Seven candidates running to receive the Democratic nomination for the New York State Assembly's 125th  District broadly agreed on most issues, but differed on the importance of experience and how to best reform the police system.

Alec Giufurta/Sun Senior Editor

Seven candidates running to receive the Democratic nomination for the New York State Assembly's 125th District broadly agreed on most issues, but differed on the importance of experience and how to best reform the police system.

June 10, 2020

Candidates Call for Policing Overhauls in NYS Assembly Democratic Primary Debate

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Just two weeks out from Election Day, the Democratic primary for New York’s 125th Assembly District remains wide-open as candidates teased their final appeals to voters at a Tuesday night forum.

In the third and final forum hosted by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, seven candidates were quizzed on their stances, ranging from topics on immunization mandates to supporting rank-choice voting in local elections.

But national protests decrying racial injustices — ignited by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by White vigilantes in Georgia — were in the forefront as candidates were pressed on what actions they would take to address demands for police reform and systemic overhaul.

Cortland County Legislator Beau Harbin (D-2nd District) and Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer voiced support for the repeal of New York State’s civil rights law Section 50-a, which shields disciplinary records of police officers from the public.

Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District) also declared support for the Police STAT Act, which would require disclosure of demographic information for criminal arrests and violations.

But Jordan Lesser ’03 quipped: “A lot of what other candidates have mentioned tonight are already passing.” The repeal of Section 50-a quickly moved through the New York State Assembly and Senate on Tuesday. The STAT Act also passed both the assembly and senate on Monday and is currently awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) signature.

Instead, Lesser proposed broader changes to the nature of policing. Rather than “having lethal force confront everyone at their door,” Lesser suggested that mental health or child service workers should respond to noncriminal calls. Likewise, Prof. Sujata Gibson, law, called for a “radical overhaul of policing.”

Gibson went one step further than many other candidates, acknowledging a nationally growing demand: defunding the police. “I think that there is something to the abolish police movement that we need to look into,” she said.

Standing in the way of broad reforms across the nation are politically powerful police unions, which have often impeded lawmakers’ efforts to push for greater accountability, The New York Times reported. Both Ithaca Common Council Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward) and Lisa Hoeschele, executive director of Family and Children’s Counseling Services, said they support working with unions in order to reform and re-imagine community policing.

Broadly, candidates agreed that a change in the nature of policing is necessary. There was also broad consensus on another hot topic: immunization requirements.

All candidates, sans Gibson, supported current New York mandatory vaccination laws.

Gibson first took an indirect shot at Kelles and Lesser, who both incorrectly stated that mandatory vaccines only applied to public school students.

“I’m actually rather shocked at how little my colleagues know about this law, it does not only apply in public schools, it applies in all day care centers, all private school[s], all public school[s],” Gibson said.

New York State law currently requires all public and private school students, as well as children in day care, to receive certain vaccinations at various times to maintain herd immunity, which significantly hampers the spread of a disease. Gibson articulated that she is “pro-vaccine,” but did not express support for a mandate. Likewise, she declined to support a mandate for a COVID-19 vaccine until she knows “more about the vaccine itself.”

Hoeschele, who supports mandates, wants to “[make] sure we have very strict and strong medical exemptions” for immunization requirements. She also expressed concern about rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine haphazardly, pointing to the early release of a polio vaccine in 1955 that left 200 children paralyzed.

Candidates seldom sparred on other issues raised by moderator James Gustafson, chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.

The candidates, excluding Gibson, supported a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125) that allows local elections in the state to use ranked-choice voting — a system in which voters numerically rank candidates on a ballot, potentially allowing a candidate with broader support to win.

Gibson said she was “going back and forth between rank choice and approval voting.”

Candidates also agreed on affordable housing initiatives, the need for LGBT education in school systems and support for the Green New Deal. Leifer advocated for a mandate to require every new plastic item in the state to contain a percentage of recycled plastic to incentivize the recycling industry.

In closing statements, candidates drew on their experience, each unique, to prove their fitness to represent the 125th district. For Murtagh, it was eight years on the Ithaca Common Council, for Kelles, it was a background in science and activism and for Gibson, a career in matrimonial and family law and civil right law.

Lesser drew on his office experience as Lifton’s legislative counsel, throughout remarking: “While I respect the local government experience of other candidates, it’s clear that Albany is a much more complicated, difficult place to navigate.”

The next showing of candidates will occur on Thursday in a forum hosted by the Cornell Institute for Politics and Global Affairs, moderated by Prof. Sabrina Karim, government, and Prof. David Bateman, government.

This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here.