Brooklyn — Medgar Evers College hosted an event on March 3 to unveil the Working Families Party ticket that will be going up against IDC Democrats in the 2018 primary.
The energy was palpable, even before entering the auditorium. Outside the building, activists were handing out fliers. One addressed S.J.Res.54, which would invoke the War Powers Resolution to end unauthorized American participation in the Saudi War in Yemen. Another handed out a 4-page pamphlet outlining how the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) was comprised of “bullies” who were “buying politicians and running roughshod over New Yorkers.”
I arrived early, with the hopes of interviewing people before the action began. Thirty minutes in advance of start time, the room was already rapidly filling up. (Full disclosure: I am a member of a NY Indivisible group.)
There was palpable electricity in the air. Yes, the headliner was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who was on hand to accept the WFP endorsement. However, the excitement was emanating from a cross-section of folks who believe there is a real chance of turning the tide and getting a handle on the dysfunctionality in Albany. Top concerns I heard people talking about were immigration rights, health care, education, and affordable housing. These were issues that got traction in the State Assembly but were stymied in the State Senate, where breakaway Democrats of the IDC caucus were voting with the Republicans.
I noticed Rachel May, who is going up against incumbent David Valesky (one of the original members of the IDC) in the 53rd Senate District. I had read about her background as an educator at Syracuse University. We spoke briefly. She came across as low-key but resolute.
“It’s exciting to be part of a statewide grassroots effort,” May told me. “I’m grateful to these groups for raising awareness of the IDC. People expect Democrats to be Democrats,” she said. “Phone banking has identified that a lot of people didn’t even know about the IDC. They have tried to fly under the radar.”
I took a seat up front next to a woman who self-identified as a member of Rise and Resist. “I was only tangentially political before Trump,” she admitted. “Trump was a trigger for me. Twelve months ago, most people didn’t know what was going on with the IDC. These guys are really doing damage up there.” Then she added, “It’s betrayal and hypocrisy.”
The program started with shout-outs to various supporters before digging into the problems at hand. The top takeaway was that our nation and state are in a crisis and that American democracy has been hijacked.
Two young Dreamers addressed the crowd. They told their personal stories and the fears they live with daily. “We need elected officials to fight with us. Progressives must lead the way,” they pressed. This led to a group chant of “Dream Act Now.”
Next up was Gillibrand. The senator recently made headlines with her statement that she would refuse all donations from corporate PACS.
In accepting her endorsement Gillibrand declared:
“I believe there is a right versus wrong, and wrong is winning. Now is not the time to remain silent. We must vote our children’s future. Democracy only works if people get involved. The grassroots will win these elections.”
Gillibrand spoke about the need for campaign reform, single payer health care, the racism of unfair drug laws, and the fight for unions and workers. A woman in the first row said loudly, “That’s right!”
“I’m running for re-election because we have a lot to do,” Gillibrand continued. “Nothing is going to change unless we fight for it. Together we will take back our future.”
The real red meat came when Jonathan Westin, co-chairman of the WFP, got on stage to discuss fighting Trump “on a local level.” After invoking the mantra, “No Trump Democrats,” he told the audience, “Text NO IDC to 797979 for updates!”
Following Westin was Natasha Caper from the Alliance for Quality Education and Claudia Stewart representing Empire State Indivisible. “We have a message for the IDC,” Stewart intoned. “2018 is the year your reign comes to an end. It’s People Power over Corporate Power.”
Individually, they went down a laundry list of progressive causes that received traction in the State Assembly, only to die in the State Senate. It was referenced that the DREAM Act had passed eight times in the Assembly.
It was time for the main event: The Challengers. Each candidate got introduced by a colleague before they approached the podium
First up was Robert Jackson, who is running against Marisol Alcantara (31st District). “Are you fired up?” he asked everyone. Delivering his comments with lots of personality, Jackson said, “It’s imperative that we make some noise. If Democrats were in leadership, there would be food on the table for everyone, not crumbs.” He suggested that once the shell of the IDC had cracked, the Democrats would elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins as the rightful majority leader. “Stay united in this fight!” he encouraged.
