Five Common Council seats up for re-election

All incumbents plan to run again this year

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Over the next few weeks, Tompkins Weekly will be publishing interviews with all five incumbents of the Ithaca Common Council race, before the June 25 primary. Interviews will be published in order of the ward that each council member represents. This year’s incumbents up for re-election, in order of ward: George McGonigal, First Ward; Ducson Nguyen, Second Ward; Rob Gearhart, Third Ward; Stephen Smith, Fourth Ward; and Laura Lewis, Fifth Ward.

George McGonigal
Have truck, will campaign. George McGonigal got into politics when he started volunteering with the local Democratic Committee. The truck he used for his lawn care business came in handy for transferring lawn signs and various other campaign materials around the ward. He was first elected to his seat on Common Council six years ago and wasn’t entirely certain that he was going to run again in this year’s election. But after being encouraged to run again, McGonigal said he decided to stay in the race. Like most politicians, he jokes, he’s incredibly susceptible to flattery.


“The reason I’m running is because there’s a lot of things I’m involved with that are just coming to the fore, particularly the West End,” he said. Others might call it the Waterfront but true First Warders know that it will always be the West End. “I want to have a say. I like representing my constituents.

There’s a lot of issues that are going on in all different parts of the First Ward.”
He first got into local politics back in 2011 because he saw how much change and development was coming to the First Ward and he wanted to have a say in how it was done. The ward was being rezoned and for McGonigal, “it was important to keep the local flavor of this part of town.” He describes it as an “after work type of neighborhood” where residents, and students, from across the city would come to get a drink at The Dock.


Since the rezoning, little has happened in the First Ward, but now more development is making moves in the area and McGonigal said it’s important to him to be involved in how that development forms. He wants to maintain a light industrial zone where manufacturers and trade businesses can continue to thrive.


He wants to see the West End become a lively, vibrant area that people across the county come visit and enjoy. He wants local businesses to find a home in the First Ward, and he remains suspicious of out-of-town development.
“It seems like a lot of these big outfits are coming into town and slicing this town up like a Christmas Goose, because there’s money to be made,” he said, specifically noting a proposed artist community housing project on Cherry Street. Something he would like to see more focus on from the council is fighting for local trades to be part of the new development being built, but he said he has found resistance from the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency.


Making the First Ward more friendly for families by adding more outdoor recreational space that’s accessible to kids is a dream for McGonigal. It’s something he said he’s been working on with City staff and local school boards, in conversations about a possible playground.


The learning curve of a common council member is steep. A very common answer, so far, of why incumbents are running again is that they feel they spent a lot of time learning the job in their first few years, and now they want to better apply that knowledge for the betterment of their incumbents.

McGonigal is no exception. The intricacies of zoning is one particular area that he has learned about and wants to be able to use to maintain the character of his ward while also adapting to the needs of the area, which include housing.


“If you compare the city to a house, every room in the house can’t be the living room and the bedroom. You’ve got to have room for the mechanicals,” he said. “We need a place to buy lumber, paint. We need Agway. We need the welding supply places on Cherry Street, the scrap yard. Those are part of the city. So, I’m trying to help keep that.”


McGonigal, like the rest of the incumbents, said infrastructure is one of his priorities as a council member, and he’s proud that in the 2019 budget the city was able to add a new streets crew and a new water and sewer crew.


Public safety is always a council priority and while McGonigal agrees that the Ithaca Police Department is understaffed, he wants to create a better plan to replenish the force so that it can be fully staffed while keeping in mind the retirement schedules of longtime officers. While he understands that the IPD hasn’t had a contract in a while, he notes that the department has walked away from the bargaining table with the city more than once.


“I think the city wants to come to a deal, both sides have to meet in the middle soon,” he said.


Within the heart of the City, Common Council has made significant changes to make the area more bike-friendly. McGonigal is for a more bike-friendly area, but he doesn’t think it needs to be the council’s top goal.


“The one thing I keep trying to remind my colleagues is that Ithaca is the county seat of a rural county,” McGonigal said. “There’s a shitload of people who come to Ithaca in their cars to go to work, go to the grocery store, go to the doctor, go to court, and they need a place to park their car.”


What does he want people to know about him as a candidate? Hard worker, good listener, great taste in shoes.

