The atmosphere in Hasbrouck Park last Friday morning was festive, even electric as a crowd of approximately 1,300 people congregated to hear Socialist Vermont senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders deliver a ringing endorsement of Zephyr Teachout’s bid to reclaim New York’s 19th Congressional District seat for the Democrats, after it was held for three terms by retiring Republican Chris Gibson. A Fordham Law School professor who lives in Clinton in Dutchess County, Teachout surprised many when she carried Ulster County and captured more than a third of the statewide vote when running against incumbent Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Sanders, a veteran US legislator who energized a nationwide movement of media-savvy young voters in his presidential race, and Teachout, whose political experience includes serving as the internet organizing guru for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid – arguably the dawn of the current trend for social media to play a significant grassroots role in national political campaigns – operate largely from the same playbook. Both delivered speeches that hammered away at income inequality, the influence of big money on politics, climate change and the fossil fuel industry, the student debt crisis and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “They’ve got billionaires; we’ve got people” was a rallying cry for both speakers.
“This is an extraordinary turnout, and all of you really do have an opportunity to make history,” Senator Sanders told the adoring, largely young crowd as hundreds of cellphone cameras flashed away. He characterized Teachout as an “outstanding leader” and called the 19th District contest “one of the most important congressional races in America. The choices are so clear.”
Teachout fine-tuned her talking points somewhat more tightly to mid-Hudson Valley concerns. As many local activists waved signs protesting the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline, she denounced her Republican opponent, former state legislator John Faso of Kinderhook, as a lobbyist for an energy company dealing in fracked gas and promised to “stand up against big polluters who want to pollute our waterways. We’re not going to allow these big oil anchorages on the Hudson River. We’re not going to allow fracked gas into our state.”
The congressional candidate also told the crowd that if elected, she would seek a seat on the Agriculture Committee so that she could serve as “a voice for family farmers.” “When I go to Washington, you’re all coming along with me!” Teachout declared.
The message of grassroots funding was reiterated by both speakers, who pointed out that two of Faso’s backers were hedge-fund managers who had donated half a million dollars apiece. After repeating the well-known factoid that his average campaign contribution was $27, Sanders admitted that Teachout had outdone him: “Turns out Zephyr’s average contribution is less than that. It’s $19!” he announced as the crowd roared its approval.
In their remarks, Sanders mentioned the GOP’s presidential candidate only once, and Teachout not at all. “When we all come together, black and white, Native and Latino, gay and straight, men and women, Zephyr will fight all efforts to try to break us up and divide us as Donald Trump and his supporters are trying to do,” said the senator.
Neither one mentioned Hillary Clinton at all, although Sanders has endorsed the former secretary of state and urged his sometimes-recalcitrant followers to support the mainstream Democratic presidential ticket. His reference to having first met Teachout at a meeting of activists opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – an initiative championed by former president Bill Clinton – was the closest that either one came to open criticism of the Democrat who wrested the presidential nomination away from Sanders, and who is viewed askance by many of his most ardent supporters.
Indeed, some signs of disdain for Hillary Clinton were scattered throughout the crowd, including one young man holding up a portrait of Clinton and Trump standing side-by-side, wearing crowns. One particularly avid Bernie Bro, a Westchester Community College student named Oscar Salazar, was wearing a striking jumpsuit bearing the Vermont senator’s larger-than-life-sized likeness. “We have the worst two candidates now,” he lamented. “I’m leaning toward Jill [Stein] right now.” Asked whether he found Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton at all persuasive, Salazar replied, “She doesn’t own my vote. She has to earn it.”
Another young Bernie supporter, SUNY-New Paltz sophomore Jesmine Romanelli, who is majoring in Political Science and International Relations, took a slightly more pragmatic approach as she signed up to volunteer for the Teachout campaign. She called the quandary of whom to vote for, now that her preferred candidate has dropped out of the presidential race, “a pretty sticky situation. Part of me finds Jill Stein appealing; part of me is considering Gary Johnson; part of me feels the need to buy into the political system that we have now and vote for Hillary.” Romanelli cited the role of Ralph Nader’s candidacy splitting the progressive vote in the election of George W. Bush as an unhappy precedent, adding, “The last thing I want is Trump in office.”
Not all of the rally attendees were young; some veteran local public officials turned up as well. “This is just a thrill,” said former New Paltz Town Board member Kitty Brown. “Bernie said from the beginning that if he didn’t win, he would support candidates who would bring his vision to Congress. As always, he is true to his word; he’s here! I’m beside myself.”
“We’re incredibly proud to have Zephyr and Bernie here together,” added Rosendale Town Board member and anti-Pilgrim Pipeline activist Jen Metzger. “They both stand up for the working families of the Hudson Valley.”