How Alessandra Biaggi toppled a king
How Alessandra Biaggi toppled a king
In one of the largest upsets of New York’s Democratic primaries, state Senate candidate Alessandra Biaggi defeated Independent Democratic Conference founder state Sen. Jeff Klein. Klein, long a political powerhouse in Albany, spent over $3 million in an attempt to fend off the challenge, but Biaggi ultimately prevailed. She is one of a slate of progressive challengers, many of whom also unseated former IDC members, who are now expected to shake up Albany in January. In an interview with City & State, Biaggi discussed how she won and what she wants to see done in Albany, as well as the influence of her grandfather, the popular Rep. Mario Biaggi, who was ultimately convicted of corruption. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you win, despite Klein massively outspending you?
The first thing is that we definitely started early enough to be able to build this ship. I got into the race in January officially, but I had been thinking about it for a little while before that. I would say one of the biggest parts, honestly, was the sheer number of grass-roots people and volunteers who not only were with us when we got in, but had been doing the IDC awareness and campaign education almost 18 months prior. So when we got in, we had their support, and then having that really was incredibly helpful.
I think one of the biggest differences between myself and my opponent was that we had over 500 volunteers and people coming from every borough, from different states, to knock on doors, make phone calls, write postcards, send text messages, in ways that were very much authentic and organic. The fact that we were able to come in and really – I mean, it was door by door. There were no shortcuts here. Every single door and every single voter, we brought to them positivity and a different approach from what has been going on previously.
Would you say the progressive movement is perhaps not strong enough to unseat someone like Gov. Andrew Cuomo? It was strong enough to fuel energy in your district and other districts, but statewide, Cynthia Nixon and other progressives lost.
I think that the progressive movement is very strong. (Klein) is an entrenched incumbent, and the fact that I was able to win my primary and that Alexandria (Ocasio-Cortez) was able to win her primary shows that at the grass-roots level, that the progressive movement is alive and well. I think that to the credit of the governor, there are a lot of things that he has done that are progressive. And statewide, people acknowledge that. And when you come down to the district-by-district level, it's certainly different. I'm not running against the governor, I'm obviously running against Jeff Klein, running against someone who quite literally ran as a Democrat and handed power over to Republicans.
Did you expect to win? An anti-IDC strategist told me that initially, six months, eight months before the election, your campaign was viewed more as a way to draw Klein's resources away from other races. Those mindsets changed as confidence grew, but how likely did you personally think your win was?
I always thought it was possible. I believed I could win from the very beginning. But I knew it would take a tremendous, tremendous amount of work, and it would take all of the right things at the right time happening. Did I think that we would win from the very beginning? No, but I believed that we could. And I think there's a difference there. When you believe that you can win, you can win. When you believe that you can't win, you won't win, and that I knew for sure. Obviously, you'll of course have hard days, but making sure that I was steady on the belief allowed everyone else around me to also feel confident that we could do it, and that's how we grew.
When you started your campaign and coordinating with the True Blue Coalition and other anti-IDC movements, was their strategy to draw Klein’s resources something they discussed with you?
No. Nobody sat down and said, 'You're going to be the sacrificial lamb.' Even if they said that to me, I would have still said, 'Thank you for sharing, I'm still going forward."
Do you think this progressive movement, the anti-IDC sentiment, your victory, would have happened if Donald Trump had not been elected president?
I don't actually, I really don't, because him winning that election was the catalyst for everyone mobilizing. Even though we all wished that it didn't happen, what we're seeing is a lot of positive that has come out of the loss. There have been so many wins in the loss of Secretary Clinton. If she had won, I don't think I would be running for office.
The talks around how Klein might run for a judgeship has brought back to the forefront the kind of machine politics that are prevalent in the Bronx. How do you plan to participate in county politics?
I think one of the things that I feel proud of is that nobody chose me or anointed me to run for this seat. So that has allowed me to have an independent voice throughout this entire race as well, to stay authentic to who I am. And I think I have a mandate to be independent. And that's pretty remarkable, considering that so much that we see in our systems are these machines. That said, I'm looking forward to working with everybody because I know the most important thing is every single person in the district gets what they need and that our communities continue to rise and are represented by people who actually care about them and put them first.
