Robert Cantelmo, current 5th Ward Alderperson for the Ithaca Common Council, announced his campaign for the 2023 Ithaca mayoral race following current Mayor Laura Lewis’ decision not to run for re-election.
Cantelmo led the creation of the abortion sanctuary city ordinance that was passed unanimously into law by the Common Council on July 6, 2022. He said he is a staunch supporter of the Ithaca Green New Deal, Re-imagining Public Safety and other major initiatives, including affordable housing and transportation.
As of Feb. 1, no other candidates for mayor have come forward. However, 2nd Ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen has announced he will be running for his last four-year term on the Common Council and 3rd Ward Alderperson Rob Gearhart, who is an associate dean for the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, has said he is not running for reelection. All 10 of the Common Council seats will open up this year with all the members’ terms ending Dec. 31 and each seat will be filled after a primary election in June and the general election in November.
Lewis held a seat on the Common Council for three years but retained her vote when she became acting mayor Jan. 5, 2022, following the resignation of former Mayor Svante Myrick. In November 2022, Lewis was elected as mayor to finish the remaining one year of Myrick’s term.
“Six years of service to the city in an elected capacity feels like significant time to dedicate to the city in an elected office,” Lewis said. “I am retiring from this work. … I have family obligations and travel I would like to be able to plan so no, there’s not one reason [I am resigning]. I absolutely love serving the city and I’ve done so for many, many years.”
At the start of 2024, the new city manager position will be put in effect and the candidate will be elected by the Common Council members. This is a large change in the structure of city governance as it will shift some responsibilities from the mayor to the city manager making the mayoral position more ceremonial. The city manager’s role has not been finalized, yet despite the shift in power, the mayor will still hold a vote on the Common Council and be involved in policy making.
Cantelmo said that throughout his campaign, endorsements from city leaders and organizations will be rolled out but that he currently cannot speak on what endorsements he has received. Lewis said she is not coming forward with an endorsement for anyone currently.
“Alderperson Cantelmo is a valued colleague,” Lewis said. “He has been on Common Council for one year. I don’t know at this point who else may be interested in running for mayor. … I am just not prepared to make an endorsement at this moment.”
Nguyen has outright endorsed Cantelmo and is his campaign treasurer, even introducing Cantelmo at his campaign kickoff event Jan. 8.
“[Cantelmo] and I do have — and the reason why I support him is — a lot of shared vision about sustainability and housing goals for the city,” Nguyen said. “So, I look forward to working with him.”
Nguyen has lived in Ithaca for 13 years and has been on the Common Council for the past eight. He said that even before moving to Ithaca, he read about the lack of housing and affordable housing, which motivated him to get involved in local politics.
“A seat opened up at the right time, and I met the person who was running for the seat that I now hold and I just didn’t agree with him on many things, including housing policies,” Nguyen said. “After a failed attempt to find someone else to run, I just decided to run myself.”
Nguyen said he decided to run for re-election one more time because he feels there are initiatives he has started that he wants to see through. He said that in December he submitted legislation to decriminalize jaywalking which he wants to see passed by the council.
“Jaywalking is actually not enforced in the city at all,” Nguyen said. “That said … the onus of legal liability is on the pedestrian and I’d like to flip that around to make it a safe walking city and also continue to advocate for more bike lanes. It’s always contentious because people tend to get upset if you take away parking.”
Nguyen said another tangible goal he has is to continue his work on the TCAT board electrifying the buses, increasing staff, expanding services and exploring free transit. In addition to his interest in housing and transportation, Nguyen said he is committed to moving forward with the Green New Deal and Re–imagining Public Safety.
Like Nguyen, Cantelmo said that pushing forward with Re–imagining Public Safety is an important factor in keeping promises that the city has made regarding these major initiatives. He said public safety reform is an ongoing process that must involve community conversation.
“In terms of concrete things this year, I’d like to see the finalization and onboarding of our emergency social work crisis responders,” Cantelmo said. “I think that program needs to get its legs underneath it and begin work this year.”
While the director of sustainability for the city works in the Planning & Economic Development Division, the position works closely with the Common Council on the Green New Deal. Along with Re–imagining Public Safety, the Green New Deal has been a highly debated topic in the city since the original proposal was adopted by the Common Council in June 2019.
After former Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres announced his resignation in a tweet Oct. 7, 2022, he vocalized some concern regarding support for the Green New Deal.
The Mayor of @CityofIthaca1 chose the City Attorney over her own Common Council and over the workers that came together to demand better of her. We need new leadership & for the City Attorney to go. Let's make sure he no longer obstucts the Green New Deal.
— Luis Aguirre-Torres (@LaguirreGM) November 4, 2022
Lewis, City Attorney Aaron Lavine and Lisa Nicholas, acting director of Planning and Economic Development, sent the Ithaca Voice a joint statement in response to the resignation of Aguirre-Torres and comments he made about city leadership and the Green New Deal. However, they did not directly respond to Aguirre-Torres’ concerns or accusations.
Lewis said there is not an exact timeline for hiring a new director of sustainability — currently held by Acting Director of Sustainability Rebecca Evans — but that someone will fill that role sometime during 2023.
“There has not been a posting created for a new director of sustainability and I really think that needs to have happened yesterday,” Cantelmo said. “To be very clear, Rebecca does excellent work but now we’re down to really one full-time person working on sustainability issues in City Hall. … We need to be adding force to our roster, not making do with less.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story was published using a photo of who was thought to be Alderperson Ducson Nguyen. This photo has been removed upon discovery that the individual in the photo was Phuong Nguyen, former assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity.