Is Jackie Gordon the new Long Island?

Jackie Gordon, the Democratic nominee to replace longtime Republican Rep. Pete King.
Jackie Gordon, the Democratic nominee to replace longtime Republican Rep. Pete King.
Celeste Sloman
Jackie Gordon, the Democratic nominee to replace longtime Republican Rep. Pete King.

Is Jackie Gordon the new Long Island?

The congressional candidate is an immigrant and a military veteran. Can she make history in the home of Trump boat parades?
October 4, 2020

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Image Credit: 
Celeste Sloman
Babylon, on the South Shore of Long Island, is dotted with patriotic – sometimes nationalist – symbols, such as the weather-worn signs on an auto body shop outside of the Amityville station on the Long Island Rail Road, that say, “God Bless America,” “Support Our Troops,” and “Get the U.S. out of the U.N.” That may make it look like Trump Country, but Babylon accounts for a significant portion of New York’s 2nd Congressional District, home to one of the most hotly contested House of Representatives races this year.

Jackie Gordon, the Democratic nominee to replace longtime Republican Rep. Pete King, served on the Babylon Town Council for 12 years before stepping down to run for Congress. She will partly rely on Babylon, where she’s well known and has won numerous elections, to swing the election in her favor. If she succeeds, it would be historic: Gordon would become the first Black woman elected to Congress from a New York district outside of New York City.

Her main selling points in the swing district are that she’s a veteran of both Iraq wars and mainstream Democratic politics. But to flip King’s seat in November, Gordon will have to court swing voters without alienating those who voted for Trump. The president carried this district by 9 percentage points.

That would pose a challenge for any Democrat. But for a Black woman facing a suburban constituency that could be susceptible to Trump’s racist fearmongering, it will be a balancing act.

The child of Jamaican immigrants, Gordon, 55,lives in a white-shingled house in Copiague, an unincorporated hamlet within Babylon, a few minutes away from a residents-only beach at Tanner Park.On a windy morning in September, Gordon met me there, across from the Great South Bay, to discuss her candidacy.

Gordon was characteristically buoyant as she greeted me from the boardwalk. “You look 12!” she said, before suggesting we sit under a gazebo near the fishing pier. The small white structure was dedicated in memory of Eagle Scout Joseph Ferriso, who died in a car accident in 2015. Ferriso had been in Gordon’s son’s Boy Scout troop, and Gordon spoke at the gazebo’s dedication ceremony. Gordon spoke loudly during our interview, to project her voice – thin, musical and inflected with a West Indian lilt – over the motor of a nearby lawnmower.

The district, which King has held for 14 terms, is made up of large townships, small villages and salty waterfronts in the farther suburbs of New York City. A generation ago, it was mainly white and Republican. The district is now more evenly divided between the parties. But it didn’t swing so much as it evolved, for primarily the same reason that a lot of other suburban communities have: Over the years, newcomers, many of whom are people of color, have arrived from the city as well as other countries, and they have brought their Democratic alignment with them.

“We’re seeing advertising coming from Republicans that put her picture in ads, where that’s not normally the case, as if they want to remind voters that we’re talking about a Black person.” – Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies

In 2018, King was challenged by Liuba Grechen Shirley, a political novice who only lost by 6 points. King, who had long been thought unbeatable, looked vulnerable in 2020. At age 75, he decided not to run for reelection.

With the seat now open, this race would likely be a toss-up, almost regardless of whom the parties nominated. But Democrats made an interesting choice to coalesce around Gordon. She has the benefit of the Democratic organization in Babylon, which is the home of the powerful Suffolk County Democratic leader, Rich Schaffer.

She also has a chance to inspire a higher than normal percentage of nonwhite voters to come to the polls, outside of the Obama years. And she could peel away a significant segment of white moderates, who are alienated by the divisiveness and intolerance of President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.

Part of the legacy that King will leave behind is stoking the flames of the immigration issue, which has resonated with some white residents opposed to the growing Latino population. In 2018, King attended a forum alongside Trump in Bethpage, where the president railed against the “menace” of the Salvadoran gang MS-13 in Long Island and called for tougher immigration laws.

The issue of immigration is personal for Gordon. Her family arrived in New York in the 1970s, in search of something better. She relayed the story with pride, difficulty, and, at times, intense emotion. She also talks about being an immigrant in her campaign commercials. “I understand the complexities of immigration,” she said in one ad, “because I am an immigrant.”

When asked whether her family ultimately found what they were looking for in the United States, Gordon appeared slightly taken aback by the question. “I’m talking to you as a candidate for Congress,” she said. “What do you think?”

