Interview with a Political Organizer

I interviewed Elisabeth Lareau nine days after the Congressional candidate we both worked for in upstate New York, Zephyr Teachout, a progressive Democrat, lost by over 9 percent to her conservative Republican opponent, John Faso, in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Teachout was one of the candidates Our Revolution supported and was endorsed by presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Elisabeth was a field organizer in the Teachout campaign. She was in charge of Teachout’s Hudson, New York campaign office. The office was a fairly hectic place in the final days of the campaign and had been functioning for about a month at the time of the November 8th election. The office was one of many similar campaign offices that spanned a fairly substantial geographical area that ran along the Hudson River north of New York City, then up through the rural counties of the state just below the I-90 corridor. We communicated one additional time about one month after the general election.

Elisabeth graduated in 2015 with a degree from the State University of New York system at New Paltz, New York with a major in international relations and a minor in economics. In many ways, she represents the politically charged student movement that catapulted Bernie Sanders to coming within striking distance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. She volunteered for the Sanders’ campaign for two months before coming to the Teachout campaign. She reflects the concerns of students across the U.S. in many ways, having earned an excellent education while facing many of the pressing issues that have turned some of her student cohort into a politically charged and active base.

Typical campaign work during the life of the Hudson office involved volunteers working phone banks and completing door-to-door canvassing assignments with prospective voters. Data entry of the information gleaned from these campaign activities was also part of the function of the office.

Hudson, New York is a city well on its way to gentrification. Its main business district is occupied by restaurants, small retail shops, and many antique shops. It has a diverse population with a sizable number of gay and lesbian citizens and African-Americans. Much of its economy depends on people from out of town, who fill the city’s sidewalks and streets and frequent its shops.

What drew you to become active in progressive politics?

I have a strong sense of compassion. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home. It gave me a critical perspective of looking at the world and seeing that the world was not on track because of cruelty, callousness, and greed. I moved away from that religious perspective as I got older. I began learning about significant issues in world history such as the Holocaust and fascism. I saw how the exclusion of certain groups in society gave rise to social movements and I began to form opinions about mass movements like the civil rights movement.

In high school I was always the weirdo, but my opinions were supported by teachers and I excelled academically in advanced placement courses. I began my college experience at a community college and transferred to SUNY New Paltz, which was a very political campus. The program at New Paltz in international relations was a rigorous one and I was committed to doing well. The reading and writing course requirements in that program were very intensive. I was introduced to writers like Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Nietzsche and I wanted to develop a system that could refute Nietzsche’s argument against morality by creating a new philosophical foundation for ethical actions, especially how those actions would work in the real world of politics and society.

I envisioned the classroom as more of a forum where students would be excited by the exchange of ideas inspired by the course material, however, in many classes I got the impression that some of my peers were there simply to obtain class credits, or memorize material.

In economics classes, I learned the mechanisms by which currency had an effect on the stability of countries. I learned about the effects of globalization in the context of an uneven playing field. When borders are opened between labor intensive manufacturing and commodity-based economies, and developed countries with a lot of capital to invest, you get a race to the bottom. I theorized that developing countries would never catch up to their developed counterparts because as their production becomes increasingly technologically developed, it becomes more capital intensive. As this level of productive development, capital intensity reaches closer to that of the developed world, and the return on investment also approaches that of the developed world, eroding the investment advantages formerly experienced by very undeveloped countries potentially leading to bubble creation and consequently recession. In addition, developed countries initially operating at the technological frontier (of production) will tend to retain economic advantages. Accordingly, all boats certainly would not rise with the tide. Developing countries are never equal to the major economic powers and that has to be taken into account in the system of economic globalization that we now have.

I worked summers in the New York Public Interest Research Group, which, according to NYPIRG, “examines important issues, produces studies, and engages New Yorkers in public education campaigns designed to produce policies and strengthen democracy, enhance the right of consumers and voters, and protect the environment and public health.” Elisabeth most recently worked in NIPIRG’s Ithaca, New York office.

What do you think about the rise of student political consciousness around the 2016 elections?

I, along with millions of other students, was waiting for the election season. I was thrilled to learn about the Sanders’ campaign. I wanted to get involved immediately. I was in California when the deadline neared for declaring party affiliation for the April 2016 presidential primary in New York and I changed my affiliation so that I would be able to vote in the primary. Issues like income inequality that was moved to center stage in the Occupy Wall Street Movement was of prime importance. Understanding the financial crisis that became known as the Great Recession had a great effect of me and masses of other students. Bernie represented a no-bs perspective to the issues around income inequality and student debt and the lack of good jobs available for my generation.

Back on campus it had become hipper to be aware of issues such as the LGBT movement and all of these different movements for equality and social justice began to have an effect on students. We were already involved in many environmental, economic and social-justice issues, however, up until Bernie’s run there was no candidate to speak to our diverse concerns. It is in this sense that I think my generation was ‘just waiting” for a candidate like Bernie to put our efforts forward. Students knew the burden of the debt that they carried out of their school experience and the lack of good jobs commensurate with their education. Students knew what they faced, but it took a candidate like Sanders to give voice to those social issues. There was no mass movement before Sanders that could articulate their hopes and fears. I volunteered for Bernie the winter after I graduated. I would say that for a generation growing up through the Bush years, social justice and progressive issues had been growing in the popular consciousness for the last eight years.

Through our issues, we can connect with the global community so that we have a stronger sense of identity with people all over the world. The internet and immigration have lead to an increasing globalization of culture. More and more young people around the world share a sense of identity. We recognize that economic and environmental issues affect us all, and that everyone deserves human and civil rights. There is a emerging sense of solidarity, a willingness to act in concert for a common good that becomes more apparent especially in the face of global climate change. The first global crisis calls upon the first global generation.

Do you predict that student activism will continue beyond the 2016 election cycle?

Yes, activism will persevere.  When you have people shot in the streets… when you can’t get decent jobs… when you come out of school with huge debt… You have no choice. The Black Lives Matter movement… the Sanders’ campaign… the pressing issue of climate change. People, and the young, feel that they have been abandoned by government. These are issues that will continue on into the next decade and beyond. They are not single issues and they must be coordinated through activism. The economic crisis, where high-skill levels are not being rewarded by high-paying jobs, creates a class dynamic. It brings the abstract differences between the 1% and the 99% into focus and into the real world. There will be stronger grassroots movements because of the contradictions inherent in issues like the tremendous burden of student debt and discrimination.

Can you talk about your work as a field organizer in the Zephyr Teachout campaign for Congress in New York?

It was very disappointing to have a person with Zephyr Teachout’s credentials, who could represent our progressive interests, lose. It was very frustrating. We believed that the top of the ticket would have a positive effect on what were called down-ticket candidates, but that is not how the campaign unfolded in this particular race for Congress. As in the rest of the country, we didn’t anticipate such a massive turnout for Trump. Many of those energized Republican voters came out for Trump and voted down-ticket. Yet no one who was intimately involved in Zephyr’s campaign has expressed resignation. It’s important to know that you were right and that by taking part in the process, you and others were not atomized, but acted in concert for good policies like bringing good jobs to the Hudson River Valley, continuing to clean up the environment of the Hudson River Valley, and supporting local farming. We were, and are, on the right side of history, especially with the issues of pollution and climate change. We know that civilization has a choice and the consequences for not acting to address climate change have the most dire consequences for us.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

Weekend Edition
March 22, 2019
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