Despite federally mandated redistricting that has placed Tompkins County in a more conservative district, the three candidates in the Democratic primary to represent the Ithaca area in Congress — Leslie Danks Burke, Melissa Dobson, and Nate Shinagawa ’05, M.A. ’09 — said they are confident in their ability to defeat incumbent Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and carry the new 23rd congressional district.
According to Irene Stein, chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, even though the county is now in a more conservative district than it was under Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D – NY 22), a Democratic candidate can defeat Reed in the fall.
“Our Democratic message is pretty much the same,” Stein said. “We say the same things wherever we go. We have always been the party that promotes the interests of the middle class and of working men and women. That doesn’t change wherever we run candidates.”
Stein noted, however, that the local party has not yet endorsed a candidate and will not do so until the middle of May.
“At this point I’m neutral, and I wouldn’t want to say anything that would cast a shadow on that neutrality,” Stein said.
All three of the Democratic candidates agreed with Stein’s assessment of the race against Reed. Each also stressed that the new district would not present a problem to Democratic victory.
“I declared my candidacy back in January, before we even knew the district lines,” Danks Burke said. “It’s definitely true that the Democrat who wins in the new 23rd is going to have to pull Republican votes, but I believe I can do that.”
Dobson echoed Danks Burke’s opinion of the district.
“This newly drawn 23rd district is geographically huge, but it’s manageable for someone who has lived here most of their life and understands the demographics and the culture,” Dobson said.
Shinagawa also said he was also confident in the ability of a Democrat to win the new district.
“I chose to run in this race because I wanted to represent the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes region,” Shinagawa said. “I’m very confident about the new district because I know the area. It’s a winnable district.”
While none of the candidates would comment on the others by name, all three said their previous experience and connections with the region made them the most qualified to represent not just the Democratic Party in the election but the district in Congress.
Shinagawa said that he was the only Democratic candidate with a voting record to prove his positions, noting his experience on the County Development Corporation as well as his work fighting hydraulic fracturing.
“For four years I’ve supported fracking bans, moratoriums and home rule legislation,” Shinagawa said. “I’m the only candidate with actual votes to show that.”
Dobson, however, focused on her ties to the area and understanding of the district.
“Compared to other candidates, I’m from the area. I was educated here, I understand the culture and I work with businesses across the Southern Tier to help grow job opportunities,” Dobson said. “Tompkins County was put into a more conservative district, but I’m running my campaign to represent all the people of the district.”
Danks Burke, like Shinagawa, noted that she had legislative experience, though she has not been a legislator before. Danks Burke has also been involved in civil rights cases that have gone before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I am the only candidate in this race who has worked in Washington, D.C., before,” Danks Burke said. “I was a tax legislation analyst. I spent every day working with members of Congress on the tax code. I understand how federal legislation is done.”
As of Monday night, the $113,000 raised for the Shinagawa campaign slightly edged out that of the Danks Burke campaign which raised $102,000. Fundraising numbers for Dobson had not been released as of Monday night.
In terms of endorsements, however, Shinagawa appears to be the clear leader. Shinagawa has received the endorsement of the Steuben and Chautauqua County Democratic Committees, State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, Tompkins County legislature chair Martha Robertson, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, as well as the Mayors of Jamestown, Fredonia, Dunkirk, Elmira and Hornell.
Danks Burke has received the endorsement of the Allegany County Democratic Committee, but noted that the Schuyler, Yates and Seneca County Democratic Committees would not be making endorsements for the election.
Dobson said that although she has not yet received any endorsements, she was more concerned with the opinions of the people in the district, as opposed to its politicians.
While the Democratic Party will be preoccupied with the primary election until June 26, the Tompkins County Republican Committee has already begun the campaign to reelect Reed to Congress.
“We had a meeting with him about a month ago; he was very personable,” said James Drader, chair of the Tompkins County Republican Committee. “The Committee felt very comfortable with him and while we haven’t taken an official vote yet, he will soon have the endorsement of the county committee.”
For Republicans, the most important issue resulting from the redistricting process is that while Tompkins County is now in a more conservative district, it has diluted a strong Republican presence.
“The biggest change in this election is going to be that [Reed’s] district is not as Republican anymore. It now includes all of Tompkins County, which is two-to-one Democratic,” Drader said.
Despite the challenge presented in Tompkins County, Drader remained confident of victory.
“[Reed has] done an exceptional job,” Drader said. “He’s tried to rein in spending. He’s on the Ways and Means Committee, which is a strong position of a freshman congressman. He’s run as a candidate of the people, and he tries to represent all of his constituent base, whether Democratic or Republican.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Leslie Danks Burke has been endorsed by the Allegany County Democratic Committee. In fact, she has only been endorsed by the committee's chair. Additionally, the story incorrectly reported that the surname of the candidate is Burke. In fact, her last name is Danks Burke.