The Democratic View: Now is the Time to Get Involved in Local Politics

By Kathy Zahler

In 2016, the Tompkins County Board of Elections registered more than 5,000 new Democrats. Some were unaffiliated or Green or Working Families voters wanting a chance to vote in the primaries. Some were the ordinary influx of new voters in a presidential year. And some, certainly, were people registering to vote in an election that they suddenly saw as significant and potentially harmful to values they held dear – fairness and equity, the right of all Americans to live in dignity, justice for all, the health of the planet.
Several contested Democrats won in Tompkins County – Dan Lamb and Kathy Servoss in Dryden, Beth McGee in Enfield, Matt Van Houten for District Attorney, Barbara Lifton for Assembly. The fact is that we are pretty good at electing Democrats to local seats in Tompkins County, even in towns such as Dryden and Newfield, which once consistently voted Republican.
There are several reasons for that success, including changing demographics, fallout from the Bush years, and the fact that the national Republican Party is currently positioned far from the Party that most people in our towns grew up with and recognize. Preliminary results from the Tompkins County Board of Elections show that Trump/Pence won only in Groton, in two districts in Dryden, and in one district in Newfield.
But a big part of the reason Democrats consistently win in our towns is good, old-fashioned political work. Since Tompkins Weekly has given me this soapbox, I thought I’d talk a bit about how that works.
Interested voters who are registered as Democrats in Tompkins County may choose to join their local Town or Ward committees. Each Democratic committee member represents an election district in his or her town or ward.
The election process for committee members involves carrying petitions every two years, following the same process that candidates use to get on the ballot. The number of signatures required varies by election district. You need not carry a petition to attend a local meeting, or even to be seated temporarily. Just contact your Town or Ward chair to find out when the next meeting is being held, and then show up!
Town chairs are listed at
Ward chairs are listed at
At the town and ward levels, committee members find Democratic candidates to run for office. They fundraise, recruit new members, help with voter registration, and circulate candidates’ nominating petitions. They help to turn out voters on Election Day. They have the option of participating in mailings, writing letters to the editor, making phone calls, putting up signs, and all of the myriad activities that make up a local campaign for elected office. They meet regularly, hear reports from elected officials, and participate in social or educational events.
The County Committee includes most of the members of the Town and Ward committees. It brings together members from all election districts to work on countywide, state, and national races as well as to determine and research issues that are of general interest to the membership. Our County Committee rents space prior to a major election and runs a coordinated campaign out of that office. During the year, we meet quarterly in Ithaca.
Our efforts are year-round. Many village elections happen in March, and towns with village elections are already gearing up for those. Committees will start looking soon for people to run for town and city offices. In 2017, every position on the county legislature will be up for election. Committee members will help to determine who might run for those critical positions.
This election season, there has been a lot of media commentary about the elitism of political parties. At the local level, we have always invited all registered Democrats to join our committees. The Tompkins County Democratic Committee will enhance its efforts to do just that over the coming year.
Consider this an invitation. If you are a registered Democrat, we want you. If you believe in equitable education, health care for all, economic fairness, civil rights and voting rights, and clean energy, we want you. Whether you are a student or a retiree, we want you. Whether you are a union member or a self-employed entrepreneur, we want you.
Even if you think you have zero interest in anything other than national politics, we want you. We believe that change starts at the grass roots, and we think we can convince you that by putting people who share Democratic values into local positions, we can start to effect real change. We have genuine examples of that in Tompkins County, and we hope to see more over the next four years, even under the yoke of a Republican administration.
Call Irene Stein at (607) 266-7579 or contact me at to talk about how you could make a difference in our efforts here.
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Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.