Two Cornell undergraduates are currently seeking to win the democratic primary to run for alderperson of Ithaca’s Fourth Ward, currently consisting of parts of West Campus and Collegetown, as Patrick Mehler ’23 is running to defend his position in a special election against Tiffany Kumar ’24.
The candidate elected will run in the general special election to serve alongside another Cornell undergraduate and fourth ward alderperson, Jorge DeFendini ’22.
Prior to becoming alderperson, Mehler was the president of Cornell Votes, a student organization he co-founded, and he was later appointed the Student Assembly Director of Elections. During his time serving for these organizations, the University has seen a 31 percent increase in voter turnout in the fall and a 33 percent increase in the spring.
“My energy was focused on just getting students involved with their civic processes, getting students involved with whatever civic engagement meant to them,” Mehler said. “For some people that means voting, for other folks that means organizing –– it means democracy.”
Since being sworn into the office in October 2021 to fill a vacancy after prior Alderperson Steve Smith’s resignation, Mehler has partnered with Collegetown’s Small Business Alliance to support local businesses throughout the pandemic. Mehler and Graham Kerslick, former Fourth Ward alderperson, secured more than $2 million for reconstruction of College Avenue.
On April 6, Mehler passed a bill that extends the time period tenants have to renew their rental agreement or agree to have their unit shown to prospective new tenants.
Kumar likewise has been involved in several political campus organizations, including Cornell Progressives, Cornell Democrats and Sunrise Ithaca. Kumar has also worked with the Ithaca Tenants Union seeking to pass Right to Renew and Good Cause Eviction laws in the city of Ithaca and has sought to advocate for a $15 minimum wage for student workers with the People’s Organizing Collective. Kumar has been endorsed by local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America as well as the Working Families Party.
“[Kumar] strikes me as very intelligent and principled and committed to her values, which I think aligns very well with the WFP values,” said Stephanie Heslop, an Ithaca resident and Tompkins County WFP chair.
“I work at Starbucks here in Ithaca and the Collegetown workers walked out on Saturday because of unsafe working conditions and Tiffany was on the picket line with us,” Heslop said,
“[with] her background as an activist and organizer, she has on-the-ground experience, fighting for policy to help working people such as good cause eviction.”
Kumar expressed a desire to promote progressive policies if elected as alderperson.
“I think that that’s definitely going to be an uphill battle when it comes to more housing protections but [in] having Right to Renew and Good Cause Eviction laws, the precedent has been set by other places in New York by other cities,” said Kumar. “It’s something that the city council should be responsible for –– it’s something the local government has a responsibility to do.”
Kumar said she will run on the Working Family Party ticket in the general special election regardless of the outcome of the primary.
Mehler has been endorsed by several key city officials, including the current and the former mayor and every former fourth ward alderperson since 2014.
First Ward Alderperson George McGonigal, a member of the Common Council, is another of Mehler’s endorsers, and said that Mehler is a good advocate for his ward.
“He listens to other points of view and he tries to take in how problems have arisen,” McGonigal said. “He tries to learn about the issues before he makes a decision, and I think that’s a real strong point.”
Graham Kerslick, current executive director of the Cornell Atkinson Sustainability Center and former fourth ward alderperson from 2012 to 2021, has also endorsed Mehler.
“I’ve worked for a short time with Patrick, but even in that period I recognized some of his most important qualities,” Kerslick said. “Like his enthusiasm to tackle challenging problems and his willingness to work with colleagues on Council on a whole range of issues, not ones that just affect students.”
Other organizations have expressed frustration with Mehler’s policies. The Ithaca Tenants Union has pursued the Right to Renew and Good Cause Eviction Bills, policies that would require the prioritization of current tenants when seeking to renew their leases and regulate the grounds on which landlords can pursue evictions.
Genevieve Rand, an organizer at the ITU, said that Mehler’s housing bill contained only a part of Good Cause Eviction, and fell short of the organization’s goals by removing enforcement mechanisms originally proposed.
Rand expressed support for Kumar’s campaign.
“[Kumar has] shown up to tenants rights and housing justice rallies for some time now, since long before the race for ward four was even a conversation,” said Rand. “It does really mean something when tenants are trying to demonstrate power, collectively and in public she would show up.”
DeFendini has also publicly endorsed Kumar saying that the fourth ward is a younger and more progressive ward that is ripe for change, which Kumar hopes to champion. Defendini noted the difference in political alignment between himself and Mehler, and said that while Mehler takes a pragmatic stance on issues, DeFendini is a self-described “outright progressive.”
“Tiffany is an organizer at heart and by trade, and I feel that you need someone with that organizing experience for this ward,” said DeFendini. “Building the solidarity slate, a lot of local groups came together, and it is a testament to how the people of Ithaca want this change to be reflected in the council, and Tiffany’s campaign does that.”
Mehler and Kumar now face off on the campaign trail in preparation for the democratic primary, with both collecting endorsements and support from their prospective constituents, as Kumar seeks to make up ground against her incumbent rival.
“I think that we have a lot of strengths when it comes to grassroots organizing that shows in how well we were able to collect signatures when we were petitioning to get on the ballot,” Kumar said, “Because we know how to mobilize, [and] we know how to knock on doors.”
The primary election will take place on June 28 and any Ithaca-registered Democrat within the Fourth Ward will be eligible to vote. The general election will occur on Nov. 8.
Angela Bunay ’24 contributed reporting.