Ducson Nguyen
“All the things I care about, like housing, transportation, infrastructure, those are all things that take a long time to move forward on,” said Second Ward Common Council Member Ducson Nguyen. “So, the past three and a half years has been a quick period of time, even though it seemed like a daunting term length. It takes a lot to see the fruits of your labors and I just feel that there’s a ton more work to do.”


These are just some of the reasons that Nguyen has decided to run for re-election this year. While the work is time-consuming and marked by harsh public scrutiny, he said he finds it personally rewarding.


Surprisingly, his favorite part of the job is meeting new people. As an introvert Nguyen never really expected to get into elected politics, much less find that the highlight for him was talking to strangers. His day job as a software engineer at GrammaTech offers much fewer opportunities for interaction.


“Ithacans are very kind,” Nguyen said of getting over the daunting task of knocking on doors for signatures to get on the ballot. “If they don’t want to talk to you they just won’t answer the door, but if they do they’re almost exclusively well informed and happy to talk about things.”


Nguyen and his wife Amber Gilewski found themselves in Ithaca 10 years ago when she was hired to work at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Housing, the lack of affordability and options, was what motivated Nguyen to jump into elected politics. It’s a complicated issue that encompasses a lot of what he believes in, including making the cost of living affordable and creating walkable and environmentally friendly places to live.


Over the last three years Nguyen said there have been a lot of things that the council has accomplished as a team that he’s proud of, but personally he’s proud of Indigenous People’s Day, his service on the TCAT Board, and connecting constituents to City Hall through social media and the Ithacast podcast he created with fellow Second Ward member Seph Murtagh.


“I love it when people get involved,” he said. “I love public comment at meetings, and I wish more people came on a regular basis. That includes when people yell at us. I want to know when something is bothering you.”


It’s important, he said, to be involved in one’s local government, and he wants to help facilitate that involvement through being accessible. To help people better understand the budget, Nguyen created an interactive online graphic that helped breakdown where tax dollars were being spent. He has some more ideas of how to make that even more detailed in the future. It’s just another way he facilitates getting information to his constituents.


If re-elected, he feels that there is more to do to connect with all city constituents and help them feel more in touch with what’s going on in their local government.


“People often feel surprised when a new development happens near them, so I’d like to do better about alerting neighbors and interested parties when new construction projects happen,” he said.


He’s found some resistance to his idea of streaming public meetings on Facebook live. He sees an opportunity to engage with people as they use their social media.


Housing, his original impetus, remains one of his goals. He’s ready to go to bat for affordable housing in the city and is intrigued by what Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services has proposed for the Immaculate Conception site. It’s something he wants to see council address even more aggressively.


“My colleagues and I disagree on certain things and sometimes people disagree, but we can all make it the highest priority,” he said. “For me, this means more density, and also more subsidized affordable housing. So, both ends of the housing spectrum.”


He would like to see townhouses and rowhouses legalized to help address the “missing middle” of housing, the housing in between family homes with several bedrooms and affordable apartment buildings.


Those who know Nguyen in even a passing way know that he is passionate about making the city more walker and biker friendly. LimeBikes have spread from beyond downtown into other local municipalities, like Trumansburg and Dryden. Next, he is ready to fight to bring LimeScooters to Ithaca, and put in more bike lanes. As the council reviews the comprehensive plan and has started making specialized plans for the different city neighborhoods, Nguyen helped keep this goal of walkability and alternative transportation part of the conversation.


These ideas of more density and alternatives to transportation often get a lot of pushback from the community. To this, Nguyen said he responds by listing the positives and reminding residents that the things they enjoy about the community should be made available to everyone.


“For me, there’s a livability fairness,” he said. “Everyone who lives downtown that I talk to loves being able to walk to work and to restaurants, and I just don’t feel like it’s fair to exclude anyone from that lifestyle.”


More economic diversity, he argues, will help support more businesses. Higher density will mean fewer commuters, which could result in lighter traffic. Altogether, it’s more efficient, Nguyen said, to have higher density and easy access to bikes.


The time commitment was a bit of a surprise, Nguyen said, but it’s not a deal breaker. He’s content with the amount of responsibility that he has currently as a ward representative and isn’t looking to make a move to any higher office. At least not until after he retires. As a candidate he wants people to know he’s a “big nerd who loves diving into details,” he loves Ithaca, and he’s wholly invested in the future of the community.

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