There were high fives between all the candidates, which would be repeated after each speaker.
“I have never run for office before,” said May, “but I come from a long line of fighters.” She explained that one of her grandfathers fought the Klu Klux Klan, and the other stood up to McCarthyism.
“I want to bring full-funded education to Syracuse,” said May. In Syracuse, public schools are owed $42 million in foundation funding because of the monies siphoned to charter schools. Fair housing, good transit solutions, union jobs, and support for working families are on May’s agenda. “I want to pass progressive legislation. Our democracy is under threat. The IDC has disenfranchised Democrats.”
In an emotional moment, May talked about the importance of the New York Health Act. “My husband died of cancer when I was thirty,” she said. “He was afraid of outliving his insurance cap.” After pausing she emphasized, “We could pass protections.”
In the most diverse district in New York City, District 13, Jessica Ramos is taking on Jose Peralta. Qualifying herself as a mother (her children go to public schools), a renter, and a straphanger, Ramos stated, “We have a bigot in the White House. We need a strong and stable state government. We are up against big, bad money.”
Ramos pointed out that her opponent had joined the IDC on the same day Trump had issued his travel ban. Calling for equitable school funding and stronger rent reform, Ramos stated flatly, “Our subway crisis is about working people.”
The candidate for District 23 is Jasmin Robinson. She spoke passionately about her motivation to bring about change, and the inspiring examples of Medgar Evers and Shirley Chisholm. Robinson is challenging Diane Savino, one of the originators of the IDC. (Savino has been repeatedly dismissive of the IDC “Lulu” controversy and ensuing press coverage.) Robinson asserted, “It’s time we have a fighter for Staten Island and South Brooklyn.
It’s hard to think about Staten Island without the senseless death of Eric Garner coming to mind. Robinson underscored, “I have courage. This is our time. I don’t need the establishment; I need the community. I am the candidate the community needs. We’re going to do this.”
John Duane, a former Assistant Attorney General who described himself as a civil rights lawyer, is running against Tony Avella in District 11 (Queens). Duane asserted that his opponent “empowers right-wing Republicans.” Stressing the importance of the hyperlocal in the time of Trump, Duane said, “We are all under assault.” He echoed the general sentiment that the IDC had been flourishing because of the voting public’s ignorance of the situation.
Medgar Evers College is located in Sen. Jesse Hamilton’s District 20 (Central Brooklyn). His challenger, Zellnor Myrie, was not intimidated by the fact Hamilton had arranged a march in support of bill S5454 — which would expand teaching of black history — to take place simultaneously. (This legislation is also supported by the WFP.)
Rather, Myrie spoke boldly of his own to-do list. He is a graduate of Brooklyn’s public school system and holds a Masters in Urban Studies and a law degree from Cornell. The son of immigrants, he proudly introduced his parents who were sitting in the audience. Immigrant rights, affordable housing, and criminal justice were some of the top concerns that he mentioned.
Alessandra Biaggi introduced herself with the quip, “I am running against the boss of the IDC.” Going up against fifteen-year incumbent Jeff Klein in District 34, which encompasses the Bronx, Mount Vernon, and Pelham — Biaggi stated, “This race impacts all New Yorkers.”
Acknowledging that the race was “tough,” Biaggi nevertheless insisted that it was “winnable.” The stats show that there are five times as many Democrats as Republicans in District 34. Biaggi also maintained that “women [voters] will decide” who the next elected representatives will be.
“All roads lead to Jeff Klein,” Biaggi said. “The IDC is handing over the keys to the Republicans, and they hope no one is watching. We need progressive legislators now.”
Her closing line encapsulated the message of the event:
“Together we can say no to Jeff Klein and the IDC, and yes to a progressive New York.”