The chant broke out midway through Bernie Sanders’ speech to an enthusiastic audience in New Paltz’s Hasbrouck Park last Friday — “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” The Vermont U.S. senator, self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” would-be Democratic presidential nominee and the nation’s foremost progressive held up a hand and delivered a line that summed up the purpose of his midday appearance in a bustling Hudson Valley college town.
“All right, that ‘Bernie’ has now got to be transferred to ‘Zephyr!’”
“Zephyr” is Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law school professor, author of a well-regarded book on political corruption throughout American history and hero of the progressive left who’s running for Congress in our House district against veteran Albany politician John Faso. Teachout is one of a handful of area politicians who are hoping that the energy of Sanders “political revolution” will reverberate over time and down the ballot as grass roots groups that formed to support the Vermont senator’s unexpectedly strong primary run turn their attention to local political contests — and the machinery of the Democratic Party itself.
“There’s been a clear shift of people saying, ‘OK what’s next?’” said Mira Liane Bowin, a Hurley-based artist and Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia back in July. “After the convention [Sanders supporters] are trying to organize moving forward and part of that is looking at down-ticket races as a way of continuing that momentum.”
Another Sanders delegate to the DNC, Kelleigh McKenzie, has already benefited from the infusion of energy into the progressive left. Last week, the Rosendale-based musician and nonprofit executive beat out Karen Markisenis of Kingston for a spot on the State Democratic Committee. Markisenis had the endorsement of the county Democratic committee and strong support in the Town of Ulster where she once chaired the town committee. McKenzie relied on a volunteer group of 37 Sanders campaign veterans and $140 to print up flyers.
“Bernie’s campaign didn’t run on a Super PAC, it ran on people power,” said McKenzie. “That’s what the Bernie groups bring to the table, people power.”
In the summer of 2015, McKenzie helped organize “Ulster for Bernie,” a grassroots group that made calls and knocked on doors on behalf of Sanders primary campaign. McKenzie said that the group was in the process of transitioning into “Ulster Progressive Action” to support Teachout and other left-wing candidates. The group is currently coordinating with nine other “Berniecrat” groups in the local 19th Congressional District.
This Saturday, grass roots Sanders groups from around New York are expected to meet in Albany to form a statewide organization to support progressive candidates. The group is also expected to take aim at New York’s political party machinery and electoral rules that many describe as “rigged” to benefit establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton, who edged out Sanders in the state’s primary. McKenzie said New York’s electoral rules, like closed primaries and a requirement that voters register in a party six months before the ballot, had left many Sanders supporters shocked, disillusioned and determined to bring about a change.
“We are starting to realize now that leaving it to the inside players is what caused us to fall into this pit in the first place,” said McKenzie. “With our government being so corrupt and unrepresentative of the people who live here.”
While the Bernie groups are expected to be a factor in several local down-ballot races, including Sara Niccoli’s bid to unseat incumbent Republican state Sen. George Amedore, Teachout may be uniquely positioned to capitalize on Sanders’ call for political revolution. The Vermont native worked as national director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to transparency in government. She’s also been an advocate for the “opt out” movement opposing high stakes standardized testing in public schools. In 2014 she ran a primary campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo running as a more progressive alternative, free from the taint of Albany corruption. Teachout’s primary bid failed, but in garnering 36 percent of the vote, she outperformed expectations and gained a loyal following. In Ulster County, Teachout beat Cuomo by a more than two to one margin. Sanders, meanwhile, carried the 19th CD by a 58 percent to 41 percent margin over Clinton in April’s Presidential primary.
At the Hasbrouck Park rally, Sanders was effusive in his praise for Teachout, essentially anointing her an heir to his movement. In their remarks Sanders and Teachout both assailed the influence of money in politics, income inequality and fossil fuels. Sanders warned darkly that the country was “marching towards oligarchy” while Teachout decried members of Congress who spent their days “sitting in little rooms calling up the richest people they know and asking for money.” Both candidates assailed Faso as a lobbyist and tool of Wall Street interests while hitting hot-button progressive issues like opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Sanders meanwhile told the crowd made up largely of young students from the adjacent SUNY campus that casting their vote for Teachout would carry on the legacy of his primary campaign.
“In the strongest possible terms, let me suggest to you that this race is one of the most important congressional races in America,” Sanders said. “If you elect Zephyr the message goes out all over the country that when we stand together, that when we continue the political revolution, that Wall Street and their billionaires can pour in all the money you want.”
Whether Sanders endorsement and the enthusiasm of his supporters will play a decisive role in the race remains to be seen. While volunteers like McKenzie and Bowin are intent on bringing Sanders progressive populist message local politics, at least some of those gathered in Hasbrouck Park said that they had never heard of Teachout. And, in a congressional district where moderate Republican incumbent Chris Gibson has twice brushed off challenges from progressive Democratic challengers, Faso and his supporters seem to be betting that the Sanders connection is as much liability as asset.
Interviewed this week, Faso accused Teachout of appealing her far-left base by lying about his connections to Wall Street and creating a false image of him as a far-right Tea Party conservative. Faso’s campaign is also working to paint Teachout as a shameless carpetbagger, pointing out that she moved to the district from Brooklyn in 2015 and only registered to vote here in January.
Faso’ fiercest attacks, however, have been on Teachout’s presumed socialist sensibilities. Earlier this month, his campaign seized on an admiring profile of Teachout in the Marxist-leaning peoplesworld.org website with a press release proclaiming “Commies Backing Teachout in Carpetbag Run for Congress.”
Faso acknowledged that Sanders endorsement would boost Teachout’s appeal on the left, but predicted that it would ultimately hurt her efforts among a largely moderate electorate.
“[Sanders’ support] is an asset with far left partisans who are attracted to Bernie Sanders,” said Faso. “But it’s a liability with the majority of the general election voters in the district because he is an avowed socialist and they are not.”