Christine Pellegrino is a Long Island activist.
On Tuesday, May 23rd 2017, Long Island public school teacher Christine Pellegrino became the first Democratic Party Assemblyperson to defeat a Republican in the history of the 9th Assembly District. Part of a wave of Bernie Sanders delegates and activists who have recently been inspired to run for office, Pellegrino beat Republican Thomas Gargiulo 58 – 42, just months after Trump beat Clinton by 23 percent in the same district.
An elementary school teacher for 25 years, and activist in her New York State United Teachers union, Pellegrino had never run for office before. She continued to work as a teacher during her campaign.
Success was achieved by the building of a broad coalition, particularly among labor, women and education advocates. Unions that endorsed were United Automobile Workers, Communication Workers of America, 1199 SEIU, New York State Nurses Association, New York State United Teachers and the New York State AFL-CIO. Pellegrino was also supported by organizations such as New York Progressive Action Network, of which she is a cofounder. Hundreds of trade unionists worked phone banks, attended rallies and participated in “labor walks,” going door to door to speak to fellow workers about the Pellegrino campaign.
In contrast to support given by the labor movement and community activists, support by the county Democratic Party Committee was limited, reflecting divisions within its leadership. Initially reluctant to back a Bernie delegate, it was only when Working Families Party offered her its ballot line that Pellegrino was belatedly accepted as the official Democratic Party candidate. When promised financial support for a campaign mailing was not forthcoming in the last week of the campaign, labor and NYPAN activists raised $20,000, much of it from small contributions, within 24 hours. The mailing went out.
The district, made up of a swath of suburban towns in Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, is the kind of area that progressive advocates say must be wrested from Republican control in the 2018 elections, if the U.S. Senate and House are to be flipped, the Trump agenda stopped, and a new progressive agenda fought for.
“This sends a strong message to Democrats and Republicans,” said Bill Lipton, the director of the New York Working Families Party, whose support was instrumental in launching the Pellegrino candidacy. “To Democrats, it says that they can win in Trump country” by boldly supporting “champions who put working people’s issues front and center.”
“To Republicans,” he continued, “it says Donald Trump is a huge ball and chain around their necks at this moment as more working people see the federal government trying to take away their health care and their rights. The progressive base is fired up.”
Although the campaign mostly revolved around local issues – Common Core curriculum and standardized testing in the schools, full funding for schools and local services from Albany, protection of water from chemicals in nearby wells, corruption and ethics reform in Albany – the presence of Trump hung like a cloud over the campaign.
In addition to national implications, the victory will also have an impact on New York State politics, where activists eagerly look to flip the Republican dominated, pro-Trump State Senate in 2018. The 9th AD is part of the larger State Senatorial District, and activists believe, given the results here, that seat can now be flipped, as well.
The election is also sure to exert pressure on the so-called Independent Democratic Conference, a grouping of New York State senators who were elected as Democrats but who in recent years have caucused with the Republican majority in Albany.
Activists say their alignment with the pro-Trump Republican majority, far from enabling them to be more effective, only serves to empower the Republicans, and prevent passage of Medicare For All, the Dream Act, genuinely free college tuition at public colleges, and campaign finance and voting rights reform.
In a recognition of the growing urgency, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, also made calls this week for the State Senate Democrats and the nine breakaway IDC member to unify.
“Americans are seeing threats to their health care, fair wages and access to the ballot box,” Ellison said. “If this assault is going to be stopped, then Democrats must come together and fight for working people together. That’s why I am willing to do whatever might be helpful to bring together a Democratic majority in the New York State Senate.”
Our Revolution endorsement
- Christine is a teacher, a true progressive and a community activist. She has worked for years as a leader of the Long Island Progressive Coalition and the Long Island Opt Out movement, which is fighting for local control of schools and against the common core requirements in the state of New York.
- Christine was also a Bernie Sanders delegate, and as a volunteer, she worked tirelessly to organize voters in her community and throughout the state of New York.
