When Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic chairman, walked into a packed fundraiser for State Assembly candidate Christine Pellegrino in Babylon in early May, he was struck by an unexpected notion: “I thought this may very well be a winning campaign.”
Democrats long had ceded the heavily Republican 9th Assembly District. Now, Pellegrino, a reading teacher from West Islip who helped found a grass-roots activist group of former Bernie Sanders supporters, had a county executive, a county party chairman and the state comptroller at a fundraiser where the turnout, at 150, more than doubled what organizers had anticipated.
“I would have walked into that room and expected to see 20 to 30 people at that fundraiser,” Jacobs said. “You have a special election in an AD no Democrat would normally ever be expected to win, and here, anything is possible.”
As it turned out, it was. Pellegrino’s victory in the May 23 special election exhilarated supporters, and it’s received national attention as a possible sign of growing disaffection with President Donald Trump. New grass-roots Long Island groups that backed Pellegrino hope it’s a harbinger of future victories in local, state and national elections.
Not so fast, some Republicans and political consultants say.
So far, GOP candidates have overcome challenges by Democrats in a handful of congressional races around the country, most recently in Montana, where Republican winner Greg Gianforte was charged with assaulting a reporter on election eve.
Michael Dawidziak, a veteran Long Island political consultant who works largely with Republicans, said the new progressive groups that helped Pellegrino mount and fund her campaign did an impressive job in a low-turnout special election with party divisions on the Republican and Conservative side.
But “to think this is some kind of seismic shift would be making a dreadful mistake,” Dawidziak said. “I’m a pollster, and to assume that without data to back it up is to commit political malpractice.”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), whose district includes the 9th Assembly District, said he had expected Conservative candidate Tom Gargiulo to win the Assembly special election. But he said he found Pellegrino’s victory “less than earth-shattering; I didn’t lose any sleep over it.”
King said that so far, he doesn’t feel a wave of anger at Trump among voters in his congressional district. Nonetheless, “You have to be ready for anything and fight back,” he said.
Tapping local politics
The activist groups that arose after the 2016 election include Raising Voices LI, Together We Will, Long Island Activists, Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin, New York 2nd District Democrats, and Action Together LI, among others. Some are nonpartisan, some explicitly political. But all oppose Trump and are attempting to build political strength from the local level on up.
Many of the groups are showing enthusiasm for nuts-and-bolts local politics, energizing the Democratic Party in some Long Island towns.
Since January, newcomers have been crowding once scantily attended local party meetings, filling the depleted ranks of political party committeemen and lining up for consideration for other elected posts that went begging until now.
“I feel like I was sitting on my duff for eight years,” said Lorene Custer, 56, a teacher who lives in Cutchogue and helped organize a bus trip for East Enders to the Women’s March in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration in January.
Soon after that, she went to a Democratic Party meeting in Southold, “and the room was filled to capacity. The people running the show said for the last eight years there have been three people there. Since the election, the turnout has been huge. They’ve had to get bigger spaces.”
“Obviously, people are thinking about two years from now,” Custer said of the 2018 congressional elections.
Julia Fenster, 46, of Dix Hills, a leader of Action Together Long Island, said anti-Trump activism has “given people a great deal of hope and empowerment in a time when a great many people would feel powerless.”
Cynthia Morris, 39, of Stony Brook, a consultant to nonprofits, said she decided to run for Brookhaven Town Clerk after she and a friend co-founded Time2CareLI after the election.
Morris, the Democrats’ nominee in the Brookhaven clerk’s race, is among many of the new activists who got involved with the Democratic Party. “There has been a level of distrust between the activists and the Democratic Party, and now they are embracing one another on both sides,” she said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, announced the special election results at Pellegrino’s victory party, calling her win a “thunderbolt.”
And in March, Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer held a three-hour meeting with leaders of the new groups and is sharing voter lists with them. “I’ve seen an uptick after various elections but never anything like this in all the years I’ve been doing this,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer said his goal is to increase turnout in local general elections, which hovers at about 20 percent to 30 percent of the electorate in Suffolk County, by “five to 10 percent. I try to be real.”
Jacobs said that in Nassau County, candidates are lining up to be screened to run for seats that might have gone uncontested in past years. He noted that in the county legislature’s 5th District, nearly a half dozen people were screened for a race that might have drawn one before. “And 12, 14 people [screened] for three open seats on the Oyster Bay Town Council,” Jacobs said. “Before I’d be lucky to have two.”
