Courtesy of Pat Sewell

Pat Sewell, a teacher at Tompkins County Community College and a worker at the Greenstar food co-op, declared his candidacy for a Third Ward Common Council seat in June.

August 22, 2023

Meet Pat Sewell, Independent Candidate for Third Ward Common Council Seat

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Independent candidates can still vie for the Third Ward’s two-year term on the Common Council, even though the primary elections took place June 27. Tompkins County Community College professor Pat Sewell chose to run as an independent on the Community Party line after he missed the deadline for the Democratic primaries. 

Sewell said he decided to run for office because he did not think that the current candidates matched the level of commitment that he witnessed from representatives such as Ward 1 representatives Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal, both Democrats. Brock lost the primary to challenger Kayla Matos, while McGonigal decided not to run for re-election.

“Brock and McGonigal were dedicated, passionate alderpersons with 20 years of Common Council experience between them,” Sewell wrote in an email to the Ithaca Voice that was obtained by The Sun. “They accomplished a great deal and worked hard to represent their constituents. I had a difficult time envisioning a similar level of commitment from the current candidates.”

Sewell chose the two-year term rather than the four-year term to prevent Democratic nominee Pierre Saint-Perez, who is also running for the Third Ward two-year seat, from winning an uncontested election, saying democracy only flourished with engagement.

“An uncontested election means an unengaged electorate, and there is a lot going on that needs the electorate’s input,” Sewell said in the email.

Sewell, a registered Democrat, told The Sun he also wants to use his independent candidacy to highlight the political monopoly the Democratic Party has in a liberal city like Ithaca, where the closed primary elections can often decide the general election.

“When that happens, that means that only roughly only about 80 percent of registered voters get to decide who their elected candidate is,” Sewell said, referring to the percentage of Ithaca voters registered as either a member of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Sewell is an environmental ethics and economics professor at Tompkins County Community College and a worker at the GreenStar co-op, both experiences which he said contribute to how he views local governance and community engagement.

“Being community focused, trying to do things specifically for your area,and helping out folks and seeing all the folks in your areas interrelated, interconnected, having a stake in one another — those are the things that I see as valuable, and that I’d like to bring to the Common Council as well,” Sewell said.

Sewell said he will prioritize building a healthy working relationship with Cornell — which is currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding regarding its payments in lieu of taxes to the City of Ithaca — and Ithaca College, saying he would work to find common ground between them and the City and develop a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. 

“I tend to see that as having more productive outcomes and building longer term relationships that can then be utilized in the future. So with Cornell, for example, I think the city gets a lot of benefit from Cornell, and I think Cornell gets a lot of benefit from the city. I’d like to see them working as mutual partners for a common goal,” Sewell said. “It feels a little unbalanced right now — maybe Cornell’s getting a bit more out than putting in. And so I’d like to rebalance that. But I want to do it in a way that creates a relationship that we can go back to.”

The City of Ithaca and Cornell would not see eye to eye on every aspect of their relationship, Sewell said, but working towards a common goal would be beneficial for all involved.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to disagree on things — I’m certain that that’s going to be the case,” Sewell said. “But I generally find when you get different stakeholders, different groups, looking for some sort of common goal in working, at least, I don’t know professionally or amicably ends up benefiting both parties longer in the short term.”

Sewell said he got his outlook on negotiations and relationship building from his experiences as  the president of the TC3 Adjunct Association, the union representing TC3’s adjunct faculty, and a member of New York State United Teachers, a statewide teachers’ union. 

“With my union, I try to [negotiate] from a more cooperative aspect than a zero-sum game,” Sewell said. “Realistically, you can’t do that sometimes. Maybe you have to play a bit more hardball. But initially, certainly I would like to try to go in and see if there can be something that both sides can find amenable.”

Sewell also hopes to use his union background to serve as the city’s liaison to its workers and help rebuild the relationship between them and the City of Ithaca, particularly as the public workers are seeking help from NYSUT.

“I think I could be beneficial in helping to make sure that workers feel appreciated and that they get the best contract that the city can provide while also maintaining their fiduciary responsibility to the city,” Sewell said.

On the topic of housing, Sewell supports owner-occupancy requirements for accessory dwelling units in neighborhoods like his native South Hill and Belle Sherman — where the housing market has faced pressure from both Ithaca College and Cornell’s student housing demands — to retain the character of these neighborhoods. 

“Belle Sherman and South Hill have a very nice overlap, and we have these pockets of areas where there’s single family housing,” Sewell said. “We both experience a lot of pressure from student development. A single family house that goes on the market, and an outside company comes in, purchases the house, splits it up into six single units, and rents it to students. It just changes the character of the neighborhood.…You lose a lot when that happens.”

Sewell expressed his hope to build a cooperative, welcoming and friendly atmosphere throughout Ithaca.

“Every year it’s a new batch of folks, some leave and some go. And so it’s a relationship that you have to keep working on compassionately,” Sewell said. “So that’s why I think it’s important to maintain good relationships overall, because you have to continue working on them. It’s not just like a one time thing.”

Correction, Aug. 30, 10:03 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Common Council has term limits. The article has been corrected, and The Sun apologizes for this error.