Liuba Grechen Shirley was nervous about her first debate. Twenty days before the November election—“today it was 20,” she said, correcting herself, “today is over, pretty much”—the 37-year-old Democratic candidate for Congress was making her way through a room full of supporters at Frankie’s East Side Pizza in the Long Island town of Farmingdale.
As a first-time candidate who put her career as an economic development consultant on hold to run for the seat, she’d mastered a series of tasks—the stump speech, the fundraising ask—but it was the brevity she was concerned about. “We only have a minute and a half for each question,” she kept telling people. “I don’t know how I’m gonna answer anything in a-minute-thirty.”
As Frankie himself looked on from beneath a row of framed photos of professional wrestlers, voters poured wine at a counter and traded confessions. Some had never really paid attention to politics before; more than a few had previously voted for Grechen Shirley’s opponent, 13-term Republican Rep. Peter King.
Grechen Shirley is not likely to be the candidate who pushes Democrats over the top Tuesday, but this isn’t to say she can’t win. Her campaign has raised a record-breaking amount of money for a challenger in New York’s 2nd Congressional District ($728,000 in the last quarter alone); knocked on well over 150,000 doors; racked up endorsements from significant national and state leaders (Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand); and narrowed the gap between her and the jowly, cranky, 74-year old Long Island institution she’s running against. But if she does manage to unseat King, in a district President Donald Trump carried by 9 points, it will likely be at the crest of a wave.
Still, Grechen Shirley’s candidacy has struck a nerve with Democrats in her district and beyond—and not just because her opponent is an ex-Irish Republican Army fundraiser who laid a foundation for Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, voted to roll back health care coverage for 72,000 people in his district, and once compared kneeling NFL players to people who give Nazi salutes. More than almost anyone else running for office, the Indivisible activist-turned-candidate embodies the stages of grief of a particular kind of progressive over the last two years—from despair, to protest, and finally, she hopes, to an office of her own.
As she tells it, Grechen Shirley got into politics almost by accident. After Trump’s election, anxious to learn how rank-and-file progressives like herself might fight back, she called up the Suffolk County Democratic Party and various local Democratic elected officials.
“Nobody got back to me,” she said. “I called the League of Women Voters, and the woman on the phone said I could get involved in voter registration. But, she said”—Grechen Shirley slowed down her cadence at this last part to give the exchange a sort of soothsayer quality—“‘I sense the desperation in your voice; I think that this is your leadership moment.’”
“I remember hanging up and thinking that was the least helpful conversation I’ve ever had,” Grechen Shirley said, “because I wanted somebody to say, like, ‘This is the plan, this is what you’re gonna do, this is how we’re gonna fix this problem.’ And there wasn’t a plan.”
Then she found the Indivisible Guide. At the time, it was just a Google Doc posted online in a collaborative effort by a group of former Capitol Hill staffers, a 101-level explainer on how to make your member of Congress pay attention to your concerns.
A light went on. Grechen Shirley registered a group called New York’s 2nd District Democrats, started a Facebook page, and, per the Google Doc’s recommendations, began posting daily action items. Often they called for members to show up at King’s district offices or call King’s office to press him about a specific vote. It was chaotic and fresh; group members would livestream their phone calls to make the effort more collaborative. She showed me a photo of her daughter posing next to a life-size cardboard cutout of King she had printed up for a protest; it’s still in their attic.
In a big-picture sense, Grechen Shirley is challenging King because she believes in a robust progressive policy agenda, from health care to student debt, that King stands in the way of. But on a more elemental level, she is also running because of what happened in February 2017, after a series of protests at King’s office over the Muslim ban.
Grechen Shirley and a few allies secured a meeting with the congressman on behalf of her group, taped the conversation—she told him she was recording—and posted the transcript online. It’s a fascinating document—part interview, part debate:
Liuba: What are your thoughts on the 3-5 million people that Trump’s keeps making up that illegally voted for him?
Rep. King: He shouldn’t do it. I don’t know why he does it. I mean, I got to tell you. I think personally every top Republican says he shouldn’t. What can I tell you? Every president has his quirks. One of his quirks is….
Liuba: That he lies?!
Rep. King: He has a stream of consciousness. I don’t know if that’s a lie.
Liuba: That’s a lie!
