With less than three weeks until voters decide which Democratic candidate will represent Collegetown and the Ithaca Commons at the county level, two Cornell graduates are competing for every vote.
Rich John ’81, the incumbent, will face off against Reed Steberger ’13 on Sept. 12 in the Democratic primary to represent District Four on the Tompkins County Legislature.
John, in an interview on Wednesday, said that if he is elected to the four-year position, he will draw on his past experience representing constituents — for decades as a lawyer and as the district’s representative on the Legislature since 2015 — to serve Collegetown and downtown residents.
Steberger, in an interview in May, framed the vote as a face-off between an establishment candidate, John, and a new face challenging John from the left.
But John pushed back on that notion, saying that the two candidates want to accomplish the same things, but simply disagree on how best to do so.
“Even though our goals might be fairly close, our methods are very different,” John said of himself and Steberger.
“To really accomplish anything on the Legislature, you have to be able to say, ‘I’m going to compromise,’” John said. “I’m not just going to state the most leftist position I can, because you’re not going to get anything done, or very little. You have to say what’s really realistic — ‘what can we do?’”
John, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and the temporary Jail Study Committee, said that while there has been much concern regarding a theoretical expansion of the Tompkins County Jail, the Legislature has committed to not increasing the jail capacity and to instead focus on other options.
“We’ve determined we’re not going to add beds” to the jail, John said. “We weren’t even examining that issue. We were looking at alternatives.”
The key to reducing the jail population, John said, is to get to the root causes of incarceration, which he said include drug and alcohol use, mental health issues and a lack of housing.
Programs like the College Initiative Upstate, run by OAR, a county advocacy group, help reduce recidivism and are necessary to keeping the jail population down, John said.
John said he was struck to learn that about 15,000 people commute into the county for work every day, which he said was an environmental problem as well as an indication that there is not enough housing for people who may want to live closer to their jobs.
John said he and other directors of the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency supported the 210 Hancock St. development, which built affordable housing near downtown. Both John and Steberger have said they would like to see more projects like the 210 Hancock development.
The 1981 history major said the issue of affordable housing is complicated and must be handled carefully. Funding a large amount of affordable housing developments, he said, for example, has the potential to backfire if taxes are raised to pay for those project.
“You have a chicken and egg problem,” John said. “If you’re raising taxes, you’re going to raise the rent.”
One project John would like to see through is the former Tompkins Trust Company building on the Commons, which borders the Bernie Milton Pavilion.
The county is signing an agreement to buy the building from the trust company, he said, and the building will house a relocated History Center, a visitor’s center and seven other not-for-profits.
John hopes the building will bring people down to the center of Ithaca and make more efficient use of the building.
“I’d love to stay on the Legislature to see that thing through to opening,” he said. “It’s good for our downtown and good for our county.”
Although many Cornell students do not follow the actions of the Legislature or know who the District Four representative is, John said he has made concerted efforts to reach out to those he represents, including on the question of whether to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21.
He wrote a letter in The Sun asking for students’ opinions, and ultimately voted in favor of the age change, which took effect in July, calling it one of the harder votes he’s made.
John first joined the legislature when he defeated Elie Kirshner ’18 as a write-in candidate in 2015. John said he has the “highest regard for Elie,” adding that Kirshner has been working on John’s re-election campaign.
John said he wants to remain on the Legislature to continue working to keep the jail population low, find ways of increasing affordable housing and representing Commons and Collegetown constituents.
Being on the Legislature “gets under your skin and you feel like, ‘I’m able to help. I make a difference,’” he said.
“I’m really interested in what’s going on,” he added. “You get caught up in it. I appreciate the opportunity to serve and I’d like to keep it.”