Assembly Candidates

Anna Kelles, Beau Harbin, Jason Leifer, Jordan Lesser, Seph Murtagh, Lisa Hoeschele, Sujata Gibson

For information on where to vote, visit the Board of Elections. Information on absentee balloting and postmark deadlines can be found at the bottom of this story.?

A hotly-contested liberal race that has largely centered on the environment, the path back from the coronavirus outbreak and the future of healthcare will gradually end over the next few weeks, the result of voting changes due to the coronavirus outbreak, and voters in New York State’s 125th Assembly District will know who is the presumptive replacement for longtime Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. For all of our election coverage, check out our Election 2020 landing page, which covers new developments in the race including record-high absentee ballot voting.??

The Democratic primary serves, effectively, as the general election since the 125th District is a Democratic stronghold, mostly driven by the cities of Ithaca and Cortland. The full list of candidates (links to their candidate profiles included): Cortland County Legislator Beau Harbin, Family and Children’s Services CEO Lisa Hoeschele, Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer, Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles, Ithaca attorney Sujata Gibson, Ithaca Common Council member Seph Murtagh and Lifton’s general counsel Jordan Lesser, who received her endorsement last week.?

This election is obviously unique in that the pandemic has forced forums and campaign events online. But it will also result in a long-delayed process to determine the winner. Tompkins County Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner Steve DeWitt said the office has issued more than 11,000 absentee ballots so far, and expects more than double the amount of votes to come via absentee ballot instead of in-person vote. By law, they’re not allowed to begin processing those ballots until July 1, more than a week after voting day, and DeWitt expects the counting process to take several days after that.?

The race has become something of a battle around the margins, since many of the candidates share similar viewpoints. All have voiced full-throated support for the New York Health Act, which would institute a universal healthcare system for all New Yorkers, as well as endorsing progress on the Green New Deal and education reform. They all extol the virtues of taking climate change seriously and acting now to develop sustainable infrastructure for the future. Several candidates have endorsed different forms of tax reform as well, mostly focusing on lessening the burden on citizens and increasing the amounts paid by the wealthy and large companies. Murtagh, Gibson and Leifer all have called for the end of property taxes in New York in favor of a more progressive tax alternative.?

In order to differentiate themselves from the pack, candidates have had to choose which issues to prioritize to appeal to voters. Leifer, for instance, has stuck with municipal broadband internet as a primary campaign plank, with Harbin putting a premium on it as well. Lesser, on the other hand, has emphasized education access and universal childcare throughout his campaign. Murtagh’s touted his work locally on development (for which he received the endorsement of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick), mostly focusing on housing, and has been quicker than some other candidates to emphasize the state’s climate change goals. Similar to Lesser, Kelles has also championed access to early education and universal childcare, while also advocating for the dismantling of certain statewide systems that made the coronavirus impact worse while working our way back from the outbreak. Hoeschele has been one of the more vocal candidates on student loan forgiveness, and has advocated for potentially lowering the voting age to 16. Harbin has been the most staunch advocate of legalizing marijuana, going further to say that convictions involving the drug should be expunged and that local licensing for marijuana farming should be prioritized to keep money made inside the state.?

Another symptom of many of the candidates being closely aligned on issues is that their focus has turned to their credentials and backgrounds, and what those say about their candidacies. Kelles, who has collected a steady stream of impressive endorsements from statewide figures like Cynthia Nixon and NYC public advocate Jumaane Williams and dozens of prominent local women,? has consistently made the case that her experience legislating in a county that serves both rural and urban populations would serve her well advocating for the 125th District. Lesser has said his experience in Albany allows him the werewithal to succeed there, and his former colleague Murtagh also said his closeness to the process has given him the background necessary to effectively pass legislation. Hoeschele has said her experience haggling with state lawmakers and advocating through adversity for her organization would make her the best choice. Gibson, meanwhile, has embraced the outsider role, acknowledging that her political experience is light but that her career as an attorney gives her a readied arsenal of tactics to deploy and a knowledge of how to advocate for certain groups against the odds, especially unions (though Kelles has received the bulk of local union endorsements).?

Some topics have arisen during the campaign, forcing the candidates to develop policy positions mid-campaign on topics that don’t usually take much of the spotlight in the 125th District. One such example is policing, as the candidates only recently began fielding in-depth questions on this, fueled by the nationwide protests after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. The strongest position so far has been Gibson, who’s advocacy for radical change has included explicit support for the “defund” movement that has picked up momentum nationally and locally in recent weeks. The others have been closer to the center, pushing reform and allocating more resources away from the police but not going quite as far as the defund or abolition movements have ventured. Hoeschele specifically pointed out that in her experience, the majority of interactions that social workers have are with women of color, thus if resources are taken from police and directed to social service departments then implicit bias training should be one of the new expenses, if it’s not already in use for those workers.?

Undeniably, the race has taken a more contentious turn over the last two weeks, compared to a fairly calm and cordial first several months. A large portion of that has been fueled by Gibson, who began calling out Murtagh and Kelles by name during debates over their record with development, insisting that both had been too lenient on developers during their terms and had not extracted enough value for city and county residents in exchange for hefty tax abatements given to new projects. She followed those statements with a measured but accusatory editorial in the Ithaca Voice, which then led to a weekend-long comment section showdown between Gibson, Kelles and their various supporters when Kelles responded to the editorial on Facebook. Kelles also announced that she'd be returning $4,500 in campaign donations from a local development team over the appearance of ethical concerns.?

Coincidentally, Gibson’s op-ed in the Voice was followed by another one, this one condemning Gibson’s views on schoolchildren vaccinations requirements, signed by many doctors from the area. Gibson hasn’t explicitly challenged the science behind vaccinations, but frames her opposition as one driven by a desire to protect choice over one’s body. All the other candidates have supported the vaccination requirements, and the further step of adding the COVID-19 vaccination to the full requirement schedule if it is found to be safe, with Harbin and Leifer being the most critical of Gibson’s views among the candidates.?

To conclude, here is some information about how, when, and where you can vote this year as the pandemic’s influence seeps into our June election:

Polling period: Voters can begin heading to the polls at two polling locations on June 13 thanks to the state’s early voting reforms. The two locations are the Town of Ithaca Town Hall at 215 North Tioga Street in downtown Ithaca, and the Crash Fire Rescue building at 72 Brown Road by the Tompkins County airport. Starting with this story’s publication date, early voting is available at those two locations on June 17 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 18 from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., June 19 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 20 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and June 21 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Early voting is not available June 22, and the election is June 23. If you go to vote in person on June 23, that vote will supersede any absentee ballot you may have sent.?

Absentee voting:?The last date to postmark a ballot is June 23, and the ballot must be received no later than June 30. You can apply in-person for an absentee ballot until June 23. The application is available through the Tompkins County Board of Elections website.?

Polling place changes: Some polling locations have changed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. If normally you vote at Kendal of Ithaca, go to First Congregational Church at 309 Highland Road, Ithaca. Voters who normally go to St. Luke’s or Titus Towers should vote at the Town of Ithaca Town Hall at 215 N. Tioga Street in Ithaca. Those who vote at West Danby Fire Station normally should go to the Danby Fire Station at 1780 Danby Road. Ellis Hollow Apartments or College Circle Apartments voters should head to the South Hill Business Campus at 950 Danby Road in Ithaca. All other polling locations are operating normally.

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