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Successful write-in campaign stirs conversation about Ithaca’s political climate

While some express frustration with Patrick Kuehl’s write-in campaign, others raise concerns with the priorities and tactics of the Solidarity Slate and local Working Families Party club, including Jorge Defendini’s sudden attempt to unseat WFP leadership.
From+left%2C+Cornell+senior+Patrick+Kuehl%2C+Fourth+Ward+alderperson+elect%2C+and+Jorge+DeFendini%2C+incumbent+Fourth+Ward+Alderperson.+Kuehl+received+49+votes+in+the+general+election+while+Defendini+received+40.+
Courtesy of Katie Sims and Anabelle Lau
From left, Cornell senior Patrick Kuehl, Fourth Ward alderperson elect, and Jorge DeFendini, incumbent Fourth Ward Alderperson. Kuehl received 49 votes in the general election while Defendini received 40.

A successful write-in campaign in Ithaca’s 2023 general election revealed some dissatisfaction with Ithaca’s political climate, including tactics used by the local Working Families Party (WFP) and other progressive groups.

The write-in candidate, Cornell University senior Patrick Kuehl, received 49 votes against the 40 that Jorge DeFendini, the incumbent Fourth Ward Alderperson, received. Defendini believed he was running unopposed for the four-year Fourth Ward seat until Kuehl’s name appeared on ballots during election day Nov. 7. On Nov. 15, Kuehl released his platform and an explanation of the events leading up to his win at the polls.

In the days after the election, some residents expressed their discontent regarding Kuehl’s campaign because he did not speak with local news beforehand or present his platform through social media.

However, Kuehl said he and his supporters went to every permanent resident’s door in the Fourth Ward to speak with them in person.

“Once I had decided to run and also before I decided to run, I was just gathering opinions on how people were feeling,” Kuehl said. “There was just a lot of disdain about the fact that they hadn’t seen their elected representative, [Defendini].”

Kuehl was elected as president of the Cornell Student Assembly in May. While working as an EMT and EMD for Bangs Ambulance he helped start a union. In an interview with The Ithacan, he said his experience treating people in the community has given him insight into issues facing Ithaca residents, like drug-use, homelessness and healthcare accessibility. 

“I’ve been in Ithaca since 2019,” Kuehl said. “I’m not just a Cornell student who came to Ithaca and has not left the hill.” 

Defendini was a Solidarity Slate candidate along with First Ward candidate Kayla Matos and Incumbent First-Ward Alderperson Phoebe Brown, meaning the trio campaigned as a unit using shared funds and resources. Both Matos and Brown won their races against incumbent Alderperson Cynthia Brock and Zachary Winn, respectively. Each candidate on the slate was individually endorsed by the Working Families Party. Defendini said that if the slate had known Kuehl was running, it would have considered that when making campaign decisions. Instead, more of the slate’s resources went into the contested First Ward race.

“I would have been continuing to have those conversations [with residents] and I would have made mention of the election,” Defendini said. “We could have fleshed out more of what our voters wanted to see [and] their satisfaction with what I’ve been working on and so on and so forth. I think the big thing is that those voters didn’t have an opportunity to engage with that because of the secrecy of it.”

Other WFP endorsed candidates also won seats on the council, including Robert Cantelmo who beat Janis Kelly for mayor and Clyde Lederman, who won against Jason Houghton in the two-year Fifth Ward seat. Michelle Song, a WFP candidate for the four-year Fifth Ward seat, was on the ballot but has not been reachable since the primaries and was beat by Margaret Fabrizio. The only other contested race was between Pierre Saint-Perez, who beat Pat Sewell for the Third Ward’s two-year seat, although neither were endorsed by WFP.

Defendini said that despite losing the election to Kuehl, he will continue to be involved in local politics by supporting the Solidarity Slate and advocating and organizing for progressive legislation. Defendini also plans to stay in his roles with the Ithaca Tenants Union (ITU), the WFP and the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). 

Ward 4 Alderperson Tiffany Kumar said she knew about Kuehl’s campaign, although she did not endorse him. She said that when he asked for help with his campaign, she gave him advice and introduced him to ward residents, which she has done for candidates before. 

