Ithaca Blog

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ben Nichols' Legacy

Ben Nichols, mayor of Ithaca for three two-year terms from 1989 - 1995, died Saturday at the age of 87.

Ben's earlier career was as a professor of engineering at Cornell.

Beneath the avuncular look of a rumpled academic, Ben was a renegade politician who attracted national attention as Ithaca's Socialist mayor: a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Ben took on many causes and all opponents, including Cornell University. When, after long negotiation during Nichol's tenure, Cornell refused the city's proposal for funding commensurate to what other Ivy League schools pay their cities in lieu of taxes (as tax-exempt entities), Ben responded by slowing down city services to Cornell for building inspections and permits. No choice, he said.

He didn't blink. Cornell did. They soon announced, at a lavish press conference, their new and much enhanced contribution to the city.

Ben lost his campaign for a fourth term to Alan Cohen in 1995, when the term of office for mayor went from two to four years. Ben was twice Cohen's age and Cohen showed a good deal of surface vitality. Still, the margin of victory was just 58 votes. Think about that the next time you think people's votes (matched with activity) don't count, and Ben would probably consider it sufficient legacy.

Stephen Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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