Klein takes T.C. Legislature Gavel

Passing of the gavel; Temporary Chair Mike Lane congratulates Dan Klein as Klein is elevated to Legislature Chair.

Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch; January 4, 2024

For reporters, this is a story lacking one of the five required journalistic “W’s,” namely the “Why.”  Perhaps we will never find it.

Tuesday night, startling anyone gazing in from the outside , the Tompkins County Legislature replaced its chairperson.  Without a contest or even an explanation, the Legislature elevated Danby Democrat Dan Klein to chair its meetings for 2024.  Shawna Black, who’d chaired the Legislature for the past two years, was relegated to Vice-Chair.  Effectively, the leadership roles were reversed from the year before.

“Dan has served on this Legislature for ten years, and I believe he has the knowledge and skills to lead the organization,” the Town of Ithaca’s Amanda Champion said as she placed Klein’s name into nomination.  “Dan fights hard for what he believes in, but he also respects others’ positions and accepts when he makes a mistake or loses a vote,” Champion continued. 

“For Dan, the job is not about ego or power, it is about listening and learning,” Champion said.  “It’s about making thoughtful decisions, and it’s about operating a good government to support the community and provide services for the people of our county.”

When elevated unanimously to become Chair, and after accepting the ceremonial gavel from Dryden’s Mike Lane—who’d served for a brief few minutes as Temporary Chair as the County Charter requires—Dan Klein made his acceptance remarks brief.  They lasted just 45 seconds.

“I am honored and humbled and excited to be taking this role, and it’s my intention to live up to your expectations,” Klein said as his first pronouncement from the podium, the newly-named Chair promising to say more—as tradition holds—when the County Legislature meets again on January 16th

Klein took special care in his acceptance to thank Shawna Black for her past two years presiding over the Legislature.  Shortly thereafter, Dan Klein oversaw the vote that designated Black as Vice-Chair; a ballot, again, without any competing nominees or disapproving votes.

“I just thank all of you again for trusting me to be part of your leadership team,” Black said when Klein invited her to offer her own brief acceptance.  “I look forward to working with you again, Dan,” Black concluded.

Perhaps it was a fitting dark twist of fate that for a day or two after Tuesday’s meeting a video glitch had prevented any online replay of the chairmanship vote.  When engineers finally restored the feed, a keen observer could spot what was missing.  What those few minutes lacked was any rational explanation to undergird what lawmakers had just done.  Shawna Black offered no gracious departure speech.  The reins of power transferred clumsily at best. 

Now at the head table; Danby’s Dan Klein.

Instead, one sensed something had taken place behind the scenes, something that we were not to be told.  Raw, personality-driven politics can look too… well, raw.

In this modern era, with Democrats holding a lopsided 11-3 majority in the Legislature, leadership choices almost always get cemented in a closed-door Democratic caucus scheduled a day or two before the Legislature’s public meeting.  Unless there’s an intra-party feud—as there famously was in 2020, when the Legislature repeatedly deadlocked on a leader—the nominee emerging from caucus becomes the lone name placed into nomination. And then, every Democrat obediently falls into line.

Based on outward appearances, Shawna Black has been well-liked by her colleagues.  She guided the Legislature through the final times of COVID.  She became a strong backer of vaccine mandates and the mall sampling site.  More recently, Black’s pushed hard for the planned $40 Million Center of Government. 

At times, if perhaps to a fault, Black has inserted herself into matters of leadership when she thought her presence might move an initiative forward.  Nonetheless, Shawna Black appeared well-liked.  Seldom was she found at meetings raising an angry voice to any colleague.

Dan Klein, meanwhile, brings to the chairmanship for the first time in a long time a voice from the less-populous rural towns.  Klein represents Danby, Caroline, and just a sliver of the Town of Ithaca. He’s midway through his third term on the Legislature.  His legislative resume includes six years of prior service on the Danby Town Board.

Klein in recent years has chaired both the County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and its Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee.  In that latter role, Klein found himself the referee of competing financial interests; parceling out $6.5 Million in federally-subsidized public money to local applicants and agencies, most of whom walked away empty-handed.

“I look forward to working with you, Dan;” Shawna Black, now Vice-Chair.

Outgoing and usually eager to engage, Shawna Black took an uncharacteristically withdrawn role during this most recent meeting.  Perhaps she was unaccustomed to occupying just another seat at the Legislature’s oval desk, rather than holding court in the front of the chamber with a pair of clerks flanking her.  Black spoke little.  She let others carry the moment. 

Meanwhile, it was a memorable inaugural outing for Dan Klein.  During the meeting’s three-hour duration, more than two dozen citizen-speakers took to the mics.  Speakers endlessly advocated for Palestinian rights in the Gaza Strip and pushed for adoption of a Human Rights Commission-sponsored  Cease-Fire Resolution, one  that could prove nearly as hard to bring to a later compromise as the War in Gaza itself.

Then, again, Dan Klein wanted this job.

“I think Dan will be a leader who listens to his colleagues and works hard for the community,” Amanda Champion said of Klein during her nominating speech.

“I’ve noticed something about Dan Klein,” Groton’s Lee Shurtleff said in seconding the nomination.  “He’s often the last person to weigh in and speak when we discussed a Resolution.  My sense is that he is a person who listens carefully, weighs the points of view deliberately, and then provides us with his thoughtful analysis.”

Throughout its half-century chartered existence, the Tompkins County Legislature—under whatever name it chose to call itself at the time—has never been a place of rancor.  It’s been a House of Lords, not a House of Commons.  During these next 12 months, we’ll see how Lord Klein leads it.