‘Primaries are good for the party, good for democracy because it gives the party a temperature check on how voters are feeling. To me that’s the sign of a healthy democracy and very satisfying, when you can have two candidates running for the party and people are excited to work on a campaign. If it was not for this primary, we would never know how the voters are feeling.
— Sarahana Shrestha
Sarahana Shrestha is riding high.
The 41-year-old environmental activist and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidate wrested the nomination on June 28 to represent the Democratic party in the 103rd district for the New York State Assembly out of the seasoned hands of Kevin Cahill, a 13 term incumbent, by more than 500 votes. Out of a pool of 14,800 primary voters that still qualified as a nail-biter of a contest.
In May, her campaign received a boost from possibly the most recognizable name of any U.S. congressperson affiliated with the Democratic Socialist movement now serving in American politics, Republican bête noir, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“It’s very exciting,” confirmed Shrestha at that time, “because a lot of the people that I have met knocking doors bring up Ocasio and say things like, if she can do it, you can do it here. She really set the example of going against the establishment candidate, against all the odds, and winning by a lot. And she won by going to the voters who are sort of isolated in terms of our political process, who are sort of on the outside. They are not folks who are reading the news every day. They are not folks who try to be pundits. These are everyday people who are very concerned about their life, about their government, about their world and these are the people you reach by knocking doors.”
The subject of meeting the voters where they live is a constant refrain when talking with Shrestha. It’s a strategy she considers essential to connecting with the electorate and successfully turning out the vote. And she credits the success of her efforts so far to the support that comes from a well-organized movement.
“The reason our campaign has been successful, this is a movement campaign being run by organizers, being run by people who know how to build a team of volunteers from scratch… how to convince volunteers that what they believe in should be converted into dedicated consistent action week after week. So that is our strength and people who do not work in this movement framework will find it perplexing that we have so much momentum…”
Shrestha, who is co-chair for the MHVDSA (Mid Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists of America) is no stranger to community organizing, having taken part in the Stop Danskammer Coalition during the multi-year effort which successfully halted the construction of a proposed fracked gas power plant on the Hudson River.
And as a partner of the New York Public Power Coalition, her group advocates for the New York Build Public Renewables Act, a bill whose stated purpose is to move New York State to a 100% renewable, democratically controlled, publicly owned energy system by removing a restriction placed on the New York Power Authority (NYPA) which prevents it from legally owning or building utility-scale renewable generation projects.
The bill, sponsored by 44th district Assemblyman Robert Carroll, intended to allow NYPA to sell low-cost renewable energy directly to all customer classes, be they rich or poor, wholesale. The bill failed to gain traction in the last legislative session and lingers still in committee. According to Shrestha, while the bill languishes, the efforts of the coalition groups continue, tinkering with the language of the bill and she reports headway in that some of the bill’s most concerted opposition have become converted supporters or at least express a new neutrality.
“Through my work in the Public Power Coalition, when I met with state representatives, when I heard what kind of roadblocks we have in the legislature, I learned about how Albany works. I basically realized that the culture of our government is not positioned right now to push for what people need. So, my takeaway from that was that we need to complement our issues based organizing with electoral organizing.”
And thus it was that Shrestha decided to primary Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, decades long incumbent representing the 103rd district, which, as of this year is made up of much of Ulster County and a piece of Dutchess County.
“Getting on the ballot is a very difficult thing to do…If you’re trying to do it alone,” notes Shrestha. “You need 500 valid signatures for an assembly seat. To get the 500 you need to get three times that amount as a margin to make up for mistakes. We knocked doors for more than a month to get 2000 signatures. We started with 4 people at 9 a.m. in the YMCA parking lot and then we kept going.”
Shrestha’s ground game was all important. In just the window between March 1 and June 1, she claimed knuckles had rapped on more than 18,000 doors.
Which was useful to remind voters of her candidacy. The Ulster County Democratic Committee had endorsed the incumbent Cahill ahead of the primary election, giving many voters the impression that his nomination was a done deal. As we now know, it was not.
“I personally think that the party should not endorse [a candidate before the primary], because it’s more important that the voters get to decide. One funny thing that happened when I did not get the endorsement is that I got several messages from even committee members who thought that I was dropping out. They thought it meant the end of my campaign and they wrote to me and said ‘Oh I hope you stay involved,’” she said, laughing. “You know it’s disheartening how unfamiliar people are with our democratic processes. I think the idea that voters should get to nominate the candidate should not be novel.”
Political fliers during the primary contest had already attempted to paint Shrestha as an irresponsible and dangerous radical, who wanted to defund the police and put an end to capitalism while she was at it. Now that she is confirmed as the candidate, the attacks are expected to ramp up
Of course, Shrestha’s political statements are more nuanced than the fliers would have the Hudson valley voter believe. She makes her opinion regarding capitalism, for instance, plain.
“I’m not saying eliminate the private sector,” said Shrestha. “I’m saying the alternative is not there in the way it needs to be. I’m saying that the private sector is the default and often the only option, right, and I do think that there’s a track record to show that this is not working. You know, I don’t think anybody agrees that this is working.”
Responding to efforts to ratchet up the perceived experience of fearfulness in an increasingly dangerous society, she said: “If we want to safety, we need to build a system in which people feel like they have a direction, in which people feel like when they do something on their end, they can expect to see the reward. For example, you know, for younger people, when they go to school, when they finish school and apply for a job, they should have the expectation that there is a good job that they can get, that will take care of them, that will take care of their future. That is not the case right now. Most young people feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety. So, what we should be doing is creating very good public sector jobs in all of the building that we need to do. Whether it’s housing, whether it’s renewables and infrastructure, there is a massive amount of building work that we need to do to get ourselves into the sustainable economy that we need to be in, and this is an opportunity to create and expand really good jobs that are union jobs, that are prevailing wage jobs, that are long lasting jobs that help workers support their families in a comfortable way and so on.”
Sarahana has the Ulster County Democratic Party machine at her back now, whether they like it or not, and along with her obviously successful operation, underwritten by the Democratic Socialists of America as well as contributions from scores of individuals, the candidate’s attention aims north now, to Albany.
“Okay, here’s the slogan — don’t despair, organize. Right? Very simple thing. You can either be immobilized by despair, and internalize all of your frustration. Or you can join a community of people who are trying to change something. And no matter how little the reward, you win a small thing at a time, really the thing is people need direction in which to be productive with their emotions, and take care of themselves. And if you overwhelm them with despair, I find that situation to be volatile and completely undesirable.”
Sarahana Shrestha will face off with Republican candidate Patrick Sheehan on November 8th in the general election. Kevin Cahill has pledged not to run a third-party challenge if he was not the first choice of Democratic party voters to receive the official party nomination.