Jesse Reed Steberger ’13 dropped a bid for the Tompkins County Legislature on Thursday night, hours after The Sun reported on multiple allegations against Steberger, including a woman’s claim that the candidate raped her in 2010 at Cornell.
“With regards to my campaign, I am making the decision to withdraw,” Steberger said at what was scheduled to be a forum between Steberger and fellow Democrat Rich John ’81, who is now running uncontested for reelection to the District Four seat, which represents Collegetown and the Ithaca Commons.
Earlier on Thursday, Steberger did not dispute a woman’s claim that Steberger sexually assaulted her on Slope Day in 2010. Several people and organizations, including Cornell Graduate Students United, rescinded their endorsements of Steberger on Thursday, five days before the Democratic primary that was to decide the race.
The sudden demise of the Steberger campaign was a stunning turn for a candidate who had been challenging the incumbent, John, from the left and was relying on years of grassroots experience championing equality.
“To everybody here, this is certainly a shock,” John said at the scheduled forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters at Ithaca Town Hall on Thursday night, moments after Steberger dropped out. Steberger, teary-eyed and hugging friends, declined to comment after the announcement.
The candidate’s withdrawal came less than four hours after a report in The Sun in which Allie Riggs ’13 said Steberger forced her to have sex on Slope Day in 2010. Riggs said she filed a complaint with both the Cornell Police Department and the University’s Office of the Judicial Administrator, and the latter complaint resulted in a no-contact order against Steberger. The Sun’s report, based on interviews with 11 people, also included claims from two additional women that Steberger had forced or coerced them into sexual encounters.
Jesse Lenney, Upstate New York political director for the Working Families Party, told The Sun that the group no longer supports Steberger, but that the candidate’s name will still appear on the party’s ballot line on Tuesday.
“We’re glad Reed has withdrawn from the race, as we could not encourage anyone to vote for them now that these allegations have surfaced,” Lenney said, referring to Steberger, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns. “Unfortunately, there is no mechanism in New York to remove the candidate’s name from the ballot. Despite Reed’s name appearing on the Working Families ballot line, the candidate no longer has our endorsement.”
Steberger is well-known within liberal, activist circles in Ithaca, and some women who came forward to The Sun said the candidate’s prominence among progressives kept others from believing their accounts. “There were a lot of people that felt that I was wrong and who didn’t believe me,” Riggs said. “I’ve lost friendships over this.”
After Steberger’s withdrawal, Riggs said she was “heartened by the impact” she and others made “in having our stories heard.”
“This process goes beyond the election in that we need to continually value the voices and the narratives of survivors,” Riggs said. “We need to ensure that we make room for those that feel pressured into silence in the face of powerful figures.”
In an email to supporters shortly before the initial article was published, Steberger warned of the impending report in The Sun and admitted to some of the events described by the women in the article.
“On Slope Day, under the influence of alcohol, we engaged in what began as consensual sex,” Steberger said. “Partly because of the alcohol I had consumed and partly because I did not yet have a fully develop [sic] understanding of consent, I did not recognize when our sex became non-consensual.”
“Consent is something I’ve had to learn,” Steberger told The Sun in an interview on Wednesday, “and my failure to know it earlier in life has had consequences for others.”
K.C. Alvey ’12, told The Sun that she felt pressured by Steberger to have group sex at the couple’s house when she was dating Steberger for nearly three years, beginning in the spring of 2011.
Alvey said Reed threw parties at the apartment and encouraged attendees to drink large amounts of alcohol before proposing that the partiers participate in group sex. The group sex was often not communicated to partygoers ahead of time, Alvey said, adding: “I don’t think people were aware of what they were getting themselves into.”
At least twice in 2012, Alvey previously told The Sun, she cried during the group sex parties and tried “to stop what was happening.”
John, the incumbent, will run uncontested in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. There are no Republicans running to represent District Four.
John Yoon ’20 and Drew Musto ’19 contributed reporting to this article.