Leslyn McBean-Clairborne talks during a February 2017 Sage Chapel speaker series. McBean-Clairborne will serve as the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Leslyn McBean-Clairborne talks during a February 2017 Sage Chapel speaker series. McBean-Clairborne will serve as the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature.

February 26, 2020

Tompkins County Legislature Makes History, Elects First Black Chairwoman

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With a 9-5 vote, the Tompkins County Legislature elected Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D-2nd District) as Chair of the Legislature, making history on February 18.

In an election presided over by Interim Chair Shawna Black (D-11th District), McBean-Clairborne — the first black chair of the Legislature — bested Mike Lane (D-14th District) after he couldn’t win the eight votes necessary to be re-elected chair.

When speaking about her victory, McBean-Clairborne said while it was “heartbreaking” that we are still celebrating first people of color, the development was still “encouraging.”

“We fight as people of color so hard to stay relevant,” McBean-Clairborne said. “It feels good to know that I can be an example to many young people of color out there … including my own daughter.”

For the past decade, leadership has flip-flopped between two legislators —  Martha Robertson ’75 and Mike Lane — a cyclical back-and-forth that caused McBean-Clairborne and other county legislators to express an eagerness for change.

But, according to McBean-Clairborne, what caused her to run wasn’t just a desire for fresh leadership, but a personal calling.

“I’m a very spiritual person and I believe that what I do, I’m called to do by some higher power,” she said about her run. “It was the right time and I was the right person in the right place in this moment.”

The first person to nominate McBean-Clairborne was Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District), who dropped out of the chair race to announce her candidacy for the 125th New York State Assembly District. When nominating McBean-Clairborne, she called her the “soul of the Legislature.”

“She’s a moral compass … she doesn’t just think about her own constituents,” Kelles said.  “She’s thinking about how every decision we make is going to affect everyone.”

Legislator Deborah Dawson (D-10th District), said that McBean-Clairborne had made a sacrifice for the Legislature in taking on the position.

“I think Leslie did us all a favor [by running for Chair],” said Dawson.

McBean-Clairborne was elected after legislators Anne Koreman (D-5th District) and Black voted for McBean-Clairborne — both had voted for Lane when he was running against Kelles.

When Koreman seconded McBean-Clairborne’s nomination, she pushed the other lawmakers to “make history tonight.”

She further explained that, “if two people have the exact same qualities that that we should consider, you know, strongly consider that… because with our own internal biases, we often disclude [people of color]. So I think … it was absolutely a part of my decision.”

For McBean-Clairborne, the recently flown Pan-African flag for Black History Month helped reconcile the historic markings of the moment.

“[I] just stood on the podium and it was not lost to me realizing that hanging to my left was the Pan-African flag,” McBean-Clairborne said. “That is when it began to really sink in that something historic happened in Tompkins County.”