Anna Kelles is one of the most well-known faces around Tompkins County politics, having spent the last five years on the county’s legislature and years previous as a local environmental activist.
While some candidates cite more general agitation at governmental gridlock or an aspiration to push one particular issue, Kelles said one specific episode in county government drew her attention and motivated her initial political involvement: the redevelopment of the Old Library on Cayuga Street in Ithaca. The bidding process was controversial at the time, and Kelles’ preferred project was ultimately not selected by the county despite significant support.
Desiring more transparency, she ran an outsider campaign and pulled off an upset in a 2015 special election. Her current campaign for New York State Assembly District 125, which she announced on Feb. 7, pits her against six other Democratic candidates in the June primary election. In addition to other notable endorsements, Kelles also recently announced that the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union's local chapter had endorsed her.
Kelles, who holds a doctorate in Nutritional Epidemiology, touted her work in county government on food security, the resolution proclaiming Tompkins County as a sanctuary jurisdiction for immigrants in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, raising the age of tobacco sales to 21, and writing and advocating for legislation against a Cayuga Lake trash incinerator, as well as outside the limitations of the legislature. Navigating the county’s decision-making process, albeit simpler legislatively, as she has would serve as a template to working in statewide office, she said.
“Coalition building, however, is key at both levels of government and I have been doing this for years at both the county and the state level,” she said. “Locally I have governed since 2015 in a bipartisan legislature representing a diverse urban and rural constituency and at the state as a co-chair of a network of progressive elected officials working collectively to pass state-level legislation to expand statewide renter protections, increase funding for clean drinking water, and promote election reforms.”
Universal healthcare (in the form of the NY Health Act), early education focused universal childcare, green infrastructure and a more thoughtful approach to housing are the four “central pillars” she would push during her first year in office, if elected. Kelles noted the balance it takes to govern in Tompkins County, where she directly represents the City of Ithaca but the legislature’s interests have to benefit the county’s more rural districts too.
“Every piece of legislation I have authored and championed has passed through a bipartisan legislative body,” she said. “As a county legislator I have had to make decisions that serve both a highly urban and very rural community, a unique challenge that I feel has prepared me well to effectively advocate for the 125th district in Albany.”
As for the path back from the coronavirus outbreak, economically and socially, Kelles echoed what some others have said should be the guiding principle of the rebuild: recreating the same structures that were in place is misguided. Instead, the state should look to create fairer systems that emphasize equity and are more protected from the impacts of a pandemic—at least as much as they can be. She also said there should be an emphasis on mitigating displacement, like a wave of evictions, once the outbreak is over.
Overall, though, she commended Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision-making and the state government’s overall leadership during the outbreak. She advocated for prioritizing green infrastructure in any economic rebuild (namely upgrading the grid and expanding electric charging stations statewide, among others), particularly in that it could stimulate job growth and would help the state meet its Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act goals. She also mentioned green policies that can be kept and supported, like Climate Resilient Farming, with “sufficient oversight to promote expansion of regenerative practices and small scale farming.”
“The foundation of this plan of course is a central focus on workforce development,” Kelles said. “If we are going to switch to renewable energy, green our buildings, and electrify our grid we need the workforce to do it and if we want equity in opportunities as we recover workforce development should happen through sufficient k-12 foundation aid to schools and through funding to our statewide community college system.”