It’s impossible to separate the people who inspire us from the issues that excite us. For example, given my interests in education, feminism, environmentalism, and peace, I have over time been inspired by Paulo Freire and Marion Wright Edelman, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, Philip Berrigan and Alva Myrdal. But my interest in local politics finds inspiration much closer to home.
Irene Stein has chaired the Tompkins County Democratic Committee for nearly 30 years. When she steps down from that position on Feb. 1, she will leave a committee that has grown steadily and significantly over those decades; a committee that has overseen substantial increases in Democratic enrollment even in towns once solidly Republican; a committee that has assisted in electing our first female mayor (in 2003), our first female district attorney (in 2005), our first African-American mayor (in 2011), and too many other firsts to mention here.
Irene’s role from the beginning of her tenure has been to cajole, support, mediate, advise, and nurture. Every year for close to 30 years, she has raised astonishing sums to fund local campaigns, rent campaign headquarters, and publish voter information. She is famous for saying, “If you don’t do X, I will pick up the phone and remind you,” and she always follows through. Yet she never requests anything that she won’t do herself.
That’s the part I find most inspirational—that Irene has continued to canvass, call voters, oversee volunteers at campaign headquarters, train candidates, arrange and attend events, run meetings, and raise money well into her 80s. For over a decade, she did all this while holding down a full-time job. Since 2008, she has done it all while also chairing the Democratic Rural Conference, an organization she helped to found that supports upstate rural Democratic candidates and has developed a strong voice in state politics.
Additionally inspirational is Irene’s ability to embrace change. She served as a super-delegate twice, once when it mattered (in 2008), but she concluded from her experience that it was a bad system and ought to be eliminated. She faced significant complaints about the Party’s support of and value to people of color in the county, so she brought in consultants, held workshops, and challenged town and ward committees to improve outreach and recruiting in underrepresented communities. Following the election of 2016, she provided a refuge for new members and held listening sessions allowing voters to vent their concerns about the Party’s direction and the new administration. She personally reached out to local unions whose membership had wandered away from their Democratic roots to vote for a Republican president who did not serve their best interests.
Irene represents the guts and sinews of the Democratic Party as it evolved through the 20th century to the present. She was born to immigrant parents in a Democratic city. Although her mother was not political, she was involved in her community, and Irene’s father was an FDR devotee and a volunteer for Democrats in Boston’s Ward 14. Irene’s connection to the Party was forged through the civil rights era, the antiwar era, the women’s rights era, and the no-nukes era. She reads everything, and she is drawn to experts in many fields. Her own professional expertise ranges from child development to issues of aging. She is fascinated by people and undaunted by lengthy policy meetings. Hers will be difficult shoes to fill.
Until the Elections Committee puts up a candidate or candidates for Irene’s seat, our First Vice-Chair, Marcy Rosenkrantz, will supervise the County Democratic Committee. Irene will remain on the Town of Ithaca Democratic Committee and will continue to serve as a strong voice, energetic volunteer, and source of inspiration on the County Committee as well. ______________
Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at tcdemocrats.org. The Republican View runs in the last edition of each month.
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