Rise of the Bernie-Crats

Bernie Sanders failed to win New York or the Democratic nomination. Can his Empire State disciples do better?

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Washington Square Park.
Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Washington Square Park.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ defeat in New York’s April 19 primary in many ways tolled doom for his quest to capture the Democratic nomination for president. Despite a string of recent wins in the Midwest, it became clear then he couldn’t beat Hillary Clinton in the big, diverse states that form the party’s bedrock—and that he couldn’t recover from the delegate deficit he ran up losing virtually all of the South.

Still, that hasn’t stopped candidates across the Empire State from running under the Bernie banner, promising to bring his vision to fruition in Albany or Washington. This, if you will, is the vanguard of the “political revolution” in New York.

James Sanders

State Senator James Sanders.
State Senator James Sanders. (Photo: Facebook)

Unlike most of the candidates on this list, State Senator James Sanders (no relation to the Brooklyn-born Vermonter) is already in elected office—and has been since his native swath of the Rockaways and Southeast Queens first voted him into the City Council in 2001. The local lawmaker, who became early endorser and convention delegate for the leftist senator this year, inaugurated his career by championing a Bernie-esque measure that would have barred the city from doing business with any bank that engaged in what the legislation deemed “predatory lending.”

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill and, when the Council overrode him, he successfully sued to overturn it.

“I’m blessed that I have been saying these things for years also. I am not new to these positions, and they have always made sense to me,” James Sanders, who won election to the State Senate in 2012, told the Observer.

The 2008 financial collapse ravaged State Senator Sanders’ homeowner-heavy, black middle class district, and the politician himself faced foreclosure on a half-million dollar mortgage he took out on his house. This, he said, is just one reason the socialist White House contender’s economic populism had a special resonance for him and his district.

“When he talks about free college, we are suffering under the burden of high debt. When he talks about jobs being exported because of these disastrous treaties, we are in the direct line of fire,” the Queens lawmaker said. “His message, his platform, is one I’d be willing to run under any day of the week.”

But, like most majority-minority areas, James Sanders’ corner of Queens went heavily for Clinton in the primary—which the state senator blamed on his candidate’s “tactical error” of not campaigning in the district.

Maybe it was the insurgent spirit Bernie Sanders’ bid brought to the presidential race that inspired his supporter in the State Legislature to file papers last December to challenge longtime Congressman Gregory Meeks. The Albany pol had repeatedly hit Meeks in the press for his ardent support of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which the Vermont senator had slammed on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill.

But plotting a coup against the sitting congressman soon proved to be a potentially fatal political blunder. Meeks, after all, is the protege of former Congressman Floyd Flake—now the pastor of the 23,000-member Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church and a major political powerbroker in Southeast Queens. Congressman Joseph Crowley, the Queens Democratic boss, maintains influence in the African-American enclave through an at-times uneasy alliance with Flake.

Crowley, as it happens, is also one of the top-ranking Democrats in the House and a tight Clinton ally.

The state senator—who dropped out of congressional contention this Spring—now faces a September primary challenge from Adrienne Adams, chairwoman of the local community board and a member of Flake’s flock. With the pastor’s political muscle and Crowley’s fundraising prowess aligned against him, James Sanders faces a tough fight to hang onto his office. But he said he draws confidence from his strong support among labor unions, and from the sense that he is at the forefront of a larger movement.

“I may have got to the beachhead first, but more troops are arriving,” Sanders, a Marine Corps veteran, said.

Robert Carroll

Robert Carroll with Assemblyman James Brennan.
Robert Carroll with Assemblyman James Brennan. (Photo: Robert Carroll for Assembly)

Twenty-nine, white and male, Robert Carroll fits the stereotypical demographic profile of a Sanders supporter. But the Brooklyn Assembly candidate possesses a political pedigree that would appall the average Bernie bro. The young election lawyer served as president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a club his grandfather co-founded and his father formerly helmed, from 2013 until 2015. Born from the swirling anti-war and anti-machine sentiments of the late 1960s, CBID has grown into one of the most powerful political institutions in Park Slope and in Carroll’s native Windsor Terrace.

When CBID’s flagship elected official, Assemblyman James Brennan, announced his retirement earlier this year after more than two decades in Albany, he swiftly endorsed Carroll as his heir. The candidate quickly picked up the support of virtually all other local pols—a level of institutional support alien to Sanders and most of his acolytes.

But, according to Carroll, what the underdog independent senator and the generational Democratic Party activist share in common (besides the borough of their birth) is a fierce belief that government can and should resolve issues like global warming and income inequality.

“I became energized by his message, because he was appealing to our better selves, our better angels,” Carroll told the Observer. “Well intentioned folks can sit down in a room and figure things out for the greater populace. And I think Bernie never lost that idealism, and thought government was a place to do good, and do public service for the people you represent.”

