Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Patrick Kuehl '24 (center) speaks at a Student Assembly meeting on Sept. 28, 2023. Kuehl ran a surprise write-in campaign aiming to unseat Common Council member Jorge Defendini '22 (D-Fourth Ward).

November 8, 2023

S.A. President Kuehl Launches Surprise Write-In Candidacy in Fourth Ward Race

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In what was previously an uncontested race, Jorge DeFendini ’22 (D-Fourth Ward) now finds his position on the Common Council in doubt following a write-in campaign by Cornell Student Assembly President Patrick Kuehl ’24. As of 11:09 on Nov. 8, DeFendini has 28 votes and all write-in candidates have 12 votes. 

Thirty-eight affidavit ballots and absentee ballots received after Friday, Nov. 3 have yet to be counted, according to the Tompkins County Board of Elections, which also informed The Sun that the votes for specific write-in candidates will not be tabulated until Wednesday, Nov. 15.

DeFendini said he learned about Kuehl’s candidacy — which did not have any public online presence — on election night. Kuehl also did not speak to media organizations prior to Wednesday, Nov. 8. 

Kuehl told The Sun in an email that he chose to run because of his and other Ithacans’ dissatisfaction with the Solidarity Slate, of which DeFendini is part.

“I had no intention of running initially, but as it became clear to me that there were no other options at the current time, I agreed to be the candidate knowing that my future in Ithaca is uncertain; I have made that abundantly clear to both those involved with the campaign and the community members I have talked to throughout this process,” Kuehl wrote. “I believe that no person should run unopposed, ideas should be challenged and the people should be given a choice. If there is no opposition, there is no accountability to make the world a better place.”

The Solidarity Slate is a group of three democratic socialist candidates who share a platform that aims to center racial justice, improve access to quality housing and bring the community together to make joint decisions, according to the group’s website. The slate’s members are DeFendini, Kayla Matos (D) — who defeated Cynthia Brock (D-First Ward) for the First Ward’s four-year seat — and Phoebe Brown (D-Second Ward), who defeated Zach Winn (R) for the First Ward’s two-year seat. Tiffany Kumar ’24 (D-Fourth Ward) was once part of the slate, but lost its endorsement in 2022.

DeFendini, who has the potential to lose his seat over Kuehl’s write-in campaign, told The Sun he was “surprised” upon learning of Kuehl’s campaign and decried Kuehl’s lack of publicity.

“Candidates have a responsibility to campaign openly, to debate ideas and engage the public before an election so that the voters have a right to know who and what is on the ballot,” DeFendini said. “I personally was surprised to find out about this write-in campaign last night, would have appreciated the opportunity to have a real contested election, but instead me and most of the Ward 4 residents were denied even an opportunity to engage.”

Kuehl’s choice not to publicize his campaign also drew condemnation from other Common Council members. Ducson Nguyen (D-Second Ward) said that although Kuehl did not keep his campaign a total secret — having gone door-to-door in the Fourth Ward in recent weeks — he still believed proper form was to run a traditional campaign. 

“I still think though, if your goal was to offer a choice to voters, that you do run something resembling more of a traditional campaign where you are putting your name out there in more traditional channels to maximize your outreach in a campaign for yourself,” Nguyen said.

Fellow Fourth Ward Common Council member Kumar — who sought and won re-election to the Fourth Ward’s two-year seat on the Common Council — said she was aware of Kuehl’s campaign, but refused to endorse another candidate.

“I did know about the write-in campaign ahead of Election Day. However, I did not make any endorsements,” Kumar said. “I did think that it was good to have a robust democratic process with more than one voice in the selection. But I [have to] say, Patrick had to have done a real great job getting his name out there for him to have won or come close in this manner.”

Kuehl told The Sun he was “really surprised” that DeFendini and the Solidarity Slate did not find out about his campaign. 

“I and those volunteering with me have been talking to students and canvassing for about a month and a half, though I did not talk to the press, had no campaign contributors and no website, my campaign was far from secret,” Kuehl said. “I am really surprised that the Slate did not find out earlier at which point I would have talked to the press.”

Kuehl also told The Sun he did not see a reason to publicize his campaign, saying it would not have changed his approach to the race in a written statement.

“I thought that the press would eventually talk about the possibility of a campaign either from someone we talked to or the significant increase in voters registered in the ward — at which point I [would have commented],” Kuehl said. “But I didn’t see any need to speak before then — it wouldn’t have changed the conversations we were having.”

Though The Ithaca Voice originally reported Wednesday that Kuehl’s campaign was aided by Clyde Lederman ’26 — who currently trails Jason Houghton, an information technology product manager at PNC Bank by 23 votes for the Fifth Ward’s two-year seat — Lederman told The Voice that he did not have any involvement in Kuehl’s campaign.

Kuehl also denied any involvement from Lederman in his campaign. The two serve together on the S.A., where Kuehl is the president and Lederman is the clerk for the Office of the Assemblies.

“Mr. Lederman, while a friend, had nothing to do with this campaign,” Kuehl said. “He was just running his race at the only polling place in both Wards Four and Five.”

Alice Cook House on West Campus is the only polling station for both the Fourth and Fifth Wards.

However, an anonymous source told The Sun in an interview that Lederman and Kuehl — along with Kumar — had been coordinating during the Fall 2023 semester. The source said they were present at some, but not all of these meetings.

The source also told The Sun that Kuehl opted not to publicize his campaign because he “didn’t want competition.”

“The idea was that if they did a writing campaign and didn’t raise any eyebrows, they would win because incumbents wouldn’t have felt challenged,” the source said. “They wouldn’t have seen it coming.”

Kuehl defended his campaign, saying he had to change his strategy as he did not have funding and the Fourth Ward contained a nontraditional voting population of primarily students.

“Unique problems require unique solutions — this obviously wasn’t a traditional campaign but [Ward] 4 also isn’t a traditional ward. Our community is mostly college students and I didn’t have the funding or backing from a slate to run a traditional campaign,” Kuehl said. “I made the most of what I did have — plenty of volunteers who were willing to work with me towards a better community. We knocked on doors, talked to hundreds of voters, made calls and registered more than 70 new voters and that is why this race is currently too close to call. Our campaign’s grass roots, organizing-first nature does not make it any less legitimate.”

Iskander Khan ’26 contributed reporting.