Rep. King: It’s just the things that he says, and ah..
Liuba: Alternative facts!
Rep. King: Whatever, I’m not defending it. What do you want me to say? He shouldn’t say it.
Liuba: Ok. I’ve lived through a number of presidents—Republican and Democrat—If Romney had won, ok….Bush….but this man lies on national television.
Rep. King: I’m not disagreeing with you. You want me to define a lie? When something is obviously wrong and you say it, is it really a lie? I don’t know.
Liuba: YES! That is the definition.
And so on. But Grechen Shirley wasn’t just there to express her concerns. She wanted to ask King if he would hold a town hall meeting. He said no. If voters wanted to know where King stood on the issues, he told her, they should turn on the television; he was on cable news every day. In an interview with a local talk radio station a few days later, he said that holding a town hall “diminishes democracy” by turning the process into a circus. When Grechen Shirley hand-delivered to King’s office an invitation for the congressman to attend a women’s town hall event a few months later, the response was the same.
“My campaign manager asked me the other day, ‘If Peter King had just come to the town hall, do you think you would have run for office?’” she told the crowd at Frankie’s, after a few bottles of wine had been emptied and the room had quieted down.
“I had to think about it for a second.”
The transcript of her meeting with King reads like a time capsule of long-forgotten liberal anxieties. She asked about things like Steve Bannon’s spot on the National Security Council; the Bowling Green massacre; and someone named Rex Tillerson. Other concerns feel quite fresh, like when she asked King about the president’s use of the term “America First,” which has long been embraced by anti-Semites.
“He’s the most non-anti-Semitic president we’ve ever had,” King told her.
In the early going, the work of Indivisible groups like New York’s 2nd District Democrats and activists like Grechen Shirley was almost all about Trump. Then it was almost all about Obamacare. But that shifted gradually over the past year and a half, as organizers at the local level began to take on new and more expansive roles, including throwing themselves into political campaigns of their own. Shaped by changing circumstances and opportunities, the resistance stopped being just about protesting the present and started to be about the future, too.
In her 20 minutes of remarks and a Q&A at Frankie’s, Grechen Shirley mentioned Trump once, and only in passing.
“I actually never talk about Donald Trump,” she told me. “People get turned off when you talk about Donald Trump. People want to know about what you’re gonna do for their family. Nobody wants to hear, ‘Oh, Trump is so terrible, blah blah blah, that’s why I’m running for office.’ People want to hear how you’re gonna help them, how you’re gonna make their life better.”
Mostly they want to talk about health care. When Grechen Shirley asked supporters how many had voted for King in the past, about a third raised their hands. One of them, a middle-aged woman who said she liked that King was active in the Boy Scouts, spoke up. She works as a nurse and spends every day fighting with insurance companies on behalf of her patients, she told Grechen Shirley. That work has made her disillusioned with the idea of a for-profit health care system.
“These CEOs with the big insurance companies made $16 million-plus a year,” she said. “And they denied my neighbor a wheelchair. Now she has a ventilator. They deny her ventilator!”
“Jesus,” said Grechen Shirley.
Other voices started to join in.
“This has to be framed as a moral issue!” a man said.
“It’s actually better in Canada,” someone else said.
Before long it started to sound less like a Q&A than a support group: survivors of the American health care system.
When these conversations pop up, Grechen Shirley has her own horror stories to contribute. She has spent the last 10 months haggling with her insurance company about a two-night hospital stay for her baby, who needed a full-body cast after breaking his femur last January.
Even when insurance does pick up the bill, she’s stuck with a $6,500-a-year deductible. “I mean, we had an $800 co-pay for the ambulance after insurance took him,” she told me. “My daughter got stitches last year. We just paid off the bill for that.”
“You have to pay out of pocket, even if you have good insurance,” she added. “Half of Americans in bankruptcy are there because of medical bills, and 75 percent of those people had health insurance.”
Instead of talking about Trump, she talks about the effects of her opponent’s politics on people like her. She’s paying $1,000 a month in student loans, for example. Legislation to allow people to refinance those loans has gone nowhere in a Republican Congress.
Even her campaign finance reports are a political statement. In April, worn down from nursing a toddler in a body cast while dialing for dollars, she appealed to the Federal Elections Commission to be allowed to use campaign funds to pay for a babysitter. After the FEC ruled in her favor, she says women running in seven other states made similar requests of their state elections commissions.
