Election 2022: Melanie D’Arrigo on Running for Congress in NY-03

Aug 04, 2022

By Steve King

Web Exclusive


Melanie D’Arrigo is a strategist, community organizer, tireless health care advocate, and candidate in NY-03’s long-stalled August 23rd Democratic primary. She was born to modest means in a union household on the South Shore of Long Island. She was the first in her family to go to college. She went to Barnard and got her Master’s from the School of Health Professions at Long Island University. After graduating with a mountain of student loan debt she was passed over for a job when she was pregnant.

D’Arrigo has organized protests and marches in support of abortion and immigrant rights, teach-ins, and rallies. She was a founding member of Sunrise Movement Nassau County, Be The Rainbow, an LGBTQ+ visibility group. She’s been endorsed by Our Revolution, the NY Working Families Party, and Everytown. I could go on but she has the most endorsements in her district. Enough said. She supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. She is a member of Moms Demand. She checks literally every box for modern progressives. She even brought her daughters with her to protest the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. She first ran for office in 2020, and though unsuccessful, she built a network and infrastructure for her current run.

Meet Melanie D’Arrigo.

Steve King (Under the Radar): The drama with the NY redistricting and the congressional map has pushed back all of the primaries. The last couple cycles have been a bit of a mess as far as the vote counting, largely due to the pandemic. Your primary is August 23rd. When do you expect to know who won?

Melanie D’Arrigo: Typically, the way it works here in New York is, absentee ballots have about a week to arrive and after that week they start opening and counting and depending on how many ballots there are they can generally get through them quite quickly. We are anticipating that this will be a low voter turnout election. We just had the gubernatorial which was quite low as well. So we’re hoping by early September to know for sure that we won.

As much as we’d like to think that we’re all moving in the right direction, at least half of the country isn’t. Half of this country is insane. They’re not living in reality. They’re moving in the opposite direction. How do you plan to handle the more extreme members, like in Congress?

I think that representatives have gotten really caught up in the buzzwords, catchphrases, and getting one over on another. That may work for them on social media and maybe that will get them donor money, but at the end of the day it’s the people of this country who are suffering.

One thing I’ve done from the beginning, and we’ve done it quite well, is implement a huge educational component to our campaign so when we are in the community, and when I’m in office, we plan to do this on a much larger scale. We educate voters and we don’t only speak to Democrats. We speak to unaffiliated voters, we speak to Independents, and sometimes we even speak to Republicans. We’ve actually flipped some Republicans who are now registered Democrats.

I think when representatives offer a detailed plan and facts, and I know we’re living in a wild time with alternate facts, but the average person, working families, will pay attention. We can reach them. It requires more work but I think that when we reach them, that’s when we can make things happen, and my hope is that we can get some of the representatives to do the same and stop the gaslighting of this country and actually talk about the issues at hand and lay out the solutions moving forward. I think we can do that. These other extreme folks who want to do nothing but, I don’t know, pick on someone, my hope is they will become obsolete.

You’re running in a primary that just so happens to be in a district where, for the most part, the outcome is preordained. It’s pretty blue. Even in a year that might not be kind to Democrats, keeping this seat is pretty easy. And New York is a machine town so you’ve got institutional Democrats and they’re obsessed with these seemingly more moderate, electable politicians. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about half the time. It’s a 50/50 shot. What are you doing this time to stand out from your opponents?

It’s an open primary. As you may know, I primaried Tom Suozzi in 2020, who is the current representative. He has decided to not seek re-election. I like to tell people it’s because he was too scared to face me again so he decided to run for another office, but I wholly reject the concept that moderates are more electable. The last couple cycles have really proven just the opposite, and right now with Democrats controlling the House and the Senate and the White House and still seeing our civil rights get rolled back, a lot of Democrats are very, very angry. Even run-of-the-mill, normal, establishment-type folks are very angry. I believe this moment requires a true fighter, someone who’s going to stand up and fight for the people of this country. Not a status quo Democrat or status quo politician.

We need organizers because we’re seeing on a federal level that the organizers’ tactics are moving the needle. I don’t actually think a moderate could win this district. This District did get bluer. It went from a D + 3 to D + 8, D + 9, something along those lines. But there are a lot of disaffected, apathetic voters right now who are very angry, and in order to get them to turn out to vote we have to re-enfranchise them, and the way we do that is by exciting them by giving them a plan and path forward.

