On Nov. 7, elections were held for multiple Ithaca Common Council positions, including incumbent Jorge DeFendini’s current seat in the Fourth Ward. DeFendini was roundly understood by members of the public to be running unopposed for the seat — no other candidate had registered to appear on the ballot, publicly stated their intention to run or communicated with local media about their candidacy. However, on election day it became clear that Patrick Kuehl, a senior undergraduate in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the current Student Assembly President, had planned a secret write-in campaign for the Fourth Ward seat. Canvassers outside polling places presented voters with a sample ballot including Kuehl as a write-in candidate, and it quickly surfaced that at least two current members of Ithaca Common Council (George McGonigal and student Tiffany Kumar) supported Kuehl’s campaign efforts. Turnout is notoriously low in the Fourth Ward due to high numbers of student voters registered outside of New York State, but DeFendini currently leads Kuehl 28-12, with 38 “affidavit” ballots left to be counted. The door is open for Kuehl to win the race.
On Nov. 8, Kuehl gave his first interviews with local media — one day after Ithacans in the Fourth Ward had the chance to cast their ballots. Kuehl contended that he “was approached independently by multiple members of the community who were unhappy with the way that the Solidarity Slate has approached governance in Ithaca”— but could only name other Common Council members. Kuehl argued that candidates should not run unopposed, and that voters deserved a second choice in the Fourth Ward election — but he neglected to register as a candidate and did not at any point inform the public of his policy positions or even his intent to run. By keeping his campaign secret, Patrick Kuehl has artificially suppressed turnout in a race virtually all voters in the Fourth Ward believed to be uncontested, depriving the public of their right to make an informed decision at the ballot box. It is blatantly undemocratic, and sets a dangerous precedent for transparency in Ithaca’s elections. Kuehl is right that candidates must be held accountable for their actions and positions — which is why running a hidden campaign, targeting mostly friends of the candidate, should be unequivocally condemned.
Jorge DeFendini won his Council seat in a competitive election in 2021, winning over 75 percent of the vote — and netting more votes than the total number of ballots cast in this year’s election. During this election cycle, DeFendini would have assumed — as all publicly available sources of election information did — that he was running unopposed. As such, he devoted much of his time to passing legislation like a Housing First homelessness response and a Trans Sanctuary City designation, leading the charge to improve Cornell’s MOU deal with the City and assisting with the campaigns of Solidarity Slate candidates and Democrats facing open challenges from the right in the general election.
Throughout his term, DeFendini has been a tireless advocate for tenant’s rights, fighting for Good Cause eviction protections and affordability provisions to check against massively increasing Ithaca rent prices. When Cornell students working at the Collegetown Starbucks store were laid off in retaliation for their decision to unionize, DeFendini led the charge to pass a resolution calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate Starbucks — which they did, ruling in favor of the workers. DeFendini has repeatedly proven himself an effective and fierce champion for the interests of his constituents. Patrick Kuehl, for his part, has not made his positions on any local issues clear. Moreover, Kuehl told The Ithaca Voice that he does not know how long he will remain in Ithaca. Patrick Kuehl has made a bid for a four-year term, making this uncertainty extremely concerning. Do Kuehl’s voters have a clear understanding of his platform, political experience, intentions in office or political differences from DeFendini? All remains completely unclear. If Kuehl had been honest with the public about what he admits was a premeditated plan to challenge DeFendini in the general election, the two could have engaged in debates and informed the public of the differences in their political beliefs. This is what Ithaca deserves — a public exchange of ideas, wherein voters can compare the candidates’ policy beliefs and make an informed decision.
As members of the Cornell political community, we condemn Patrick Kuehl’s secret bid for the Fourth Ward Common Council seat. Kuehl must immediately withdraw from the bid, and other stakeholders in the Cornell community should also call upon him to do so. Kuehl’s admission that he has not yet decided how long he will remain in Ithaca reveals his campaign to be insincere and harmful — he clearly does not share DeFendini’s commitment to engaged, consistent governance in Ithaca. Most importantly, however, Patrick Kuehl’s campaign was intentionally run so that DeFendini could not effectively campaign against him and the public could not sufficiently inform themselves about his beliefs. If Patrick Kuehl thought he could win a fair election against Jorge DeFendini, he would have run a fair campaign. Instead, he has embarrassed the Cornell community and disrespected Ithaca voters by campaigning in a secretive, undemocratic manner.
Nick Wilson is a second-year student in the School of Industrial & Labor Relations. He is an active member of the People’s Organizing Collective Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected].
This guest essay was signed and supported by Climate Justice Cornell, Sunrise Ithaca, Cornell Puerto Rican Student Association, Cornell Progressives, Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine, MEChA de Cornell, Starbucks Workers United Ithaca, The People’s Organizing Collective Cornell (United Students Against Sweatshops Local 3), and the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), Cornell University Chapter.
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