Do you think more politicians like you and the progressive movement we're seeing will end machine politics in New York City?
I do, but it's less of an ending and more of a transforming. I don't think that the history of politics has been one in which there has been transparency in government. I think that having this progressive movement and having different people run and win means that not only will we change the way that government and politics are done, but we will transform machines as they are. And to be honest, hopefully encourage them to be more transparent and to be more inclusive and more diverse and compassionate, which is what we want ultimately at the end of the day. And that's something I'm committed to doing.
Presuming you're headed to Albany, what are your top legislative priorities?
Women's issues and the Reproductive Health Act. I know women's issues is a very broad subject, but really it’s very important to me to pass the Reproductive Health Act and codify Roe v. Wade in New York state, as well as the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, affordable child care, pay equity, which is really essential. And then closing the loopholes in our rent laws, making our rent laws stronger, because affordable housing is a crisis. Then public school education. The fact that we are owed $88 million in public school funding in District 34 is scary and it's preventing our children from having a better future.
Is that from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement?
Yeah, that's from CFE. And then health care. The New York Health Act is something I care very much about and I'm looking forward to working on that bill.
The last time Democrats had control of both chambers and the governor's mansion, not much got done in terms of progressive legislation. If Democrats get a Senate majority, do you think this time will be different?
I do. I really do. And I do for a few reasons. Getting the majority again, especially in this political moment, it's incredibly important. It's also critical to protecting New Yorkers. It's my hope that all Democrats will all take seriously a Democratic majority and protect it. In 2010, Donald Trump was not president. And in 2018 and 2019, he is and he will be. So that changes the political calculus significantly in a way that I think puts more pressure on all the members to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to maintain the majority and grow the majority. Even between now and November, I'll just tell you that one of the things that I'm going to be doing is focusing on some of the races where we can flip the seat from red to blue and sending volunteers there because it really matters.
Do you think your own personal name recognition helped on the campaign trail as the granddaughter of Rep. Mario Biaggi?
It depended where I was, but people definitely remembered, the older population definitely remembered. And I have to say that there really wasn't a day that went by, and I mean this, this is not an exaggeration, where someone didn't share a story with me about something my grandpa did to help them. That was not only touching, but it was incredibly motivating because people shared things like, 'One time, he changed my light bulb.' And I thought to myself, wow. No problem was too small or too big and everybody wanted to share those stories with me and the way that he made them feel. It really touched me, and it gave me the surge of energy I needed to keep going on those very difficult days. But I wasn't running on my name.
Did your grandfather’s corruption conviction shape how you viewed politics before entering?
Absolutely. I think one of the things that it helps me to do is to understand a few things. The first thing it helps me to do is just understand that you have to be incredibly, incredibly careful. This entire campaign and the way that I will lead will be that way, being very careful not only to understand what all of the rules are, but just to never even think about crossing the line. Unfortunately in Albany, there's a lot of gray areas, which is why one of the things I care about is ethics reform and campaign finance reform because the laws can be stronger there, they can be more black and white where it makes it easier for people to understand. So making sure that I and my staff and everyone around me understand the rules and know what they are is a very big priority of mine.
What would you say to those who might say that your win might hurt the district because Klein was able to bring back resources in a way that a freshman legislator would not?
One of the first things I would say is that not only am I committed to making sure that our district gets what it needs, but I'm going to fight like hell that all of the needs of the district are met. To that end also, making sure we get a Democratic majority will mean actually that the Democrats will have more resources for their districts, much more than what Jeff Klein was able to deliver. So I think what's really important to note here is what he did through the IDC and by empowering Republicans, we in District 34 got crumbs from the Republican plates into the district. What we can get when we have a Democratic majority will exceed that in a very significant way. He chose to have personal power over putting the interests of, quite frankly, all New Yorkers first in a way that cost us.
What did it feel like to topple a political king?
It felt – I'm still feeling it, actually. What it feels like is justice.