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Sexual assault allegation forces Steberger to drop out

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After candidate Reed Steberger suddenly announced his resignation from his campaign for Tompkins County Legislature following sexual assault allegations, his debate with District 4 Incumbent Rich John was canceled. Sarah Mearhoff / Staff Video

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What was to be a debate between two District 4 candidates for Tompkins County Legislature on Thursday night resulted in one candidate’s sudden withdrawal under the cloud of a sexual assault allegation.

Reed Steberger, a 27-year-old Cornell University Class of 2013 graduate, was campaigning against incumbent Rich John for the Democratic nomination for Tompkins County Legislature.

With the Tompkins County primary election just five days away, Steberger stood before the audience and announced he was withdrawing after confirming some details in a report from The Cornell Daily Sun earlier Thursday.

In his statement, which matched a statement emailed to campaign supporters earlier Thursday, Steberger explained that after a relationship with another Cornell student ended, they initiated sexual activities, which began as consensual, then became non-consensual.

“Partly because of the alcohol I had consumed and partly because I did not yet have a fully developed understanding of consent, I did not recognize when our sex became non-consensual,” Steberger said. “Regardless of my intentions, I caused harm through my actions.”

He added: “In a number of past relationships, I did not understand my own difficulty in navigating the ways power and privilege shaped my behavior. I should have.”

Steberger said during his statement he “made the decision to withdraw, because I want to take what action I can to show I take these issues seriously.”

Since 2015, Steberger has worked at the Multicultural Resource Center as a facilitator, trainer and organizer, according to his campaign website.

“My role in racial-justice work has been to support groups that are strategizing around community wide efforts to confront local injustices and to train trainers and organizers on the skills we need to win tangible social change. My work takes place in both multi-racial and white-caucus spaces,” Steberger, whose family is in New Jersey, says in his campaign biography.

After Steberger’s statement, debate moderator Kay Sharpe, president of the Tompkins County League of Woman Voters, said she was unable to moderate an “empty chair debate.”

The meeting morphed into a town hall-style discussion with incumbent John, with residents asking questions about John’s stances on safe injection sites, energy efficient construction and, ultimately, how he plans to serve the district in the future.

When asked about how he would change democracy to better serve Tompkins County, John said he would encourage communication and trust between communities.

“There’s some level of almost despair and hopelessness that crosses boundaries, but those people are not talking to each other,” John said. “A lot of us aren’t talking to each other. And it’s very easy in that circumstance to raise the flag higher for your particular interest group and shout louder across the divide.”

John said he sees this lack of communication between many divides across the country, such as between urban and rural communities and between political parties in Congress.

“I think this is the central political challenge of our time,” John continued. “How do we communicate? How do we talk across these boundaries we have? I don’t have all the answers, but that’s the struggle.”

After John’s impromptu town hall concluded, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said he continues to support John’s candidacy for re-election.

“I think he’s got the right ideas for the county and most importantly, to me, he has fought for city residents on the county legislature,” Myrick said. “I’ve been proud to support Rich and I’m still proud to.”

Follow @sarah_mearhoff on Twitter.

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