She’s a Gun-Owning Democrat, and Her Opponent Calls Her an Extreme Liberal
Posted October 9, 2018 5:52 p.m. EDT
ELMIRA, N.Y. — There is a term that Rep. Tom Reed uses for people like his Democratic opponent, Tracy Mitrano: extreme Ithaca liberal.
Reed, a four-term Republican congressman, has used that phrase to describe other vanquished Democratic rivals. He does not care if his opponents are from Ithaca or not.
The strategy has played well here in the depressed Southern Tier region of New York, where Ithaca — a college-town bastion of progressivism that is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College — is an anomaly in a ruby-red district that went for President Donald Trump by 15 points in 2016.
“It offends Ithacans,” said Don Beachler, an associate professor of political science at Ithaca College, referring to the liberal label. “But the fact is, Ithaca really is out of sync. Reed may lose by 30 or 40 points in Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located, but carry every other part of the district.”
But in a year when Democrats are determined to take back control of the House of Representatives, the campaign rhetoric of Reed, 46, may not be as well received as in previous elections. He faces a formidable challenge from Mitrano, 60, a cybersecurity expert with a law degree and a Ph.D. in history.
For the record, Mitrano, who formerly oversaw digital information policy for Cornell University, no longer lives in Ithaca, and most of her political stances are to the right of extreme liberal.
She won a five-way primary in June but was left with only $8,000 in her campaign account. Her chances in the 23rd Congressional District, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 20,000, seemed bleak.
But like many Democrats challenging House Republicans in the midterms, Mitrano has benefited from a surge in grass-roots donations. In the third quarter of 2018, she reported raising $950,000.
The race between Reed and Mitrano shares some of the contours defining many contests involving incumbent Republicans. Reed embraces Trump’s agenda, including the tariffs that many conservatives say threaten the economy. He has a Trump score of nearly 97 percent, one of the highest of his Republican colleagues in the state. The score is given by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism website, and measures how often a lawmaker has voted to support the president’s position.
“President Trump is bringing the disruption to these policies and these areas that he promised he was going to,” Reed said. “I’ve expressed concerns with his rhetoric and style. But what he is doing is what he set out to do.”
On Thursday, Trump returned the favor, thanking Reed on Twitter for his “wonderful comments on our great new Trade Deal with Mexico and Canada.”
“I have long ago given you my Full Endorsement,” Trump continued, “and for good reason.”
Mitrano recognizes that Trump remains popular in the district, which takes in 11 counties along the Pennsylvania border, and stresses her centrist views.
She does not support free college tuition, as some progressives do. She is also a proud gun owner and, with the exception of creating “airtight background checks,” she does not believe the federal government should curtail gun ownership. Mitrano does, however, want to lift the immunity that Congress bestowed on gun manufacturers and sellers in 2005, protecting them from lawsuits.
At the more liberal end of the policy spectrum, Mitrano supports Medicare for all, or single-payer health care, but would want to phase it in so as not to sharply increase taxes. By empowering the federal government to negotiate prices, such a system would drive costs down, she said. At a campaign event in Elmira, Mitrano, who is also a former professor, explained why she jumped into politics. It was Election Day 2016, Mitrano told the crowd, and she let her class out early that evening.
“I went home and I poured myself a little glass of wine and thought I’d watch the results,” she said. “Then, as it was getting a little less propitious, I poured another glass of wine and around 11 o’clock, I picked up the whole damn bottle and drank it straight.”
Mitrano, who lives in Penn Yan, a village on Keuka Lake, said she also worried about Russian interference in the election.
“Because I was working in cybersecurity, I wondered, ‘What is this country going to do?’ ” she said. “The No. 1 thing a government does for you is keep you safe.”
Indeed, Mitrano said that, if elected, she would parlay her expertise not only into strengthening digital security, but into bringing broadband internet to the 23rd District.
Many communities lack internet access because companies have no incentive to bring cables to remote areas, she said. Moreover, cell service is spotty, so access via smartphones can be impossible.
She told the story of an exasperated mother in the district who, before getting her children ready for bed, has to bundle them in the family’s van. She then idles outside the closed local library, so her child in middle school can pick up the Wi-Fi signal and do his homework.
She blames Reed, a staunch believer in limited government, for not doing more to bring constituents into the 21st century. In 2011, he famously introduced a resolution to put a national debt clock in the House chamber as a reminder for members to cut spending.
“That’s not how you help working- and middle-class people survive and thrive,” she said of limiting internet access. “That’s how you marginalize people.”
For his part, Reed said he advocates the expansion of broadband. “We understand the unique challenges that rural businesses, schools and families face,” he said. “That’s why I voted for the Farm Bill that included $500 million for rural broadband.”
Reed, whose campaign had $2.6 million at the end of June, seems to take pleasure in attacking Mitrano’s positions. In an interview in Horseheads, a farming town outside Elmira, he said single-payer health care would strain an already precarious Medicare system that older people rely on. He asserts that market competition and widespread use of hospice care will reduce health costs.
“I’m a hospice volunteer myself,” he said. “In that last six months of life, we are spending a tremendous amount of health care dollars for a quality of life improvement that is nominal at best.”
He rejects the idea of lifting immunity for gun sellers and manufacturers, with the exception of product liability cases, saying it would prove a “bonanza for personal injury lawyers.” And he castigated Mitrano for dropping an idea put forward during her primary bid for a national gun registry.
“What I find is she’ll say whatever she has to do to get votes,” Reed said.
In her defense, Mitrano said she had no regrets “about bringing forward a whole lot of ideas” to address gun violence, but had concluded that a registry was “too much, too fast.”
Reed also receives high grades when it comes to bipartisanship. He ranked No. 23 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives in a bipartisan index put out by the Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He is a co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of Republicans and Democrats who recently crafted legislation that would address gun violence and school safety. “We do share a common interest in making sure that our schools are safe, our kids are safe,” said Reed, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association.
And some Democrats say they admire Reed’s common touch and easygoing manner.
“If he were my next-door neighbor, it would be fine,” said Alan Cook, a retired bookstore manager, who disagreed with Reed’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to enact Trump’s tax law.
Other Democrats say the Everyman personality is an act. Lisa Rustici, a longtime Elmira resident who teaches at Corning Community College, recalled a visit with her book group to Seneca Falls in July. They were celebrating the first women’s rights convention held there in 1848. So was Reed.
After the event, Rustici and her friends stopped in a store owned by women. “All of a sudden, the shop owner asked us to leave so that Reed could come in and shop alone,” she said. “It said to me, ‘I’m better than you.’”