Angela Li / Sun Staff Writer

The Tompkins County Democratic Party hosted a virtual candidate forum for local candidates running in the State Assembly, State Senate and District Attorney primary. Pictured are the seven candidates for the democratic line in the race for assembly district 125, and Jim Gustafson, county party chair.

April 15, 2020

Tompkins County Dems Face Off in First Zoom Debate

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Local Democratic candidates marched on, albeit virtually, with their campaigns in a candidate forum hosted by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee on Zoom Tuesday evening.

Nearly 300 people tuned in to the Zoom call and a YouTube livestream to watch Democratic primary candidates for State Senate, State Assembly and Tompkins County District Attorney confront issues facing Ithaca and the state head on — including the COVID-19 pandemic.


D.A. Primary Candidates Spar on April 2019 Commons Incident 

For Tompkins County District Attorney, the Democratic primary is a two way race: incumbent Matthew Van Houten is trying to fend off primary challenger Edward Kopko. He previously contested Van Houten in the 2016 general election as an independent.

During the debate, the two fielded questions about criminal justice, addressing local incidents that spurred community outcry in recent years.

Van Houten stood by his record as a progressive prosecutor, pointing to the implementation of a “wide array” of alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health courts, and using New York state’s law to only use cash bail as an “absolute last resort.”

Kopko introduced himself as having many perspectives on law enforcement and criminal justice through his experience as a former police officer, an Assistant District Attorney in Pennsylvania and a clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“My goal is to return that trust and reflect community values, so we don’t have protests in front of the courthouse about prosecutorial decisions,” Kopko said, referring to a controversial April 2019 incident in the Commons, in which Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat were charged with felonies after a physical altercation with police.

Van Houten was criticized in the aftermath of the incident for seeking felony charges in a grand jury indictment after initially reducing the charges to misdemeanors. As The Sun previously reported, the incident brought national conversations of police brutality to Ithaca.

When explicitly asked about the incident during the debate, Van Houten defended himself and the Ithaca Police Department: “everybody makes mistakes, and everyone made mistakes” in that case.

Kopko immediately pushed back, accusing Van Houten of making “intentional prosecutorial decisions.” Kopko represented DeGroat throughout her legal proceedings.

The two sparred on most of the questions, including on the concerns of diversity in the D.A. office and how to handle allegations of partiality.

A One-Way Race in the Democratic Primary for New York State Senate District 58

Leslie Danks Burke, candidate for the 58th District of New York State Senate, called the turnout of viewers “a testament” to the Tompkins County Democratic Party’s commitment to “making sure democracy continues, even in a pandemic.”

Danks Burke is running unopposed in the Democratic primary election and will face off against the Republican incumbent, Thomas O’Mara, for the second time in the general election rematch this November. Danks Burke lost to O’Mara by a 54-45 margin the last time she made a bid for the seat in 2016.

Danks Burke cited her work after the 2016 election, including founding Trailblazers PAC to support local candidates across the country, as giving her the opportunity to “throw [her] hat back into the ring.”


A Crowded Primary ‘Stage’ for New York state’s 125 Assembly District

The majority of the forum went to the crowded field of seven primary candidates running to replace Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-N.Y.) in the State Assembly.

The candidates carved out their respective lanes with personal stories highlighting their ties to the region and unique qualifications, presenting views on issues ranging from a Green New Deal, immunization mandates and the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Prof. Sujata Gibson, law, a civil rights attorney, called for “radical change” through grassroots organizing to “build a system that protects all of us.”

Jordan Lesser ’03, who served as Lifton’s legislative counsel, portrayed himself as the “best person to hit the ground running.” If elected, he plans to use his work in her office on issues such as banning fracking and blocking the creation of a waste incinerator in the Finger Lakes region to create a climate action plan.

Beau Harbin (D-2nd District), a Cortland County legislator, said he has extensive experience in working to increase rural broadband access —— one of his top three priorities. In addition, Harbin stated his intention to balance the state budget and pass the New York Health Act —— which would ensure all New Yorkers were covered under a health care plan.

Lesser emphasized that a Green New Deal must “give money back” to communities that are “disproportionately” impacted by climate change, as well as reform “long-standing ills through climate policy.”

Gibson and Jason Leifer, the Dryden Town Supervisor, stressed that any Green New Deal legislation should also “make sure” to address racial justice.

Lisa Hoeschele, executive director of Family and Children’s Counseling Services, and Harbin focused on the need to support farmers and local manufacturers with new technology and tax incentives.

“This would be an incredible opportunity to rebuild the economy with a vision that we want,” said Anna Kelles (D-2nd District), a Tompkins County legislator, referring to her proposals for “reinvigorating” the economy after the decline caused by COVID-19.

The topic of immunization mandates revealed the most divergent views among the candidates.

Gibson unequivocally opposed such mandates, claiming they violate a person’s bodily autonomy.

“It’s a fundamental human right to have choice over our bodies,” she said, adding that she plans to enforce accountability of pharmaceutical companies. She asserted that it is best to debate immunization on a “vaccine to vaccine basis.”

Hoeschele echoed support for a situational approach, saying that individuals should have the choice to decide which vaccines are beneficial.

Harbin, Leifer and Ithaca Common Council Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward), all showed their support for immunization mandates in New York state public schools. While Kelles expressed support for immunizations, she did not explicitly call for immunization mandates at the debate.

Leifer drew a distinction between this argument and that of the reproductive rights movement: “To compare [this issue] to ‘my body, my choice’ is wrong, because it’s also the child’s interest we’re trying to protect,” he said.

Murtagh added that he would have voted for the State Assembly’s revoking of the religious exemption for vaccines.

“Exemptions should only be granted when there’s a real health threat,” he said, referring to immunocompromised individuals who cannot receive vaccines.

There was broad consensus when the candidates were asked about their stance on the New York Health Act, plans to help public school districts and legalizing marijuana.

All candidates also pledged to support the eventual Democratic nominee in this race and that they would not run as an independent candidate. The primary is scheduled for June 23, the same date as the postponed New York state presidential primary.

Clarification, April 23, 12:29 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify Kelles’ stance on immunizations at the debate.  
This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s new Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here.