After months of campaigning to become the next mayor of the City of Ithaca, the candidates’ futures will soon be in the hands of the community.
The four-way race comes as Ithaca faces a $3 million debt, the adoption of a state-mandated tax cap and a state-reported 6.8 percent unemployment rate in 2010.
Competing for mayor in the election Tuesday are Independence Party candidate J.R. Clairborne, Republican Janis Kelly, Democrat Svante Myrick and independent Wade Wykstra.
In March, Mayor Carolyn Peterson announced she would not seek election for a third term because of personal matters. Peterson said problems with the national economy have finally trickled down to the local governments and Ithaca is facing its most critical financial matters in almost 50 years.
“There are several large projects online right now that I would expect the new administration to see in the next one to two or three years,” she said.
Elizabeth Cree, Republican commissioner of the Tompkins County Board of Elections, said 9,170 voters are registered for the general election, but the board does not have an exact estimate of how many voters will cast a ballot. She said the percentage of registered voters who participate in an election often depends on the number of local, countywide and national races taking place.
While the board cannot specifically track student votes, Cree said the majority of students live near their campuses and the board tracks voter participation by region. She said participation among students may be higher this election because the candidates have contacts within the student population.
“They may be lobbying the students this year,” she said.
Peterson said though she expected the student vote to be more prevalent in the Democratic primary, the turnout was not as large as she expected.
“I did not see a big upswing in the student vote, and I don’t think that will happen in the general election either,” she said.
The four candidates will finish the last of a string of open forums this week to express their goals for economic development and plans for the city’s future.
After earning 16.6 percent of the vote, J.R. Clairborne, 2nd Ward city council representative, lost the Democratic primary election to Svante Myrick. Clairborne then announced he would rejoin the race as the Independence Party Candidate because his supporters were not all Democrats and many couldn’t vote for him in the partisan primary, he said. Clairborne said the Independence Party endorses individual candidates, rather than parties, and he was drawn to the idea of giving voters more of a choice, something that has become a cornerstone of his campaign.
“I’m someone who would bring to the office of the mayor involved community, experienced leadership and most of all — choice,” he said at a candidates forum Tuesday at the Women’s Community Building.
Clairborne moved to Ithaca from the Midwest nine years ago and was elected to represent the 2nd ward in 2005. He said his decision to seek the office of the mayor came from friends and colleagues who urged him to join the race.
Janis Kelly, the Texas-raised chair of the City of Ithaca Republican Committee, worked to organize the Ithaca Tea Party Group before entering the mayoral race. She said she was inspired to work in local politics after she attended an Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing regarding plans to clean the toxic waste around the Markles Flats building. She said the current administration isn’t doing enough to combat debt in the city.
“When I saw what had happened with the city’s financial situation and the degree to which people in the administration were just refusing to deal with it and were treating business development in this bizarre way that didn’t make very much economic growth and in fact got in its way, I thought, ‘It’s time for a change,’” she said.
As mayor, Kelly said she would review government worker contracts because the city will need to decide whether it wants to cut core services or cut payroll.
“They’ve warned us up front to expect even worse street repair. That’s not meeting, to my way of thinking, the core responsibilities that city government has to its people,” she said.
Svante Myrick, Ithaca 4th Ward representative and 2009 Cornell University graduate, became the Democratic candidate for mayor after winning the primary election with 45.9 percent of the vote last month. Myrick was elected to city council in 2008 as the youngest alderman in the council’s history. He is 24. Myrick said he decided to seek the position of mayor because he wanted to continue his service to the city.
As mayor, Myrick said, he would focus on making Ithaca more affordable and improving living conditions. Increasing the supply of rental housing will build the tax base, get more people into the city and improve the culture in Ithaca, he said.
“The cost of living is really high and the kind of apartments you get for the money you pay, in my opinion, is way out of whack,” he said. “I’ve got a set of policies I believe will bring down the cost of living here in the City of Ithaca and improve the quality of housing.”
Wade Wykstra, a commissioner to the Board of Public Works, is a 30-year Ithaca resident and an independent candidate for mayor. A former Democrat, Wykstra said he left his affiliation with political parties 27 years ago because he does not think dominating parties allow for new ideas. He said he was compelled to run for mayor because the city hasn’t been dealing with its economic situation and needs to change.
“The city has been suffering through 16 years of the wrong direction, and I think the only way out of where we are is to change things structurally,” he said.
Wykstra said his campaign platform focuses on creating lasting jobs. Though the city has a relatively low unemployment rate, he said, it has a high degree of underemployment, and working people are still struggling to make ends meet.
“We have people fighting for a livable wage and that’s great, those are all admirable efforts, but we need the skill-grade pay that people would get from actually making things.”