When Politics Goes Low, Get Local

Canvassing for Carlos

Canvassing in a nor’easter on campaign launch day.

Two weeks ago I worked my way through a crowd gathered on the sidewalk spilling out of Tacos Matamoros, and slipped into the packed taqueria. Music was blaring, margaritas were being served and sipped, and everyone’s attention was glued to the TVs. Usually playing international soccer matches, they were now tuned to New York 1. I looked around, and waved at a table full of friends here, a group of friends over there, some nervously optimistic, some confidently eating tacos, others wringing their hands and wiping back tears.

Forty percent of the votes in and he’s got an 8 percent lead.

Fifty percent in, the lead still holds. 70, 88, finally 90 percent and someone yells, “The New York Times called it!” A minute later, New York 1 does as well, 95% reporting and Carlos Menchaca at 48% of the votes wins the Democratic Primary for New York City Council in District 38.

Chants and cheers and sobs erupt.

“Carlos! Carlos! Carlos!”

“Si se puede!”

“Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!”

Carlos was hoisted into a chair, nearly hitting the low ceiling of the restaurant and then, standing on a table, proceeded to thank every group, campaign staff member and volunteer, and community member who had helped. As I hugged my neighbors and jubilant tears streaked down my cheeks I was filled with a sense of gratification and relief. This sense of elation and a political victory have felt long out of reach since long before the 2016 elections.


Carlos on Primary Night.

Like many volunteers I’d been up since 5 that morning, monitoring poll sites, handing out palm cards, talking to voters. This was the first time I’d ever volunteered for a politician. The last time I specifically volunteered on a campaign was to defeat an anti-choice ballot initiative in Maine when I was still in high school back in 1999.

So, for those of you who don’t live in my district, why the high emotions for such a local race? And why my involvement now?

At this time last year I hardly knew any of my neighbors. I didn’t even know the name of my city council representative. But after the election in 2016 I made a promise to myself: talk to your neighbors. Get in rooms with people you don’t know and listen.

Nearly a year later I’m proud to say I held myself to that promise. Last December I met other Sunset Parkers and friends, including Carlos, at a Sunset Park Unity March and later a dinner meeting of what would become Love Trumps Hate Sunset Park or, as I like to call it, “my neighborhood resistance group.”

The group was not based around a political campaign, but rather standing up to protect our most vulnerable neighbors in our very diverse neighborhood from the winds of the incoming Trump administration. And stand up we have. I’ve been a part of hosting monthly Know Your Rights dinners for immigrant neighbors, volunteered at a free legal clinic at a local public school, helped host a voter registration workshop and registered voters, volunteered at local nonprofits that serve immigrant neighbors, and helped run a forum for City Council candidates (there were four other Democrats running against Carlos this year). We have a lot to learn and a lot still to do, but I’m hopeful we’ve helped contribute to a more progressive community overall.

I noticed that as I attended events throughout the community Carlos or a member of his team showed up offering their support. I realized, in an era when politicians seem like the worst representations of who we can be that some politicians can, and should be, inspiring. They can, and should be, great leaders, great listeners, and highly compassionate people. They should value public service. They should have a vision. They should be human. When I met Carlos I was struck because I’d never met a politician that possessed these qualities and still seemed so fully himself.

I was motivated to work on his campaign not just because he was the first Mexican-American elected official in New York City, or the first openly gay politician from Brooklyn, but because he took a stand and fought not only for those who could vote, but for those who cannot vote (yet) due to age or immigration status. When Carlos came up for re-election and it turned out that many other Democrats also wanted into our district, I knew I had to be involved in his campaign. New York City elections, I learned, are often won and lost in the primaries because districts tend to vote consistently Democrat or Republican.

I used to have an “I’m too radical for electoral politics” attitude. I somehow thought, despite my Master’s Degree in Public Administration that should have taught me better, that politics would take care of itself. As long as I showed up and voted in the general election what did it matter? Well, it matters a lot. Yes, our democracy is restrictive and frustrating and imperfect, but if we don’t push both from inside and out, we are automatically losing out. As my neighbor, friend, and union organizer Arsenia said during a voter registration training, “voting is harm reduction.”

When I decided to get involved in Carlos’ campaign I used skills I have and am comfortable with and pushed myself to go further. I wrote and edited fundraising emails. I hosted a fundraising cocktail party. I wrote social media posts. I helped set up the campaign kick-off event. Canvassing is my personal nightmare, but I forced myself to do it, even in the pouring rain. I got up at 5 am on primary day.

Nydia Velezquez and Carlos Menchaca

Britney, age 11 and one of Carlos’ hardest working volunteers and most motivational speakers, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, and Carlos at the campaign launch.

Being able to take the time to volunteer for a political campaign takes the privilege of time and awareness, but being able to tune out from local politics is also a form of privilege. And throughout the spring, summer and early fall the hardest working people on Carlos’ campaign were local teenagers, mostly Chinese and Spanish speaking, who spent their summer learning the organizing ropes and neighborhood mothers. Now that’s a local power base I want to support.  

After volunteering for the campaign and being a part of the local primary election this year I feel more connected to my neighborhood and city and like a more capable community member. I learned what building a power base looks like and what it really takes from observing the campaign staffers and more experienced volunteers and feel like I grew in my understanding of a “grassroots organizing,” a phrase I’ve tossed around for years.

I know not every campaign will be as inspirational as Carlos’ and not every issue may be as clear-cut as keeping an empathetic, progressive Democrat in power. But right now there is no lack of uninspiring and regressive politicians to be challenged (New Yorkers, don’t forget about the IDC and State Senator Simcha Felder who are holding up progressive legislation in New York State) and no lack of issues to organize around.

Resistance, protest and saying no when those in power abuse it is important. It is vital. But getting involved in organizing is essential. I learned so much for the experienced campaign organizers in the small time I was around them. Democracy is slow, hard work, but building a base and a true community is how change can happen.

On another note: if you are in New York State and want to keep fighting for progressive change, you have until October 13th to change your party registration to vote in any primary in 2018. Yes, New York State election laws are some of the most restrictive in the country, another fact I didn’t know last year or, if I did, didn’t understand why it mattered.

This past week has been a reminder that there are so many fights ahead. For me personally, I’m going to continue to support my immigrant neighbors, whatever their legal status, with workshops, community legal clinics, advocacy and anything else I can. I’m also going to focus on bringing more progressives to the New York State legislature in 2018. We are in this together. I still believe we can not only fight back against the Trump agenda, but fight for progressive change.

Or as Carlos wrote on Facebook, “our celebration will be sweet, but brief. Our work is not done. I am ready.”

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