Until now, socialist politics have been more acceptable in the cities of the USA. Sarahana Shresta wants to change that in rural New York.
Malicious tongues say about the Hudson Valley that it has become the new Brooklyn. It only takes a good three hours to get to the borough in New York City by car or train. Before 2020, weekenders from the big city often came. But when the Covid pandemic claimed a particularly large number of victims there, many fled the virus and moved here permanently.
They brought their city life with them, the cafes, restaurants and gyms. Together with the Californian company Airbnb, they have also driven up property prices. In Kingston, one of the larger cities in the Valley with a population of 24,000, the average price of a home was $244,000 in February 2020, according to real estate portal Zillow, but just two years later it was $360,000. While there are only about a dozen rental homes on the market today, Airbnb has hundreds of listings with an average nightly price of $283. Many people who called Kingston or other places in the area home have been displaced or even simply put out on the street.
This leads to social tensions. There are contrasts between old-timers and newcomers, conservatives and liberals, and rich and poor. Politically, the Hudson Valley has long been marked by contrasts. Some small towns have higher average incomes. There, people tend to vote left-liberal. Ordinary working-class people, including many African-Americans, also traditionally vote for Democrats. In rural areas, on the other hand, Republicans tend to dominate.
Now, however, something hardly imaginable happened. In the New York State legislative primaries in June, socialist Sarahana Shresta beat longtime Assemblyman Kevin Cahill in District 103, home to some 134,000 people, and now has an excellent chance of winning a seat in the November 8 election.
Jonathan Bix can explain how Shresta’s surprise success came about. A lot had to do with a Bernie Sanders campaign, he says at the Red Dot, a pub in the small town of Hudson where slogans for peace and democracy hang on the wall. „Before his first campaign six years ago,” he says, “hardly anyone joined the left. The movement was tiny, and there were strange people there who had disconnected themselves from society. Bernie Sanders‘ presidential bid as a democratic socialist changed that.“ Plus, he says, there was a new generation that didn’t live through the Cold War. Bix is also one of them. He grew up in a leftist home and has no problem professing his political beliefs. „We’re much more open to socialist politics today. For us, Bernie, the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and left-wing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City were very important.“
Bix is fighting the consequences of gentrification in the Hudson Valley with his organization „For the Many“ – for affordable housing, good health care and climate-friendly and socially just energy policies. A thousand people are now active in the initiative, and every year it receives donations for its work from more than ten thousand people.
That wasn’t always the case. Ten years ago, Bix met with like-minded people at a church to think together about what could be done to counter the consequences of the financial crisis. At the time, many people could no longer afford their apartments or cottages and were being evicted. „For the Many“ stands for a social policy. The initiative successfully advocates making banks pay for every foreclosure and vacant home they own. It prevented a previously announced price increase by the local utility. It also succeeded in pushing through a program to help low-income families avoid power shutoffs. Later, the organization even achieved a general price reduction. „We’re combining the issue of climate change with the issue of affordable energy here,“ Bix says. „Everyone thinks the private utilities are terrible. Their service is bad, the infrastructure is dilapidated and the prices are too high. This gives us a chance to present an alternative: namely, public companies that produce clean energy.“
With a population of 22 million, New York State is larger than Sweden and Portugal combined and would rank tenth in the world in economic power if it were an independent country. And it is one of 14 states in the entire U.S. where Democrats hold a majority in both houses of the legislature and are in the governor’s office.
„We could really make a difference for the better here,“ Bix says. „In a state where Republicans control one of the two chambers, or even both, or provide the governor, you’re not going to get anything progressive done. Here, however, Democrats have to be good enough to get anything meaningful done. Here we cannot – as mainstream Democrats like to do – blame the Republicans. We can put pressure on them from the left. And it’s going to take enough socialists and progressives to do that.“ Leftists in both chambers of the legislature make up about 20 percent of the legislators in New York state.
So far, left-wing legislators have come primarily from Brooklyn. Now, however, Sarahana Shresta could make her mark in the Hudson Valley. „I worked in a library in New York when I was in the university,“ she says during a meeting at a coffee shop. „That’s where I read left-wing newspapers. I found my political home at DSA, first with the ‚Public Power‘ campaign. We want an energy system that is not subject to the private market, but is publicly owned and serves the people. I liked that.“
Shresta was born in Kathmandu. During her childhood, there was a democracy movement in Nepal that led to the end of the monarchy. It was during this time that she became politicized. She came to the U.S. to study, became a citizen of the country and now lives with her husband and dog in the small town of Esopus in the Hudson Valley. „As someone from the Global South, I’m very aware of climate change,“ she says. „I was very involved in a bill to build public renewable energy. And that was my motivation for applying for the mandate here.“
Actually, Shresta preferred to help behind the scenes to find a suitable person and support them. „But you know how it is. I said, ‚If we don’t find someone, I’ll reconsider.‘ And we didn’t find anybody. So I said I’ll do it.“ So she ran in the Democratic primary for a seat that her opponent, Kevin Cahill, had held for 26 years. And she won by a margin of just 531 votes. The Democratic Party accepted the result and has supported her ever since. It’s not a foregone conclusion. When nurse and socialist activist India Walton won the Democratic primary against Mayor Byron Brown in upstate Buffalo last year, her party left her hanging and the incumbent eventually won the seat.
On Election Day in November, Shresta will face Patrick Sheehan, the Republican candidate who was once a Democrat himself. Sheehan wants to be an alternative to the socialist Shresta, touting that he is not radical and has always lived in the area. It’s a thinly disguised attack on Shresta’s life story. „People have heard some things about me, but as soon as I meet them at the door, they trust me,“ she observes. „They see that I am not a radical threat, but friendly. I haven’t had to face any racist experiences so far in this campaign, thankfully.“
Shresta is motivated. She will knock on many doors, call potential voters, and there are many volunteers to help her. She needs them, too, because in sparsely populated rural America, the distances are much longer than in Brooklyn. Focusing primarily on young voters here would be futile because the demographics are different. Young people often move to big cities like New York City. It’s also much less about party affiliation in the Hudson Valley than it is about the division in society between „up“ and „down.“ Many people are disillusioned with mainstream politics in general and hardly make a distinction between centrist Democrats and mainstream Republicans anymore. Offering a real alternative here can be an opportunity to reach potential voters who were not wavering between the two parties but rather didn’t want to vote at all.
Shresta is convinced that urban and rural people actually stand for very similar things. „Even the rural areas are getting gentrified,“ she explains. „People with money come and buy houses here. The basic things people need – housing, health care, climate action, investment in schools and hospitals – are important everywhere you go in New York State.“ Of course, there are differences in how people feel about the parties and government, she admits. „But most everywhere feel there’s too much corporate influence and not enough access to public infrastructure. And corruption is a big issue no matter what party they belong to.“
Bix concludes the conversation in the Red Dot by saying he believes that socialist policies can win in the United States. And not just in Brooklyn, but in the Hudson Valley as well. „If Sarahana can do that, she’ll probably be the first socialist in the U.S. in 100 years to be elected on the state level outside the big cities.“
This article was published first here: https://www.nd-aktuell.de/artikel/1167476.wahlkampf-in-den-usa-die-hoffnungstraegerin-im-hudson-valley.html