On Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is due to hold his first rally since his heart attack earlier this month ― and he’s planning to make it a big one.
Sanders, 78, had a strong debate performance on Tuesday, trying to put to rest any lingering doubts about whether he’s fit enough to be president. And this past week, he rolled out the endorsement of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), two of the Democratic Party’s young progressive rising stars.
The Sanders campaign is obviously hoping for a large crowd on Saturday, when Ocasio-Cortez is slated to join the Vermont senator on stage in Queens, New York, to formally endorse his candidacy. And the campaign is hoping to set the senator apart from some of his opponents ― including other progressives ― by choosing a location and message that reflect his commitment to affordable housing, the Green New Deal and taming corporate power.
The “Bernie’s Back” gathering is slated to take place in Queensbridge Park, which is in the shadow of both the country’s largest public housing development and New York’s dirtiest power plant. In a nod to his surroundings, Sanders plans to focus his remarks on expanding affordable housing and lifting up racially diverse, poor and working-class communities like those in the neighboring Queensbridge Houses.
“They’re going to ... try to capture the energy of the housing justice movement here,” said New York state Sen. Julia Salazar, a Sanders backer who unseated a Brooklyn Democrat in September 2018 on the strength of calls for greater tenant protections.
Sanders’ supporters see his ambitious affordable housing plan as a key point of contrast with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a progressive rival who has overtaken Sanders in national and early-state polling. Sanders has, among other things, called for a national universal rent control law capping rent increases at 3% annually, while Warren has focused on increasing federal funding for the construction of affordable housing.
Sanders is also attempting to distinguish himself from Warren through the selection of an industrial and working-class Queens locale. Warren held a rally focused on taking on Big Tech this past March in Long Island City, but in mid-September she chose the more scenic Washington Square Park, in the heart of Manhattan’s upscale Greenwich Village, as the site of her largest campaign rally to date.
Sanders, who also convened supporters for a blowout rally in Washington Square Park during his 2016 presidential run, made a point of picking a site with more populist significance this time around.
“Queensbridge was a deliberate choice,” a Sanders aide told HuffPost.
“It is a symbolic gesture by Bernie ... saying that this is no longer about being in the heart of Manhattan, this is about the working families in the outer boroughs who have been neglected,” said New York Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Flushing Democrat backing Sanders. “It’s a metaphor for all Americans who feel neglected by Wall Street.”
‘A Beautiful Symbol For The Green New Deal’
As Sanders speaks on Saturday, the smokestacks of the Ravenswood Generating Station, a fuel oil and natural gas plant, will tower above the park. Fittingly, Sanders will likely be discussing his twin priorities of fighting climate change and environmental injustice.
As of 2014, the power plant was emitting more carbon dioxide than any other facility in the state, making it a longstanding thorn in the side of the city’s robust environmental movement. The confluence of Ravenswood, a second power plant in the adjacent neighborhood of Astoria and the traffic flows coming off of the Queensborough Bridge and nearby highways makes Western Queens, once nicknamed “Asthma Alley,” one of the most polluted areas in New York City.
The Queensbridge Houses, whose 7,000 low- and moderate-income residents live in the heart of this smoggy corner of New York, are thus a prime example of environmental injustice ― a term that describes how marginalized communities bear the brunt of ecological depredation.
But if the setting embodies ills that are plaguing American society, it also has the makings of a potential solution. The site makes plain the case for a Green New Deal that could employ residents of the public housing development to transform the Ravenswood plant into a source of renewable energy, according to Pete Sikora, climate director for the progressive group New York Communities for Change, which has not endorsed in the Democratic presidential primary. Ravenswood’s operators have already submitted a plan to convert the dirty energy source into a facility capable of housing renewable energy storage batteries that Sikora and others believe federal help could usher into reality.
“This backdrop is a beautiful symbol for the Green New Deal,” said Sikora, who supports Sanders in a personal capacity and plans to attend Saturday’s rally. “Hopefully Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are going to make that point in their speeches.”
‘This Is Ground Zero’
Northwest Queens has become a hotbed of left-wing politics in recent years, as young newcomers and middle-class families get priced out of Manhattan and trendy swaths of Brooklyn and bring their left-wing, anti-establishment political views to these neighborhoods abutting the East River.
The Democratic Socialists of America has a vibrant presence in Northwest Queens, providing a key source of experienced canvassers to aid insurgent candidates willing to take on one of the city’s most influential Democratic Party machine apparatuses. Other, less ideologically radical upstarts in the region, like the New Queens Democrats, have attacked the machine’s arcane levers of power, like the opaque county committee that rubber-stamps candidates for the vast borough’s court system.
The combined firepower of Northwest Queens’ ascendant left has produced some of the most significant progressive wins in the country in the past few years. With the help of DSA’s volunteer army, Ocasio-Cortez racked up some of her highest electoral margins in Northwest Queens against then-Rep. Joe Crowley (D) in June 2018.
A year after Ocasio-Cortez’s win, the activists and rank-and-file progressives of Northwest Queens again flexed their muscles in a historically contentious Democratic primary to fill a vacant district attorney post. In that case, the left’s preferred candidate, the Astoria-based public defender Tiffany Cabán, ended up coming a few dozen votes shy of victory.
Queens’ bastion of left-wing activism has also punched above its weight outside of the electoral arena. In February, Amazon withdrew its offer to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, amid vocal opposition to the tax subsidies it was due to receive from the city and state to set up shop in the borough. Polls showed that the public favored Amazon’s arrival, but the outspoken skepticism of local elected officials in Northwest Queens, keen to prove their bona fides to restive constituents, contributed to the massive company’s decision to pull out.
“This is ground zero,” said Kim, the Flushing assemblyman, who represents neighborhoods east of Long Island City but was an early and vocal opponent of Amazon’s arrival. “The progressive wave is happening there.”
Saturday’s choice of neighborhood is more than just symbolic for Sanders, though. If he hopes to compete in New York’s primary in April, he will need to maximize turnout in areas like Northwest Queens and neighborhoods in Brooklyn where voters broke for him in the greatest numbers in 2016. The rally is a way of reminding his base that he cares about them and needs their support, according to Salazar, who represents the liberal Brooklyn strongholds of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick.
“The people who live Western Queens and the advocates there have demonstrated that they are at least largely aligned with a really progressive ― democratic socialist, potentially ― platform, so that’s definitely favorable for Bernie,” Salazar said.