More than 50 people mingled inside a chic North Hempstead home on a recent frigid Sunday evening. In the midst was New York Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino, a Democrat, who scored an upset win in the state’s 9th Assembly District in a special election in May of 2017.
Now Pellegrino is up for re-election in a district that includes parts of Farmingdale, Massapequa, Seaford, West Babylon, West Islip, some of Fire Island and more. She’s the first Democrat to hold the seat, which opened after Joseph Saladino became Town of Oyster Bay supervisor. Advocates say Pellegrino’s win sparked change, bringing about a bluer shade in Nassau County, where, according to New York State figures, Democrats (386,674) now have a slight edge over Republicans (327,964).
Soon after Pellegrino’s upset, victories followed by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, the first woman to hold that seat, and by Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, the first Democrat in over 100 years to win that spot.
Meanwhile, at the Sunday fundraiser, voters seemed ready to carry that change forward. Even though many in attendance aren’t registered to vote in Pellegrino’s district, they had traveled from as far as Stony Brook, eager to hear her message, push up their sleeves and write a check for her campaign.
It’s these kinds of intimate settings where change takes root, insiders say. And this may be how campaigns on Long Island flourish in the future. The conversation is free flowing, and the candidate is accessible without, say, the time constraints or the formality of a town hall or banquet-hall fundraiser. At these kinds of events, questions are asked and answered without concerns about who might overhear the conversation.
“This is how you build a movement,” said Pellegrino, a former schoolteacher, who met the evening’s host, Allison White, in Long Island’s opt-out mobilization, which continues to fight against what like-minded parents and educators say are excessive standardized testing and inappropriate education policies.
There’s nothing necessarily “new” about fundraising parties in people’s homes. Think: coffee klatches in private residences where the hosts invite friends to hear those with a message. It doesn’t matter the political persuasion, they were as true for Barry Goldwater in California in the 1960s as they were for Civil Rights activists in Brooklyn in that same era.
But now, grassroots efforts may prove more powerful than ever, especially in New York, where, according to a report in Politico, Republicans concede there is a “panic” to find GOP candidates to run for governor, attorney general, comptroller and U.S. senate.
These grassroots efforts sprung up soon after Donald Trump won the election, as citizens wanted to know how to become more engaged.
On Long Island, the conversation has largely been about fighting corruption, an issue which, on a local level, has plagued Democrats and Republicans. The party who wins the voters’ trust could hold sway over elections in 2018.
That may be the fight for Pellegrino’s seat, which she said is described as “marginal,” where the tide may work against her as there are more registered Republicans than Democrats.
Working in her favor is “people power,” said Pellegrino, who spoke to an eager audience from across Long Island at White’s home.
She reflected on the Women’s March. “All I could see in front of me was this tremendous experience when I got on the bus with my sisters in solidarity…. What we found was this incredible spirit of togetherness and real resolve to stand for the things we believe in.”
She continued. “This resistance began in the opt-out movement,” which, in many ways foreshadowed the 2017 women’s movement. “We really organized and laid the groundwork for that,” she said.
The Women’s March, the opt-out movement, these were “awakenings,” Pellegrino noted, “to use our voices – and boy did we.”
The opt-out movement grew on Facebook and at playgrounds and living rooms and bookstores and rallies in Albany. Leaders sprouted up in districts across Long Island, as citizens become organized and engaged. Over time, the effort translated into more than 225,000 students across the state who refused the test, and the Common Core became a discussion in the presidential campaign.
It’s a movement that hasn’t left Pellegrino. So when asked repeatedly in 2017 to run for the open Assembly seat, ultimately, Pellegrino, who worked full-time and was raising a family, said, “I thought of all the people at the Women’s March and the people I stood up for over the years” and “thought about my kids and said ‘yes.’ And the opt-out movement was literally the groundbreaking for that.”
And while grassroots movements may be nothing new, look for more of them. Since a little over a year ago, more than 5,800 groups registered with Indivisible, a movement that, according to its website, borrowed strategy from the Tea Party to offer “locally focused, defensive congressional advocacy to protect our values.” And according to Emily’s List, an online resource for women in politics that was founded in 1995, 25,000 women have contacted the organization eager to run for office in 2018. The organization endorsed two local candidates: Curran and Pellegrino.
Consider for example, the Port Washington Democratic Club. After the election, a group of parents chatted at a school-bus stop about getting involved in politics. And on the day of the Electoral College vote, 25 people met in the home of Bill Bodkin, the founder of the club.
“From there, it spread by word of mouth,” he said. By January they met in a small room in a Port Washington restaurant. Seventy people showed up. Now, between 40 to 50 members are “involved who want to work hard for the Democrats.”
The group invited local candidates, and early attendees included North Hempstead Town Clerk Wayne Wink, and Curran, who had not yet won the nomination.
These meetings give members a chance to talk about the importance of fighting for local elections, and to educate and discuss issues.
And, Bodkin pointed out, “Sometimes it’s not about Democrats versus Republicans. It’s about people who care about government and take it seriously and want to work. There are Republicans that want to do that too. We need both at every level: Democrats and Republicans that are there for the government and take it seriously.”
Further east, grassroots efforts are also afoot. Shoshana Hershkowitz, the founder of Suffolk Progressives, educates people on how to work on local elections, write effective letters and call Congress.
She founded the group about a year ago on Facebook, and it now has more than 1,200 members.
“We’re meeting for the first time next week,” she said.
When she first announced a date, she thought maybe 20 would show up.
“Now we have 50 people who said they are coming, and 45 more” who might also attend, she said. “I booked a room for 30. It looks like it will be tight.”
It is key, insiders say, to educate people about taking action one person, one step at a time.
“If people are overwhelmed, they will do nothing,” Hershkowitz said. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s the path to go as far along as you feel comfortable going.’”
Certainly, White plans to stay engaged.
“I’m a firm believer in the Margaret Mead quote, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’” she said.