CBID bucked the rest of the Brooklyn Democratic establishment and became the only club in the borough to endorse Sanders for president. And Carroll turned his political and legal know-how to help the Vermont senator get on the ballot and campaign in New York. When Sanders held a rally in Manhattan in June shortly before dropping out of the presidential race, Carroll sat onstage just beside the podium.

In his own campaign, Carroll has echoed Sanders’ call for higher taxes on the wealthy by pushing for a state sales tax on luxury co-ops and condos, with the resulting revenue going to build affordable housing. He’s also promised to carry on the fallen presidential candidate’s fight for tougher campaign finance laws, and to open up New York’s notoriously byzantine voting process by allowing for same-day registration.

The 44th Assembly District, like the state as a whole, ultimately favored Clinton in the April primary. But Carroll argues he has a key advantage over the unsuccessful presidential candidate: he’s not just from Brooklyn, he’s stayed there.

“I grew up in the district, I have very deep community and family ties, and we’ve been running a very robust campaign. And the issues we’re talking about resonate in the district,” he said.

It also helps that his only opposition is Republican candidate Glenn Nocera, a Tea Party leader competing in an overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic slice of Brooklyn.

Debbie Medina

Debbie Medina at a rally.
Debbie Medina at a rally.

Medina’s bid to unseat State Senator Martin Dilan in this September’s Democratic primary is a microcosm of the contradictions in the Sanders movement. For years, Dilan was a lieutenant of the late Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, an assemblyman with whom he shared a large patch of north Brooklyn.

Before plummeting from power amid sexual harassment allegations in 2012, Lopez reigned over a publicly-funded social service empire that catered to the historically low-income Hispanic, Polish and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn and neighboring Ridgewood, Queens. Lopez facilitated the construction of thousands upon thousands of low-cost apartments in his district, but his post as chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee also allowed him and his allies to develop friendly relationships with real estate developers.

The Lopez-Dilan turf was once solid Clinton country: the former first lady pasted then-Sen. Barack Obama there in the 2008 presidential primary better than two-to-one, and Lopez plastered doctored photos of himself standing next to her on his campaign literature.

But by April 2016, five months after Lopez died, plenty had changed. Upper-middle-class, predominantly white hipsters and young professionals, who started seeping into the area in the 1990s, had become a dominant enough presence that Dilan’s district was one of the few parts of the five boroughs that swung for Sanders.

Hoping to capitalize on that momentum is Medina, who first challenged Dilan in the 2014 Democratic primary and captured a surprisingly healthy 43 percent of the vote against the six-term incumbent. This second time out, she has wrapped herself in Sanders’ mantle—so much so that she’s the only candidate on this list to openly identify as a democratic socialist.

Medina is no newcomer—she lives today just a few blocks from where she was born in Williamsburg. For three decades, she has worked as an organizer for Los Sures, a nonprofit develops and advocates for low-income housing. But her open appeals to liberal white Sanders supporters has exposed her to attacks from Dilan that she is in league with the gentrifiers. The challenger has retaliated by depicting the state senator as a tool of real estate interests.

“Each and every day a tenant is being told by a landlord that they have to leave, or pay a huge rent. We have all this housing coming up in our community, and it’s not for the people in this community,” she told the Observer in a phone interview, vowing to push to toughen rent laws if elected. “Without just renewing them but making them stronger, people are going to be displaced.”

The candidate acknowledged the Vermont senator enjoyed his broadest support among recent arrivals to the district, but argued he has also has fans among the older residents.

“They try to say socialism is just for whites. That’s not necessarily true,” she said, citing the Young Lords Party and her own radical parents as her personal political inspiration.  “You have a lot of seniors in my community who, maybe because of what we’re going through as a community, that believe in what Sanders is saying.”

Medina’s campaign began auspiciously enough, with a laudatory write-up in The Nation and endorsements from Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Councilman Antonio Reynoso (both Clinton supporters, incidentally). She won the backing of the hipster-dominated New Kings Democrats Club, and support from the Team Bernie NY volunteer network (though not from Sanders himself).

Then word surfaced in the press that Medina’s son had killed a three-year-old in Pennsylvania—and that, when pleading for leniency in her child’s sentencing, Medina had testified she hit him with a belt when he misbehaved as a teenager. Many of her supporters have since distanced themselves from her.

And Medina has still other hurdles to vault: Dilan not only has the inertia of incumbency on his side, but the white millenials who boosted Sanders this Spring are a notoriously unreliable voting bloc in state elections. And the district’s sizable Hasidic Jewish population has dueled Los Sures for decades over control of the local subsidized housing stock, and might not want to see somebody from the organization parked in their State Senate seat.