Right now I’m the only candidate in the race who has conviction and laid out plans and has been consistent in those plans, and we’re bringing a lot of folks in. We’re re-enfranchising folks. We’re actually, to my surprise, but I guess it’s a happy surprise, we are bringing even establishment type folks, because after Roe was overturned I think that really woke a lot of us up in a way that was maybe even shocking to them.

Shocking is a good way to put it. We can’t codify the protections of Roe with the Supreme Court in its current form. We don’t have the votes and even if we did, the court would just strike it down again. So we have to expand the court first, but this is like an impossible knot. How do we untangle this?

I think it’s really important to be realistic in that the fight ahead is going to be long, but I think there is a strategic approach that entails long-term goals and short-term goals. So, you’re right that we need to codify Roe and we can do that by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act. We’re hearing a lot of folks and a lot of representatives and other candidates talking about how they support Roe v. Wade but that’s not enough. We need members who are going to fight to codify Roe and I think what that entails, partly, and this is part of the longer-term fight, expanding the Supreme Court as you said, and we know Mondaire Jones and Jerry Nadler have already introduced legislation to do that [with] the Judiciary Act.

There are those who want to put [out] this information or misinformation and they’re going to tell you that that is radical. I’m here to tell you that there is nothing more radical than telling people what they can and cannot do with their bodies. That is absolutely radical. The other key point here is that the number of justices on the Supreme Court has changed about seven times since the inception of the Supreme Court. The last time it was changed it was changed to nine because we had nine circuits, so we changed the Supreme Court Justices number to nine, so it would reflect those circuits. Now we have 13 circuits and so it’s real sound thinking to expand it to 13.

My fear is that Democrats are going to be too cowardly to even attempt this and I think we all have to prepare ourselves to do everything we can to expand the Court now, because if we do lose control, and by that I mean Democrats in the senate, I think there’s a very good chance that Mitch McConnell moves forward and expands the Supreme Court, and then the country is going to be in a bad state for a very, very long time.

Jesus…

Now that’s not to say that there are not actions that we can take right now. I think that part of it is about getting the trust of Democrats back, and one easy thing to do would be to start impeaching some of the Supreme Court justices we have. Clarence Thomas, whose wife was involved in the insurrection, that is so…I mean, it’s something that I never thought in my life that I would utter that phrase.

It’s mind boggling…

It’s mind boggling! Then you have these three other justices who lied under oath, saying they would respect precedent. Clearly, they were lying, so I think there’s a case, and even if we can’t do it, Democrats shouldn’t shrug and say “Well, we probably don’t have the vote so it’s not the right time.” Put them out there for the American public. Let them see that you’re fighting. So I think that’s real low-hanging fruit and that’s something we can absolutely do.

Right on.

And the second thing that needs to be done immediately is that we need to ratify the ERA. There is going to be some energy around the ERA, and again, this was, you know, at the height of the Women’s Lib movement, ratifying the ERA was what it was all about. We already have the states. They’ve already voted to ratify it so right now it’s essentially a paperwork issue. If the National Archivist could just file paperwork to ratify it. Now, Trump’s DOJ issued guidance to not ratify it so there’s a little bit of political maneuvering that can take place, and that is something that needs to happen in order to protect other marginalized communities, and frankly, to protect birthing people and women in this country if the Republicans do regain control of Congress, because they have been quite clear that they are not stopping at the court overturning laws. They will fight to codify a national abortion ban and this will protect us from that.

Don’t get me wrong, the fight is still long but this is something we can do. We are not powerless, we are not helpless. It’s really frustrating for Democrats when we see these powerful senators shrug and just say, “Well, we just don’t have the votes and there’s not much we can do. You’ve got to vote harder.” Nothing infuriates me more. So what I tell people is: don’t vote harder, vote smarter. Vote for the fighters. Vote for the people who have been on the front lines. Vote for the ones with integrity and morality. Those are the ones who are fighting for your community, and if they’re not doing that don’t give them your vote.

We’ve already seen just a little of the damage Dobbs has caused. It’s blatantly unconstitutional, it’s cruel and disgusting, but from a practicality standpoint, this looks like a generational struggle that we may not live to see the end of. What do we do? I guess we need to train a whole new generation of people to fight after us… but… what can we do right now?

