Shaniya Foster, Phoebe Brown and George Defendini ’21 had never met in person as a group before deciding to run for Common Council as the Solidarity Slate. But their joint campaign has taken off, formed as a culmination of efforts from several prominent local progressive groups — including the Ithaca Tenants Union and the Ithaca Democratic Socialists.
With around 15 volunteers supporting the campaign, the candidates are running on a platform of racial justice, housing reform and workers’ rights, among several other goals. Each candidate comes from a different background and hopes to bring a unique perspective to their slate, with a shared goal of making Ithaca’s Common Council more diverse.
“There were many different organizations talking about getting grassroots people on Common Council,” Brown said. “I think this idea flourished from the conversations that were already happening about putting together a slate of people who come with different ideas and from different communities, looking more like the wards that we represent.”
The Common Council has 10 members, two from each of Ithaca’s five wards. Currently, the council has no Black members.
Brown — a cofounder of Mutual Aid Tompkins and a regional coordinator for the Alliance of Families for Justice, which supports families of incarcerated individuals — is the only candidate of the three who has run for public office before. She ran a write-in campaign against Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 in 2015 and won approximately 11 percent of the vote.
“I didn’t have all the involvement of people helping me campaign, petitioning and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t clear about what I needed to do back then,” Brown said. “This time, because I joined the slate, I had a lot more coaching and a lot more help.”
Brown is passionate about providing services that support formerly incarcerated people and incorporate them into society. As an older adult, she also wants to make Ithaca safer for older residents through increasing lighting on public streets and making sure nursing homes are safe and affordable.
Although Defendini and Foster have not previously run for public office, they said their perspectives will bring new voices to the council.
“I want to work toward bridging the divide between college students and Ithaca locals. People who come here feel like, ‘I’m here for four years and then I’m off to California, or back to New York City,’” Defendini said. “Even if that’s the case, I want this to be a temporary home and I want people to treat it that way.”
Defendini said he hopes to get Cornellians more involved in local politics. As a former intern for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and a local organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential run, Defendini has been involved in several campaigns and said he plans on using the experience to shape his role as a candidate.
Defendini said he believes that tenants’ rights is one issue that can unite Cornellians and Ithacans. A large part of the slate’s platform is ensuring housing for Ithacans and preventing gentrification to protect Ithaca’s large tenant population, which includes both students and permanent residents. Defendini said he believes that Ithaca should opt into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, which aims to stabilize rent.
Defendini and Brown, who are running to represent the fourth and second wards respectively, are currently running unopposed. The incumbents for both seats are not seeking reelection. However, Foster faces two opponents in the first ward: the incumbent, Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st ward), and community activist Yasmin Rashid.
Foster is optimistic for her chances in the race, but is committed to continuing her activism regardless of the outcome.
“Whether I win or not, I’m still going to keep doing what I have to do for the community,” Foster said.
As a single mother of three young children, one of Foster’s key issues for the slate is making childcare accessible and free for Ithacans by allocating city funding towards daycare centers.
All three candidates are also passionate about policing reform and have strong opinions about the current Ithaca policing proposal, which the Common Council will vote on Wednesday. They said they believe the proposal does not address the root issues of police reform.
“We have not talked about the core of policing. First we need a clear picture of what policing means,” Brown said. “A lot of us believe policing is to protect us, and the truth of it is that it comes from policing Indigenous people and slaves, so it’s about protecting property, not people. We haven’t talked about that root first.”
Brown called for the Ithaca Police Department to apologize for its past brutality and misconduct and to recognize the systemic issues in policing across the country, which she believes is the first step in reform.
“They have not apologized. They have not acknowledged that there is a bigger, countrywide problem in policing,” Brown said.
Defendini also called for a more thorough policing reform, criticizing the economic implications of the proposal.
“Learning about the things that cause crime is important. I don’t think the solution is dumping money into the police department to reimagine it,” Defendini said. “It’s making transportation here free, making rent less expensive and it’s creating a system in which people are not desperate.”
Despite forming and running their campaign entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, the candidates have been using every opportunity to go door to door or attend protests and meet with constituents.
“We’re still involving ourselves. I don’t think, personally, that the [pandemic] interferes too much,” Foster said. “There’s protests every Sunday. There are still things that are happening that we are able to engage with.”