said she wouldn’t necessarily ascribe the lack of challengers to a lack of interest.
“I have to caution myself to not too quickly draw conclusions,” Lewis said, noting that it was always going to be easier for her to jump in because she had retired prior to her candidacy. “What I know is this city is filled with talented, smart, creative people who donate their time to numerous non-profits, board, committees that are connected to city government. [...] While I think it would be helpful to have more people engaged in running for public office, there are certainly many people in our community who are involved.”
The Republican approach to the county is led by Mike Sigler, the chair of the Tompkins County Republican Committee and one of Lansing’s representatives in the county legislature himself. Throughout his involvement with local Republicans, Sigler said he hasn’t seen anything compel people on the right into the voting booth quite like Trump’s impact on liberals. To an outsider, it can be hard to convince them that the effort is worth it in parts of the county, particularly in the City of Ithaca.
“It’s difficult to find people to run, the numbers are just so stacked against you,” Sigler said. “In Lansing, I’m outnumbered by Democrats, but I can find ways to win. I have to appeal to Democrats. [...] The city districts are so over-weighted, how do you talk someone into running?”
Regardless of how 2019 goes, and regardless of the philosophical differences of both parties locally, they do seem to agree on one simple point: competition breeds better politics. Going forward, though, it’s fair to wonder after this year if the parties will be able to generate enough contenders to foster that competition. Satisfaction with representation is fine, but if that morphs into complacency, that’s problematic.
“The good thing about being in a contested race, or a close district, is you really got to work for it,” Sigler said. “I have to work for my elections, and not just the six months before my election. I’m working all the time.”
“I’m not particularly concerned, we’ve had many years where those seats went unchallenged,” Zahler said. “My preference is always for more challengers [...] Obviously, that’s not everybody’s. People look at it different ways, but my feeling is the more competition, the better it is for democracy. The more people who can get out there and run, the more participatory our democracy is.”