Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Rich John '81, pictured here in August, is the sole contender for the District Four Legislature seat after his opponent dropped out last week.

September 12, 2017

With Opponent Out, Collegetown’s County Legislator Looks Ahead on Election Day

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What many local observers predicted would be a strong challenge to Collegetown’s current representative on the County Legislature by a progressive activist half his age is now a one-man race.

Reed Steberger ’13, a 27-year-old community activist, exited the race for District Four legislator on Thursday night following a report in The Sun detailing a woman’s claim that Steberger raped her in 2010, when both were students at Cornell. Steberger did not dispute the woman’s claim and withdrew hours after the report was published, leaving Rich John ’81, the incumbent, as the sole contender.

In an interview on Monday, John said he had been preparing for a close vote on Tuesday in the Democratic primary. There are no Republicans running for the District Four seat, which represents more than 7,000 people in most of Collegetown and the Ithaca Commons.

“I think that Reed ran a really good campaign, frankly. There was tremendous organization and I know they were going door to door and there were lots of signs,” John said, referring to Steberger, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns.

“I think that the principles that were underlying Reed’s run, they’re good things to strive for,” John said. “We want affordable housing, we want good wages for people. … It was really good to have the discussion about those issues and we’re going to have to continue to talk about them.”

John noted that District Four, with a large population of Cornell students, has historically low voter turnout figures, and said he is not taking Tuesday’s vote for granted.

Steberger will still appear on the ballot on the Working Families Party line, despite the party’s rescinding of its endorsement.

“Unfortunately, there is no mechanism in New York to remove the candidate’s name from the ballot,” said Jesse Lenney, Upstate New York political director for the Working Families Party. “Despite Reed’s name appearing on the Working Families ballot line, the candidate no longer has our endorsement.”

John was cautious, warning that he “could still lose this election.”

“I don’t want to leave the impression with anyone that this is a done deal,” he said.

John, who has served on the Tompkins County Legislature since 2015 when he defeated Elie Kirshner ’18, said running against Steberger had forced him to think hard about what is most important in the community and how to best solve its problems.

“There’s a ton of stuff to do,” John said, listing his priorities, which largely center on his roles as chair of the Public Safety and Jail Study committees.

“We don’t have a dedicated detox facility in Tompkins County,” John said. “In effect, we’re using our jail as a detox facility, and that’s not what we want.”

Public health and public safety, John said, are inseparable issues that must be looked at together, and reducing recidivism and keeping the Tompkins County Jail population low are two ways he plans to measure his success leading the two committees.

“People coming out of jail just want to be left alone just like anybody else,” he said. “They don’t want to be told what to do. … We have to really establish trust and make it easy for these people to get on new pathways.”

Another project important to John is the former Tompkins Trust Company building near the Bernie Milton pavilion on the Ithaca Commons. The building, which the county is in the process of purchasing, John said, will hold the History Center, a visitor center and several other non-profit agencies.

Steberger, in an interview with The Sun in May, criticized John for not specifically referencing mass incarceration in Jail Study Committee meetings.

John, on Monday, said he and other members of the committee are cognizant of “how all the issues of poverty and race relate to mass incarceration.”

“I don’t see Tompkins County as a community that is emphasizing jail as a solution,” John said, adding that the county incarcerates people at about a third the rate of the national average.

“I want to say that Tompkins County is different,” he said.

The vote for the Democratic nomination is Tuesday and the ultimate vote will take place on Nov. 7.