Lillian Clayman, Democratic chairwoman in Brookhaven, said the ranks of committee people have expanded from 140 in January 2016 to about 330 now, although not all party committee seats are filled. Town Democratic committee meetings “have upward of 170 people,” she said. “Before this last election we thought 60 was a good crowd.”
Liuba Grechen Shirley, 36, was a Democratic Party committeewoman from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, before moving back to her hometown of Amityville two years ago. She formed the New York 2nd District Democrats to defeat King, and is using a strategy of protests, town halls and a planned summer campaign of voter outreach and registration to boost voter turnout. She’s been analyzing voter registration and turnout in King’s district and said, “I think he’s vulnerable.”
Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle and Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello did not return calls for this story.
Dawidziak said if grass-roots activists began joining the Democratic Party, “that would be a very, very potent weapon. It would be getting back to that political structure that was very effective for many, many years.”
But while every new president can expect his party to lose congressional seats in the first midterm election after he takes office, Dawidziak said he doesn’t expect a tsunami for Democrats, or for King or Zeldin to face “top-notch” opponents next year.
Progressives aren’t the only angry voters out there, Dawidziak said. “The anger is on both sides,” he said. “We’re more divided than we’ve been since the Civil War.”
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and Columbia University journalism professor who has written extensively about social protest movements, said the “odds are strong” that the groups would persist through the midterm elections, but “after that God only knows.” If they can show results while developing qualities shared by prior influential movements, including effective leaders and the ability to recruit new people while retaining veterans, “then all the lights are flashing green,” he said.
For now, the new grass-roots groups are growing rapidly.
David Posnett, 69, a retired medical school professor from East Hampton, said his Resistancesuffolk.blog “started in January and now we’re getting well over 2000 hits a months so I’m happy with that.” A group of two dozen retirees who have dubbed themselves “Resist and Replace” also meet for weekly strategy lunches at Posnett’s home.
Together We Will LI is part of a 350,000-member national organization that emerged from the pro-Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Nation. Of the local chapter’s 1,800 members, “at least 70 percent are active in politics for the first time,” said Jenn Dolan, 43, a travel agent from Yapank.
Dolan is one of four volunteer leaders devoting up to 30 hours a week to planning events and building the group. At the same time, the leaders are trying to create a volunteer structure so core members don’t become exhausted. “This is all new for us, so we’ll figure it out as we go along,” Dolan said.
Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin is one of the largest and most active of the new Long Island groups, and has organized weekly protests outside the congressman’s offices in Riverhead and Patchogue for months. The group began as a closed Facebook group in January but now has almost 3,000 members.
They’re working with the town and county Democratic committees on initiatives including get-out-the-vote campaigns in an effort to defeat Zeldin, whom they describe as tightly allied with Trump and his policies, said Eileen Duffy, a Quogue food writer who helped found the group.
Zeldin in a recent statement called those who picket and demand town halls “a small group of loud, liberal obstructionists who have no interest in substantive, productive dialogue and only want to disrupt, resist, obstruct and oppose everything.”
King also has been critical of the most vocal of his opponents, and says what he hears in the district are voters who want to give Trump a chance.
Members of many of the new progressive groups, in fact, say they want a more civil discourse, and are leaning toward a nonpartisan model of action that focuses on issues and values.
Bryan Erwin, 41, of Mattituck and Washington, D.C., used his experience working for former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and in the Obama administration to form a nonprofit that works with grass-roots groups on voter outreach in Suffolk County. He wants to reach infrequent voters and “engage on those issues that people are worried about . . . We’re looking to register people around our shared common sense values.”
Emma Travers, 48, and Cindy Vaupel, 42, both of Rockville Centre, established Raising Voices LI after meeting through PTA volunteer work. They say 2,800 people are in their Facebook group, and more than 100 people come to regular monthly meetings and issue committees.
Right now the group’s members are “mainly progressives,” Vaupel said. But “by staying issue oriented, I hope we can become engaged with people who identify as Republicans. We will not be endorsing candidates per se. We’ll be vetting candidates and giving our members information so they can be educated voters.”
Jim Chant, 57, an information technology manager from Bayport, said he hopes the Indivisible group he helped start in Blue Point-Bayport can apply political pressure on elected officials without developing close ties to particular political parties.
“I want it to be welcoming to people with other ideas, if they are willing to discuss ideas civilly,” Chant said. “I’m tired of unproductive, angry discussions on social media.”