Jim Wilson / The New York Times

After receiving an unprecedented volume of ballots, the Board of Elections named the official victors.

July 6, 2020

Primary Results: Van Houten Comes From Behind to Win D.A. Race, Kelles Clinches Assembly Seat

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Incumbent Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten (D) won the Democratic D.A. primary in a comeback victory over Edward Kopko, who led election night returns with 57.5 percent of the vote. Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District) maintained her election night lead, cruising to victory in the primary race for New York State assembly.

In Tompkins County, absentee ballots represented 66 percent of the votes cast in the June 23 Democratic primary after the county’s Board of Elections received an unprecedented volume of 9,108 ballots. The Tompkins County BOE announced official results Monday afternoon.

Once all the votes were tallied, Van Houten defeated Kopko with a lead of 345 votes ––  5,863 to 5,518.

Kelles preserved her lead in the primary race for Assembly District 125, finishing the election with 5,500 votes. Her closest competitor, Ithaca Common Council Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward), followed her with 3,337 votes.

Throughout the campaign, Van Houten came under fire over his handling of a 2019 police incident involving Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson, which many said was biased toward the Ithaca Police. Kopko, who was one of DeGroat’s defense attorneys, repeatedly criticized Van Houten for being too lenient toward police officers.

Drawing the ire of progressives and criminal reform advocates over the incident, Van Houten’s victory wasn’t surefire. Ultimately, neither Rose DeGroat nor Cadji Ferguson — who had been arrested and tackled by Ithaca police officers after an altercation in the Commons — were found guilty.

This is the second time Kopko has run against Van Houten. During Kopko’s last campaign in 2016, he ran as an independent and sued the Tompkins County Democratic Committee for what he called a “fatally flawed and illegal” nomination process. The Democratic party nominated Van Houten, who ultimately won 21,624 votes to Kopko’s 7,124.

In the Democratic primary for New York State Assembly District 125, results reported by the Tompkins County and Cortland County Board of Elections were as follows:


  • Anna Kelles: 5,500 votes
  • Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09: 3,337 votes
  • Jordan A. Lesser ’03: 2,242 votes
  • Prof. Sujata Gibson, law: 1,755 votes
  • Jason Leifer: 947 votes
  • Beau Harbin: 765 votes
  • Lisa W. Hoeschele: 734 votes


In addition to her position as a Tompkins County legislator, Kelles is also chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee. She was endorsed by the Cornell Progressives, Zephyr Teachout, Cynthia Nixon, Eleanor’s Legacy, as well as local labor groups such as the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 267 and the Working Families Party.

However, it was Jordan Lesser ’03 who earned a key endorsement from outgoing assemblywoman Barbara Lifton for the 125th district. Lesser, a former Lifton staffer, came in third in the race, finishing with 2,242 votes.

Kelles’ campaign was not without controversy. In the days leading up to the primary race, she faced criticism over the motives of certain campaign donors: Developers involved in the City Harbor project donated $4,500 to Kelles’ campaign, prompting some to question if they influenced her stance on the development of the Cayuga Lake waterfront. Kelles then returned the money to quell concerns over the donations.


This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here. The section can be reached at [email protected]