“At the End of the Day, Climate Is a Working-Class Issue”
In the Hudson Valley, socialist Sarahana Shrestha has announced her bid for a seat on the New York State Assembly. We spoke with her about her plans to make health care more accessible and to push for a Green New Deal.
- Interview by
- Andrew Giambrone
India Walton may have lost the Buffalo mayoral race last week, but her campaign isn’t the only socialist one in upstate New York. Today in the Mid-Hudson Valley, Sarahana Shrestha, the Ulster County cochair of the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) local chapter, announced her bid for the state assembly seat for Kingston, New Paltz, Woodstock, Rhinebeck, and other areas. The seat is currently held by Kevin Cahill, a nearly twenty-nine-year incumbent expected to seek reelection in New York’s 2022 Democratic primary.
Shrestha is an organizer, graphic designer, and first-time candidate who was born in Nepal and immigrated to New York in 2001. Now forty, she lives with her husband in Esopus, a small town south of Kingston, and plans to focus her campaign on climate, health care, and housing. She was endorsed by Mid-Hudson Valley DSA and is also being backed by New York City DSA and the political arm of For the Many, a grassroots organizing group based in the Hudson Valley.
If elected, Shrestha would join a growing number of democratic socialists in the state legislature and expand their reach beyond New York City. Jacobin recently spoke with her about why she’s running. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about yourself.
I am a graphic designer by trade. I’ve done this since I finished college in 2004. I live check to check, so I do this job nonstop. On the side, I’ve been organizing for climate change. I’m very focused on climate with the Public Power New York statewide coalition. The coalition is focused on the idea of public power: energy should not be under the control of a few private companies; it should be treated like water and air and considered a public good.
That’s the climate framework that informs the issues I believe in. It’s the same for housing. Housing is controlled by market fluctuations and developers. Everybody sees housing as property, but lots of people are losing shelter, which is creating unstable neighborhoods. Overall, my big political umbrella is making things more for people, rather than for the market.
I am a first-generation immigrant from Nepal. I moved here for college in 2001 to study computer graphics. When I came here 9/11, George Bush, and all that was going on. I’ve been involved in advocacy for the antiwar movement and an equitable economy. In Nepal, there was lots going on when I was growing up, so I’ve always been tuned in to people’s struggles from lack of jobs, a very lopsided economy that leaves a lot of people out.
I never thought I would run for office. This is a very recent thing, and it basically stemmed from organizing with Mid-Hudson Valley DSA and lobbying with Public Power New York. We were disillusioned, not surprisingly, with what we saw on the inside — the lack of urgency. We were coming to representatives in very good faith, assuming they were also very eager to do something urgent about climate change, evictions, or health care, and we just didn’t see that urgent response.
There are people who want to believe in something, but who feel like they don’t have a choice except for what they’ve already seen. So we see people starting to get cynical, jaded, exhausted, not coming out to vote. This is dangerous. “What’s the point?” is something we hear a lot. But even those people, are excited about this campaign.
We can continue to build the movement. It would be a missed opportunity if we don’t try something, because we have the passion, the momentum. I was hoping India Walton would win, but either way I think our race is going to prove it is possible outside of New York City — which means there could be a huge shift. You need the first few to win, and then there’s like a domino effect.
Could you tell me a little more about where you live, how long you’ve been there, and any other relevant biographical details?
I’ve lived all over New York State. It’s the only place I’ve lived in the United States. I came here for college in Long Island, then I moved to Queens, then Brooklyn, and eventually Hudson Valley. I’m from Kathmandu Valley, so I feel like I just need mountains to be my home. In Kathmandu Valley, you wake up and every day all around you see the whole Himalayan range.
I moved with my husband in 2018 to this small town called Esopus. It’s a great town, filled with state parks and Scenic Hudson parks. I became a citizen in 2019, which for me was a big personal choice. I already felt like I was an American citizen, but it allowed me the headspace to become a very serious organizer and dedicate my time to it.
What do you think could be done differently in New York on the issues you care about? What policies would you fight for if elected?
There are already great bills that have been introduced and did not get anywhere at all. The Assembly doesn’t feel very friendly toward progressive bills, despite having a Democratic supermajority. Some bills I’m prioritizing because I see them as steps to create the base level of security we need to then build things in the correct direction.
In housing — and hopefully this will pass before our primary — good-cause eviction is something we’re organizing as high priority. It’s a very necessary bill, because it lets tenants feel more safe to report issues, to organize for their rights. Right now, a lot of people are scared of landlords, so they won’t speak up if something is wrong in their apartment.