The district Gordon is vying for has a Cook Political Report partisan index score of R+3, which means that in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, the district performed an average of 3 percentage points more Republican than the nation did as a whole. In November, Gordon will face Republican Assembly Member Andrew Garbarino, who represents the 7th Assembly District, which covers part of Suffolk County on the South Shore, including a slice of the towns of Brookhaven and Islip, along with Fire Island, Bay Shore, Bohemia and Patchogue. Garbarino has endorsements from King and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the benefit of historical precedent, and he’s white in a district where that could matter.

Asked if she thinks her race might negatively affect her chances, Gordon avoids implicating any potential voters. Instead, she focuses on the voters who might be energized by her identity. “I think it matters to some voters in the district. There is about a 9%, 10% Black population,” Gordon said. “There’s about a 22% Latinx population. Those people have never seen representation ever in the history of this seat. So yes, it would definitely matter to them.” Gordon’s estimates are close, but it’s worth noting that newer immigrant groups will be underrepresented among the electorate, as many aren’t citizens. The 2nd Congressional District has a 9% Black population and a 8% Black voting age population. While the Latino population is 24%, the Latino voting age population is only about 17%.

“It’s hard to hear people talk about immigrants. You don’t realize how difficult it is for immigrants to pick up everything and come here.” – Jackie Gordon

Gordon’s platform is moderate, and in her campaign, which has endorsements from former President Barack Obama and Democratic vice presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, she has leaned heavily on her military background. On Long Island, which has the largest concentration of veterans in the state, this could be the most essential factor of her identity that resonates at the polls.

“She brings a lot to the table that blows up whatever myths or biases that people might have about officials and candidates of color,” said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “She is not anyone who can be accurately characterized as a full-throated left-winger. She has been able to get votes across party lines and in neighborhoods where Democrats don’t always do so well, certainly not in national elections.”

But on Long Island, which is also one of the most segregated regions in the country, “You always have to wonder how much race will play,” Levy said. “Is there a silent racist majority out there that we sometimes see pop up when developers propose affordable housing projects? We’re already seeing some advertising coming from Republicans that put her picture in ads, where that’s not normally the case, as if they want to remind voters that we’re talking about a Black person.”

That’s an old part of the Republican playbook, a way to play to suburban racial anxieties. “It has worked less and less as our communities have become more and more diverse, but the gambit here is that it will resonate with just enough (white) voters to get them out to the polls, or not to consider a Democrat,” Levy said.

Newsday published an investigation last year that uncovered widespread evidence of unequal treatment by Long Island real estate agents on the basis of race. The three-year investigation revealed that agents frequently steered white potential homebuyers toward areas with the highest representations of white residents and minorities to integrated areas, contributing to racial segregation in the region. Trump’s rhetoric has played into these racist fears with his constant attacks on the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required local governments that receive federal aid to study and find solutions to unfair and discriminatory housing practices in their communities. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson eliminated the rule in July.

“I saw the craziness in Washington, and I knew, in order to change government, you have to change those who govern.” – Jackie Gordon

However, there is also evidence that racially coded attacks won’t work against Black candidates in suburban and rural New York anymore. Republicans ran dog whistle attack ads against congressional candidate Antonio Delgado in the Catskills in 2018, based on his rap career, and Delgado still won. And in two much more Democratic, largely suburban New York congressional districts, Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones will likely cruise to victory.

It’s also worth noting, residents on Long Island have been active participants in the summer of social unrest wrought by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, indicating an interest in racial justice that would have seemed very unlikely just a generation ago – though some of those marches against racism and police brutality have been met with counterprotests.

So, whether racism will hurt Gordon in this district is unclear. But if she wins, it will break new ground on Long Island.

Gordon’s first career was as an Army reservist. She enlisted while in college as a private first class, before switching over to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. She commissioned after completing her degree in health education at Hunter Collegeand went on to serve for 29 years. During that time, she also obtained a master’s degree in counseling and educational leadership from Queens College.

Gordon’s status as a veteran is what drove her into politics. As a reservist, Gordon was activated for duty in 2003 and deployed to Iraq. “President (George W.) Bush made a unilateral decision to go into Iraq, against his advisers. They wanted him to wait. Because of that decision, the reserves were called up, so I was called up,” Gordon said. The Army deployed Gordon in January 2003, and she returned home in March 2004. “My daughter’s birthday is in February, so I missed the entire 14th year of my daughter’s life,” she said. Gordon wanted a more participatory role in setting public policy.

“Pre-Trump, presidents usually came up through the political system, whether they were governors or senators or congressmen or some other local elected official,” Gordon said. “I thought to myself, if I did more than just vote every year, I would be able to impact who sits in the office, who would then make wiser decisions, because I didn’t believe the president not listening to his advisers was a good decision.” So, she came home and became more involved in the local Democratic Party.

