Progressive groups venture north in fight to flip House

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They gathered amidst the pungent aroma of Buffalo sauce, sipping pints of ale and rallying support for an insurgent challenger in a race for control of a close-to-home House district in November’s midterm elections.

As the gloaming darkened already-bleak skies, they packed into the Blackstone Bar and Grill on Riverdale Avenue to raise glasses — and funds — for Antonio Delgado, a former rapper turned lawyer his supporters paint as a beacon of hope for the Catskills and Hudson Valley regions.

Northwest Bronx Indivisible — a grassroots group borne out of what members have described as a nearly apocalyptic aftermath of Trump’s inauguration last year — has set upon what some might call a daunting task: Flipping 23 House districts from Republican to Democrat in the midterm elections, so they can block what they see as President Trump’s hate-fueled agenda once and for all.

While some members say Bronx congressional districts are safely Democratic, one of the likeliest swing districts — the 19th, which includes Columbia, Delaware, Greene and Ulster counties — isn’t far away. And to fill campaign coffers against U.S. Rep. John Faso, a Republican who’s represented the district since last year, the local Indivisible group cooked up an evening of political trivia at a neighborhood watering hole in the heart of Riverdale.

Although the group has thrown its weight behind Delgado, it’s more focused on eroding Trump’s grip on the country and less on pushing for specific candidates like U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, whose landslide win in last month’s primary may have freed up some Democrats to shift their focus beyond their own backyard.

“As a group, we were not involved in the primaries at all,” said activist Ron Wegsman of Northwest Bronx Indivisible’s steering committee, who helped organize the event. “We have people involved who have different opinions about Congressman Engel and about Congressman (Adriano) Espaillat. What we’re trying to do is stop the Trump agenda.”

Wegsman sums up that challenge with a single verb — resist.

“We have a system of government where it’s supposed to be checks and balances,” he said. “Congress is supposed to be serving as a check on the president. But the Republicans in Congress, for the most part, have shown they’re not willing to do that. It’s pretty clear to us the only way we’re going to slow down Trump is (to) have Democrats get back into the majority.”

Wegsman’s group singled out Faso’s district intentionally.

“What we want to do is be as impactful as we can in helping swing Congress to the Democrats by focusing on one of the closest districts where we really can make a difference,” he said.

Roughly split between Democrats and Republicans — along with a hefty handful of independents, and a first-term incumbent who’s largely supported Trump’s agenda — the 19th District is one “where there’s an excellent chance a Democrat could win,” Wegsman said.

The fundraiser raked in $3,150 for Delgado’s campaign, including $1,000 from Engel in a check his chief of staff Bill Weitz forked over at Blackstone.

“This is the grassroots of getting this done,” Weitz said. “November is vital. We need to take the House back so we can take back our country.”

Given Engel doesn’t actually have an opponent to worry about come November, Weitz said, “we can actually focus and have Congressman Engel out there, in the field, working hard to try and help us gain seats.”

It’s a movement Weitz hopes will start locally and expand further than Engel’s district and even Delgado’s, to Long Island, further upstate, and beyond.

“We need to be all over,” Weitz said. “Starting here in New York, there are a lot of seats that we can flip.”

And Delgado — a graduate of Harvard Law School and former lawyer at one of the country’s largest lobbying firms focused on improving health care while reducing premiums and deductibles — is grateful for the boost, said campaign finance fellow Christian Johnson.

“I’m really excited about seeing everyone from all different corners coming out and supporting,” Johnson said. “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, whatever identity you give to yourself, we have values that cut across all sections of life. And that’s one thing about our campaign,” with supporters from coast to coast, “they all have the same vision” as Delgado.

Madeline Ritter, facilitator for progressive political group Bend the Arc, has led a number of pilgrimages north talking to voters in Faso’s district since April, tackling issues from education to the Affordable Care Act, which Faso voted against. They are journeys she says will continue leading up to the election.

“I think we’re all united in the knowledge that we have to flip the House to make Trump and his administration accountable,” Ritter said. “We realize that whatever protests we do, we have to take the practical steps of electing Democrats to Congress.”

Yet, while cohesion among Democrats is key in fighting Trump, Wegsman said, the battle’s stakes are bigger than any election.

“It’s all to promote what we think are American values,” Wegsman said. “At this point, the most important thing is to stand up — every citizen, I believe, has to stand up — and defend our democracy against the threat that Trump represents. 

“The most effective way to do it is to get the Democratic majority in the House, so that there will be, finally, a check on him.”

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