Another big issue here is the neighborhoods are changing so fast. The corporations who own and trade in housing are creating a very unstable market price. With good-cause, if people aren’t getting evicted arbitrarily, they can be in the neighborhood for their whole life if they want. Another bill would give tenants the first right of offer to buy a building if it’s going on sale. Something like that would protect affordable housing stock.
On health care, we have the New York Health Act. That one has been a bigger challenge to push. For people on the inside, it has huge implications for relationships with the insurance industry. I think [state legislators] are just not fighting for it hard enough with a clear intention to pass it. That has changed a little bit since the last legislative session, so I still have a lot of hope for this bill. Our campaign will not be taking money from insurance companies.
On climate, the public power bill, the Build Public Renewables Act, is our main priority, because the private renewable energy sector is not creating enough good jobs, especially union jobs. That one is a more transformative bill that not only allows the New York Power Authority to build renewables past the limitation they currently have, but also invest back in communities. We all talk about a Green New Deal for New York and how we’re going to transition into a green economy. This bill is going to make that much more possible and quicker. Public funding is a very bold tool we have, and it always has been.
At the end of the day, climate is a working-class issue. The people who are going to suffer most if we don’t prepare ourselves are working-class people. Our workers in the fossil fuel industry, those folks are endangered by lack of an actual plan.
What drew you to environmental advocacy?
Funnily enough, when we were growing up in Nepal under the royal regime, a lot of the textbooks were almost like pro-nature propaganda. Nepal is very rich in ecology and national landscapes: We have the Himalayas, the hills, and the flat tropical stretch in the south. It’s a beautiful place. People come from all over the world just to see what we have.
Especially in a place like Nepal, you see this contradiction of people being so proud of this Nepali landscape and the beauty and so on, but also willing to sell it all off for a quick cash flow, building brick factories or selling lumber from protected areas. The whole economy we have right now, the for-profit economy, relies on exploitation of nature. That has been codified into this neoliberal culture where, in the West, we have basically exported all of our emissions and extraction. You have not curbed your emissions — you’ve simply moved them to other countries.
As a person who grew up in the “third world,” or a developing country, you see it from the other end: how the very rich and powerful pass everything off to the poorest of the poor. The poor countries are in such a bind. They are governed by the US dollar and debt, by development plans that come from these donor countries who tell you how to do development, and some of it is in contradiction with a sustainable future. People in Nepal who care about their ecology aren’t in the position to be able to protect it. People get killed for protesting a development project that’s endangering an important landscape.
Nature and the environment is representative of the extreme of what we have done to our values, to be bought into this economic system that’s just about money, that’s just about growing the economy with no concern for anything else. It’s a blind growth model that doesn’t look at people as people, it just looks at people as the market, as consumers. The climate crisis is the culmination of all of our decisions around that. We have built our systems not for people’s well-being, but to maximize profits.
For me, climate politics is every other politics. In New York City, people died from a flash flood in their basement. That’s a housing issue and a climate issue. People are going to be increasingly sick, and we may not have enough space in the hospitals. That’s an infrastructure issue, a climate issue, and a health care issue. Climate shows we need to be investing in our well-being. We’ve gone too far in using the market as the Hail Mary for everything.
Your likely opponent, the incumbent, has been in the Assembly since 1993. How do you unseat someone like that?
Up here, people believe in term limits. They fundamentally don’t agree that somebody should be in the office for so long if there are options. At the same time, it’s going to be a difficult race because name recognition and familiarity go a long way. But the kind of races we as DSA run nationwide — we never win with money. We’re always out-fundraised. We need to out-inspire and out-organize people.
The incumbents tend to run races that are about spending a lot of money, making personal attacks. Those are the expectations anyway, the template for these races. I’m probably going to be called an outsider. I have no ties that would hold me back from giving it 110 percent, to not take money from the same industries that put us in this mess.
Voter turnout is the main challenge. We tend to be very fieldwork heavy, knocking on doors, canvassing, and meeting people. We want to know voters, actually talk to them, not just talk to them from an ad. We’re going to be pretty upfront, and I think people want and appreciate honesty. We’re going to run a clean race. We’re not running for personal reasons we have against the incumbent, we’re running because we want to change our political culture. Our target is the political culture even more than just this one person, and I think people generally feel that.
For these types of campaigns, there is an interest nationwide, because this is what we’re pushing for nationwide. People want to support people fighting in various towns and counties to protect everybody who lives there, to protect working people. We’re not going to have the establishment funding and backing us, but we’re literally going to have the people. That’s what we have to count on.