In the final scheduled forum of the primary season, the seven Democratic candidates for the 125th Assembly District faced off on Thursday night for the third time this week, with a few sparks flying in the last few minutes of an otherwise amicable debate.
As protests against racism and police brutality continue to embroil the nation, candidates in the forum, hosted by Cornell’s Institute of Political and Global Affairs, were asked by moderators Prof. Sabrina Karim, government, and Prof. David Bateman, government, to reiterate their positions on policing.
Prof. Sujata Gibson, law, was the sole candidate to propose a solution beyond reform — the civil rights attorney called for working towards abolition of “the police state.”
“I think we need to look beyond police reforms because the reforms haven’t worked,” Gibson said, acknowledging that her stance on policing has gradually evolved from supporting reforms to considering abolition.
Cortland County Legislator Beau Harbin (D-2nd District), Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer and Lisa Hoeschele, executive director of Family and Children’s Counseling Services, toed a more moderate line, offering ideas on how to demilitarize police, increase anti-bias and de-escalation training and change the culture of violence.
Harbin, Leifer, Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District) and Gibson all voiced support for legalizing adult-use cannabis and expunging cannabis-related convictions from criminal records.
Leifer, Hoeschele and Jordan Lesser ’03 — former legislative counsel to retiring Assemblymember Barbara Lifton (D-N.Y.) — also emphasized the importance of reforming school curriculum to accurately teach Black history and expanding funding for underserved schools.
The candidates were generally in consensus on other issues raised by the moderators: protecting worker safety, strengthening unions, defending undocumented immigrants, funding disability empowerment programs and responsibly reopening higher education institutions amid the pandemic.
Candidates were also asked how they would protect reproductive rights in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned by a new Supreme Court case ruling. Most candidates referenced New York’s 2019 Reproductive Health Act, which effectively codified Roe protections into state law.
In their closing statements, candidates took some rare veiled shots at one another in the last public moments of what has been a largely cordial primary season.
Kelles, Leifer and Ithaca Common Council Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward), who stressed their experience in building consensus and coalition, were the recipients of a quip from Gibson that coalition-building only maintains “the status quo.”
Gibson took a direct shot at Kelles after she invoked a set of diverse endorsements to support her claim of being the most progressive candidate: “Anna Kelles ran on change, but I’ve been out on the streets making change from the outside.”
And pulling from Thursday’s fresh campaign headlines, Lesser promoted the major endorsement he received from the district’s incumbent.
Lesser has repeatedly raised his experience in Lifton’s office during the campaign and in forums to position himself as the candidate best prepared for the “complex maze of Albany” — in Tuesday’s debate, he brushed off the local government experience of other candidates: “While I respect the local government experience of other candidates, it’s clear that Albany is a much more complicated, difficult place to navigate.”
Other candidates pushed back on Lesser’s heralding of his Albany experience. “We don’t need more of the same,” Hoeschele said. “Some may say it’s a risk to go with an untested individual. I say it’s a risk to stick with what we’ve always had.”
Harbin also took a jab Lesser’s message: “We need somebody with seasoned leadership, not somebody who has simply just been an Albany insider for years,” he said.
The Democratic primary election will take place on June 23. Early voting begins June 13.
This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here.