The morning after Tracy Mitrano J.D. ’95 lost her congressional race, she cried.
But it wasn’t the bruising eight-and-a-half point defeat that made her well up. It was a text from a campaign staffer telling her that a developmentally disabled man had come by the office to ask, “Did that nice lady win yet?” The man reminded Mitrano of her brother, who also lives with a developmental disability, and who relies on Medicaid — a social service her victorious opponent, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), voted to slash.
But the tears dried quickly. On Nov. 14, 2018, just eight short days after losing the midterm election to Reed, Mitrano declared via email, “I’m In.” Once more, she would stand as the Democratic candidate for New York’s 23rd district (which includes Ithaca) in next year’s election.
The Sun’s editorial board recently sat down with Mitrano for an exclusive interview, reflecting on the lessons of 2018 and her outlook for 2020. We came away with the image of a battle-ready candidate who keenly understands her opponent’s soft spots — but who is up against a formidable, well-funded incumbent holding a reddish seat.
Even before eking out a narrow win in the 2018 primary, Mitrano knew her odds were slim that year. The 11-person Democratic primary would leave whoever clinched it cash-strapped and understaffed. Plus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, an unpopular Democrat, was on the ballot, driving turnout from moderate Republicans who might’ve stayed home if not for him.
Neither will be true in 2020. Mitrano so far faces just one primary challenger, and the Democratic movers and shakers of NY-23 are all lining up behind her. She maintains a dedicated core of roughly 50 volunteers, Mark Pruce, Mitrano’s campaign manager, told us. That number will no doubt swell as the runoff nears.
But the Mitrano campaign stares down one nagging fact: NY-23 is a Republican district. The Cook Political Report puts the district at six percentage points more red than the national average. As such, the race is Reed’s to lose by default. Mitrano must outmaneuver, outwit and out-mobilize her opponent to win.
How to do that? The Mitrano campaign’s theory of the case boils down to just two numbers, both of which come from an internal poll shared with The Sun. First, the number of NY-23 likely voters who hold a “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of Reed is 44.8 percent. The same figure for Mitrano is 26.9 percent, exposing Reed’s vulnerability at home. Second, 95 percent of likely voters had heard of Reed, whereas just 80 percent recognized Mitrano’s name — meaning Mitrano has more room to woo new voters than does Reed.
To do so, Mitrano is staking out her ground as a center-left Democrat with deep local ties, much like she did in 2018. Indeed, Mitrano and Pruce both echoed a sentiment expressed most clearly in a campaign kick-off Facebook post: “[Our strategy] was working, we just ran out of time.” In that sense, Mitrano’s second go is very much a rerun of her first.
What Mitrano is doing different is doubling down on moderation. This is in part to neutralize Reed’s “Extreme Ithaca Liberal” tagline — which he trotted out against Mitrano last year, as with his opponents in 2014 and 2016. After receiving blowback, Reed has retired the label as a “good faith extension of an open arm,” perhaps revealing more weakness than good faith.
But even if she isn’t explicitly tarred as an extremist, expect Reed to link Mitrano to the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Unsurprisingly, Mitrano has already begun distancing herself from leftist Democrats, emphasizing to us, “I’m not a democratic socialist. I do believe in free enterprise.” “She’s not running an AOC campaign. That’s not what this district is, and that’s not who Tracy is,” noted Pruce. In our interview, Mitrano readily offered critiques of Sanders, such as on his proposal to make college free: “The people who are advocating [free college] seem to fail to understand the impact that it has on the development of people in what we call K-12. … Mr. Sanders, aren’t you thinking about that?” She favors a gentler approach: zeroing out student loan interest payments and expanding refinancing options for debtors.
Mitrano has largely maintained her past positions on issues like reproductive rights (protect them), rural broadband (expand it) and net neutrality (restore it). But on some topics, most notably on health care, Mitrano has veered away from the left since 2018. Once an open proponent of Medicare for All, she now believes, more generically, “We have to have universal coverage, affordable and available health care.” Pressed on the right policy to achieve that goal, Mitrano admitted, “Me, myself and I sitting here don’t know exactly what that solution is.”
Mitrano’s positioning reflects a political calculus. She is betting that progressives in Tompkins, the only county she won outright, will stomach her moderate leanings on certain issues to see a Democrat win — affording her leeway to secure unaffiliated and moderate-Republican votes in Allegany, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus.
To see this, you need only contrast Mitrano’s crystal-clear pro-choice politics with her deliberate ambiguity on Medicare for All. Pruce even told us as much: “[Progressives] will understand that somebody representing this district needs to match [its] persuasions.”
But no issue will be as potent for Mitrano as Reed’s financial interests. From courting well-heeled donors to founding a medical debt collection firm that hounds his constituents, Reed is vulnerable to being characterized as a self-dealing Washington insider — or, as Mitrano put it, a “mafia boss.” Mitrano is smart to hit him here, with the added benefit of undermining his hollow claims of bipartisanship. Such an anti-corruption message has broad appeal, as much in the reddest towns of western New York as at bright-blue Cornell.
Not that Reed is any friend of Cornell’s. As we argued in 2016, Reed’s REDUCE Act, which would force universities with large endowments to divert returns to financial aid, amounts to a shakedown of higher-ed institutions. It would hurt Cornell’s long-term fiscal health and could even fuel further tuition hikes, contravening the bill’s original stated purpose. For her part, Mitrano seems to concur: “I don’t believe that the motivation for that proposal is sincere. I don’t think Reed likes elite education, period.”
We twice reached out to the Reed campaign for comment. They didn’t reach back.
We endorsed Mitrano last election cycle, and for good reason. She has a commendable 13-year track record serving as Cornell’s IT policy head. She has an inclusive agenda that would help get rural New Yorkers online, safeguard our natural resources and lighten student-debt burdens. And she is the district’s best hope in years of unseating Reed. Welcome back to the campaign trail, Dr. Mitrano. Best of luck.
Clarification: A previous version of this editorial referenced the disappearance of Mitrano’s webpage on the Second Amendment. Following publication, the page has come back online. The Mitrano campaign attributes its omission to a technical error. The editorial has been updated accordingly.
Disclosure: Mitrano served on The Cornell Daily Sun’s senior board of directors until 2013 and currently plays no role.
The above editorial reflects the opinions of The Cornell Daily Sun. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional Sun editors and staffers. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage and op-eds.