Sarahana Shrestha Faces Down a Centrist Counteroffensive

Hudson Valley socialist Sarahana Shrestha’s strong record of opposing real estate interests was always going to invite corporate opposition. But now she faces a multiplication factor: her stance on the war in Gaza has drawn the ire of the pro-Israel lobby.

New York assemblywoman Sarahana Shrestha. (Courtesy of Sarahana Shrestha campaign)

“Do the chickens have names?” I ask Sarahana Shrestha and her husband, Pete Cavanaugh. “Not yet,” Shrestha laughs. After the June 25 election, says the socialist Hudson Valley assemblywoman, who represents New York’s 103rd district, they’ll be able to think of names for the chickens, one of whom goes by “Rooster Man” for now. As natural and charismatic a campaigner as Shrestha is, it’s clear that she can’t wait for this primary to be over.

Shrestha, Cavanaugh, and the chickens, plus a rescue dog named Seaweed, live on a quiet country road in Esopus, near a bison farm and an animal rehab center. Their region is picturesque, with well-preserved old stone farmhouses and hardly any chain stores. But local politics here are no more idyllic than anywhere else.

Shrestha is facing a challenge from Gabi Madden, well-financed by Solidarity PAC, which supports opposition to candidates who have spoken out against Israel’s massacre of Gaza. The New York real estate industry, whose donations in this campaign (as in many other New York campaigns) have been intertwined with Solidarity PAC, is also supporting Madden. The last day of voting is Tuesday, June 25.

“The air was tense,” Shrestha says, describing a recent debate with her opponent. The local business elites came out in force to back Madden, and Shrestha’s own supporters sat on the other side of the room, “like at a wedding,” she laughed. The race has been edgier than usual, with Madden’s camp portraying the incumbent as an unwelcome outsider, a charge that has special resonance given Shrestha’s background as a Nepali immigrant. Even back in March, Shrestha knew things had taken a nastier turn when a man at the annual Shamrock Parade heckled Shrestha, telling her ominously that it would be her “last time” marching as a local elected official.

In 2022, Shrestha unseated a twenty-five-year incumbent, moderate Democrat Kevin Cahill, who talked a progressive game on some issues but ably served corporate interests, resisting real action on issues like climate change and housing. Shrestha’s campaign succeeded on account of her personal likability and tireless labor, as well as that of Mid-Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which mobilized dedicated volunteers. And, of course, voters broadly agreed with her politics. The district — which voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 and Cynthia Nixon in 2018 — was ready for socialist ideas, especially Shrestha’s focus on the affordability of everyday life (particularly housing and energy) and her commitment to climate action.

Following her around her district this week, it’s clear that Shrestha is loved. Everywhere we go, people stop her to tell her she was wonderful in the debate, and how nasty her opponent was. The question now is whether her support in the community can withstand the flood of pro-Israel super PAC money.

Challenging Corporate Interests

There is a playbook to these challenges socialists are facing from pro-war, pro-Israel organizations, the most high-stakes example being Jamaal Bowman’s $20 million challenge from AIPAC-funded George Latimer.

It goes like this: attack the socialist candidate with anodyne but voluminous misinformation unrelated to Israel, and sprinkle in a few racist dog whistles. The pro-Israel candidates have to follow this playbook, since their support for the war in Gaza is unpopular among Democratic voters. If they were to campaign on their pet issue, it would strike voters as either irrelevant to local politics or morally abhorrent, or perhaps both.

Madden’s persistent talking points are that Shrestha hasn’t done anything in office, or has been too focused on politics outside the district rather than delivering to her constituents. Both are puzzling to anyone who knows the freshman assemblywoman’s record. As part of a slate of seven other DSA-backed socialist politicians in Albany, Shrestha’s short tenure in the Assembly has witnessed several big policy victories.

For example, Shrestha was instrumental last year in passing the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), which she campaigned on in 2022. The legislation empowers the state to fund renewable energy if the private sector isn’t on track to meet New York’s climate goals.

This year, Shrestha also succeeded in helping to pass legislation on LLC transparency, which will help tenants understand who owns their buildings and exercise their rights. She was also active in passing a version of “good cause” eviction legislation, another expansion of renters’ rights. Both bills will make it easier for cities and towns in Shrestha’s district to expand tenants’ rights locally, enhancing the benefit to Shrestha’s constituents.

