Op-Ed by Rich Gagnier
I was drawn in recently by a story that looked to be about a semi-dirty race between two political challengers in a particularly genteel area of my state, New York. The campaign turned out to be an almost hackneyed one between an “extreme” liberal and an “inflammatory” republican, making it all the clearer to me that the setting for their warring campaign was, and remains, the primary attraction for me: New York State’s 23rd congressional district, including the day-trip destinations of the picturesque towns of Ithaca and Corning.
I was interested in how our current political divisiveness would play out in the hearts and minds of our local Mayberries—smallish out-of-the-way burgs with enough atmosphere to court tourist dollars. I’ll refer to the 23rd district throughout this piece as Ithaca, a town that seems close to being the area’s symbolic heart.
Tracy Mitrano, the democrat challenger in the Ithaca campaign was a stranger to me, as was the republican, Tom Reed. Mitrano ran against Reed in 2018 for the spot in the U.S. House of Representatives that Reed had held since 2012. Reed beat Mitrano in 2018, leading her to challenge him again in 2020.
Things weren’t quite as heated in 2018 as in 2020, with the COVID quarantines ramping up everyone’s angst, but even in 2018, a surprisingly bitter Ithaca campaign had begun its churn. In 2018, a Mitrano field organizer made a statement like a prison break on Snapchat, which was, “[Expletive] Tom Reed, [Expletive] cops, [Expletive] capitalism, [Expletive] Trump.” Tracy Mitrano, to her credit, put immediate distance between herself and the vitriolic Snapchat post, demanding of her campaign manager the field organizer’s resignation or firing. Tracy Mitrano’s response was what I’d hope for from our civil small town neighbors. Expletives, however, were hardly the end of 2018’s unforeseen sideswipes for Mitrano. Tom Reed campaign signs also began to go missing and the Reed campaign traced the stolen signs back to someone at the periphery of the Mitrano camp.
I might, when I’m a cynic, upon seeing a headline that campaign signs have gone missing, wonder if some supporter of the supposedly wounded politician might have committed the theft as a play for publicity. Unfortunately for Mitrano, the Reed camp hadn’t pulled the job themselves, and also unfortunate for Mitrano, someone in the Reed camp was sneakily clever. When Reed signs disappeared, the Reed campaign spiked a new batch of signs with tracking devices.
You’re probably familiar with the type of fictional villain who appears so relentlessly innocent that when they’re finally apprehended their capture proves cathartic in a way rarely matched. So it was when sign snatcher Gary McCaslin was caught at his home by the Reed campaign. It’s almost too much for believable fiction. McCaslin, in addition to being the sign thief, was also improbably a retired pastor and leader of an organization titled with the whiter-than-white name of “Citizens for a Better Southern Tier.”
Gary McCaslin, to give him his say, claimed he hadn’t stolen the signs but instead cleared them as the roadside clutter he believed them to be. He would eventually have petit larceny charges against him dropped, but his innocence was hardly undisputed in early reports of signs traced to his home. When the news was initially disseminated that the sign stealer was indeed a Mitrano campaign volunteer, Mitrano believed that McCaslin’s guilt was likely enough that she jettisoned him, as she’d jettisoned the Snapchat swear artist previously. Again, an ethical civil response from our small town neighbors.
A statement from the Mitrano campaign spelled it out: “Mitrano for Congress will never condone any of its volunteers taking other candidate’s yard signs. The individuals are no longer associated with the campaign.” Mitrano’s statement distancing herself from McCaslin, however, (in what might have been the genesis of a new modus operandi for Mitrano) also acted as an apologist for the dismissed staffer’s actions.
The Mitrano release clarified that Tom Reed’s signs had been arranged next to Mitrano’s own signs. It was implied that the Reed camp had baited the Mitrano camp with the placement of his signs, and so might have some culpability. It may or may not have been true that Reed or his staffers positioned Reed signs with bad intent, but regardless, Mitrano not so subtly offered in a public forum a rationale for the alleged sign theft by one of her campaign volunteers.
And this is where things began to get ugly.
For her 2020 run against Reed, Mitrano swung low and tarred Reed as “racist,” for which she received headline notice in a local paper. The insult was a crude match for Reed’s description of Mitrano as an “extreme Ithaca liberal,” and the insult was hardly an aberration for Mitrano in her 2020 campaign. An October 2020 Mitrano tweet called out Tom Reed for not denouncing Trump’s dog whistles to “white supremacists,” and in July 2020 she tweeted about Trump’s “overt racism.” Polarizing comments were a regular feature of Mitrano’s 2020 run. Had some tide turned?
#WhereIsTomReed? He has said nothing about Trump's dog whistles to white supremacists. All over #NY23, Confederate flags dot the countryside. Tom Reed may show up for the occasional #NAACP photo op, but he'd rather rail against imaginary Taliban militants in the district…1/2 pic.twitter.com/OTmy2OjqRJ
— Tracy Mitrano (@MitranoForNY23) October 6, 2020
The escalation of warring campaigns culminated in the news item that first drew my attention to the Ithaca race: An unidentified person left a dead animal at the Reed home, as well as a brick with one of the Reed family members’ names written on it. The incident of intimidation at the Reed home was also preceded some weeks earlier by an unidentified person caught on video as they threw a brick through Reed’s office window.
Mitrano, not moving off the plot from her statement about missing campaign signs, expressed sympathetic outrage at threats the Reed family was forced to endure, but also rationalized in a new public statement that Reed had inadvertently created his trouble at home. Mitrano listed as possible triggers for threats made against the Reed family Tom Reed’s “harsh visuals” and “inflammatory language.” Wholly innocent, according to Mitrano, was she, her own use of supremacist descriptors apparently a non-issue.
When Reed won the 2020 race, thankfully the escalation from abusive language to theft then physical threat ceased, but you can probably guess that the escalation will resume at a higher pitch the next time the two competitors hit the mat. I thought about ending this piece with the idea that this lunacy will soon be coming to a town near you, but chances are it was in your neck of the woods before it hit Ithaca.
And that appears to be the situation even in picturesque Mayberry, where, this time, very little has been settled by episode’s end.
Rich Gagnier has been a public librarian for nearly 30 years. He has no particular interest in writing about politics, and will probably stop soon, so it would be a stupid waste of resources for any intelligence agency to “off him” for anything he might write. He also varies his route home from work daily and would not make things easy for you.