Christine Pellegrino doesn’t see herself as a politician. The mother of two and public school teacher of twenty-five years prefers to identify more as an advocate for the issues she cares about. Yet, she has become an unlikely leader in 2017’s progressive political movement.
On May 23rd, 2017, Pellegrino (Democrat) won the special election for New York State Assembly’s 9th District. She defeated Republican Thomas Gargiulo in a shocking landslide victory, earning 58% of the vote in a deeply entrenched Republican district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1 and 60% of voters had supported President Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election.
I sit down to speak with Pellegrino at Babylon Bean Coffee House nearby her home in Long Island. It’s mid-June and she’s just come back from Albany after her first week on the job. At times, she seems almost as though she is living in a delirious daydream, unable to comprehend the unexpected turn her life has taken. In other moments, her determined, confident energy shines through. “I had that thing when you know that you’re doing something you’re meant to do,” she says reflectively. Even in the face of daunting odds, she felt strongly that she was on a winning path.
The magnitude of what Pellegrino has accomplished is taking its time to sink in. “For me, the lesson has been about acknowledging that this is something that’s happening and that I deserve it. I worked for it,” she says. As is common with successful women, she finds it difficult to take credit for her accomplishments.
Garnering such widespread support was, at times, overwhelming to Pellegrino. “There was one time early on [in the campaign] where I pulled up in front of a house, and I was with my daughters. And they were like ‘Mom what are you doing?’” she says, letting out a chuckle. She stopped because she’d seen one of her campaign signs on the front lawn, and just had to knock on the door. “I was like, ‘who are you? Do we know each other? You have my sign on your front lawn. Thank you so much!’”
Pellegrino’s wonder at being in this new position of political power is not surprising when you consider that she’s been a public school teacher for twenty-five years. To hear her tell it, teaching has always been in her blood. Growing up in East Meadow, Long Island, both of her parents were teachers. After graduating with her Masters in Education from St. John’s University, Pellegrino taught at a New York Public School in East Harlem. Six years later, she decided to make the move back to her home of Long Island to teach reading in Baldwin’s School District.
Pellegrino never imagined herself as a politician, but she started becoming more interested in the issues after the U.S. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. Next came the Common Core curriculum and soon after, New York State implemented a rigorous teacher evaluation program: “Governor Cuomo came in with this package of reforms that hit communities, and particularly schools and school districts — not to mention teachers — very negatively, and very quickly,” she says. “And that brought me into more of a political awareness. That’s how I originally got involved.”
Watching the classroom change so drastically around her prompted Pellegrino to start organizing with her teacher’s union, advocating for the best interests of the kids. “From my vantage point, teaching is an act of love,” she says sincerely. “It’s the relationship that’s critical. When you put constraints on that relationship, you change the dynamic. Learning can only happen when love is present.”
Pellegrino found it increasingly difficult to foster that loving environment with the new pressures put on her job. She continued to organize locally to make a change in schools, including knocking on doors throughout her district. On lobbying trips to Albany, she grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of response she’d get from her representatives, “I left the capital and thought many times, I could do that — I could do that so much better.” Even still, she never seriously considered running for office.
That is, until the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, which galvanized Pellegrino and her fellow organizers. “In September 2015, when Bernie Sanders announced his run for office, we were doing grassroots organizing,” she says. “Most people I encountered were people who said ‘I really want Sanders to win, but I’ve never been involved in a campaign in my life.’”
So, Pellegrino got involved as a volunteer for the Sanders campaign. “If I see what’s wrong and I don’t take up a position against it or try to advocate for it, who’s gonna do it?” she prompts. “I’m gonna wait for someone else to get on board? No. I’m just not that kind of person. If I see something happening, I’m going to do my best to effect change in a way that makes things better.”
Later, Pellegrino took that philosophy a step further when she decided to run in the special election. The relationships she fostered while volunteering for Sanders proved to be very helpful for her campaign. Plus, after organizing in her community for years as a teacher, she was already well-connected in activist spaces. Thanks to these relationships, she was able to build a broad-based coalition around her candidacy.
Further, teachers across New York bolstered Pellegrino by making thousands of calls to voters and donating $200,000 to her campaign. Her aids would send her videos of rooms full of teachers phone banking. One told her, “you’ll never meet these people, Christine, but look what they’re doing.” She looks off into the distance for a moment as she shares this anecdote as if overcome by what it symbolizes. When I ask if this has been an emotional experience for her, she nods and tells me it’s been extremely emotional for her to feel the support of these strangers.
Pellegrino recalls the gravity of supporters telling her “you gave me hope at a time when I didn’t know if I could have hope anymore,” and “I only gave you five dollars, but it was the only five dollars I had that month.” The connection she has built within her community is palpable. On election weekend, she had close to 450 individual volunteers walking her district, knocking on doors. “To be on the receiving end of that,” she says, “it’s ultimately so moving. I’m so honored and feel so appreciative to have people like that behind me.”
Pellegrino herself knocked on close to 3,000 doors throughout the campaign. “The resoundingly common response that I got was ‘nobody’s ever come to my house before,’” she says, smiling proudly.
Despite her organizing prowess, Pellegrino believes that it is her down-to-earth nature and ability to deliver a strong, intersectional message that carried her campaign. “It’s a message of hope, it’s a message of love, it’s a message of being a true advocate,” she says. “And that’s what people want. People don’t want a government that’s going to reach in and manage them. They want a government that’s responsive and listens to what they need, that solves problems and gets ahead of other problems.”
In the end, around 9,000 people voted in the special election on May 23rd, far more than the expected turnout. A decisive 58% of voters cast their ballots for Pellegrino.
Being a relative political outsider and coming into Albany, Pellegrino recognizes that she is in a unique position. But she’s taking it all in stride. She jokes that being on the New York Assembly is not too different from being in a room full of kindergartners. During her first week, she says “people asked me all week long how I’m doing, and I’m like, ‘if I can teach thirty-five 5-year-olds, I got this.’”
Pellegrino hopes that as Assemblywoman, she can finally give a voice to her constituents. “From my perspective, I’m getting to do the thing that is potentially game-changing for people,” she says, pausing for a brief moment. “I could really make a difference in crafting policy that is actually going to make kids’ lives better, teachers’ lives better and communities better.”
It’s clear that Pellegrino hopes to govern just as she campaigned; as a fellow resident who wishes to see a change in her own community. “I’m a mom. I’m a teacher. I’m not a politician. There are things that will have to be done that are political,” she admits cautiously. “But keeping activism and advocacy at the heart of this work will hopefully keep me from feeling like a politician. I don’t necessarily want to be seen as that. The challenge I face now that I’m elected, is I have to show that I meant what I said and said what I meant; that I will take up the causes and advocate for the people that supported me.”
I ask Pellegrino if she has any advice for women wanting to run for office, and she tells me “I think you should find the thing that you feel passionate about, and go do what you can.”
I am struck by the simplicity of her message, but then I remember Pellegrino’s favorite quote, which she shared with me earlier: ”If not me, then who?”