Just days after Groundhog Day, Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha experienced a different kind of déjà vu when Gabi Madden launched a primary challenge against her. Madden had served as chief of staff to former Assembly Member Kevin Cahill, whom Shrestha unseated in 2022. The two are now set for a primary that will rehash debates around the upstate progressive movements' interactions with the more moderate Democratic establishment.
Madden has close ties to the Democratic establishment in the 103rd Assembly District, which includes parts of Ulster and Dutchess Counties in the Hudson Valley. In addition to working for Cahill, she worked as deputy chief of staff for state Sen. James Skoufis, the chair of the state Senate Investigations Committee.
At her campaign launch event in Kingston on Thursday, Madden was cheered on by Skoufis and Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, whose family has been involved in local politics for decades. Her campaign slogan is “Results, Not Rhetoric” and she suggested that Shrestha has been more focused on supporting big progressive legislation in Albany than she has been on delivering for the district.
“I see our community's growth with a hopeful vision of a leader who will talk less and listen more, who will build a platform and portfolio that reflects the priorities of all the people they were elected to represent … a leader who recognizes that good governance is not achieved by making demands, but rather by creating understanding,” Madden said.
Madden appealed to what she characterized as a “silent majority” of voters in the district who want to protect their suburban way of life from the progressive policies coming out of Albany and New York City. “The only way forward is by virtue of the silent majority,” she said. “The silent majority who see this home as an exception to the rest of the state.”
Shrestha, a democratic socialist, won a close election in 2022, helped by a groundswell of support from progressive voters in the Hudson Valley. Her campaign emphasized climate issues, housing and health care employing the slogan: “the future must be beautiful.” While in office she has supported legislation like “good cause” eviction and the Build Public Renewables Act as well as other progressive bills.
With support from the Mid-Hudson Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the local progressive activist organization For the Many, her campaign mobilized an impressive field operation full of volunteers who fanned out throughout the district.
Shrestha, the lone DSA state lawmaker in upstate New York, said she knew that challenging the status quo wouldn’t go unnoticed. “They’re not going to give up so easily,” she said of mainstream Democrats who oppose her progressive policy priorities.
Scott Minkoff, an associate political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, said that Madden could try to paint Shrestha as too extreme for the district, given her role on the left wing of the Democratic Party, though he cautioned that as an Assembly member, there is only so much “radical” policy that can be created.
“You have to paint her as extreme, right, and to be fair, she is kind of extreme, right?” Minkoff said. “She's definitely on the far left of the Democratic Party, and how much of that sort of manifests itself differently in policy? I'm not really sure.”
Minkoff said the real issue for Madden would be beating Shrestha’s ground game.
“That's a tall order, especially if you have somebody who has already done it once before,” Minkoff said, adding that it seemed like Shrestha had thousands of volunteers helping her campaign in 2022.
Shrestha certainly sees her field operation as key to her success.
“We've always known that they will run somebody against me so we've been prepared, you know, with a four-year plan to make sure that I get reelected,” she told City & State. “We had a reunion with our volunteers recently, kicked off in Kingston, and great energy so everybody's ready to knock on doors to campaign. We have petitioning coming up, we'll be focusing on that.”
The race between Shrestha and Madden isn’t the only one pitting a progressive incumbent against a moderate touting their dedication to local issues. In the 16th Congressional District, Westchester County George Latimer is challenging incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman, painting him as too extreme for the largely suburban district.