In November of last year, Dr. Anna Kelles was elected to the NY State Assembly after overwhelming support in Tompkins County. She then resigned from her position as a Tompkins County District 2 legislator at the end of December. The Legislature recently scheduled a special election on March 23 to fill her vacancy.
Despite several of Kelles’ colleagues having run for higher positions before, Kelles is the first active legislator to win.
“We are certainly proud of her for that,” said Chairwoman Leslyn McBean-Clairborne.
However, a precedent for how to go about filling a vacant seat in the Legislature was set long ago.
“It’s not really a choice we made,” Legislator Amanda Champion said. “Numerous years ago, the Legislature changed the County Charter so that we would hold a special election when a situation like this came up. Our charter says we will hold a special election within 85 days of the resignation. Anna resigned on December 31, so we have 85 days to hold a special election for that spot.” Chairwoman McBean-Clairborne states of the special election in March that “the constituents Anna represented are very active like most of our constituents are in local politics, and so I know people will come out and vote in high numbers.”
The newly elected legislator to replace Kelles will be responsible for picking up where she left off, joining the 13 other Tompkins County legislators and finishing Kelles’ 2018-21 term. So rather than beginning a four-year term on the date of their election in March, the new legislator will be up for re-election in November.
Champion explains that “the timing is awkward for whoever it is that has to run in the special election in the next two-two-and-a-half months; that in itself is a really big challenge since it's such a short amount of time.”
Of course, the new legislator can choose to only finish the rest of Kelles’ term and resign thereafter.
“Petitioning starts at the end of February,” Champion explains, “so they'll be running for a seat in March but also potentially thinking about running again in November. It's a big challenge on that person's plate. Although some might want to just fill out this term, and others might come in and say 'No, I want to run for four years.'” However, if the new legislator decides to run for their own full term, they will be faced with a challenging double campaign in one year.
The district that Kelles represented — District 2 — includes Fall Creek and Cornell Heights and consists of a generally liberal-leaning community. Kelles herself was an active member of the Environmental Management Council, the Human Rights Commission, and the Public Safety Committee to name a few. She heavily focused on issues that dealt with livable wage standards and environmental protections along with other social justice initiatives. The question of whether the public will be looking for someone with a similar set of values as Kelles to fill the vacancy left behind is perhaps too hard to answer at the present, but Veronica Pillar, local teacher and community activist has already risen to the challenge and declared her candidacy in the special election. Pillar, who will be serving in public office for the first time if elected in March, is a nine-year resident of District 2 and deeply invested in the local community — something that’s needed to learn the role of County Legislator.
“When I came on three years ago,” says Champion, “it was a lot to learn. It’s a big learning curve if you’ve never served in public office before. Whoever the new person might be will have to quickly get up to speed. There’s a huge focus right now on COVID and vaccine response. Later in the summer, our focus turns to the yearly budget which is a really big operation that takes a lot of time and energy. It’s an intense year, definitely.”
However, both Champion and McBean-Clairborne agree that the Legislature is more than prepared for the work ahead.
“For us as a full body, it doesn't change the work,” McBean-Clairborne said. “It certainly helps to have the full confidence of the Legislature available for community assignments and so on and so forth. In the interim while we wait for someone to be elected to fill out the rest of Anna's term, some of us will do double duty just for a couple of months until the new legislator gets on board. For things like that, it'll be a little different. Although legislators are used to picking up the slack or substituting on committees if someone has to be absent. The work really does not change and we will share the load. We certainly welcome whoever the new person might be.”
The special election will be held on March 23, and there are currently two candidates. Leslie Schill, the director of campus planning at Cornell, announced her candidacy at the Jan. 5 County Legislature meeting. On Jan. 8, Dr. Veronica Pillar, a teacher, announced she would also be running for the position.