When Reed Steberger ’13 woke up in an apartment on the Ithaca Commons on Nov. 9, the 27-year-old wasn’t just worried about the future of the country under President Donald Trump, but furious at the Democratic Party.
“This was their election to lose, and they lost it,” Steberger said over coffee at Collegetown Bagels this weekend. “There were strong voices and clear indications that the strategy they pursued and the candidate they chose wasn’t going to stand up to the fight.”
The Cornell graduate said progressives need to “do things that we didn’t think we had to do” and “step up into new roles if we want to fight back against this agenda.”
Steberger is now running as a Democrat to represent District Four, which covers all of Collegetown and the Ithaca Commons, and is running against incumbent Rich John, also a Democrat, for the Tompkins County Legislature seat.
Steberger, a community activist and facilitator who has never run for public office, said members of the campaign plan to knock on every door in the district by the Democratic primary vote on Sept. 12.
“We’re going to build a people’s platform, and what that means is, if we’re going to win change, people need to care about what they’re fighting for and the Legislature needs to reflect what people actually care about,” the New Jersey-native said.
Steberger has been in Ithaca for four years since graduating from Cornell, where the candidate studied environmental issues in an interdisciplinary curriculum.
Asked about the biggest issues the budding campaign is prepared to take on, Steberger began with immigration, noting the recent arrest of a Mexican immigrant in Ithaca by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
“Our community needs to make it extremely clear that ICE is not welcome here and we’re going to fight for our friends, our neighbors, our family members and classmates,” Steberger said.
Asked if local government should go farther and defy federal law, Steberger said the community needs “to have a conversation about what’s necessary to protect people, and then we need to do what’s necessary to protect people.”
“Maybe the Legislature can say this is a sanctuary city, but as a community we need to be a rebel city.”
On Housing, Steberger said all stakeholders need to be involved in any Legislature actions and the voices of tenants, homeowners and small landlords must be prioritized.
“Any just housing strategy is going to have clear, clear provisions that support tenants’ rights and advocacy, and that provide clear channels for tenants to organize for and advocate for themselves,” said Steberger, who noted that rising rent could make the Cornell graduate’s Commons apartment unaffordable in two years.
Often left out of the conversation, the Democratic candidate said, are candid discussions about how rising prices are impacting local populations.
“What’s missing is an analysis of equity and social justice,” Steberger said. “How is this impacting low-income residents of color? People under the age of 35? Working people? How is this impacting immigrants? We need to name the people that the system is not helping right now.”
The Legislature has “done a lot of talking for years,” Steberger said. “It’s not a new conversation.”
Those conversations should prioritize low-income families who will be able to work and live in the City of Ithaca, said Steberger, adding that the 210 Hancock St. development caused a lot of commotion from residents who worried about construction noise, shadows and traffic, but will give dozens a place to live.
“We can raise concerns about how a new building where an old coffee shop used to be changes the pattern of our daily life — that’s real,” the candidate acknowledged.
“But if those changes mean that families who are working to support themselves and their children can live here, if that means that there are living-wage jobs so more people can afford to live in town, if that means that there are restaurants that my friends can work at … those changes are things that we should embrace.”
Steberger also noted the proposed jail expansion and jail study, which the candidate’s opponent, John, leads as chair of the Jail Study Committee.
“What’s troubled me,” the 27-year-old said, “is when you review the videos of these … meetings, you don’t see the words ‘mass incarceration,’ you don’t see the words, ‘new Jim Crow.’ I don’t think we can have an honest conversation if we’re not using those words.”
Steberger, who is “unequivocally not for the jail expansion,” was one of many stakeholders who co-coordinated a community read of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which more than 800 people engaged with over many months.
“Ithaca likes to think that reality is elsewhere, that we can do things in a more progressive way, that we can have a more progressive and humane jail,” Steberger said. “Right now we need to earn that reputation and we don’t earn that reputation.”
Tompkins County may not be able to stop the jail expansion, Steberger admitted, because of the budget and interactions with the State, but added that more alternatives must be proposed to “chip away and end the new Jim Crow in our community.”
Declining to express an opinion on the Ithaca Plan — which includes creating injection sites, where residents could inject heroin under the supervision of medical professionals — Steberger said the community should “deal with public health issues as public health issues … rather than [using] criminal justice tools.”
Climate is also a major issue for the young Democrat’s campaign, and Steberger said developers should value the input from residents and, if necessary, readjust their projects to be more sustainable.
Steberger, who has lived in Ithaca since coming to the city in 2009 for college, said representing the Fourth District is vital because it “is the heart of the city.”
“The mix of young people, of people who work for a living, who live on the Commons, the mix of fall creek residents — it’s really so much of our city contained in this district,” Steberger said.
“I think young people, especially students, want to have a good relationship with this community and I don’t think that the political apparatus cares to engage them, because if students turned out to vote, things would look much different.”