Sarahana Shrestha is a climate activist running to represent New York’s 103rd Congressional District in the state Assembly as part of New York City Democratic Socialists of America’s slate of 13 candidates, many of whom are putting the climate crisis at the center of their campaigns. With the ultimate goal of providing all energy through the public sector, Shrestha and other DSA candidates have been pushing an incremental step: the Build Public Renewables Act, which Democratic leadership in the Assembly failed to even introduce despite having the votes to pass it. (The bill did pass the state Senate.)
The episode dramatized the need for more ecosocialists in the state Assembly. Shrestha lives in Esopus, N.Y., with her husband, Pete Cavanaugh, as well as their rescue dog named Seaweed and several chickens, and she is running against Kevin Cahill, a Democrat amply funded by special interests. Some of these are more special than others: Republican donor Steven Price—who has also donated generously to Dr. Oz, Paul Ryan, Tom Cotton, and the upstate GOP congressional candidate John Faso—just gave Cahill $2,000. Allowing climate crisis to proceed apace apparently has bipartisan elite appeal.
While the state Senate primary has been delayed till August because of the havoc wreaked by redistricting, the Assembly primaries are on June 28 as planned. That’s why Shrestha, 41, is working so hard to get out the vote. I recently caught up with her by Zoom.
Then, all the tensions that had been building up within the factions that were fighting for democracy erupted into this long civil war. A lot of people in extreme poverty were recruited for this war. A lot of people were sacrificed.
As an adult, I went back to some of the rural places where this war started. Many of these places still didn’t have roads connecting to other parts of the country. I went to places that took a five-day hike to reach. The places where the road was connecting were much more active. Busloads of people coming in and going out. I’ve always been, not rebellious, but interested in dismantling this system and having a true democracy. Where I see the connection to realistic, tangible things is in public goods, public infrastructure, expanding democratic rights, and making our democracy accountable, transparent, and accessible.
LF: How did you become active in socialist politics?
SS: I moved to New York right before 9/11. It was a politically charged time. I was a student on a Long Island campus, and immediately I saw a pro-war survey in our student newspaper. I was alarmed by that, so I started talking about being against wars. And I found alignment with other people who were also anti-war. But as I continued to live in New York, I started asking, “Where is health care? Where is free time? Where is child care, where is paid leave for parents?” I am alarmed by how little time people have for a personal life. Everything is work, work, work, work, work, and you still don’t make enough to participate in your community. Coming from South Asia, where there is maybe too much emphasis on community over the individual, I found the opposite here. It’s bad for people to feel like they are on their own, that it’s every person for themselves. I think it has caused a lot of trauma in this country and that has resulted in fascism here.
LF: Can you talk about public power and how you have been campaigning on it? How you’ve been explaining it to people and how people are responding?
SS: I have been knocking doors since December, and there has been a drastic shift in the conversation about who should own the energy system. People are realizing that they will never be able to hold a corporate monopoly accountable through this regulatory process. When I say that the energy system should exist to serve people, that energy should be like water, people instantly get it. You don’t have to get philosophical or technical. They instantly get that this is something we need for our survival, for our quality of life. The reason I got attracted to the public power work is that it’s a focused, tangible goal.It gets to the root problem, which is that we have this for-profit framework that has compromised every solution to every problem—housing, energy, health care. This economy just does not prioritize serving people. The public power demand has a clear focus and strategy. Our first bill is the Build Public Renewables Act, which is not the bill that transitions everything to public ownership. It’s a stepping-stone bill, which I like because we need victories that open up the space for more ambitious things.
LF: Conventional wisdom says voters can’t be motivated by climate issues. But you’re finding otherwise, right? What are we experiencing here in New York that the national pundits are missing?
SS: Totally. Climate is an economic issue, and the way we have able to connect to people to talk about it is by presenting it as an economic issue. People are seeing that their energy bills can be unreliable. People are seeing that if we continue to rely on fossil fuels, we might not be able to afford a lot of things.
