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How Socialist Organizer Sarahana Shrestha Pulled Off an Election Upset

A robust ground game and strong climate message were critical to her primary victory over a 30-year incumbent in Ulster County, New York.

Sarahana Shrestha’s Assembly campaign was marked by an expansive ground game in which volunteers knocked on more than 32,000 doors in the district.,(Greg Scavuzzo)

Sarahana Shrestha, the climate organizer who surprised a longtime incumbent in last week’s Democratic primary in the 103rd Assembly District, was at the Kingston home of her friend, Ulster County Legislator Phil Erner, to watch the results roll in on election night.

It was a fitting place to watch an upset play out. Fifty-one weeks earlier, Erner had won a similarly insurgent primary campaign by harnessing grassroots enthusiasm and the backing of the Mid-Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists of America to unseat Ulster County Legislature Chairman David Donaldson, a Democrat who’d served nearly three decades. “It shows that a motivated minority can beat the majority,” Donaldson said of his defeat in an interview with The Daily Freeman.

Shrestha’s opponent was Kevin A. Cahill, a lifelong Kingston resident who has represented the district for 26 of the past 30 years. A week before election day, Cahill inadvertently echoed Donaldson, calling the challenge posed by Shrestha — who was among a slate of DSA-backed candidates primarying Democrats in state Assembly races this year — a “power grab.”

Cahill was more gracious after the election, which Shrestha won by about 600 votes. “I congratulate her, wish her great success and hope that the people of our community welcome her with the same enthusiasm and confidence you invested in me,” he said in a statement to supporters.

Cahill’s office did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Enthusiasm and confidence were not lacking in the Shrestha campaign. In fact, she says, fervid volunteer support, a strategically robust ground game, and a climate-focused message were the keys to victory.

“We had a core team of 20 to 25 volunteers, and at a certain point, they just entered monster mode,” Shreshta said. “They stopped doing their day jobs and spent a lot of money on gas. We formed very strong bonds. On top of that, we were getting such positive reinforcement — people were mostly so welcoming, so positive, so onboard. I think that positive feedback loop made them even more invested.”

“And then at a certain point, we also realized that everybody was watching this race — that we were, in fact, running one of the most important races in the state. When people start started to realize that, I think they felt even extra invested to win.”

On the ground across the district

Shrestha’s campaign was marked by an expansive ground game in which volunteers knocked on more than 32,000 doors in the district; sent nearly 80,000 mailers; and ran digital ads with over 445,000 impressions. According to For the Many, a local advocacy nonprofit, volunteers made 76,262 direct voter contacts by canvassing or phone — more than half the population of the 103rd Assembly District.

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Shrestha says she was able to mobilize that level of support because she was already a known quantity among progressive organizers in the Hudson Valley. She is the co-chair of the Ecosocialism Working Group for the Mid-Hudson Valley DSA chapter and has been active in community organizing around climate issues, especially as part of the Stop Danskammer Coalition, a multi-year effort that halted the construction of a proposed gas-fired power plant on the Hudson River.

“I’m a person they’ve had a relationship with since before I even announced my candidacy,” she said. “Many were people I talked to when I was still in the process of making a decision (to run).”

“Sarahana was one of us,” said Aaron Eisenberg, a DSA member and spokesman for Public Power New York, a coalition of community organizations advocating for an environmentally sustainable energy system. “She got involved in statewide politics through the Public Power NY campaign. But she didn’t get involved in the campaign to run for office. As she grew in it, people came to her asking for her to run. And she rejected it multiple times.”

The number of volunteers who joined the campaign allowed Shrestha to form six field teams to cover the large district, with coordinators for Kingston, Woodstock, Saugerties, New Paltz/Gardiner, Rosendale/Marbletown/Hurley, and Red Hook and Rhinebeck in Dutchess County. For the rural areas of the district, the campaign organized widespread canvasses with all of the core team. Shrestha says she knocked on doors in every municipality in the district, and covered all of Esopus, where she lives, with her husband.

“In my opinion the largest contributing factor to our win was a massive success at developing a community of organizers for this race who gave their all and then some,” New Paltz field coordinator Michelangelo Pomerico wrote in a tweet thread after the primary.

That the effort was driven by impassioned organizers was also critical in creating what Shrestha calls a “movement campaign,” one that could speak to perceived failures to address climate, housing and healthcare issues while affirmatively calling for transformative change. (The campaign’s slogan was “the future must be beautiful.”)

“I am one of those people who does not believe that all these issues are separate. Everything is tied to the way our economy operates, which really sets the priority,” Shrestha said.

“We laid out a theory of change not just for the district but for New York,” Pomerico said. “These were conversations about class struggle, building power, and a strategy to effect change. In speaking to our organizing work we gave the clearest contrast possible to our opponent.”