We will either succeed as a society or we’re going to fail as a society. Make no mistake, whichever path we choose, we’re going to do that together. And I wish that more people realized their own responsibility in choosing that path because it’s easy for voters to be disenfranchised. There’s a lot of legislation that is meant to intentionally disenfranchise voters. We’ve got systemic oppression in this country that makes people feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Representation is not representing them, so why does it matter if they vote? And it’s hard to argue with those people. It truly is, and it’s really hard when you have politicians who are forever telling folks, “Oh, I’m going to change. I’m going to change this for you. I’m going to fight for you,” and you don’t hear from them until the next election cycle. This moment is going to require all of us.

And it feels like impossible odds, and sometimes I feel like I’m living in a Marvel movie, you know. It’s the good guys and the bad guys and there’s everyone else that we’re trying to bring along with us. Everyone needs to get involved. Everyone needs to pay a little bit more attention, and I know that’s easy to say but when I say that the state of our country and democracy is at stake, it’s not being hyperbolic. Many of us thought that the 2020 election was the most important election in our lifetimes, we’ll never have another, but I actually think this election, right now, is the most important of our lifetime. Because, don’t get me wrong, we had to get rid of Trump, 100% yes, we had to reduce harm because he was causing so much harm to so many, but now, I think, people have gone back to sleep and they don’t quite realize the slide into fascism and authoritarianism that this country has taken. There’s this false sense of security and “Well it’s okay. The Democrats are sane people and they’ll fix it,” and that’s just not happening. And I believe that is solely because of the influence of outside dark money, corporate money, PAC money flowing into the system, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are essentially being controlled and paid to vote in favor of CEOs’ bottom lines and not of communities. When that happens, which is the state we’re in now, we can’t trust our representatives to represent us. That’s why I’m in this fight.

When you ask what can we do, I would train the next generation. I’m a mom of three and I have my kids with me all the time. My kids are, as they would say, “super woke.” They come to rallies. They come to protests. They come canvassing. They talk to voters. Sometimes my children are frustrated and sometimes they voice it to me and they’ll say, “How can they not understand that throwing your trash out like that is not good for the environment or whatever.” Because they’ve been around and they know. I think that’s very important because we’ve folded them into this process. It’s their future that I’m fighting for. But as a parent I need to teach them that they will have to step up and fight for their future as well.

To make sure they don’t sleepwalk into authoritarianism…

That, and I think as a country we already have, but I’m an optimist. I don’t think anyone should run for office unless they’re an optimist, because you have to be in it for the change. You have to be in it for the right reasons, and if we can teach our children that they have to pay attention, and if we can equip them with the skills to fight for themselves and fight for others, I think that that’s really important as we wade into these very dark times.

And you’re part of Moms Demand. You’ve been endorsed by Every Town. You have what you call a “Mom Agenda.” I think only 5% of Congress are moms. It’s a very low number. How do you plan to introduce that kind of thinking to Congress?

First, we’ve got to get elected, which I think we are very much on track to do this time around. I think that for a working person, it is very difficult to run for office. Elections are extremely expensive. You’ve got to reach a lot of people. Even for a grassroots campaign like mine we fundraise with grassroots dollars; it’s still exorbitantly expensive to run. Even if you’re running a shoestring budget.

Now throw in on top of that, if you’re a parent of young children, the odds of mothers or at least working-class mothers making it and winning their elections are very, very slim, which is why I think we see such a slim number of mothers in Congress. We’ve been at this for four years essentially, running, and our odds have changed drastically, but my hope once I win, once I get to Congress, we can institute policies and hopefully a significant amount of real, meaningful outreach on a national level to show moms what this really entails, and for those who want to do it and can do it. We give them the skills and the tools that they need. I mean, there are a lot of women initiatives that work with candidates, but if we don’t have some kind of campaign finance reform or make it easier for these working people to have access to raise money, it becomes really, really difficult to get them in there. So we’ve got some plans, local things, to make sure that we can kick this door open and then hold it open and pull some other moms through as well.

This kind of leads into my next question I have and it’s pretty dour. By the end of the century there will be enough CO2 in the atmosphere that it will start to impact human cognition. You have three young children. The window to mitigate the worst effects of climate change is rapidly closing. I personally think the Boomers really screwed our generation over in the sense that we grew with a lower standard of living than our parents. We’re the first generation for that ever to happen. What we’re leaving these kids seems so much worse than what happened to our generation. What are you going to say to the younger generations?

