The Magic Of Liuba Grechen Shirley, The Suburban Mom With Her Eyes Set On Congress
New York's 2nd Congressional district has long been considered a waste of time for Democrats — that is, until Liuba Grechen Shirley came along.
Liuba Grechen Shirley may be ready for Congress — but she’s not quite ready for this interview. She opens the door of the pale grey farmhouse in a lilac bathrobe with multiple apologies. “I’m running so behind,” she says, before leading us inside and promptly running for the stairs. “Make yourselves at home. No one is dressed yet, just give me a few minutes — Mom! Can you make breakfast?”
It’s about 9:15 am on a rainy Monday in September, as our Refinery29 crew, here to document a day-in-the-life of one of the most exciting underdog candidates in the 2018 midterm election cycle, settles into the cozy living room. The dogs are barking their heads off, and competing giggles and screams fill the old house, where five generations of the Grechen family have lived. Grechen Shirley’s great grandparents bought the house in the ‘40s, and it is the house she was raised in. Now, she lives here with her husband, Christopher, her mother, Kathy, plus her two young children, two cats, and two dachshunds.
One of the dogs, the long-haired one, is demanding my attention when a voice descends from upstairs. “That’s my friend Max. He’s a dog!” Mila (not to be confused with Mia, who is the other dog), 4, yells from the playroom, where I imagine her mom is frantically pulling a t-shirt over her head. Sounds from the kitchen — rushing water, a clanging of pots — start up as Kathy gets on with breakfast. Campaign staffers begin to roll in, including Anna Brichacek, Grechen Shirley’s campaign manager, laptops in tow.
And then, in a feat of everyday magic that working moms everywhere will recognize, Grechen Shirley appears downstairs. She’s dressed now, wearing a tan blazer over a chiffon tank and jeans. Nicholas, who is 2, and Mila stride into the kitchen as if a camera crew greeting them before their breakfast is the most normal thing in the world. Grechen Shirley apologizes again for the chaos as she looks around at the toys strewn across the living room, the detritus of two happy children. “As you can see, I didn’t have time to clean up either!” she says with a laugh. As she rushes around the room tidying and putting things away, she asks that we not film in the kitchen because it “looks like a bomb went off in there.”
The scene is almost too good to be true. A more cynical reporter might say it seems straight out of the Liuba Grechen Shirley campaign playbook (it certainly seems very close to her most recent campaign ad that was shot in this very living room), which ever since its launch in October of last year, has come to be defined by the candidate’s working-mom ethos.
In May of this year, Grechen Shirley made history (and went viral) when she successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to let her use campaign cash for child care, and she is known around her district as the young mom organizing Indivisible protests with Nicholas strapped to her chest.
Peter King is a popular long-time incumbent. He has a built-in constituency who have been long-time supporters. In order to oust him you have to have people be completely out of their minds in anger.
New York’s 2nd district, which is shaped like a rectangle that spans from Seaford to Sayville on the south shore of Long Island, is a solidly Republican district. Donald Trump won the area in 2016 by more than 9 points, and Rep. King, the most prominent Republican in the New York delegation, has been in office for more than 25 years, trouncing his challengers with more than 60% of the vote with ease and regularity. In other words, the district has long been considered a waste of time for Democrats — that is, until Grechen Shirley came along.
“Everybody told me I was crazy when I started this,” she says. “I was told you need to raise $100,000 just from friends and family in order to be taken seriously.” But then, she did just that: She raised $126,000 in the first two weeks of her campaign. Since then, she’s opened three campaign offices, hired staff, and built out a roster of tireless volunteers. She’s become a darling of The Resistance, with endorsements from Democratic powerhouse EMILY’S List, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added New York’s 2nd District to its list of battlefields for the first time in 12 years. “People aren’t counting us out anymore,” Grechen Shirley says.
As soon as she sits down in front of our cameras, it becomes clear why: She speaks with the fervor of a revolutionary — one who can back up what she’s saying with succinct, convincing talking points. She has an MBA in economic development from New York University, and even though she’s never run for office before, her prior career in global development (she’s held positions at the United Nations as well as NYU’s Africa Programs; and has been consulting for various clients from home since her daughter was born) has equipped her with the skills of both a wonk and a diplomat. Throughout our hour-long sit-down, Grechen Shirley adeptly makes her case for why she is the right choice to rid her district of Rep. King, once and for all.
“We have a healthcare crisis in this country,” she says. “Peter King voted to take healthcare away from 74,000 people in our district last year. That’s 10% of our district. Peter King will tell you that having a not-for-profit healthcare system is socialized medicine, and I will tell you that it’s high time that we put American lives over the profits of insurance companies and their corporate executives.” In the 12 hours I will spend tailing her for the rest of the day, I’ll hear her repeat this point countless times, like it’s the chorus of the song of the summer, to whoever will listen.
“He has continued to say that he’s bipartisan but truly he has an extremist voting record,” she adds, ticking off what she considers his unacceptable positions on paid family leave, abortion, guns, immigration, and taxes. For all of these reasons, she explains, she couldn’t just sit on the sidelines anymore. “[Running for office] is the least convenient thing that I could be doing with a two year old and a four year old,” she says. “But I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t not fight back.”
As clear as her conviction is today, Grechen-Shirley never considered running for office until the 2016 election rocked the world. She watched the returns that November night in horror, and soon after formed an Indivisible Group called New York 2nd District Democrats. Every day for months she posted an action alert on the group’s Facebook page, and soon the group had more than 2,500 members. She organized multiple protests outside King’s office, including one against the travel ban that was attended by more than 400 people, and scheduled townhalls that King refused to show up to because he said it would “diminish democracy” to set the stage for a screaming match. “I have a 6-foot cardboard of Peter King in my attic,” she says.