Shrestha felt that her campaign could run on progressive issues and not water down its messaging because of the district’s constituency. The 103rd leans older and more liberal, having voted in past Democratic primaries for Bernie Sanders, Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout.

“We knew going in that there was a base that could connect to our message,” Shrestha said. “And we were having very meaningful conversations at the doors — people wanted to see a woman candidate, a woman of color candidate, a young candidate.”

For that reason, Shrestha also resists the idea that she won because of shifting demographics in the district, particularly the number of people who have moved from New York City to the Hudson Valley over the past two years. She points to preliminary data showing that of the 15,100 voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary, nearly 45 percent were aged 65 or older, and another 27 percent were between 50 and 64. Only six percent of voters were between the ages of 18 and 29.

“This assumption that this is a race inspired by Brooklyn and Queens is so misunderstanding who lives here,” Shrestha said. “I was very proud of the support that I got, not necessarily because of what it said about me, but what it said about the district. This is a very progressive district.”

The importance of climate 

Voters who want to see New York take action on climate problems are facing a frustrating dynamic: Most Democrats in the state Legislature talk about climate change as an important problem to be solved, but that mostly hasn’t translated into action.

Despite having control of both chambers and the Executive Mansion, and a supermajority in the state Senate, Democrats in the Legislature have failed in the last several sessions to pass key pieces of legislation that would translate New York’s climate targets — set forth in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — into concrete action and funding for the clean energy transition. Meanwhile, Republicans have largely opposed climate bills that would result in large emissions cuts.

Climate advocates say that Shrestha’s win reflects a real hunger on the part of local voters to see the state break through its legislative inertia and start acting on climate problems.

The Hudson Valley is prime territory for candidates who want to pursue effective climate action, says Emily Skydel, a Hudson Valley organizer for Food and Water Watch. Skydel points to the successful grassroots organizing against the expansion of the Danskammer power plant in Newburgh — and the fact that nine municipalities in the 103rd Assembly District passed resolutions against the project — as evidence that the region is hungry for change. 

Skydel, who knocked on doors for Shrestha’s campaign, said that climate was a top issue for many of the voters she spoke to. “At the doors, when we talked to voters, they were very upset that a supermajority of Democrats couldn’t deliver comprehensive climate legislation.” 

Eisenberg agreed. “The people of the Hudson Valley really want climate action. It’s not some secondary or tertiary issue — it is the issue.” 

On paper, the Shrestha-Cahill race was between two supporters of climate action. Cahill, along with his Senate counterpart Kevin Parker, was the lead sponsor on an important climate bill introduced in 2021, the Climate and Community Investment Act. The bill would raise $15 billion for climate action projects through a tax on carbon imposed on fossil fuel producers and give a third of that revenue directly back to the lowest-earning 60 percent of New York state households as a rebate.

But the CCIA has failed to pass in two consecutive sessions, and climate advocates blame Cahill and his fellow Democratic incumbents for that.

Pete Sikora, a climate advocate with New York Communities for Change, points to comments made by Cahill to reporters 14 months ago, while the legislative session was still ongoing, that CCIA would likely not pass that year.

“Cahill gave a bunch of quotes that effectively buried the bill. He’s talking about how it’s not going to pass and it’s not realistic for this session,” Sikora said. “That’s crazy talk, unless you’re so wedded to Albany policy and process that you can’t see what's right and what’s wrong anymore.” 

In this year’s session, two of the biggest priorities for climate advocates were passing the All-Electric Building Act, which would start phasing out fossil fuel use in newly constructed buildings in 2024, and the Build Public Renewables Act, which would empower NYSERDA to build renewable power projects and compete with private solar and wind developers.

The All-Electric Building Act is especially critical for slashing emissions: Building heating and cooling accounts for roughly a third of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector of the economy, and addressing that problem in the state with the nation’s oldest housing stock will be a tremendous challenge.

Neither bill passed in the this year's session. Sikora says Shrestha’s primary win makes it more likely that both bills will pass soon. 

“There was an election that mattered on it. That changes the calculus inside the conference,” he said. “This is a big shot in the arm. I think that we are in a strengthened position to win that legislation's passage next year, and I think we’re going to win.”

Climate advocates are growing increasingly impatient with Democrats’ tendency to talk about the issue but falling short taking action. The advocates say consensus emerging among climate scientists — laid out in detail in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — is that ambitious government policy to reduce emissions in this decade is necessary to keep some of the worst climate futures from coming to pass, even though it is no longer possible to prevent the accelerating climate instability and extreme weather events that are already occurring.

For advocates like Skydel, Shrestha’s primary win reflects a growing recognition in the Hudson Valley that there is no time to waste on climate. 

“We cannot continue at a snail’s pace,” Skydel said. “Kevin Cahill couldn’t meet the enormity of this crisis, and now he’s gone. [Assembly] Speaker [Carl] Heastie should take note if he wants to hold onto the existing Democrats in office.”