Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Across Upstate, the districts are split, with rural areas typically voting more conservative and spots like Ithaca being more liberal — leading to contentious races.

November 4, 2020

State Assembly Race Still in Limbo, While Most Ithaca Reps Keep Seats

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Local officials running for County Judge, City Judge and District Attorney appeared to all retain their seats. All the races were called or uncontested except for New York State Assembly, in which Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles (D-2nd District) held a significant lead. 

While the State Senate race for the 58th district hasn’t been officially called yet, one local news outlet called the race in incumbent State Sen. Tom O’Mara’s (R-N.Y.) favor. Currently, with 227 out of 247 precincts reported, O’Mara polls at 59.23 percent, while his Democratic opponent Leslie Danks Burke is at 36.99 percent.

Tompkins County District Attorney

Matthew Van Houten (D) was re-elected as the Tompkins County District Attorney, entering his second term. He ran unopposed. 

Van Houten’s first term began in 2016, winning against Edward Kopko, who ran as an independent that year. This year, Kopko challenged Van Houten in the Democratic primaries instead. Van Houten won the primary election with 57.5 percent of the vote. 

In June, over 40 local attorneys for reelection endorsed Van Houten for reelection. His reelection was certified Nov. 3 at 11:36 p.m.  

Van Houten, who identifies as a “progressive prosecutor,” graduated from Dryden High School in 1995. He then attended West Point and Albany Law School, which he graduated from in 1995. 

Tompkins County Court Judge 

John Rowley ’82 ran unopposed for Tompkins County Court Judge and was reelected for his third 10-year term

Rowley has held multiple positions in the Tompkins County legal system, serving as a Counsel to the Tompkins County Department of Social Services starting in 1991, and then as a judge on the Ithaca City Court starting in 1996. His first term as County Court Judge began in 2001.

Ithaca City Judge

Seth Peacock J.D. ’01 ran in a not-so contested race for Ithaca City Judge against Dan Johnson. Johnson dropped out of the race, but failed to meet the deadline to withdraw from the ballot — Johnson is on the Working Family Party Line. 

Peacock attended Cornell Law School and has served as City Judge since 2019, when Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 appointed him alongside City Judge Richard M. Wallace to fill a vacancy. He also served as interim City Judge in 2014. Myrick endorsed Peacock in June.

“I believe that Seth is the right person for this seat. He’s the right person to lead the court at this moment,” Myrick said in a Facebook video. Peacock is the first Black City Court Judge in Ithaca, as well the first judge of color in the 6th Judicial District, which encompasses 10 counties.

He’s carried that distinction and that burden with uncommon wisdom, strength, and grace,” Myrick wrote in the video caption.

Tompkins County Legislature Chairwoman Leslyn McBean-Clairborne also endorsed Peacock prior to the primary last June.

“What distinguishes Seth Peacock in this race is his grassroots connection with community members,” McBean-Claireborne wrote. “Ithaca needs a judge who knows and understands community.”

State Assembly Race Uncalled

The race for State Assembly was too early to call as of publication. As of early Wednesday morning, the Tompkins County Board of Elections vote totals reported Democrat Anna Kelles leading Republican Matt McIntyre 70.73 percent to 29.15 percent. 

Incumbent State Sen. O’Mara Defeats Danks Burke

Incumbent State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-N.Y.) defeated his Democratic opponent, Leslie Danks Burke, by 22.4 percentage points as of early Wednesday morning. This will be O’Mara’s sixth term in the statehouse.

NBC affiliate WETM called the State Senate Race for O’Mara at just shy of 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. Re-tweeting the news, O’Mara wrote that he is “looking forward to ALL the votes being counted, including the absentee ballots.”

At 12:29 a.m. Danks Burke tweeted that the “election won’t be declared until every vote is counted and every citizen’s voice is heard.” 

At an election night press conference held outside Pasta Vitto on the Commons, Danks Burke made one more call for change in this region’s statehouse representation, saying that “here in the Southern tier and Finger lakes, we can no longer settle for lazy representation. We are ready to stand up and get our fair share.”

Danks Burke seemed at ease with the delay in the certification of the election’s final results.

“After a year of running this campaign, I can wait two more weeks to make sure that every single vote is counted,” Danks Burke said. 

This is O’Mara’s second defeat of Danks Burke, who challenged the seat in 2016 and lost with 45 percent of the vote. The 58th District — geographically one of the largest senate districts in the state — is heavily Republican, with only 33 percent of voters identifying as Democrats.

During the campaign, one of O’Mara’s primary criticisms of Danks Burke was that she represented “the extreme downstate faction of the Democratic Party,” and not the more conservative constituents of the Southern Tier.

O’Mara has deep roots in the Southern Tier. Born in Horseheads, New York, he graduated from Horseheads High School, less than 30 miles from Ithaca. O’Mara attended law school at Syracuse University, and later returned to the Southern Tier as Chemung County District Attorney. 

From 2005 to 2010, he represented New York’s 137th district in the State Assembly.

The State Senator has consistently taken anti-regulation positions, and throughout his campaign has regularly bemoaned the state’s $177 billion budget and high tax rate.

O’Mara supports the reduction of franchise taxes that went into effect in 2017 through the state budget. But this legislation didn’t go far enough, O’Mara said, as it failed to cover “pass-through” entities, corporate structures in which the business owner, not the business entity itself, pays the franchise taxes. 

Manufacturing, according to the State Senator, is the “lifeblood” of the Southern Tier. His focus on reducing taxes for businesses is founded on the notion that more money for employers means more, better-paid employees. 

As he put: “the more money there is in businesses, the more people they hire. The more people they hire, the more they can produce, and the more the economy is generated off of that.”

But after months of a slowed economy, revenue is, of course, in short supply for New York, which passed a $177 billion budget on April 1. As O’Mara sees it, the shortage of revenue is only an exaggerated version of what the state typically experiences.

“This state doesn’t have a spending problem,” O’Mara said of the state’s massive annual budget, which ranks as the nation’s second highest behind California. “We have a revenue problem.”

Although he supports Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) climate goals and state investment in renewable energy, O’Mara also supports fracking and natural gas exploration, believing that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal plants.

While emissions from natural gas are believed by many to be less harmful to the climate than emissions from coal, this is contested. Research shows that fracking can have far-reaching effects on the environment by polluting water and destroying natural habitats.

As former chairman of the State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, O’Mara voted against a ban on importing unregulated fracking waste products to the state, which has led to the shipment of hazardous materials — such as drill cuttings, waste water and contaminated tarps — into New York from Pennsylvania, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

O’Mara’s approach to filling in the pandemic-induced budget deficit revenue includes spending cuts, appeals for federal aid and perhaps certain tax increases. But he opposes increasing taxes on the wealthy, citing concern of “capital flight” — the idea that if New York raises the tax rate for the wealthy, then the wealthy will migrate to other states, depriving the state of their tax dollars. Much academic research disputes the veracity of capital flight.

O’Mara, who is the highest ranking Republican on the State Senate judiciary committee, opposes any defunding of the police. Still, he suggested he would support police reforms, such as racial sensitivity training for police officers, and said that instances of civilian death at the hand of police officers should be dealt with “harshly.”

He also suggested trying to increase the frequency of interaction between police and communities in non-combative capacities, in order to make the public more comfortable with the presence of police.

Amanda H. Cronin ’21 and Alec Giufurta ’21 contributed reporting.  

Correction, Nov. 4, 1:36 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated that 58th State Senate District candidate Leslie Danks Burke supports defunding the police. A campaign spokesperson clarified that Danks Burke has made no mention of supporting a move to defund the police. The article has since been updated.