Where exactly Gordon stands on hot-button national security and foreign policy issues is less clear, although it’s probably fair to place her within the multilateralist center-left. I asked about the sign outside of Amityville station that encouraged the U.S. to pull out of the United Nations. Gordon said she believes the U.S. has a responsibility to position itself at the forefront of relationships with allies and with countries throughout the world. “I think we have to continue to do that. It’s a role that we have taken on,” she said. “It’s kind of like when you’re the firstborn child. You’re just a big brother, you have no choice. It’s where we are – we are a foremost leader in the world, and that’s the role we take.” It’s a view that would have once been mainstream in both parties but is at odds with both increasingly isolationist Republicans on the right and anti-imperialist sentiment on the ascendant left.

“A lot of those decisions are being made by people who have no idea about the immigrant experience. That’s why representation matters.” – Jackie Gordon

Another potential cause for left-wing Democrats to distrust Gordon: She did a tour at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, where terrorism suspects could be detained without due process and subjected to torture. In 2016, Obama announced a plan to close Guantanamo and worked to reduce the prison population there up to his final weeks in office. Asked if her views on Guantanamo today mirror her views on the war in Iraq – mainly, that it shouldn’t have happened – Gordon said, “I think that we have a mission as service members. As long as we’re meeting the Geneva Convention principles, we follow our mission. That’s what I did. I am not in total agreement with what’s happening in Guantanamo Bay, and I do agree with President Obama’s efforts to reduce our presence with having prisoners there.”

In terms of her military background, Gordon’s candidate profile is similar to that of Democrat Rep. Max Rose from Staten Island – a veteran running as a moderate while also emphasizing his service – who flipped a district carried by Trump. On Election Day, Trump voters could perhaps split the ticket and also vote for Gordon based on their respect and reverence for U.S. military veterans.

Levy said a certain kind of voter in the district might think, “‘I normally wouldn’t vote for a Democrat, or I wouldn’t vote for a woman – if that’s how they think – or I wouldn’t vote for a Black person, but I like the fact that she served just like my brother or sister did, or just like I did.’”

Gordon’s political life began at the dinner table. As a child, her father, Winston, who was a railroad worker in Jamaica before he immigrated to the United States, wanted passionately for “regular people” to rise up. He discussed this daily over meals and initiated conversations about current affairs, both American and Jamaican. His politics were family values, equal rights and a living wage. He owned a collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches on vinyl and a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was required reading for Gordon, her older brother and sister.

Gordon’s parents set out for Queens in 1972, when she was 7. It had been exactly 10 years since the United Kingdom granted Jamaica’s independence. During that decade, politics on the island were polarized, taxes and poverty were high, and political violence had become commonplace. The Gordons were homeowners in St. Catherine, Jamaica, and they employed a housekeeper. But, like many other young Jamaican families in the ’70s, America held the promise, to them, of something more. Gordon’s father landed a union job as a shop steward at a plastics factory in Long Island City, Queens, and her mother, Phyllis, became a secretary in the business affairs department of the news division of CBS. They both pursued advanced degrees later in life, and her father is now an attorney. Gordon moved to Long Island in 1993. She is unmarried and has two adult children.

No matter what someone is doing in their country or the particular circumstances of their situation, the perception they have, Gordon said, is that if you come to the U.S. it will be better. “Whether or not that’s true,” she added, “doesn’t really matter.” But it is true, she believes.

When Gordon recalled the story of her family’s immigration, a wave of sadness washed over her. Being left in Jamaica while her parents laid plans in New York was traumatic. “Imagine your parents gone for six months,” she said. “I remember I cried a long time when my mother first left. I don’t know how long, but for a long time I would just cry.”

She became silent and looked past me, out at the grassy beach. Then, under the gazebo, she began to cry. Her campaign manager, seated across from us, handed her a napkin. I asked what particular thought was making her tearful. “It’s hard to hear people talk about immigrants,” Gordon said. “You don’t realize how difficult it is for immigrants to pick up everything and come here – how really difficult that is.”

Gordon is noticeably reluctant to use her experience as an immigrant to directly critique the Trump administration on immigration policy. He is a major reason she decided to run, but, like Rose, she tries to present herself as a voice of common sense combating extremists on both sides. “I saw the craziness in Washington, and I knew, in order to change government, you have to change those who govern,” Gordon said. “I think Trump has – I think it’s become really divisive. Almost any time anyone speaks, I hear the far right, the radical left, just this divisiveness. We definitely have a two-party system, but the two parties have to come together because we’re one body.”