These victories explain Shrestha’s fierce opposition from the real estate industry. On the way to a canvass, we drive by a massive “GABI” sign in support of Shrestha’s opponent Madden. “Whoa, is that her house?” I ask. No, it’s a multi-unit building whose landlord is a Madden fan. “The big landlords love her,” Shrestha says, “This race is turning out to be all about housing.” Another landlord yelled at a canvasser that he would evict his tenants if they voted for Shrestha. Shrestha says, “I tell tenants about the real estate money [supporting my opponent] and say, this money is not being spent against me. It’s being spent against you.”

If Shrestha wins her primary, she almost certainly will keep her seat, since there is no serious Republican in the race. In her next term in office, she says she will keep pushing the governor and the New York Power Authority for more seriousness and transparency in building out the state’s renewable public energy sector, as well as on making it work for her district. (There are several potential projects in Ulster County that wouldn’t be profitable for a private company yet would benefit the region.)

Most ambitiously, Shrestha has introduced legislation for a public takeover of Hudson Central, the region’s notorious utility, which has been tormenting ratepayers with $6,000 bills, collection agencies, and other hassles that sometimes lead to eviction.

Relatedly, Shrestha has some shorter-term legislative priorities, aiming to pause collection activities when a utility is under investigation (as Hudson Central has been), stop single-use plastics (this one came close last session, but Shrestha believes the divisions on it “can be repaired”), cap prescription drug prices, and protect tenants from eviction during emergencies.

While rural areas like hers are not typically associated in the American mind with public housing, Shrestha is also excited about a green social housing bill, and has been talking with constituents about what that could look like here.

All of this makes it clear why real estate is backing Madden. But that would be par for the course if not for the multiplication factor of Israel-Palestine. Thanks to support from Solidarity PAC, Shrestha’s corporate opponents have even more money than they would otherwise — bundled from Israel supporters across the country — to campaign against her.

The Final Countdown

Over a long conversation at the Bread Alone café in downtown Rhinebeck, Shrestha tells me how she’s dealing with well-funded attacks. Personal conversation is the best way around the misinformation about her record, she has found. Soliciting questions has resulted in text conversations with over six hundred undecided or curious voters. Her campaign has also knocked on over 15,500 doors, “which is a lot here because the doors are very far apart,” she emphasizes.

When we arrive in the Hurley Public Library parking lot, we talk to a couple of the campaign’s energized volunteers, ready to knock on doors for Shrestha in the heat. Over 160 people have turned out for such events over the course of primary season.

Jen Benson, who lives in midtown Kingston, tells me why. “I’m a tenant and it’s always been really, really hard to find housing in Kingston,” a community that has been dramatically gentrified in recent years, especially by an influx of New York City pandemic exiles and émigrés. Benson described how Shrestha’s office helped her challenge a “wild” bill from Central Hudson. “Sarahana has always been very oriented towards the working class and helping people be able to afford to live,” she says.

We then drive to midtown Kingston and set up a table near the poll site. We mostly run into supporters, including a young volunteer who brought his brother and his formerly Republican father to vote for Shrestha. Drivers honk supportively, and some swing by to thank Shrestha or even hug her. Shrestha says of her opponent, “Her own circle is very conservative, so she doesn’t even know that people like this exist in the district.”

Shrestha knows that her position on Palestine — she has called for a cease-fire and supports legislation to stop tax-exempt nonprofits from sending money to illegal settlements in the West Bank —- has put a national target on her back, as well as emboldening the local real estate lobby against her. But she says she hears from many constituents thanking her for her stance.

She’s hoping that if she successfully defeats this primary challenge, more politicians will have the courage to stand up against the US-Israel assault on Gaza. “People are so scared of taking a position,” she says. “But I really want to show that it’s a popular position, you know? It shouldn’t be so risky to talk about it.”

Facing so much well-funded opposition is grueling, but Shrestha knows it’s a sign of her movement’s success. “The reason they’re so opposed to us is because they can’t control DSA candidates,” she says. “And we are exercising real power. And that drives them nuts. We are a real problem for them.”

Shrestha feels she and her volunteers have done their best. “We’ll see what happens in a few days,” she says. “I think I’m gonna win, but you never know.”