Pellegrino, wasn’t the first choice of Democratic strategists and local party leaders. She gained the nomination with the crucial help of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, as well as the group Long Island Activists, which was “born out of the Bernie Sanders movement.” Pellegrino ran an edgy anticorruption campaign that recognized the mood among voters frustrated with both major parties. As observers hailed her victory in a district that gave Trump a 23-point edge last November, Pellegrino explained that her winning strategy wasn’t all that complicated: “A strong progressive agenda is the way forward.”
On the final day of the People’s Summit in Chicago June 11. 2017 the panel Electoral Politics: Beyond Neo-Liberalism and Trumpism brought together progressive elected officials and candidates to discuss how people can “seize power in this country,” as the moderator, The Nation editor, John Nichols, put it.
Long Island elementary school teacher, New York State United Teachers member, and state assembly member-elect Christine Pellegrino was on the panel as well as Carlos Ramirez Rosa, a 25-year-old activist with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Rosa serves on Chicago’s City Council.
The panel also included California congressional candidate Dotty Nygard, a nurse who brought National Nurses United into her hospital; the anti-war California Rep. Ro Khanna; and the former president of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, who is running for governor of Maryland.
A Bernie Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Pellegrino won Long Island’s 9th Assembly District, which, as Nichols reminded the audience, had “voted by 23 points for Donald Trump and that had never in modern times elected a Democrat.”
On the Saturday afternoon panel Beyond Betsy: Organizing for Education Justice, Pellegrino said seeing her two daughters overworked by the corporate testing model was “really the impetus for why I ran,” promising to advocate for kids, teachers, and labor “in a way that has never really happened before.” Issues of privatization, retaliation against teachers who speak out, a looming teacher shortage in New York, and a drive toward automating the teaching profession, all driven by “billionaires that have their hand in our education funding,” are also problems Pellegrino seeks to combat.
Carlos Ramirez Rosa “was just a 24-year-old community organizer,” a queer Latinx and “the son of working-class immigrants,” when he was encouraged to run by fellow activists. Reclaim Chicago, a group of working people volunteering for his campaign, were instrumental in his election.
“I am fighting to make Chicago a truly sanctuary city, that no one is being deported by our police,” Ramirez Rosa said. “I’m only going to accomplish that because of the power that undocumented Chicagoans are building.” Comparing the people to water –“We’re life,” he said – who struggle to break through the dam of capitalism that holds their power back, Ramirez Rosa said, “My job is to enter that system through the cracks, not to prop up the dam, but to report back to the drops of water.”
Once in office, Ramirez Rosa started United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, 109 people that keep the pressure on to end racist policing, to save our planet, to fight against austerity, to tax the rich, and to fight for affordable housing. “Going against mayor 1% (Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel) is scary,” he said “but I sleep good at night because I know that I got people behind me … and they’re organized to make sure that I never forget that.”
Nurse’s advocacy “does not stop at the bedside,” said National Nurses United rank-and-filer Dotty Nygard. “We advocate for so much more.” Nygard is an emergency room nurse at Sutter Health in Sacramento, Calif. She noted that nurses see how “social issues, environmental issues, economic issues” all impact patients. “Their health, their well being is influenced by all of these components that do bombard them,” said Nygard.
Nichols introduced Ro Khanna as the Democrat who said “if you’re not for single-payer you’re not a Democrat.” He also pointed out Ro Khanna was the first anti-Iraq War Democrat to defeat a pro-Iraq War incumbent.
“My grandfather had spent four years in jail during Gandhi’s independence movement in the 1940’s and I thought we needed a more just foreign policy,” said Ro Khanna, explaining his motivations to run for office. Ro Khanna has opposed not just the war in Iraq, but U.S. interventions in Libya, Syria, Yemen, “and to our policy of regime change in Ukraine.” He believes we need “a progressive foreign policy vision, not just because it’s the right thing for our country, but it’s the right thing for people around the world.”
Ro Khanna’s district is Pakistani-American, Indian-American, Chinese-American, Latino-American, and African-American, as well as white. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “That’s the future of America.”