Retiree support key to Pellegrino win

If Mel Stern hasn’t returned your phone call or answered your email in a few months, don’t take it personally. As an active member of NYSUT’s Suffolk County Political Action Committee, Stern and his fellow PAC members had their hands full helping Baldwin Teachers Association member Christine Pellegrino, a Democrat, pull off a David-and-Goliath-sized win in the Ninth Assembly District special election on May 23. The Long Island district voted overwhelmingly Republican in the presidential election and Pellegrino’s upset win is seen as a bellwether for the 2018 congressional midterm races.

Pelligrino will be sworn in today at the state Capitol in Albany.

“I’ve had exciting election nights before, but this was the best,” said Stern, president of Retiree Council 20, who canvassed door-to-door, phone banked and helped organize campaign volunteers. “I just had a gut feeling that we could do this.”

Election Day was an all-hands-on-deck push to get out the vote — phone banking in the morning and early afternoon, a few hours of door-to-door canvassing late in the day and a final visit to Pellegrino headquarters to watch the returns. “Results came in slowly, and we didn’t want to jump the gun, but we started getting pretty giddy at 9:15 or so,” said Stern. “We found out the results officially around 10:30.”

Stern first met Pellegrino in late March at NYSUT’s Committee of 100 lobby event in Albany. He was impressed. “She knew our issues, was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic Convention, an opt-out movement leader and a Committee of 100 member,” he said.

Best of all, Pellegrino was an educator, making her well aware of the challenges facing classroom teachers. Once she received the union’s official endorsement, the Suffolk and Nassau PACs got to work, rallying in-service and retiree members to get out the vote for Pellegrino. “Throughout the third week of April and until the election, we phone banked, mostly at the Suffolk Regional Office, eventually making about 40,000 calls on her behalf,” said Stern who, several days a week, opened the doors at 10 a.m. so retirees could make morning calls.

Virtual phone banking allowed volunteers to make calls from their personal phones. “Many times when I had other commitments I used my own phone and a laptop to make calls for Christine and I know a lot of other people did that to,” said Stern. Volunteers also traveled to the offices of the Brentwood, Middle Country and Riverhead teachers associations to lend a hand. “NYSUT Political Organizer Jeff Friedman spent a lot of time driving around to offices with laptops for phone banking,” said Stern.

Door-to-door canvassing began about two weeks before Mother’s Day. “We had a lot of people come down, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and NYSUT President Andy Pallotta,” said Stern.

With the special election won, Stern and his fellow PAC members have turned their attention to defeating the proposed state constitutional convention, set to appear on the Nov. 7 election ballot, and to screening prospective candidates for state Assembly and Senate openings. “We’re looking for the next Christine,” he said.

“Her campaign was a real team effort, we canvassed, we worked the phones, visited election district meetings, retiree council meetings and we focused on getting union members to the polls,” said Stern, a former NYSUT Board member who spent 43 years in the classroom, 40 of them as a union activist. “I love what I do. We do for each other and we do for the union.”


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