You are absolutely right there. I can say that one thing that gives me hope is that young people, particularly, on the issue of climate, are energized, and I think in the last couple of cycles we have seen younger people coming out to vote because it’s important. I think we need younger people to run for office. They’ve got energy, they’ve got ideas, they’re brilliant and who better to fight for your future than you.

We can’t sugarcoat it; this goes back to how broken our system is right now. We still continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry and we allow certain members of Congress to debate publicly whether or not climate science is real. Ask the people in London today if climate change is real. Greece is burning. Portugal is burning. France is burning. California is almost always burning. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Yesterday, I spoke with someone in London and they were really terrified because London is just not equipped for this type of weather and she said to me, “Our building is melting. The streets are buckling.” This is what’s happening and these are not the worst effects of climate change. We are just starting to see those effects.

My hope is that people will remember this and push their governments to act. We talk about issues on a national level and they’re difficult to solve. The climate crisis is a global issue so we need collaboration with everyone, which is incredibly difficult, especially from a foreign policy perspective because not all of us have been good actors over the years. We have to come together and decide if this planet, or at least human life, is worth saving, and that’s going to be a tough nut to crack.

The United States used to lead on many of these issues and we just haven’t seen that. The solutions that they’re implementing or talking about implementing are too little too late. We need to be aggressive, we need to be bold and that’s what’s infuriating about when representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran on the Green New Deal, she was demonized by so many people. And it’s like, “Well, just listen to what she is saying.” And then Ed Markey comes out and he’s like “here’s what we’re trying to do,” and people fawn all over him. And then we know it’s not really about the policy.

This is what it all comes down to, we have to lay out the plan and the policies. People hear “Green New Deal” and they don’t know what that means, but if we talk and educate people on [things like] when we burn fossil fuels it puts carbon into the air. When we don’t properly dispose of our garbage it decomposes and releases methane into the air. This is what’s causing these destructive weather patterns and rising sea level. We live in a district that is part of New York City and part of Long Island, and on the Long Island portion of this district we get our drinking water from an aquifer system, so with rising sea levels means more salt intrusion, and we have a depleted freshwater supply and then you throw in pollution on top of that… we’re going to have a water security issue and this is not unique.

We really need to lead with educating people about what climate change is and then we need to lay out the solution. They’re really not that scary. I think we lose people when we say “no carbon emissions.” If we went out, you and me, on the street right now and we started interviewing people, how many folks would know what carbon emissions are or be able to really articulate it? It’s about education and I think it’s about our representatives of our country, of our communities; it is our responsibility to educate people and then implement solutions. We just launched a local climate policy yesterday with hyperlocal intervention that can really be anywhere. That would make a huge difference in terms of reducing carbon emissions, methane emissions, and pollution.

We’ve got to pep it up a little bit because we’re talking about some cataclysmic stuff and all of these heavy issues… How is your race going? How is this race different from your 2020 campaign? What did you learn the first time around that has helped you this time? Has there been more traditional campaigning now that we have the vaccines?

Yes. I ran in 2020 prior to the pandemic and we were really picking up steam. We quickly amassed a lot of grassroots support all over the district in a way that really shocked the more establishment, institutional Democrats, and then the pandemic hit and we were unable to knock doors. We were phone-banking and organizing digitally but it just wasn’t quite the same, especially for a grassroots campaign.

We were also dealing with a pandemic that we knew very little about and we were starting to get calls from the community. People needed food and diapers and baby food. We have a very high population of undocumented families here and they’ve really suffered during the pandemic. For the first month all of the electeds locally, statewide, federally, they were not around and I don’t fault them. I understand that everyone was scared and we didn’t know what was happening, but we quickly transitioned into a mutual aid operation. I partnered with some folks so we could collect food and deliver diapers and things like that, and that was a choice that we made because I was running for office to help my community and we knew that it would probably cost us votes but that was okay, we were helping our community, right? That’s the way we went and of course we didn’t win the election that time, but we got nearly 30% of the vote, which we’re pretty excited about for a grassroots candidate that was outspent 10 to 1.

This time around is very different. I still think this time around I would have beaten Tom in a primary. We started out really strong. We came in with a lot of the support that we had last time. I think we had six endorsements on the first day that we launched.

And now you have the most endorsements in the race.