Pushed to speak further about Trump’s immigration policies, Gordon said, “I think a lot of those decisions are being made by people who have no idea about the immigrant experience. That’s why representation matters. Even degrees of knowledge. You may not be an immigrant yourself, or a first- or second-generation immigrant. … I think the president has painted a picture of immigrants that’s not factual and not true.”

Gordon added, “We need the women, the badass women, as I love to call them, which is who they are. When I saw those women write that letter, I knew that’s what we need more of.” She is referring to Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, and Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. Those moderate Democrats, who flipped Republican seats in conservative districts, initially opposed impeachment and became leaders in the process after penning an op-ed, along with two male members of Congress, in The Washington Post.

Gordon views the group’s move as highly principled. “I believe four of the five of them, writing that letter would have put them in, or may put them in, (electoral) jeopardy. But it’s not about being reelected. You’re not supposed to be in this job to be reelected. You’re supposed to be in this job to serve people, and that’s clear to me.”

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Image Credit: 
Celeste Sloman
“We have Trump parades going through Babylon Village and also over at Cedar Beach, in the Town of Babylon, on their boats with their flags,” Elizabeth O’Handley, a volunteer with Gordon’s campaign said, when considering whether it would be a bad idea, strategically, for Gordon to speak out against Trump. “But I think she talks more about, ‘This is what I can do. And I work with Republicans, and I’ve worked with Democrats,’” O’Handley said. “And yes, some other people say that also, but there’s something so genuine about Jackie that I believe her.”

Republicans are counting on King’s legacy as well as the history of Long Island to keep the traditionally Republican seat from tipping into Democratic hands. “We are no stranger to hotly contested races here in Suffolk County, and we have had a successful track record in that – whether you look at our state Senate races or whether you look at our congressional races with Lee Zeldin and, of course, Peter King in 2018,” said Jesse Garcia, chair of the Suffolk County Republican Party. “So, hotly contested races are nothing new to this county organization, and our record is second to none in that matter.”

It’s worth noting that before 2018, King routinely posted double-digit victories. His 6-point win two years ago paled in comparison. However, Garcia rejects the idea that King’s influence was in decline. “The 2018 midterms are exactly what midterms are all about,” he said. “The party in power typically faces significant contests for their incumbents, and they face losses in both chambers, especially when you control the White House. We saw a ‘blue wave’ attempted to cross Long Island, and we were able to successfully push off that ‘blue wave.’ This year we have the advantage of having our base energized for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the president is on the ballot.”

The Garbarino campaign provided a statement attributed to him: “With more than 64 local endorsements from local elected officials, the support of Congressman King, law enforcement and labor unions, as well as the confidence of so many working class Long Island families, I look forward to working hard over the next couple of months, taking nothing for granted, to earn the opportunity to serve New York’s 2nd Congressional District.”

The 2nd Congressional District is an area that is very much in flux politically, swinging back and forth from race to race and from county to county. Trump carried Suffolk County in 2016, while Hillary Clinton carried Nassau County to the west, in which part of the district lies. How this all plays out for Gordon and Garbarino in November is up in the air. For her part, Gordon has raised $1.8 million and has $1.1 million in cash on hand. Garbarino has raised a fraction of that: $488,562 total, $104,101 on hand. But in a slightly Republican-leaning area – and in a presidential election year with a Republican at the top of the ticket – Garbarino could still have the upper hand.

In addition to her military service, Gordon spent nearly three decades working in public schools. She started as a teacher at P.S. 109 in Brooklyn before becoming a guidance counselor at Wilson Technology Center, which offers tech programs for teens in Long Island.

Gordon was a guidance counselor to O’Handley’s daughter, Catherine, in 2018. Thanks to the way Gordon helped her daughter and her family during Catherine’s education, O’Handley considers herself one of Gordon’s most enthusiastic supporters. Last year, she spotted Gordon in the Veterans Day parade in Babylon Village. She jumped from her seat, and yelled, “Ms. Gordon! Ms. Gordon!” Gordon broke free of the parade, ran across Deer Park Avenue, up the lawn, and onto O’Handley’s front porch. Gordon said, “How are you, Ms. O’Handley, and how is Caroline? Please tell her I said, ‘Hello.’” And before she trotted off, back to the parade, she said, “And by the way, I’m running for Congress.” O’Handley responded: “You got my vote.”

Many people have a story like that about Gordon, where she really seemed to see them – to pick them out of the crowd. “People remember,” Levy said. “People reward local politicians who really pay attention to detail and serve them in what they see as a nonpartisan way.”

While we sat under the gazebo, overlooking the Great South Bay, residents stopped to greet Gordon frequently. I suggested that the commercials were working. “I’ve been around,” she politely corrected me. “This is my home.”

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A. G. Sims
is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.
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