It’s true that there was some genuine concern when I said I was going to run as a climate candidate, that it was going to be a missed opportunity because people are struggling with housing here. Of course, people are getting displaced, but for everyday people, it’s not one or the other. They want to see things change, period. Housing, climate, health care—they’re just frustrated that we have spent years voting for the “right” people and still things are not significantly changing.
LF: There’s some amazing data showing that nonvoters are much more likely than frequent voters to say that climate or environment is their most pressing issue. I thought that that was an important finding. These people who are putting climate and environment as their highest priority are young, low income, or people of color—all the groups that are least likely to vote and most likely to experience voter suppression. How is your campaign engaging these folks?
SS: This electoral campaign is a step towards getting those people more involved in organizing around the issues that they care about. I’ve met people who were not regular voters who would say things like, “It’s too late. There’s nothing that can be done about climate.” And I think that’s the reason they don’t vote, because they are so immobilized by the lack of solutions. Their intensity on the topic is the highest, but their investment in action is the lowest.
LF: Yes, exactly, which is profound.
SS: The lack of trust in government is, I think, dangerously high.
LF: Are there particular ways that environmental issues are coming up locally that affect your campaign?
SS: One is a huge issue around Central Hudson being our energy provider. It is the number-one thing people want to talk about. People are dealing with huge bills that they have no idea why they got. They have no idea who’s going to solve this problem for them. Many people cannot afford to be on the phone with Central Hudson all day. Many people have not been paying their bills for months, because they are hoping this will somehow get resolved.
There’s also a big water protection issue. Our water systems are always threatened by energy projects.
The other thing that I’m interested in for our district and, generally the Hudson Valley, is around the issue of siting renewable projects. There has been a lot of bad faith and mistrust in our communities on renewable projects, and that’s because these renewable projects are being done by private companies, who don’t have good relationships with people who live here, and are not offering them anything.
Communities find that they are usually left to themselves to go against these corporations. So I am interested in repairing that relationship. I think it’s essential that people understand why renewable energy projects are good for them, what they can get out of [renewable energy], and they should get things out of it. We address some of this in the Build Public Renewables Act. And again, that’s why I’m interested in public power—we need to fight climate change by getting communities involved.
LF: How do you run against standard Democrats who talk the talk and sponsor some things, but get all the special interest money and won’t do anything significant?
SS: I canvassed somebody yesterday, the first door I knocked that day, an older person who said that my opponent was like a “rock in a stream.” I asked her to elaborate, and she said, “The whole world is just flowing past him.”
When they ask me who I’m running against and I describe the situation, I get a lot of eye rolls. When I say he’s been in the office for more than 25 years, I get a lot of eye rolls. People are like, “That’s all I need to know,” which is to say that people care very much about their democracy. They want it to be functional.
LF: Why do we need to fix our democracy as we also try to repair our planet?
SS: Things that are popular with people are not popular inside Albany. So younger people, like you were saying earlier about the climate-concerned people, don’t get involved because they don’t think that there’s going to be an impact. So, if you can change that attitude!
LF: Speaking of that, about how many volunteers do you have right now?
SS: People who are leading something, in the capacity of almost like a part-time job or sometimes even a full-time job, must be around 15 to 20. And then people who come and canvass once in a while, over 150.
It is as simple as convincing somebody to do something. We’ve knocked over 16,000 doors in difficult terrain. We’ve knocked doors that are at the end of long driveways in the woods. These are not easy areas to canvass, outside of Kingston and New Palz. And we have been successful at that because every day we are thinking, “How do we convince more people to do this with us?”
LF: What is the answer to that? How do you convince people to do this?
SS: So most people are already convinced that we need to win. That’s the easy part. People are sold on it, but people have children, people have jobs, people are in school finishing up their papers. The difficult part is in convincing them that if they want to do this, they just have to carve out time. There’s never going to be a chunk of free time that’s going to magically appear. What we try to hammer home is, “If you have an hour you can spare, we need that. We need that hour.”
LF: Are you engaged in much coordination with the rest of the NYC-DSA ecosocialist slate?
SS: We try to boost each other as much as possible. This is not just happening here—we want to do this statewide. I’m so amped that a bunch of climate organizers are running this year. It was long overdue.