Oh, by far, yes, and actually very few of the candidates have any endorsements at all. I’m not really sure if they have any. We’ve got well over 20. It’s a really impressive coalition of support that we are very humbled to receive because the thing of it is, these are not endorsements that were given to us because we were friends with someone. These are endorsements that we earned. What I take real pride in is that these are a community of organizers who’ve endorsed my campaign. We all have friendly relationships. I know if they didn’t agree with my policies they would not endorse me. So I think that’s high praise. We’re very excited about that. Organizers all over the district are standing with us, as are these organizations we’ve been endorsed by.

You mentioned Everytown For Gun Safety. We are the only federal candidate in New York and one of eight nationally to be endorsed by them. The Working Families Party, the National Organization For Women, Our Revolution. It’s just so many organizations. We even got unions supporting us. Today we were endorsed by the United Auto Workers Union, which is a really big union in the district. We’re very grateful to all of these organizations who believe in our work and believe in what we’re doing, and I think it’s a real testament to just being present in the community. People take notice when you’re always on the front lines and fighting to help others. We are grateful for that. What we’ve learned is that you never know what will happen in a campaign. You just never ever know.

That was a crazy cycle…

But look at this one. We’ve run in three different districts, essentially because we got the old district, we got redistricted, it got thrown out… They still haven’t given us the data for the new areas of the district. You just have to take each day at a time, and my own personal mantra is “Do The Most Good.” Sometimes there are going to be uncertainties and that’s okay. You just have to keep going and keep fighting to help people. That’s what we’ve been doing and I think it’s working. The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive and, like I said, we’ve got all these endorsements and a lot of support. I feel like this is our race and thank goodness, because we really need fighters right now.

I remember in 2020 every politician I talked to was campaigning but they were all basically doing social work. Hopefully this time will be a little better. Have you had more meet and greets and outside events? Stuff like that?

Yes. We’ve had a ton of people opening up their backyards, We have tons and tons of organizers having postcard parties and people are really coming together, and it’s really nice to have that human connection again, especially for campaigns like mine that are grassroots. That’s part of the magic, the secret sauce to the recipe is that human interaction, that community feel and building that community. It’s about empowering others to believe in change and it’s about empowering them to get involved. It’s been very different this time around and we’re just very grateful for the vaccines and that we figured out how to navigate COVID a little bit more.

We all know that Democrats are notoriously bad at messaging but there’s something about the younger female progressives in New York. Like you’ve got AOC, Eliza Orlins. Maya Contreras had a great slogan: No policy about us, without. You’re there. Yuh-Line Niou is making history. What do you guys know that the rest of the party hasn’t figured out? Because you guys can communicate in a way that’s better than everyone.

You want to know the secret? I’ll tell you right now and you can make it a headline. It’s about being honest. That’s all it is. It’s about being honest and if your motives and your intentions are pure, it’s really easy to communicate with voters. It’s really easy to break through nonsense gaslighting when folks are talking about values that we all know they don’t have. But when you know why you’re running, when you know your community, and you know what your community needs, it’s really easy to just cut right through. I also think that maybe, just maybe, there’s something about us New York women. It’s the way we were raised here. We definitely know how to banter and give it as good as we get it. I think that’s important, it’s important to be assertive and it’s important to be confident because we know our communities.

If we are really honest we know that for decades and decades women have not been at the table and at the seat of power, if you will, but we know that it’s women who have always taken care of our communities. They’re the glue that holds families together, and think of your own family or your community. Women are the ones who are organizing the holiday table and all of these events and actions that make life so wonderful. If we think about who’s there it’s always the women, so I think it’s real hard to compete with us when we are stepping into our power and using it to fight for our communities because our roots are just so deep.

What’s your favorite part of campaigning for office vs. community organizing?

Well, I would say that I use a lot of organizing in my campaigning, always, and that is why we’re doing so well. It’s really about the people. It’s about having a conversation, whether it’s at an event or at a rally or knocking on doors, really showing people that someone cares about them and that we can do this. There’s really something really special about those interactions. No one likes to be in 93 degree weather for three hours, walking around, no one likes that. But that’s the hard work of change. One door at a time. Every time a door opens and you’re on the steps or on the porch and you have that conversation and you know that no matter how that election turns out, that conversation has contributed toward progress and that moves us forward. And it’s very, very meaningful.

www.darrigo2022.com

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