In a surprise victory for a state assembly race in a strong Republican district in Long Island, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union member Christine Pellegrino, a Democrat, won the district with a more than a 15-point lead.
Pellegrino, a 25-year veteran reading teacher, a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention and an advocate for free college tuition for all students, won the special election for a state assembly seat left vacant when the former assembly member, Joseph Saladino, a Republican, was appointed Oyster Bay supervisor. Pellegrino defeated Republican opponent Tom Gargiulo in a special election held on May 23.
A GOP STRONGHOLD
The ninth state assembly district, which Pellegrino carried, has long been a Republican stronghold. It’s on Long Island’s south shore and includes parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties. City & State New York, which covers New York politics, wrote that the district contained “the central artery of Nassau’s vaunted GOP machine.” In November, President Donald Trump won the district with 60 percent of the vote. In 2016, when Democratic candidate Brendan Cunningham ran against Republican incumbent Saladino, Cunningham lost in a big way.
“Something is happening,” tweeted Cunningham on the night that Pellegrino was declared the victor. “BIG congrats to Christine Pellegrino on flipping this conservative assembly district. I got 31 percent in 2016.”
Steve London, a PSC legislative committee member and an associate professor in political science at Brooklyn College, said in special elections, which typically have low voter turnout, mobilizing voters is crucial. Across the nation, he said, Democrats have come close to defeating Republicans in Republican-leaning districts.
“The difference between coming close and winning was both Pellegrino’s worker-friendly message and NYSUT’s and Working Family Party’s (WFP) organizational support,” London told Clarion. “What Pellegrino’s victory says to me is that progressive candidates and the power of union and WFP organizing is the secret sauce for transforming anti-Trumpism into a meaningful electoral movement for change.”
NYSUT is the PSC’s state-level parent union. NYSUT President Andrew Pallotta celebrated Pellegrino’s win, saying in a statement, “Christine’s message resonates – it’s time to send a teacher, mom and opt-out leader to Albany to make public education policy. She’s one of us and we’re very proud today. NYSUT volunteers made thousands of phone calls and knocked on countless doors to convince ninth district residents that Christine would put the community’s needs ahead of anything else – and they listened.”
Republicans have been on the defensive in special elections in districts that normally vote Republican. Also this May, a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire beat her Republican contender for a seat on the New Hampshire House of Representatives in a district that went for Trump by seven points. In the Atlanta suburbs, a June 20 runoff for a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives is seen by many political experts as a toss-up between Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, and Karen Handel, a Republican. That house district has had a Republican representative since 1979, when Newt Gingrich was first elected to represent it.
Pellegrino’s win doesn’t tip the balance in the New York State Assembly where there’s a clear Democratic majority; there are currently 108 Democrats and 42 Republicans. Pellegrino, who has a history of union and progressive activism, will advocate for adequate funding for education and other progressive measures.
“I will be a strong voice for all New Yorkers in Albany,” posted Pellegrino on her campaign’s Facebook page. “I will fight for our children, our communities, our schools, health care, clean drinking water, more resources to help combat the growing opioid addiction many families are facing on LI, and to make sure that we are protected in case of another natural disaster.”