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout.
Zephyr Teachout.

In Spring 2014, Fordham University Law Professor Zephyr Teachout launched a gubernatorial bid as improbable as her name, capitalizing on liberal discontent with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stodgy fiscal conservatism and his coziness with Wall Street firms. That fall, she shocked observers when she pulled upward of a third of the Democratic primary electorate away from the far better-known and better-funded incumbent.

If that sounds a little like Sanders’ run at Clinton this year, it’s a parallel both Democratic presidential candidates’ campaigns recognized: the rival sides reportedly studied the results of the 2014 primary as guide to winning New York in April. And in the end, the two electoral maps wound up looking largely the same: Cuomo and Clinton triumphed thanks to support in the New York City metro area and in and around Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Teachout and Sanders, by contrast, captured the vast but patchily populated tracts of the state in between.

In fact, Teachout has had mirror career to Sanders in multiple ways: born in Vermont, she moved to Sanders’ home borough of Brooklyn and started her political career with a longshot attempt at statewide office. But while it took Sanders several successive defeats in his bids for governor and Senate before he settled for a smaller job (mayor of Burlington, in his case), Teachout has already aimed her ambitions at one of those patchily populated areas she won in 2014—the 19th Congressional District, where Republican Representative Chris Gibson is retiring after this year.

The 19th Congressional District hugs New York’s Capital District on the east, west and south, covering a number of small exurbs and rural towns. It then plunges as far south as Poughkeepsie, encompassing Ulster County and the city of Kingston, and stretches west to touch the outer suburbs of Binghamton. It includes some thriving areas that have benefited from influxes of affluent residents out of the five boroughs. But like most of upstate New York, it remains predominantly white working class and struggles with unemployment, drug addiction, population decline and various forms of rural, urban and exurban decay.

In April, Democrats there vested their votes and hopes in Sanders, just as they had in Teachout against Cuomo 20 months before. Voters reaffirmed those choices in the congressional primary in June, when they nominated Teachout as their candidate for the House. The activist academic had relocated from her apartment in Fort Greene to a rented house in the district in early 2015, and had filed to run for Gibson’s soon-to-be-vacant seat.

Teachout backed Sanders for president in December, and Sanders has repaid the favor—and then some. The socialist senator has repeatedly urged his donors to contribute to the congressional candidate, allowing her to dip into his deep national cash stream and draw hundreds of thousands of dollars from across the country.

“This is an earthquake era in politics. The ground is shifting every day, people are angry, energized, and not ready to settle for another year of talking points, but are looking for ways to break open the political system,” Teachout said in an email interview with the Observer. “Bernie Sanders put money in politics and trade on the front burner, and that’s amazing. I want to harness the incredible energy around those issues in Washington to break up monopoly power.”

What’s different for Teachout this time around is that virtually the entire Democratic Party establishment has been with her from the start. She has the backing of all the district’s county leaders, of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of Sen. Charles Schumer and several sitting members of the New York delegation. The one-time underdog even secured a half-hearted sorta-endorsement from Cuomo himself.

Nonetheless, she still styles herself as a Bernie-like outsider, “working for every vote.”

“Grass-roots supporters are the heart and soul of this campaign,” she said, noting her average donation is $19. “I want to prove that you can run for office by getting people excited in the idea that we’re taking back our democracy together from the billionaires, lobbyists and corporations trying to buy it out from under us.”

Her GOP opponent is former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, a Long Island native with long roots in the upstate district, parts of which he represented for 15 years. Faso is just this side of becoming a perennial candidate, having failed to climb into the state comptroller’s office in 2002 and into the governor’s mansion in 2006.

But his fundraising rivals Teachout’s own, and several prominent hedge fund managers have fattened the political action committee backing him for Congress. Teachout has disavowed super PAC cash.

The district also has a history of hostility toward perceived carpetbaggers from New York City. Even amid 2014’s unholy bloodbath for Democrats nationwide, Gibson’s 30-point slaughter of challenger Sean Eldridge was particularly gruesome. Eldridge, the husband of liberal Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes, thought the 19th would be the birthplace of his political career when he bought a house there in 2013—and when he sank countless thousands from his personal bank account into winning. In the end, he only sowed his own burial ground.

Teachout risks doing the same, just with other people’s money. Still, she insists she won’t go down to Eldridge’s grisly end.

“I think people want someone who they can trust to have their interests at heart, and stand up for them,” she said. “The voters in this district are incredibly independent and will make up their minds for themselves.”

A final caveat: even though more Democrats than Republicans cast ballots in both the April and June primaries in the 19th this year, Donald Trump actually drew more votes there than Hillary Clinton. Even with his recent slide in the polls, in a nearly 90 percent white district, the same may prove true in November.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

Rise of the Bernie-Crats