October 23, 2021

7 Democrats face primary for Lifton’s seat

Editor’s note: This report was updated to correct an error in Anna Kelles’ political background.

Barbara Lifton announced Jan. 31 that she was retiring, opening a power vacuum in the 125th Assembly District that eight candidates are now vying to fill with less than four weeks until the primary elections on June 23.

Seven Democrats — two of whom work for Lifton (D-Ithaca) — and one Republican seek her open seat. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, 36,637 to 16354, state Board of Elections data show. The district has 73,069 total active voters.

Matthew McIntyre of McGraw, the Cortland County Libertarian Party chairman, is the sole Republican in the race.

Getting a candidate’s word out to voters would be hard enough considering the crowded field, but with the major restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, campaigning is a lot harder — and almost all of it is being done online.


To learn more

Want to learn more about candidates from the candidates themselves? The Tompkins County Democratic Committee will host another live-streamed candidate forum at 7 p.m. June 9. For more info, go to www.tcdemocrats.org.


“It’s just a lot of writing and posting on Facebook,” said candidate Jason Leifer. “You’re basically doing everything through Facebook and email. You just don’t get to go out and meet people in person, which is the hard part of this.”

So who are all these people? Here is a brief overview of the Democratic primary candidates, drawn partly from statements they made during a May 27 live-streamed forum sponsored by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.

Sujata Gibson

Gibson is an Ithaca-based attorney and law professor who grew up in the 125th District.

She used to work as a union organizer for UNITE HERE in upstate New York before getting her law degree.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Gibson said she would focus on new strategies for creating jobs, take back power from corporations and fight to protect the environment.

Beau Harbin

Harbin, the minority leader of the Cortland County Legislature, said passing the New York Health Act would be his first priority, and he pledged to cosponsor the bill.

Harbin said he would fight for health care and education, as well as guaranteed funding for post-pandemic economic recovery.

Harbin, who works in information technology, also touted the necessity of rural broadband, which he said needed to be run like a public utility.

Harbin has been endorsed by the Cortland County Democratic Committee.

Lisa Hoeschle

Hoeschle, the executive director of the Family and Children’s Counseling Services of Cortland County and a former French teacher, emphasized health care and education as her priorities. Hoeschle said she had already seen an increase in need for health care, including mental health, before the pandemic, and now the need is even greater.

“If anyone has not seen how important health care is in the crisis, then they’re just not paying attention,” she said.

Anna Kelles

Kelles, who grew up in Trumansburg, is serving her second term on the Tompkins County Legislature. Kelles said she would work for the environment, passage of the New York Health Act, universal early child care and affordable housing.

Because she’s a trained epidemiologist, “I feel that I am the right person for this job at the right time,” she said.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University and a Ph.D in nutritional epidemiology from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Jason Leifer

Leifer, a lawyer and supervisor for the town of Dryden, has served 12 years on the Dryden town board.

Leifer was one of the board members who backed the town’s effort to ban fracking, and he has led the town’s effort to build its own fiber-optic broadband service, which will be run as a public utility — on track to become the first of its kind in the state. He said these efforts demonstrated his ability to bring together coalitions on tough topics — another example being a large solar project he backed despite controversy.

“That kind of coalition building is what gets things done in Albany, too,” he said.

Jordan Lesser

Lesser, of Ithaca, is a lawyer who has worked for Lifton for more than a decade. As Lifton’s primary policy staffer, Lesser was heavily involved in the effort to ban fracking and block the construction of a waste incinerator in the Finger Lakes. He said his passion for law and public policy grew out of his work with refugees of Hurricane Katrina — an experience that opened his eyes to structural inequality in society and inspired him to go to law school.

Lesser graduated from Ithaca High School and has a bachelor’s degree in history from Cornell University and a law degree from Tulane.

Seph Murtagh

Murtagh, of Ithaca, has served on the Ithaca Common Council for eight years, during which he focused on affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods. He also served as chairman of the council’s planning and economic development committee. Murtagh has been endorsed by 20 current and former city council members.

As Lifton’s communication director, Murtagh said he intends to follow in his boss’s footsteps. Her record, he said, “is stellar.”

“That’s the legacy I want to continue in Albany,” he said.