In the wake of the many lies Rep. George Santos told to grab power, it’s clear that the failure to properly expose and confront Trump Republicans during the election campaign is just a symptom of a larger problem in New York.
Across the country, voters who saw this election as a choice between freedom and fascism defied expectations, history and mass voter silencing efforts by keeping Democrats in control of the Senate and flipping several statehouses and governor’s mansions. This is a midterm outcome for an incumbent party that’s happened only twice in the last century.
The one glaring exception amid all this historic success was New York.
In contrast to much of the nation, many Democrats in my home state underperformed and lost, jeopardizing the governor’s race and costing Democrats the House by losing seats they should have won, including the one Santos seized on Long Island.
So what went wrong in New York and how do we get it right in our state moving forward?
I grew up in a multiracial family on Long Island, a battleground region that voted nearly identical to the nation as a whole in the 2020 presidential election. It’s a place where I’ve seen neighbors show up for each other to weather storms and hard times. But it’s also the home where I learned by age 10 to fear for my Nicaraguan father’s safety when a few kids told me he should be deported, repeating the hatred certain politicians stoked against immigrants. And it’s where a powerful few stoked fears and resentment against Black people to justify destroying social supports and programs my white mother’s family also relied on.
The crises we face today are in fact the legacy of the laws and lies manufactured by a powerful few throughout our history. Railroad barons removed Montauketts from their homes, wealthy politicians created whites-only Levittown, and unelected power brokers like Robert Moses bulldozed Black and brown neighborhoods and used highways to segregate our communities.
The truth is there’s always been a supremacist faction here that has tried to grab and hold onto power by controlling who we can be, what we can do and who we can love. So last year, when I saw Trump Republicans like Lee Zeldin and George Santos try to seize congressional districts by supporting those who attacked our Capitol on Jan. 6 — and whipping up racial fears about “violent criminals ruling our streets” — I recognized their playbook.
At the same time, however, the Long Island I know also holds an antidote to this politics of deliberate racial division and control. After the Black Lives Matter mobilizations of 2020, I worked with friends in my hometown to create Reimagine Babylon, a group devoted to electing leaders who will make Babylon a place where everyone can thrive, no exceptions.
In less than two years, we won two Library Trustee seats, elected a new school board member in collaboration with alumni survivors of sexual violence, and made competitive a race for municipal office that others had long written off. By organizing a choir of local leaders to repeat and spread our message consistently — from posting in neighborhood Facebook groups, flyering main street storefronts, and door knocking in every corner of our community — we demonstrated that we could activate our base and persuade the conflicted by rooting ourselves in racial solidarity and inoculating against scapegoating.
The approach we used in Babylon is based on the Race Class Narrative, a proven messaging and organizing framework that weaves together race, class and gender, advances our progressive worldview, and counters right-wing divide and conquer strategy. This involves mobilizing and persuading people to our cause by following a specific architecture to communication that leads with values shared across identities and backgrounds. We then explain how a handful of villains are deliberately dividing people by race to hoard wealth and power, and close with an aspirational vision we can achieve through cross-racial solidarity.
In my day job at the progressive messaging firm ASO Communications, I’ve supported successful campaigns across the country in using Race Class Narrative — first in key battlegrounds in 2020 and again in 2022.
In this past midterms election, we worked with Way to Win Action Fund to launch a massive campaign to “Protect Our Freedoms” on the ballot, utilizing a narrative that centered the values that Americans share across race, place and party — and that have been core to progressive efforts from the abolitionist movement to FDR’s four freedoms to the freedom to marry.
Hand-in-hand with progressive organizations nationwide, we created a consistent drumbeat of this narrative through campaigning and organizing on and offline. We echoed each other by posting shared content, messages and ads across social media, by engaging celebrities and influencers to amplify and further mainstream our story of the midterms, and most importantly, by engaging with voters in person and in our communities.
In Pennsylvania, a group we worked with called One PA drove mobile billboards through Philly and Pittsburgh. Referring to civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer, the billboards mobilized residents with a call to “Fight like Fannie for Freedom For All,” as part of a larger push that registered thousands to be voters in the election. They also used creative actions along the campaign trail where they hijacked attention from candidates like Doug Mastriano — the GOP’s fascist candidate for governor — to create a clear contrast between voters’ desires and the efforts of Trump Republicans.
When Trumpists in Arizona attempted to intimidate and scare voters of color from using drop boxes and early vote sites, local organizers could have focused on raising alarms and amplifying the threats. Had they done so, they would have further cemented voters’ fears and kept folks at home. Instead, our partners at Community Change Action and LUCHA organized joyous visits to the polls. People buddied up to cast their ballots and modeled active defiance for the young, Black and brown voters that MAGA Republicans were hoping to silence.
When Democrats replicated our efforts and made their campaigns about protecting our freedoms and confronted Trump Republican efforts to fuel divisions, they won in many tough contests. Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro triumphed by making “real freedom” the core of his argument to voters. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won re-election by significant margins over a race-baiting, anti-trans fearmonger by emphasizing our freedom to decide when and if to grow our families. And in the Hudson Valley of New York, voters elected Pat Ryan, running on protecting our freedoms, in his swing House district, as well as Sarahana Shrestha, who led a future-oriented campaign rejecting fear and division, to the State Assembly.
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Unfortunately, elsewhere in New York, such as further down the Hudson, on Long Island, and even in New York City, too many Democrats ceded the terms of the debate to Trump Republicans. They amplified their dog whistles around crime and failed to expose their real motivations, as well as the danger that figures like George Santos pose to our freedoms and families. They ignored the energy of voters demanding our children’s freedom to live, learn and love and relied on simply refuting (and in doing so, repeating) their opponent’s lies.
The only path forward for New York is race and values-forward. From Seneca Falls to Stonewall, from winning higher wages and workplace protections to creating the food, music and art that defines us today, New Yorkers have stood arm-in-arm to realize liberty and justice for all. We’ve always determined what’s possible — and we have the power now to make clear the criminal conspiracy at the center of the Trump Republican Party, to demand the removal of the likes of George Santos, and to elect new leaders who will govern for all of us. By replicating and expanding upon the successes made in Babylon and the Hudson Valley, we can reshape our island, our state and our nation for the better.
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