Benjamin Parker/Sun Assistant Photography Editor; Cameron Pollack/Sun File Photo

Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Tracy Mitrano J.D. ’95 are moving their bids for New York's 23rd Congressional seat online in light of calls for social distancing.

March 25, 2020

Running House Campaigns From Home: NY-23 Candidates Adapt to COVID-19

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As COVID-19 has people retreating indoors and vacating public spaces, political operations have been forced to rethink their blueprints. The Sun checked in with the two candidates for New York’s 23rd Congressional district — Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Tracy Mitrano J.D. ’95 — to see how they are continuing their strides both on Capitol Hill and the virtual campaign trail.

The Incumbent: Rep. Tom Reed

Amid an international pandemic, the news of two United States House Representatives contracting COVID-19 brought the crisis a little closer to ‘home’ — Capitol Hill — for Reed.

Now back in the 23rd district, Reed explained how legislating during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic has struck, in a time otherwise marked by polarization, a radically different tone — a bipartisan one.

Reed, a rank-and-file House Republican, is the co-chair of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan working group of around 50 representatives looking for agreement on key policy issues.

On March 19, the caucus released a package of policy recommendations to the Senate focused on providing economic relief and fulfilling pressing healthcare system needs, like ventilators and expanding the number of hospital beds.

In the caucus, Reed was “able to get 75 percent consensus working over the last five days,” he told The Sun in a Friday interview.

For the relief package — which, as of Tuesday night, was on the “second-yard line” of an agreement, Politico reported –– Reed implored the Senate to “go bold” and “take off the blinders.”

“Now is not the time to engage in partisan politics,” Reed said.

But Reed’s plea for cooperation seemed to fall on deaf ears on Monday: Senate Democrats blocked a nearly $2 trillion economic relief bill for the second time, arguing it supported corporations over the common worker. Reed’s Problem Solver Caucus reiterated their message after the vote in a press release, telling Senators to “put America ahead of ideological purity.”

In the 23rd district, Reed said a top priority is ensuring the local public healthcare system is ready to handle a potential “hot zone” outbreak. While the Western New York district has not been hit as hard as downstate regions, a number of its counties, including Tompkins, have reported an uptick in confirmed cases.

Reed also communicated his desire to potentially utilize Cornell “as a resource here in the district so that if that public health concern arises here … we’re in a position to absorb it.”

Cornell labs have stepped up to the plate in the past week, donating supplies to the Tompkins County Health Department.

Shortly after his call with The Sun, Reed said that he was scheduled to talk with President Martha E. Pollack. He also has been in contact with public health officials “24/7,” to ensure that resources are available.

When asked to provide a prognosis of COVID-19, Reed shared that he had a call with Anthony Fauci M.D. ’66, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on March 19. Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has become a nationally recognized figure, resonating candor and scientific expertise from the White House amid the crisis.

“The honest answer is it’s unknown,” Reed said.

As campaigns begin to ramp up for the 2020 election cycle, Reed will face a rematch of 2018’s midterm election against Cornell alumna Tracy Mitrano. That year, Reed bested Mitrano by a nearly 10-point margin.

When asked how his campaign is adapting to the pandemic, Reed said that “to be honest, it is not my priority right now” and would leave it to his campaign staff “to make sure that campaign continues to move forward.”

On his campaign website, opportunities to volunteer include phone banking and virtual petition-signing; the one posted petition asks “Are you Against Cuomo’s Tax Hikes?”

Despite calling for broad congressional action, Reed conceded that indefinitely stopping the virus is likely impossible.

“We all will get exposed to [COVID-19] at some point in time in our lifetime, it’s not like the virus will just end this year,” he said. “We just [have to] be smart and right now get through this acute crisis phase.”

A Tracy Mitrano yard sign on March 18, 2020.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

A Tracy Mitrano yard sign on March 18, 2020.

Reed’s Two-Time Challenger and Cornell Law Alumna: Tracy Mitrano

In Penn Yan, New York, Teddy, a golden retriever, greets visitors at the door to the Mitrano campaign’s field office — that is, her grapevine-surrounded home.

While the Democratic candidate for Congress continues her daily routines of walking the dog, reading The New York Times and watching PBS NewsHour, campaign operations have been  anything but routine.

Heeding the state mandate to remain inside and practice social distancing, the Mitrano team decided to move its second bid for the House almost entirely to the web.

Mitrano — a cybersecurity expert and former Cornell IT director — said she experienced few glitches in transitioning her campaign’s operations online. Having already obtained the necessary petition signatures to file for the New York State Democratic primary, Mitrano is confident that “with no contested primary, we are full steam ahead to win the general election against Tom Reed in November.”

There is a small chance that Mitrano could still see some competition for the Democratic ticket. Scott Noren, a dental surgeon and activist, entered the race in late February.

It is unknown if Noren was able to collect the minimum number of signatures required for a spot on the ballot by the March 17 deadline. On his Facebook page, Noren posted that, in the event he falls short, he would continue his campaign as a write-in, and increase his public appearances to try to beat the odds.

In the coming weeks, town halls will be livestreamed and expanded to cover more pressing themes. For example, while the topic of infrastructure was on deck in Mitrano’s town hall series, these discussions will now be open to “anything, especially the pandemic experience,” the candidate said.

“My priority right now is to help and assist in any way that I can address productively the pandemic in our district,” she added.

On a call with press outlets last week, Mitrano also noted that the public health crisis will have clear repercussions on issues she championed in her previous run.

“Before this crisis, the main concerns of the district were healthcare, higher education debt and internet access. The pandemic has placed all these issues in bold relief,” Mitrano said.

Mitrano sees her role during this crisis as someone who is a resource for those who are struggling, writing in a March 17 Facebook post, “While our campaign resources are limited, we would like to do anything we can to help our friends and neighbors during this time.”

If she were in Reed’s shoes in Congress, Mitrano said she would have reacted to the crisis a little differently.

“I would have taken a leadership role,” Mitrano said. She further explained her priorities would have been in “making sure that our country was prepared,” specifically with testing kits and travel regulations.

Mitrano also said she would “warn the public, prepare them for social distancing, … [and] begin advocating for the production of ventilators, and the immediate training of respiratory therapists,” in addition to advocating for market oversight.

But in the meantime, until she is elected to the House, Mitrano and her partner Vickie have been checking in on family and “getting a lot of house cleaning done.”

“Now is not the time for politics,” she said. “Health and safety first.”

Amanda Cronin ’21 and Alec Giufurta ’21 are the editors for The Cornell Daily Sun’s new Election 2020 section, highlighting local candidates, races and Cornellian activities in campaigns and politics.