Progressive Groups Looking Toward LI Congressional Primaries

Many activist leaders want to avoid the divisiveness of the 2016 Democratic primary battle.

By Carol Polsky

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Progressive grassroots groups that emerged on Long Island after the election of President Donald Trump, seeking to avoid the party rancor of 2016, are agreeing to agree: They’ll support any Democrat who wins in the June 26 congressional primaries.

It helps that in both Long Island districts where an incumbent Republican congressman is up for re-election, all the Democrats in the primaries are running as progressives in a year when the left wing of the party is pushing for pre-eminence.

Five candidates are on the Democratic primary ballot for the chance to face Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in the 1st Congressional District on the East End, and two are vying to challenge Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) in the 2nd District, which covers parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties.

There is enough variation among the Democratic candidates to offer flashes of the tension seen nationally between those who see a path to victory through an uncompromising liberal agenda, and those encouraged by recent special election victories of moderates in districts where Trump won the popular vote in 2016.

Many activist leaders now seem determined to set any such tensions aside in November, as they recall the bitter aftermath of the 2016 Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the expensive and divisive 1st Congressional District primary in 2016 between Democrats Anna Throne-Holst and David Calone. Throne-Holst, a former Southampton supervisor, won the primary by 319 votes, but lost to Zeldin in the general election by a 15.6 percentage-point margin.

“There are people who get angry at certain people, yes, and there are people who have strong opinions for or against certain people” running in the 1st District Democratic primary, said Laura Leever, 60, of Sag Harbor, a member of Progressive East End Reformers.

“But I think I can say, at the end of the day, 99.99 percent of us will vote for and support whoever the eventual nominee is,” Leever said.

Leever’s group is among the many activist groups that sprang up after the 2016 elections, with names like Long Island Activists, Indivisible, Together We Will and Action Together LI, Suffolk County Democratic Progressives and Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin. Some grew out of the women’s marches or the presidential political campaigns, and may or may not endorse candidates.

In the Democratic primary, she’ll face DuWayne Gregory, 49, of Copiague. The first African-American Suffolk legislative presiding officer, he describes himself as a progressive, and will run on the Working Families, Women’s Equality and Independence party lines.

The activists are focusing now on races with incumbent Republicans, such as Zeldin and King, both of whom are conservatives whose votes usually align with Trump’s positions, although King has been more likely to engage in bipartisan initiatives, including a call for greater gun regulation.

Leaders of activist groups in Zeldin’s district have met weekly since last year and have committed to support the victor in the Democratic primary, said Cynthia Morris, of Stony Brook, who became an activist after the presidential election and last fall ran for Brookhaven Town clerk.

“I’m seeing a genuine desire from everybody to find the person who can win,” she said, “and how they define that may be different.”

In the Second District race, both Democrats have won progressive support, although Gregory is the preferred candidate of the county Democratic Party. Ron Widelec, a steering committee member of the Long Island Activists, which was formed by Bernie Sanders supporters, said the group endorsed Grechen Shirley as more closely tied to the grassroots groups.

“We are trying to use primaries to push more progressive candidates because the party doesn’t seem willing to support them” except in races that Democrats aren’t expected to win, said Widelec.

Grechen Shirley received national attention recently when the Federal Election Commission ruled she could use campaign funds to pay for baby sitters for her two young children while she campaigns. She called it a “game changer for moms and working parents” who want to run for office, but face child care costs and no salaries.

Gregory, who has been endorsed by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and other former and current elected officials, said his party support is “a plus. There’s a lot of talk about the establishment, but not much definition of what that means.” He defined it as “people who have been involved through the good and bad times to get good people elected. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

In special elections over the past year, from U.S. Senate to statehouse races, Democrats have taken seats held by Republicans in enough numbers to worry the GOP, including two open Assembly seats on Long Island.

King first won his seat in 1992, but is in a district where registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans with a large unaffiliated bloc of voters. He won by a 25 percentage-point margin over Gregory in 2016.

“I don’t think there will be anything typical about this race,” said Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. “People who never cared about politics before care about politics now.”

Gregory and Grechen Shirley have intersected only rarely on the campaign trail: their first Suffolk County debate is Thursday night at the Sayville Congregation Church. Unlike them, the candidates in the 1st District have appeared together at numerous, crowded candidate forums across the district.

