Campaigns & Elections

Sarahana Shrestha and Gabi Madden spar over local issues in debate

The socialist Assembly member defended her record in office and argued she has brought money back to the district.

Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha (top right) and challenger Gabi Madden (top left) participate in a virtual debate moderated by Daily Freeman senior editor Ivan Lajara and reporter Paul Kirby.

Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha (top right) and challenger Gabi Madden (top left) participate in a virtual debate moderated by Daily Freeman senior editor Ivan Lajara and reporter Paul Kirby. Austin C. Jefferson

Democratic candidates for the 103rd Assembly District met virtually for their first and only scheduled debate on Tuesday afternoon, with incumbent Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha and challenger Gabi Madden tackling mostly local topics.

Hosted by the Daily Freeman, the debate spotlights one of several races in New York pitting progressive elements of the Democratic Party against mainstream forces. The debate featured some charged talk about the Israel–Hamas War, though it didn’t dominate the conversation the way it has in other Hudson Valley races.

Shrestha, one of the Democratic Socialists of America’s “Socialists in Office,” has been an outspoken critic of the conflict and cosponsored legislation toward the end of session that would have stripped funding from nonprofits aiding Israeli settlements. During the debate, she tried to make a case for the bill.

“People like me, who grew up in a civil war, know that war can be a perpetual cycle of violence, and we need serious commitment to make everybody safe and to end violence,” said Shrestha, who grew up in Nepal. “Now, Not On Our Dime is a state-level bill, where we are losing revenues in tax exemption to charities that are funneling that money into war crimes and settler violence.”

Madden said that the bill, which is opposed by state legislative leaders, was not relevant to the district. 

“I think that there's other important measures to be focused on here in Ulster and Northern Dutchess, rather than again rallying on a non-starter bill that's not supported by Democratic leadership,” she said. 

The debate touched upon many of the issues facing the district, which include public utility Central Hudson’s billing practices, public health concerns and housing – including “good cause” eviction. Along with other democratic socialists, Shrestha pushed hard for the policy, which restricts landlords from evicting tenants without cause, guarantees lease renewals and limits annual rent increases in market-rate units. But she ultimately voted against the version of “good cause” eviction included in this year’s state budget, believing that it contained too many carve-outs and compromises.

Madden pointed to Shrestha’s vote as a sign that she wasn’t committed to housing solutions in the district. 

“It's interesting to hear all of these perks within that (“good cause” eviction) when the incumbent voted against that bill, and so that’s where my confusion kicks in,” Madden said. “If there were so many things achieved within that measure, to be touted, why vote in the negative on it, jeopardizing our access to additional resources, again, that our constituents rely on? To me, that just doesn't seem to add up.”

Madden repeatedly attacked Shrestha’s record in office. “I would love to know what was done directly for Ulster and Northern Dutchess counties the past two years to bolster our infrastructure,” she said. 

In turn, Shrestha blamed former Assembly Member Kevin Cahill, her immediate predecessor and Madden’s former boss, for failing to address many of the issues residents now face.  

“A lot of problems I'm walking into are problems that existed before my time, but I do want to say at the state level, we have done some stuff,” Shrestha said. “The Town of Red Hook and the City of Kingston just got big, hefty grants for the new sewage infrastructure money pot that the governor created for the Mid-Hudson Valley.”

She said that she managed to pass legislation that Cahill had not been able to get across the finish line, including a bill honoring abolitionist and local hero Sojourner Truth with a holiday.

Ulster and Dutchess County voters will decide on a Democratic candidate on June 25.