By Rob Montana
Throughout the summer and into early September, Tompkins Weekly offered readers a chance to get to know their Legislature candidates a little bit better. At the conclusion of that series, one more candidate threw their hat into the ring for the District 12 seat being vacated by the retirement of Will Burbank, who had served on the Legislature since winning a special election in 2008. Democrat Amanda Champion has already been profiled; this week, we’re talking to Jennifer Karius, also seeking the seat and appearing on the Freedom and Equality independent ballot line, about issues facing the county and her view of being a legislator.
Tompkins Weekly: What are the top three issues facing Tompkins County?
Jennifer Karius: In the last local-only elections, only 1 in 3 registered Tompkins County residents voted. The recent September primaries motivated fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters to participate in important races to narrow the field.
Something is amiss when most people do not exercise their democratic voice at the level of government most directly affecting their everyday lives. As national issues continue to be forced down to state and local levels, local representation will become even more important. My primary focus in running for county Legislature is to re-engage people in our democracy by educating residents about the role and value of our county government.
My second focus is equitable representation, listening to, and hearing as many voices in District 12 as possible. If we engage a broader constituency, government will provide more equitable solutions. There are many voices that feel marginalized yet deserve to be heard and represented – racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, and even political and social class differences in our community need to be considered on an ongoing basis. Democracy works best when differing views and interests are made a permanent part of the conversation.
Balanced and accountable government is important. County government is the delivery mechanism for many programs and services and oversees those budgets. I have spoken with many hardworking and intelligent people who rely on county services to make ends meet. Homeowners tell me they will have to leave this area if their property taxes continue to increase and we continue to be burdened by unfunded state mandates.
We need to work on both the revenue and services sides to ensure the right balance and to respect the varying perspectives. We will need to grow our economy in diverse ways while working like crazy to get new voices, new people, into the mainstream economy and participating in the process of local government. Then we can determine approaches to improve programs at the same or lower cost.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
JK: I’ve had a broad range of experiences over more than 30 years in the workforce ranging from a long career in the professional performing arts to a full makeover and receiving a masters of public administration from the top-ranked program at Syracuse University. An MPA is the public sector equivalent of an MBA and prepares people to serve in government. This is a distinct advantage as I am prepared to evaluate the array of public programs and budgets that the legislature oversees.
My specific interest is effective democratic government. Towards this I’ve worked with both private business and nonprofits on projects including: Voting rights and technologies, democratic governance, labor union organizing, community-based poverty alleviation, alternative energy and efficiency, and healthcare law impact on substance abuse.
I gravitated towards hands-on grassroots organizing, most recently as campaign field organizer and director for various campaigns where I built local volunteers teams around a common cause or candidate. Recruiting – finding and motivating people interested in volunteering their valuable time and energy – is the first challenge and requires crafting campaign messages, training for effective outreach, and education to strengthen the campaign.
Today, people are discouraged and feel they don’t matter. An exorbitant amount of wealth is negatively influencing the political system and media. My chief aim is working with the people I am engaging during this campaign and with their input, invigorating local participation in operable democratic county government to strengthen county government.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
JK: As an adopted child, I value those who helped me out of the goodness of their heart and gave me a leg up in life, a life far better than what I would have had. This has shaped who I am, how I look at life and specifically how I view government. A properly functioning government similarly helps people who, through no fault of their own, have been shut out from the means of thriving in our society.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
JK: I’ve been interested in the cause of democracy and good government for the past 15 years. My substantial experience in grassroots organizing for public causes and within political spheres over time means I have a nuanced understanding of building a broad-based constituency.
My professional education in public administration was geared towards effective implementation of public programs. It would be my job to oversee many public programs, if elected to the county Legislature. Government is a specialized field of value and of vital importance. That is the campaign.
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