Rep. King has been her congressman since she was 12. But the more she learned about the politics of the district, and about Rep. King’s actual voting record, the more she felt that he had to be replaced. “I basically decided it was going to be my mission to un-seat Peter King,” she tells me, as we’re driving about 25 minutes to a meet-and-greet in Central Islip, a hamlet in the eastern part of her district. I’m sitting in the backseat of her minivan, behind the car seats. I am damp and exhausted after tagging along for a couple hours of door-knocking in the pouring rain, while Grechen Shirley seems like she could go on for hours more.
She created a PowerPoint presentation that argued her case, she explains: “I put together all of the details of his previous races and how much his opponents had raised and how much of the percentage of the vote he got. I looked at how much he had in the bank. I looked at his voting record and the demographics of our district.” She also noticed that the district was redrawn in 2012, which changed the demographics in one key way: registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans by 5,000.
“It was around this time that people started saying, why don’t you run?” she says.
At first she thought it’d be impossible. But by October 2017, she had announced her candidacy. In April of 2018, she petitioned the Federal Election Commission to be allowed to use some of her campaign donations to pay for child care. Hillary Clinton wrote a letter in support, along with 24 other elected officials, and in the end, the bipartisan commission unanimously decided in her favor. This was a huge win, bigger than she could’ve imagined. “Every national news outlet covered it,” she says, bringing national attention to her local race. In June, she won the Democratic primary.
To date, the Grechen-Shirley campaign has raised more than $600,000, more than Pete King’s last five challengers combined. “It takes more than money to win,” says Brichacek, Grechen Shirley’s campaign manager. “We’re running a full grassroots campaign, something that hasn’t been done before in this district.”
While that may be true, King also has a $3 million war chest. And his voters appear to like him just the way he is. He is well-known in the district as an advocate for veterans, who is strong on national security issues and crime. In 2017, he was key in bringing President Donald Trump to Long Island to bring attention to the issue of violent gang members slipping through the cracks of immigration enforcement. This was after the usually quiet suburbs of Suffolk County became home to 17 brutal gang-related murders and other episodes of violence between 2016 and 2017.
Beyond that, Rep. King, who did not return requests for comment from Refinery29, sits on multiple high-powered committees in Washington D.C., and is often a guest on the Sunday morning shows. He also enjoys a reputation for working across the aisle to get things done for his district. He fought hard for Hurricane Sandy aid dollars, and he does break with the Republican Party if need be — for example, this year he voted against the Republican tax bill because it will hit highly taxed states like New York the hardest.
“In this cycle anything can happen. Odd and unusual things have happened, especially in primaries and special elections,” concedes political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime operator in New York politics who worked with Bill Clinton and Mike Bloomberg. “But the problem is this is not a primary or a special election. This is the general. Peter King is a popular long-time incumbent. He has a built-in constituency who have been long-time supporters. In order to oust him you have to have people be completely out of their minds in anger.”
Grechen Shirley is betting on exactly that: anger. The question of her race really boils down to whether or not the voters in her district are outraged enough — over President Trump’s behavior and King’s ongoing support of him, over the healthcare vote, over the tax bill, over the way the very real gang violence problem in the district has been politicized to support inhumane immigration policies. “Peter King is not corrupt, but he may be swept up in the destruction of the Republican brand, which gets worse every day under Trump,” Sheinkopf says.
It’s now about 5:30 in the evening, and we’ve made it to Central Islip for tonight’s scheduled meet and greet at The Original Barbershop. We are in the eastern part of the district, where many of the district’s Black and Hispanic residents are concentrated. The shop’s owners, Lamont Daniels and his father William, are each hard at work on haircuts, while a slew of other customers wait their turns in green chairs reading newspapers or watching “Coming To America” as it plays on the flat screen above the mirrors.
As Grechen Shirley introduces herself, the young men populating the barbershop look on confused, some perturbed, but they take her campaign literature when she offers it to them and agree to hear her out. Her schpiel is the same as what she explained to our camera this morning, and the same as she repeated over and over to the voters who answered their doors this afternoon: Peter King voted to take healthcare away from 74,000 people in this district. I’m not a career politician — and I’m not taking a dime of corporate PAC money.
Over the next hour, the men in the chairs share their experiences as well as the conversation shifts between introductions to a group discussion of the issues of the day: One young man shares that he works two jobs and is working on an associate’s degree in criminal justice. He has student loan debt that worries him, as does what he sees as the lack of investment in his community. Another shares that he works in retail and is frustrated by what he sees as the corruption and racism of local police. The conversation skips between healthcare, police violence, racial discrimination, income inequality, and Donald Trump. Over and over again, Grechen Shirley brings it back to the fact that Pete King would disagree with everything they’re saying — he thinks Black Lives Matter is “premised on lies,” he doesn’t understand student debt, or what it’s like to work two jobs, or have to decide between your prescriptions and your groceries, she says.
“Obviously, there’s this very established political class on Long Island who thinks Pete will keep his seat,” Brichacek says. “But when you talk to voters, everyday people, you realize how ready people are for a change.” Their strategy for winning is to essentially to talk to as many of those everyday voters as they can over these last few weeks: “The reality is Democrats just haven’t knocked doors in this district. People tell us constantly that you’re the first person to ever come talk to me,” Brichacek says. “We’re targeting the eastern part of the district, where Pete King is less well-known. We’re targeting young people, moderate voters, people who don’t normally turn-out during the off year.”
Whether or not this all pays off is still anyone’s guess. “Even though all politics is local, there are times when national trends take over,” Sheinkopf says. “It could be a toss-up.”