Courtesy of the Cantelmo Campaign

Robert Cantelmo, a Ph.D. candidate, researcher and alderperson, runs for mayor.

January 30, 2023

Ph.D. Candidate Turned Alderperson: Robert Cantelmo Sets Sights on Mayoral Bid

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Following an announcement that Mayor Laura Lewis would not be running for reelection, Alderperson Robert Cantelmo grad announced his bid for the position on Jan. 8. 

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work closely with colleagues to build coalitions around legislation already,” Cantelmo said in an interview with The Sun. “And I have every confidence that I will continue to be able to do that in Council and continue to be able to do that in the community.”

Cantelmo is the first and only person thus far to announce his candidacy for the 2023 mayoral election, which will be held in November. He is the associate director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, represents the Fifth Ward on the Common Council since winning the 2021 election — which includes parts of the Cornell community — and is finishing his Ph.D. in government at the University.

At the Einaudi Center, Cantelmo works on the Democratic Threats and Resilience initiative, which examines the causes of democratic backsliding and institutional resilience mechanisms that can help insulate democratic societies from autocratic tendencies. He said his research at the Center has relevant implications for his service on the Common Council.

“Even these hyper-local issues that we deal with about streets being paved, sidewalks being in good condition, fire departments being fully staffed, this is all service delivery stuff that matters at the local level, no matter where you are in the world,” Cantelmo said. “It’s when governments are unable to provide those basic services to their populace, that some of these risks are generated about threats to democracy. I love having the ability to engage in good evidence-based policymaking at the local level.”

As alderperson, Cantelmo said his most notable accomplishments include his efforts to codify Ithaca as an abortion sanctuary city and establish a pay transparency law.

Working with Planned Parenthood and local activist group End Abortion Stigma, Cantelmo said he was able to secure a new amendment and article in the city code that declares Ithaca a sanctuary city for reproductive rights.

“Even though our federal government has failed us, there was an opportunity at the local level for us to stand up for our residents in the face of what I have called really one of the most significant human rights rollbacks in this country, certainly in my lifetime,” Cantelmo said.

Cantelmo said his effort at crafting and passing a salary transparency law in Ithaca, which took effect Sept. 1 — over a year before the statewide transparency law is set to take effect — is a step toward reducing discrimination in the hiring process.

“There’s a lot of evidence that shows this helps reduce the gender pay gap and helps reduce racial pay gaps. It also improves employee morale and retention because people are not ending up in a situation where they join a company, and then six months later, they learn that they are the least paid of their colleagues by $15,000,” Cantelmo said, referring to research also cited in the statewide legislation. “So it’s really a plus side for everyone at the table. And it creates, I think, a much more equitable environment.” 

As mayor, Cantelmo said he would prioritize completing the goals of the Ithaca Green New Deal and reimagining public safety efforts. He also believes Ithaca has a housing crisis that requires continuous efforts to adequately address.

“We need to have a serious conversation about expanding tenant protections in the community,” Cantelmo said. “Whether that’s the right to renew, whether that’s opting into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, I think we really need to make sure that our community of renters, which is three-fourths renters, that they both have the appropriate protections and a knowledge of their rights to be able to successfully advocate for themselves and secure housing.”

Cantelmo would also aim to support public sector employees, who have expressed concerns about their salaries and staffing in recent months.

“If the people and our personnel are not adequately resourced and adequately supported, nothing we vote on will be fully realized in implementation,” Cantelmo said. “I want to really emphasize and center the importance of our city staff who make this community, really to a large extent, the great community that this is.” 

The role of city mayor is also set to change in 2024 with the addition of the city manager position. Cantelmo said he would be excited to head the reform process and work with a professional administrator who can handle the day-to-day implementation of regulations in the city.

“What’s really important now for Ithaca is that the mayor will be freed up to be the political leader and the policy driver for the city,” Cantelmo said. “That requires the mayor adopting the persona of coalition building, of listener, of policy and subject matter expert, and really digging into the issues that are facing the community.”

Though Cantelmo said it is too early in the campaign for him to receive endorsements, he has met his fundraising goal for January and hopes to continue to engage with the local community, especially at Cornell.

“As a member of the Cornell community, I really have to emphasize the personal value I’ve felt in being more involved in the community that I live in,” Cantelmo said. “It’s really important to see, in your elected leaders, is this someone who’s actively trying to build bridges between the community that I live in academically, and the community in which I’m located? And hopefully [a leader can] reconcile those identities and make people feel really integrated.”

Even though Cantelmo had a decade-long career in the nonprofit sector in Washington D.C. prior to moving to Ithaca and is finishing his Ph.D. in government, he said his aspirations remain on engaging in local politics.

“I love the idea of raising my kids in this community. I love the idea of being settled, having seen them grow up with their friends, of giving them that stability,” Cantelmo said. “I really love the [research], but my passion is absolutely public service in my community. And I look forward to being able to provide that stability in my family for staying in a community that’s given a lot to us already.”