“You have to be independently wealthy to take a year off, and to somehow manage to pay childcare and your mortgage and your school loans, and run,” she told me. “This is 24/7 with no salary. Most people can’t do that. Congress is only 19 percent female. Almost 50 percent are millionaires. How do you have people who understand these issues then? You don’t.”
When she had finished up at Frankie’s, Grechen Shirley was in too much of a hurry even for a slice of the vegan pizza. She and King were set to appear at a candidate forum in an hour at a high school 45 minutes away. It would be the final tune-up before they debated on television.
After her 2017 meeting with King, perhaps unsurprisingly, she didn’t get another one. The next time she saw him was at an event in the town of Wyandanch this August, after she had won the Democratic nomination to take him on. It had been weird. Earlier that day, Grechen Shirley had rallied outside King’s district office with health care activist Ady Barkan, who is dying of ALS and, like Grechen Shirley, supports a single-payer system. Barkan had entered the building hoping to meet with the congressman but was rebuffed by King’s staff.
“[King] came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Hello, dear,’” she told me.
“Yes,” she said. “He literally walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, ‘Hello, dear.’”
“I said, ‘Hello, Peter. It’s a real shame you didn’t take the time to meet with Ady for 10 minutes at least.’ And he said, ‘I wasn’t in the office.’ I said, ‘You were in the office. Your staff said that you were. You just didn’t have the time to meet with him.’ We went back and forth and he said, ‘Well, I didn’t know he was coming.’ I said, ‘Well, you did because you called the police on us!’” (King’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
That was meeting number two. Meeting number three was a snooze—it was a candidate forum where the candidates were instructed not to talk about each other—but meeting number four promised to be a bit more lively.
Listening to Grechen Shirley and then listening to King is like flipping over to the B-side of a concerto and discovering it’s Metallica. It would be difficult to find a sharper contrast in a congressional race this year. King, in the race of his life against the activist who made his job, if not exactly hell, then certainly a lot more annoying, has resolved to stick very firmly with the kinds of politics that got him here.
King is perhaps the only politician who hasn’t gotten the message that everyone hates politicians. In his opening remarks, he approvingly relayed praise from Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He bragged about getting funding for the Gateway tunnel project, connecting Manhattan and New Jersey, and pushing through the Zadroga bill, which paid for health care for 9/11 first responders, which King worked on—tirelessly, by all accounts—with then-Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner. He touted the support he’s picked up from the gun control advocacy group Everytown, whose founder, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is a longtime friend.
But lest anyone get the wrong idea that King had gone soft, he went after Grechen Shirley hard. “I will not cave to the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. He attacked ISIS and MS-13. He warned about political correctness getting in the way of fighting terrorism in the United States and brought up, as a badge of honor, the criticism he’d faced for holding hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. His opponent, King said, supported abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I never called for the abolition of ICE,” Grechen Shirley said.
“Have you defended ICE?” he asked.
King returned, over and over, to the same theme: that his opponent would make communities more dangerous and turn the United States into “a socialist country like Europe.”
When Grechen Shirley warned that the repeal of Temporary Protected Status for Central Americans would force many Long Islanders to leave the community, someone in the audience shouted, “Fine!” When she asked for more time to respond to something King said, an audience member told her to shut up. Winning as a Democrat on Long Island is hard for a reason; in years where there’s a gubernatorial race, Democrats haven’t even won a state Senate race there since 1982.
It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. Grechen Shirley brought up her son and his cast, and her student loans. She hammered King on the Republican tax reform law even though he’d voted against it, because while he’d opposed the elimination of the state and local tax deduction, he’d supported the general principle of the thing—a permanent tax cut for corporations and a redistribution of wealth away from the middle class and toward the already super-wealthy. She spoke less as someone who worked in politics than as someone who’d been victimized by it.
“I got a meeting with Mr. King, but it was because 400 people protested in front of his office,” she said when it came time for closing statements. “That is what is wrong with government today.”
Grechen Shirley and the movement she represents have come a long way since she brought a tape recorder to that first meeting with King. But as her campaign hit the home stretch, she was right back where she started.