There’s no denying that New Paltz is a place where public events promoting progressive causes typically have a high likelihood of generating a good turnout. But last Sunday’s “Unity Day of Action,” hosted by the grassroots political organizations NY19Votes, IndivisibleNY19 and Ulster Activists (U-Act), far exceeded the usual expectations. Folks who didn’t arrive in the early afternoon at the New Paltz Community Center to make lawn signs or sign volunteer lists or be deployed to canvass local voters during the afternoon, but rather showed up around 4 p.m. when the candidates were scheduled to speak, had to make up their own imaginative and not-strictly-legal parking spaces.
A buzz of political frustration and desperate desire to make change was in the air, as palpable as the day’s heat and humidity. The Community Center’s main meeting room was packed, every seat taken, with many standees, floor-sitters and doorway-neck-craners equally eager to hear what the plan was to take back the US House of Representatives, the New York State Senate and the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office. The energy level in the room never flagged through speech after speech (and several musical numbers), with loud ovations, whoops of approval or outrage, hugs and backslaps flowing like the call-and-response at a tent revival meeting somewhere in Appalachia.
Nobody mentioned the name of the national figure about to meet privately with the head of a rival nation that had just been explicitly accused by the Justice Department of hacking the 2016 presidential election, but Sunday’s attendees seemed both grimly determined and giddy with renewed inspiration to make a “blue tsunami” happen this coming November. Pat Strong of Kingston, Democratic contender for the 46th District State Senate seat currently held by George Amedore, perhaps captured the vibe most succinctly when she described her decision to challenge the Republican incumbent: “This is the change year.” The crowd went wild.
Rosendale town councilwoman Jen Metzger, who joins Strong in the effort to flip the State Senate into the blue column by vying for the 42nd District seat being vacated by the retiring John Bonacic, briefly mentioned “what’s going on in the White House” but emphasized the important role played by state legislatures in passing or bottling up legislation. “Now more than ever, the states have to step up,” she urged. Metzger was one of several speakers who hammered at the topic of gerrymandering both congressional and state legislative districts: a strategy of disempowering minority voters that plays out on the state level, but has profound national implications. Also on hand was a spokesman for James Skoufis, an assemblyman from Orange County who is running for the seat being vacated by the retiring Bill Larkin representing the 39th State Senate District, which includes the Towns of Plattekill and Marlboro.
For many in the crowd, the Day of Action was their first opportunity to size up former state trooper Juan Figueroa, who has received the Democratic Party endorsement for Ulster County Sheriff over incumbent Paul Van Blarcum. After citing his career in the Marines and as a state trooper, Figueroa emphasized the need for more sensitive community policing in the county, and promised to train sheriff’s deputies to “treat everybody with dignity and respect.”
But the speaker who truly set the crowd afire with enthusiasm was Antonio Delgado of Rhinebeck, recently anointed Democratic contender for John Faso’s Congressional seat for US District 19. Antagonism to Faso ran high at the event, from colorful lawn signs calling him a liar to a spirited karaoke performance of a parody of the Barry Manilow song “Copacabana” with lyrics that began, “His name is Faso / Congressman No-Show…” Delgado exhorted his supporters not to organize out of rage, but to support a fresh, proactive vision for the district.
“We are better than that” was a recurring theme as the challenger listed issue after issue where the incumbent has voted to support President Trump’s policies, including separating migrant families, gutting access to health care, arming teachers, defunding Planned Parenthood and denying climate change. “We need to put people in Congress who care about people,” he said, and in what may have been a veiled reference to Faso’s criticism of Delgado’s history as an author of hip-hop lyrics, “Words matter, but actions matter more.” Perhaps the loudest roar from the crowd came when the Congressional candidate commented on the incumbent’s record on women’s issues: “He voted no six times on equal pay,” Delgado said, adding that Faso’s stance on health care coverage “would make it a preexisting condition to be a woman. On that alone, he needs to go.” His fiery speech ended to a standing ovation and a chant from the crowd of “We will win!”
Incumbent Democratic assemblyman Kevin Cahill was the last to speak, sending attendees packing with a stern warning that they must become “aggressive progressives” if they wanted to see real change come November. “Republicans do not win elections; Democrats lose elections,” he said. Citing his own long history of locking horns with Faso in the state legislature, Cahill added, “There’s no dirty trick that he’s above.”
But it was apparent that most of those present weren’t just there to hear rousing speeches. Attendees lined up at tables to meet the candidates, sign volunteer sheets, collect information on issues and strategies, and load up on campaign buttons and lawn signs. Ted Millar of Milton was one of about 75 people who had spent part of their afternoon canvassing New Paltz residences, using a list that targeted likely undecided voters. He said that the response had been primarily positive. “Most the people who were willing to engage with us said they were Democrats and likely to vote for these candidates,” Millar reported. “I don’t know if I really swayed anyone, but I certainly reminded people about the election and the issues — about why we need to flip the district blue, and what that means.”
According to U-Act organizer Joy Dryer, the group is planning a number of follow-up political action events, including a fundraising dinner at a private home in mid-August. The group’s steering committee meets on the second Sunday of each month at varying locations, and new volunteers are welcome. To learn more, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/ulsteractivists.