The LI Activists: Pushing for Progress

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A grassroots organization focused on uniting the progressive community while supporting progressive candidates and their policies.

By Joseph Pantaleo

When Bernie Sanders was eliminated in the 2016 primaries, his local supporters didn’t wallow in their sorrows. Instead, the passionate group formed a groundswell of local activism that has propelled a current resistance movement today on Long Island.

The LI Activists — originally named Long Islanders for Bernie Sanders — are uniting progressives to fight both locally and federally. Three years after the Vermont senator pulled himself from the Presidential election, the organization has accumulated 100 due-paying members, 1200 newsletter subscribers, and over 2000 group members on Facebook.

Born in the summer of 2015, the LI Activists have made it a priority to take action in favor of progressive candidates and policies. Some of their main priorities include single-payer health care, the anti-war movement, and New York State election reform.

Ron Widelec, 37, a co-founder, takes pride in the way the LI Activists came together, calling them a “grassroots” organization. “It means that it’s happening from the bottom up,” he said. “It involves people getting together and organizing in ways that are not necessarily connected to the political parties.”

From the Democratic party, Sanders’ unique socialist viewpoint distinguished his campaign from Hillary Clinton’s. By pushing concepts like universal health care and income inequality to the forefront, he obtained a large group of passionate supporters in a short amount of time.

In an attempt to gain more momentum, Sanders encouraged his supporters to host local watch parties for live stream events during his 2015 campaign. Widelec, merely a fan of Sanders at the time, decided to attend one of these gatherings that summer at a pool store by his house.

Assuming only a handful of people would show, he was shocked to see over 75 people in attendance. “That’s when I realized something different was happening,” he said.

Right away, Widelec and others reached out to supporters who hosted separate watch parties, and they started to plan their next move. A few days later, Widelec printed out over 500 flyers and after they reached out to more supporters on Facebook, a fully-fledged grassroots movement was in the works.

While Sanders challenged Clinton more than anyone anticipated, a few months later he chose to drop out of the race. The organization decided to build off the progressive momentum Sanders accumulated, continuing the push of progressive ideologies under a different name.

The LI Activists at a 500-person healthcare rally in Huntington, New York. photo courtesy of LI Activists

According to Widelec, the organization has put pressure on several Democratic lawmakers who lean too far to the center.  In the eyes of the LI Activists, those centrist-leaning democrats are simply not liberal enough.

Holding numerous rallies in front New York State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, the activists pressed her to take a stance in favor of single-payer healthcare. “We wrote her letters and we called up the office on a regular basis,” said Widelec. When Gillibrand eventually came out in favor, the activists showed up to her office with a “thank you” card that had over 300 signatures.

On the other hand, Widelec says Tom Suozzi, a Democratic Representative for New York’s 3rd congressional district, hasn’t budged despite a continued push from the organization. “We’ve been applying pressure on him for two years straight,” Widelec said. “We show up at open houses and town halls and we ask him tough questions. Some people are more set in their ways than others”

The LI Activists are trying to put this same kind of pressure on the Democratic National Committee.

In the 2016 election, Widelec decided to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party representative, instead of Clinton.  While he agreed with Clinton on most social issues, foreign policy ended up being the dealbreaker. “I can’t support Hawkish candidates,” he said. “It’s really a line I don’t cross.”

In his eyes, Clinton and most of the DNC stand for international policies that are far too aggressive, especially in the Middle East. For that same reason, Widelec did not support Barack Obama.

Knowing Stein wouldn’t win, Widelec hoped that many progressives would do the same as him, pushing the Green Party to a five percent mark in the process. Accumulating five percent of votes would then allow the party to receive federal funding. A rising Green Party could also influence Democrats to lean more progressively.

Although the organization didn’t take an official stance in the 2016 election, Widelec encouraged Clinton-supporting members to vote for her through the Working Families Party. This would act as a vote against President Donald Trump, while also making a point to the DNC that progressives aren’t content with their actions.

Widelec also isn’t buying the fact that Sanders supporters who didn’t vote for Clinton are the cause of Donald Trump’s victory. “An extremely low number of Bernie supporters did what I did,” he said. “There were much bigger issues at stake with why Hillary Clinton lost.”

According to Widelec, activism is the driving force in an effective democracy. “Nothing would have been accomplished if people had just gone to the voting booths and kept electing politicians who were never going to do anything.”