Published in City & State
SEIU1199 Healthcare Workers East was out in full force on Tuesday in all five New York City boroughs to get out the vote for a roster of Democratic candidates, including Letitia James, Scott Stinger, and most importantly, Bill de Blasio.
Since the union threw its support behind de Blasio in May, it has spent $197,430.32 in radio, newspaper and Internet advertisements (including a promoted tweet or two) for de Blasio, and an extra $21,315 for flyers that include de Blasio along with other candidates, according to the union’s most recent filing.
Tuesday was the final day of SEIU1199’s massive GOTV operation. It has been actively contacting the 100,000 registered voters among their members since Saturday. Election Day began with citywide flyering at subway stops starting at 9 a.m., and moved onto canvassing and phone banking at noon. The last round of door knocking was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in Manhattan, and 8 p.m. in Brooklyn.
Ground troops in the SEIU GOTV operation. (Photo by Azure Gilman)
1199’s GOTV effort in Manhattan was run out of a Methodist church on Broadway and 173rd Street in the Washington Heights neighborhood. This area, not coincidentally, is also where the highest density of 1199’s Manhattan members live.
Just before noon, one of the union’s vice presidents, Estella Vasquez, stood up and rallied canvassers. “We are making history today,” she said. “We are going to end 20 years of Republican control in City Hall.”
The room applauded. Vasquez highlighted de Blasio’s campaign promise to tax the rich to fund universal pre-kindergarten, and his plan to build 200,000 new units of affordable housing.
“We want a mayor who cares about hospitals, and hospital closings,” she added, emphasizing one of the union’s bread-and-butter issues, which de Blasio has eagerly embraced, even getting arrested for protesting the proposed closure of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn.
After the remarks, volunteers were instructed to leave in groups of two to four, and rotate back through their list of doors if they finished early. A warm dinner would await them at the end of the day back at headquarters.
Tuesday’s efforts by 1199 were a mix of volunteers and paid staff. No one was forthcoming with exact numbers, but the union’s political coordinator, Dell Smitherton, estimated that there were around 400 staff members and 350 member-volunteers working throughout the city.
Door knockers and phone bankers were a mix of long time and relatively new union members, and a combination of hospital and home care workers. Among the reasons volunteers cited for giving up their time on Election Day were concerns about affordable housing, stop-and-frisk, and keeping hospitals open.
“I would strongly like him to stop all closures of hospitals,” said Jeffrey Peralta, a Manhattan volunteer, who works at Gracie Square Hospital. “It’s not a luxury, it’s a need.”
Many volunteers also emphasized the personal kinship they felt with de Blasio as a gladiator for the working class, seeing his arrest in the July hospital protest as a sign that he was a candidate willing to fight for them. Dawn Mason-Haas, a Brooklyn volunteer, noted that most of the areas dealing with closing hospitals were predominately minority neighborhoods.
SEIU volunteers consult their Election Day plan. (Photo by Azure Gilman)
Presbyterian Hospital employee Charlie Hilario, a member of 1199 since 2002, emphasized the housing crisis that he saw in the city. “When people used to use shelters, it used to be drug addicts or alcoholics. But now you see families with kids. I think it’s sad that you see working families going to shelters. And I’m pretty sure that Bill de Blasio is going to be a champion for affordable housing.”
The Brooklyn 1199 Election Day operation was headquartered near the southwest corner of Prospect Park, with roughly 100 volunteers out canvassing throughout the day, and a rotating group of 6 phone bankers. Two big vans and five small vans were on call to take volunteers where they needed to go. Members were out flyering at 15 train stations in the morning, and by 3:30 p.m., the sound truck outside was getting ready to make its rounds, reminding people to vote over a loudspeaker.
Velda Jeffrey, the organizer of the Brooklyn headquarters, said that the effort on Election Day was smaller than the operation they had run for de Blasio during the primaries.
“We had hundreds of people in each borough then,” she said, explaining that volunteering by union members was not mandatory, but that it was encouraged.
Smitherton said that it has been a grueling campaign season for 1199 between the primary, the runoff for public advocate, and the general election. Throughout the campaign season, 31 union members have doubled as political organizers, temporarily taking time off from their healthcare jobs to work for the political wing of 1199.
Over the course of the election, 1199 reached out to its voting members through mailings, town halls, robocalls, and door knocking. Smitherton said the core of the union’s Election Day had been canvassing. “The majority are canvassers today. We only have phone-banking efforts for those that are physically incapable of door knocking. The best contact you can have is a door knocking contact.”
Smitherton hopes de Blasio will focus on keeping hospitals open, paid sick leave, and raising the minimum wage. “Under Bloomberg, we had 12 hospitals closures and not one word from the mayor. It’s not in the mayoral budget; it’s more of a state issue. But many things are not under the mayor’s scope, and he still lends his two cents to the Legislature or the governor.”
George Gresham, 1199′s president, emphasized that they wanted to help de Blasio not just win, but win by a large enough margin for a mandate. Asked if he believed SEIU1199’s early endorsement and primary efforts for de Blasio had been a turning point in the campaign, Gresham demurred. “I think that is for the campaign to judge,” he said.
He did point out, however, the degree to which SEIU had gotten behind Blasio.
“For the first time in 24 years—since 1989—it’s the first time we’ve made this kind of really strong effort, and the first time ever that our executive board unanimously endorsed a single candidate for mayor.”