“I thought that it was good to have more than one voice in the race to have a robust democratic process,” Kumar said. “But quite honestly, for Patrick to have won like this, he had to have done a really unprecedented job getting his name out there. It couldn’t have been a secret. … I’m sad to see Jorge go, but I think that shows a lot of compassion, a lot of energy and a lot of successful organizing experience on Kuehl’s part.” 

Brock said she knew Kuehl was meeting with constituents and overall, she had heard of at least five write-in campaigns across different wards. Brock said even running unopposed, Defendini should have been engaging with constituents to get them out to vote for the democratic New York Supreme Court justice candidate.

“The fact that Jorge did not have that relationship with his full-time residents speaks to his level of connection or lack of connection with his ward,” Brock said.

Following the election, the Solidarity Slate called for Kuehl to step down as did Stephanie Heslop, chair of the WFP Tompkins County chapter and member of the WFP State Committee, on the grounds that the campaign was undemocratic. Neither the Solidarity Slate or the WFP have commented on the specifics of Kuehl’s self-published platform.

“I’m not really familiar with his platform,” Heslop said. “I haven’t seen a lot of specifics, so I can’t speak to that.”

Kuehl said he is somewhat nervous about working with the slate since they have called for him to step down and have not recognized his platform. 

“One of the big things that I try to do is really work toward calling people in rather than calling them out, and really trying to build relationships with those people regardless of history or political affiliation or alliances,” Kuehl said. “I know that there will be differences there and I hope that we are able to overcome them and really work towards a better Ithaca.”

In September, Defendini ran a last minute campaign against Heslop for chair of the local WFP club. She said she was unaware of Defendini’s intent to run against her until the day before the party’s internal election and told The Ithacan to ask Defendini for further information.

“I didn’t keep my campaign a secret,” Defendini said. “I was speaking to the constituency here, within the Working Families Party, which I guess that would be dues paying members of the Working Families Party. And my platform was very clear on what I was running on. We didn’t get a platform from Patrick until a month after the election. And you know, there was no press coverage. If I’m being honest, it’s not a real comparison that you can really draw. We’re talking about an internal party leadership election versus a public service.”

A WFP member said the Ithaca WFP acts like an arm of the Solidarity Slate. They said the slate has made an effort to make WFP membership and leadership in Ithaca closely equivalent to that of the DSA and the ITU.

“I really hope that’s in some way people start talking about what went down in the WFP internal elections recently; how Jorge ran a last minute campaign and tried to remove Stephanie Heslop, a seasoned socialist organizer for apparently petty internal conflict,” the source said.

Brock said the influence of the DSA and ITU has changed the WFP, which she stopped paying membership dues to in 2021. Brock was endorsed by the WFP in 2011, 2013 and in 2017. She interviewed for the endorsement in 2021, which she did not receive. 

“It became clear that they took that [interview] information to run the campaign against me,” Brock said. “When it came around again to run in 2023, I did not seek the Working Families line because I had known by this time that the Working Families club locally would be closely aligned with the DSA and the ITU and so I just felt there was an unprofessional bias process from the very beginning.”

The WFP member source that while they were not at Brock’s endorsement meeting, they did attend Mayor Laura Lewis’ in 2022. The source said that before the meeting, some members said it was an opportunity to embarrass Lewis and figure out how to oppose her with mayoral candidate Katie Sims.

Brock said the current political environment does not promote an exchange of ideas or active listening. She said part of her decision to run as an independent in the general election to retain her seat on council was to show that she would not be intimidated by the tactics of shaming but said she does not have any plans to run again for city council in the future.

“Things fall into a binary like you’re either for us or against us,” Brock said. “We need elected officials who are going to listen to people from all perspectives from all backgrounds. … I feel that the slate utilized really aggressive and disrespectful strategies.”

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Lorien Tyne, Former News Editor
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    Donna CarrDec 6, 2023 at 11:04 am

    Because someone did not win, it sounds like sour grapes. I think that every candidate should be honest, should be straightforward, and follow through with their promises. If you can’t do it, don’t promise it. Politics has turned ugly, and this is beginning to sound the same Get Real people – life is hard enough without lies and innuendos.

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