There, they mostly agree on the issues while selling themselves and their distinguishing brands: David Pechefsky, 50, of Port Jefferson, is the Sanders-style progressive; Vivian Viloria-Fisher, 70, of Setauket is an experienced former county legislator with a progressive record on the environment, immigration and women’s issues. Elaine DiMasi, 49, of Islip was a Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist; Perry Gershon, 56, of East Hampton, is a wealthy businessman with a robust campaign fund; and Kate Browning, 58, of Shirley, is a former county legislator with blue-collar appeal.

“I am still shopping,” said Donna Strong, 51, of Middle Island, after a forum in Patchogue in April. “Nobody disqualified themselves, and I could vote for anyone, but I don’t have a favorite yet.”

While some activists don’t want a middle-of-the-road candidate, Morris said, others see the need to endorse “a candidate who can win in a district that has voted for a very conservative Republican candidate for the last few cycles.”

Browning cites her county legislative accomplishments as having “successfully controlled spending and held the line on taxes, cracked down on illegal housing and made protecting our precious environment a focus” — in a conservative legislative district that is Zeldin’s home base. She was on the Working Families line from 2005 to 2017 and cites her blue-collar credentials as a former school bus driver (her riders included Zeldin, she says). Her husband is a New York City police detective.

The five candidates are anxious to distinguish themselves even as they agree on most issues. Both Pechefsky, who grew up in Patchogue and moved back to the district recently from Brooklyn, and Viloria-Fisher have sought to position Browning as less progressive. Asked at a Patchogue forum if he’d support Browning should she win, Pechefsky said he’d want her to clarify her positions on issues such as local law enforcement cooperation with ICE. Viloria-Fisher said she’d vote for Browning, but wouldn’t campaign for her, based on legislative votes with which she disagreed.

“The Democratic message needs to be much stronger,” Pechefsky said at the Patchogue forum. “And if we don’t do that, we will continue to lose. Bernie Sanders showed a strong path for a message of fairness.”

Eileen Duffy, founder of the closed Facebook group Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin with nearly 4,000 members, recently left the Pechefsky campaign as its communications director and is running for the Quogue village board. She dismisses the idea that candidates shouldn’t contest the issues during the primary for fear of creating rancor: “It’s a contest,” she said. “It’s not a fight to the death.”

“All the candidates seem pretty progressive,” said DiMasi. “It’s not just the stance on the issues, it’s what are we going to do and how are we going to get things through Congress. . . . I’m a problem solver, that’s my life’s work.”

Gershon is a wealthy commercial real estate financier, who a year ago switched his voting registration address from Manhattan to his second home in East Hampton in order to run. He has so far raised more than three times as much in campaign funds as the next leading competitor, about half of it his own money. As of March 31, Zeldin reported to the Federal Elections Commission that he’d raised $2,434,869, and spent $1,306,316 with $1,501,640 cash on hand, while Gershon had raised $1,410,143, spent $346,862 and has $1,063,281 cash on hand. Since then, he has begun running television ads and mailing flyers to registered voters. In a large district where many of the voters are still unfamiliar with the candidates, he said, he now is increasingly recognized when he knocks on doors to campaign.

Gershon described himself as “in the middle. You need to energize the progressives, but you also need some numbers of non-Democratic voters to win in this district.” He said that’s what former Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) did in this district so well to win six consecutive terms.

Jon Schneider, a former aide to Bishop, said the grassroots activity this year reminded him of that of the crowds of conservative tea party advocates who started showing up at town halls and other events in 2010.

Bishop said in an interview he saw “real echoes of 2009 and 2010, but now coming from the opposite political direction. It swept Zeldin into the State Senate in 2010.” Zeldin then unseated Bishop in the off-year midterm election in 2014.

Leever, a teacher, has been going out several times a month alone or in small groups to knock on doors of registered Democrats in Southampton Town to encourage them to vote in the First District primary (her group PEER has not endorsed a candidate). After the primary, she’ll go out several times a week to knock on doors of nonvoters and unaffiliated voters.

She isn’t depending on a so-called “blue wave” of Democratic victories even though the first midterm congressional races after a new president takes office often favor the out-of-power party. “I don’t believe in a blue wave,” she said. “I believe in doing the work, taking personal responsibility.”

Kathryn Szoka, co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor and a member of PEER, foresees “a historic turnout,” both in the primary and the general election.

“We are not thinking two people are going to win the primary,” she said. “The day after, some people will be disappointed, but the month after, people are going to be looking at getting a Democrat in Washington, and pushing that Democrat as far toward the progressive positions as we can.”

She added, “We all lived through Dave and Anna’s circumstances and we’re living through Trump. We recognize what could happen if we don’t come together.”