For the first time in 30 years, the Tompkins County Democratic Committee (TCDC) has a new leader in place, as Jim Gustafson was elected to replace longtime chair Irene Stein. Stein voluntarily stepped down as of Feb. 1, citing personal and family health issues, leaving the post she held continuously since 1989.
The Ithaca Times sat down with Stein to let her reflect on her time at the helm of the TCDC, what she feels she got wrong and right, and the overall shifts occurring in Democratic politics here and nationwide.
On the most significant political moment in Tompkins County during her time leading the TCDC: The political committee is always changing and dynamic, just like the county’s politics are. [...] Jean McPheeters opened the party up and it became much more inclusive, and that was one very significant moment. That was around 1980, I think. We also went to court to give students the right to vote, should they chose to. That has not resulted in the massive student vote we would have thought. However, it has resulted in very strong Democratic groups at Cornell, and to a lesser extent at Ithaca College. At Cornell, we have [had] a very, very strong Democratic committee for many, many years now that helps in our campaigns and is invaluable. Over the years, we’ve went from very strongly Republican to very strongly Democrat. [Democrats] now have majorities in almost all the towns, as well as the entire city council and the mayor. We did that by a common platform of openness and transparency. Until that time, the town, county and city government was run in a less open manner. For example, many of the towns didn’t even publish their agendas, and I think we turned that around. [...] The negative part is the same as is sweeping the rest of the country—it’s related to the demise of local newspaper coverage. That’s been a real detriment. It’s a real attack on democracy, not by intent but by actuality.
On the state of the TCDC as she departs: I feel like I’m leaving a very strong committee, and I’m very happy that we’ve now elected a successor in whom I have every confidence that he will maintain all our assets and good qualities but will do even greater things in the future. It’s a good feeling to retire and know that you’re leaving a good organization under leadership that will surely help it continue to thrive. [...] We want our committee to look more like the Democrats of Tompkins County than it does currently. It’s been a very glorious type of work. Though some of the duties are inclined to be a little bit hum-drum, it’s what democracy is all about. We’re really on the first line of defense.
On regrets she has from her tenure as chair of the TCDC: I probably could fill a book. I think I was probably slow to recognize the need to respond more aggressively to needing more diversity, though I think once I understood the situation, I responded strongly. I could always have done better in every respect I suppose, but I did my very best and I think the proof is in the pudding. We’ve been very successful, and it’s not just me, it’s “we.”
On Tompkins County’s evolution into a liberal stronghold surrounded by conservative counties, and upstate politics in general: About 20 years ago, our rural counties were totally ignored by our elected officials, by our state committees, so we banded together and formed a conference that consists of the county chairs and state committee people in the 47 smaller counties. We’ve had a lot of successes, like in Tompkins County this past summer, we heard from all four of the candidates on the Democratic slate for Attorney General; 20 years ago, that would never have happened. It’s easy to be ignored when you have lesser votes. [...] I don’t want [Tompkins County] to continue being an island. I want others to join us. [...] I’d like to see us, and by us I mean all Democrats across the state, focus on identifying which independent voters lean or support us, and make sure we do a good job of getting them to the polls as well. It’s that kind of thing that I’m always thinking about.
On being part of the “political establishment” as resentment toward the establishment builds: Here’s what happened: A lot of people joined our committee, we were very welcoming. A few of them dropped off because they discovered the committee was not what they had thought. That is to say they had some general stereotypes in their heads that were not the case. They found out that we were very, very Democratic, and we’re working together very smoothly with people who have come in over the last few years. That’s worked out very well. I do want to point out some accomplishments. Being a woman and holding office in this county is not an issue, and that was not always the case. Now it’s not even an issue since there are so many women. We’ve increased our diversity among office holders considerably, we elected the first female mayor and the first black mayor in this county, so those are achievements of the TCDC of which I’m very proud.