By Pete Angie
To many in Tompkins County, the surprise victory of Donald Trump this month left jaws agape, and people wondering how it had happened.
His defeat at the hands of a level, highly experienced Hillary Clinton had seemed almost inevitable, and Trump had come to symbolize the things that progressives hoped were being pushed into the past. His vitriol against immigrants and Muslims, his misogyny, racism and bully’s swagger made him a reviled figure among many in the area. All the more bitter and surreal came the morning after for those.
And yet for others, Trump’s victory was something to delight in, a possible upset of the Washington status quo. Tompkins Weekly spoke with local politicians about their reaction to a President Donald Trump, and what they plan to do now.
The day after the election Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles, D-3rd District, organized a rally in only four hours. Along with her sister, they got a permit from the city, acquired a PA system, and put together a program for the Love and Light Vigil, attended by about 250 people. Kelles wanted to create an outlet for the sense of despair and rage people were feeling, and give space for some sense of hope. She hopes people can take those feelings and turn them into lasting change, and wonders “how do you catch the rage before it becomes hatred?”
Since the election Kelles has felt compelled to find answers to that question.
“There is a pattern to return to complacency, and my body won’t let me do that,” she said, and added that when reading articles and social media, and being among others “(y)ou can feel the buzz, the energy, the emotions.”
She would like to see more unity come out of this election, especially among progressives and others who are on the front lines of meeting basic human needs.
“(I have) the desire to be part of a movement about breaking down the walls between the groups that support human dignity,” Kelles said. “We spend so much time fighting between allies, and we can’t afford that anymore.”
Ulysses town board member Nancy Zahler is concerned about the years to come under a Trump administration, yet is also feeling resolve.
“I am fearful about our divisions and concerned that his presidency will make them worse instead of better,” she said, “and I fear for our principles of inclusiveness and justice for all. I don’t see ‘a more perfect Union’ coming out of this presidency. I hope I am wrong.”
Zahler wants to continue to support and foster a safe environment for women, people of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
“Ithaca is a haven for refugees,” she said, “and we will support those initiatives in every possible way.
“We will reach out to organizations that promote civil and human rights and rely on our dedicated new District Attorney to prosecute hate crimes forcefully,” Zahler added. “It’s important for us all to stand together against this evil, which I firmly believe perverts the country we love.”
Zahler is alarmed by Trump’s cabinet picks and words, but also remembers when he was a Democrat and is unsure of what to expect. She fears funding to programs like Head Start will be cut, public schools will see funding decreased in favor of charter schools, that people will lose their health insurance, and that fossil fuel infrastructure expansion will take an even higher president, and renewable energies will suffer. She added that Democrats will be working hard to regain control of the Senate and to defeat what she sees as the misguided aspects of Trump’s agenda.
Tompkins County Legislator David McKenna, R-8th District, holds a somewhat different view.
“Give him a chance,” he said. “I don’t know if he is really going to be as hard-lined as he was in his campaign. I certainly hope he isn’t.”
McKenna would not like to see Trump make good on his platform of deporting all illegal immigrants, and doesn’t believe that would be good for the country. He hopes there is a way, however, for them to become citizens. He also questions how Trump will be able to lower taxes and expand the military.
With regard to Trump’s promise to unite the country, McKenna said “I truly hope he will be able to do that…If he can make life better for people across the board, regardless of religion, that will go a long way to achieving that goal.”
McKenna is concerned by the rash of hateful speech and acts toward minorities that have erupted across the country following the election.
“It’s time this country got together,” he said. “This is tearing it apart.”
He does not believe there is very much that the county Legislature can do about it, however, other than to condemn it.
Tompkins County Legislator Michael Lane, a Democrat and chairperson of the Legislature, knows that there are many in Tompkins County who voted for Trump.
“We have to be aware that these people are signaling dissatisfaction with their lives, with unemployment, with the loss of jobs from the Empire State to around the world,” he said.
Lane encourages those that support Trump to watch how things unfold carefully, to see if what they wanted is actually happening. He is concerned that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would place many back on traditional Medicaid at great expense to the county, potentially resulting in property tax increases. Lane also noted that Tompkins County has been a leader in the areas and renewable energy and combating climate-change, and he plans to monitor how climate regulations are effected under a Trump administration.
“We don’t want to see progress we have made being chipped away by environmental regulations being gutted,” he said.
As for the increased reports of hate crimes following the election, Lane said that such acts here will be prosecuted, and noted the New York state hotline that was established last week for reporting such incidents.
“Just because Donald Trump is elected to the presidency doesn’t mean we in Tompkins County are going to change our values,” he said. “We’ll continue to help people feel secure. We don’t want people to feel fear.”
Kelles also feels that the local government’s response to hate crimes and speech needs to be prompt, active and visible, with initiatives that build trust. She would like to establish a network of safe places, such as businesses and houses, and further train police to be sensitive to hate-inspired acts and crimes. She sees the long-term path to ending such actions and feelings, however, is to support equality at every level.
Kelles said people who are hungry, without housing, or struggling to meet their own or their family’s needs most often do not feel like they have the mental or physical energy to organize for social change. Supporting and helping empower people locally who have been marginalized and discriminated against – people that are poor, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community – is the most important way to fight the systemic inequality and racism.
“It’s not going to be sexy,” said Kelles of this approach, noting that in moments of despair, people often hope for a big solution or revolt to change things from the top down.
The kind of lasting change that Kelles wants will be brought about from the bottom up. She sees programs like Tompkins Community Action, Ithaca Housing Authority and other local non-profits as hugely important to meeting people’s basic needs, and foresees that the demand for those services will only rise if federal policies remove supports for poor and working-class families.
“The pressure on non-profits is going to be insane,” she said.
Kelles believes that to face the coming challenges she expects with a Trump presidency, and to make the kind of lasting change that will shift the country away from finding the divisive rhetoric of his campaign attractive, people need to step up their participation in their communities and in helping one another. She also believes that a collective step back from the Us vs. Them mentality that characterizes political and social struggles is imperative, and that the desire to fight must be balanced with an open-hearted, active compassion.
“We need to break down our barriers and start taking care of each other,” she said.
Kelles encourages people to pick something they’re passionate about and pursue it, from starting petitions, donating to or volunteering at local non-profits, mentoring youth, or planting trees, to running for office.
“Pick something, pick anything,” she said, “just don’t go back to sleep.”
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Editor’s Note: An equal number of area Democrats and Republicans were sought for comment for this story. However, only the views of those who responded by the time of press were able to be included.