What It’s Like To Run A Progressive Challenger’s Campaign In Queens, NY
On June 23, progressive Mel Gagarin will face Rep. Grace Meng in NY-6. Aleda Gagarin is his campaign manager (oh, and they’re married).
In Trailblazers: Diaries From The Front Lines Of The 2020 Election, we take an in-depth look at the lives of women working behind the scenes to make our country better every day, whether it’s on a presidential campaign or political advocacy organization.
Name: Aleda Gagarin
Gender Identity: Woman
Location: Queens, NY
As campaign manager for Melquiades (Mel) Gagarin for Congress in Queens — who is challenging Democratic Rep. Grace Meng in the June 23 primary — I’ve worked to build a powerful grassroots campaign with a brilliant, passionate staff and dedicated field leads and volunteers. You’ll notice that the candidate and I have the same last name. No, it’s not a funny coincidence. We’re married. Yes, you bet your ass I’m qualified.
My full-time day job is senior director of development for Candid, a nonprofit organization that gets people working to make the world better the information they need to do good. I oversee our fundraising, make sure we have the resources we need to serve millions of people, collaborate with colleagues to make sure we’re meeting our mission, and help coordinate our racial equity work.
In addition to those job roles, I’m a parent of three smart, kind, rebellious kids in grade school, and a girls’ CYO basketball coach.
For the campaign, our field operation was so strong heading into the pandemic that we had already knocked on thousands of doors and talked to thousands of voters when street canvassing. We’re in totally uncharted election territory now; no one ever planned for the adjustments that would have to come with a pandemic. This has required me to be incredibly nimble, and my campaign team to think outside of the box.
Day 1: Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Please note: Times are Eastern Time unless otherwise noted.
6:45 a.m. — Wake up, make a pot of Café Bustelo, read the news, and map out my day. I catch up on any work and campaign emails from the night before, get a handle on all three of my calendars (work/campaign/mom), and start thinking about messaging for the day.
7:35 a.m. — Take the kids out to walk, skate, and exercise. This part of our day is sacred; we get sun and fresh air, listen to the birds, and I train kung fu before a long walk in Forest Park.
8:38 a.m. — Make breakfast, look at the news again, get kids set up with school. We have a third-, sixth-, and eighth-grader all doing school via Zoom full-time, and we’re short enough rooms in the apartment and one laptop, so Mel lets the youngest use his while he works on his phone for the first half of the day. Luckily, the older two got Chromebooks from school.
9 a.m. — I dive deeply into editing grant proposals for Candid. Then, I run my department’s weekly team meeting (now Zoom-based).
10:30 a.m. — Daily 15-minute check-in with Mel — we do this every 12 hours like clockwork. In the morning, we rapid-fire confirm scheduling, messaging, and strategy for the day.
10:42 a.m. — Answer work emails.
11 a.m. — Daily campaign comms call. We discuss headlines and messaging for the day. Today we’re promoting a webinar on mass incarceration with Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College professor and author of The End of Policing, and civil rights leader Jon McFarlane of VOCAL-NY, and talking about how the Democrats in power who say Medicare for All is too expensive are about to bail out private health insurance companies instead. Try not to scream into the void.
11:15 a.m. — Back to my work inbox. Get ready for a multi-department meeting at 1.
2 p.m. — Shove crackers and yogurt into my mouth for lunch, check into the campaign staff Signal channels, and answer questions/assign tasks as needed. Chat with Nataliia James, our scheduling director, about all of the online events Mel has booked in the evening.
2:27 p.m. — Work stuff.
6 p.m. — Mel is on The Berman Hour on Instagram Live to talk punk and politics.
7 p.m. — Family dinner. It’s a funny thing to share a two-bedroom apartment all day but all be so busy we still need to catch up.
7:50 p.m. — Help Mel get ready for the mass incarceration webinar.
9:08 p.m. — Hang out with the kids and watch Steven Universe. Put them to bed.
10 p.m. — Debrief with Mel on the day.
10:30 p.m. — Pour a glass of Elijah Craig bourbon over ice and dance to Russian techno. Little Big, to be specific.
11 p.m. — Scroll back through all of the campaign socials, respond to Signals, emails, and check the news again. Again and again. Rinse, repeat.
11:35 p.m. — Put on Stephen Colbert, continue scrolling past when I should, pass out sitting up on my couch at some point. Mel will wake me up and put me to bed eventually.
Day 2: Thursday, May 14, 2020
6:45 a.m. — Zone out over my sink while my kettle boils. Make Bustelo. Read news. Try to memorize my calendars. Do emails.
7:35 a.m. — Take kids out for our morning workout/skate/walk ritual. Then, make sure everyone has had breakfast and is set up for morning Zooms. So. Many. Zooms.
9 a.m. — Candid time. Emails, editing, writing. Grateful for a quiet hour to solely focus on this aspect of my day job.
10:30 a.m. — Mel check-in.
10:47 a.m. — Scrolling through Twitter and notice a tweet from the NY Working Families Party (WFP) asking New York Rep. Eliot Engel to return campaign contributions from billionaire Daniel Loeb, known for his racism and charter-school ideology. I love the WFP. But they endorsed our opponent Rep. Grace Meng despite the fact that we have a more aligned policy platform, and don’t take corporate cash. Meng also took maxed out contributions from Daniel Loeb this cycle. Feel...disappointed and angry. (But still love the WFP and the important work they do...this is what it’s like in movements sometimes.)
11 a.m. — Comms call. We run long discussing how to handle the WFP press release. I call our political director, David Kang. We decide to quote-tweet @NYWFP to tell them we agree, and ask them to hold Grace Meng to the same standard. These decisions are tough; you worry about fallout, but you want to hold progressives accountable.
11:32 a.m. — Back to work for Candid. I’m working diligently to get ahead on all of my grant submissions.
2:13 p.m. — Shove lunch into my face, scroll Twitter, answer campaign Signals and emails.
2:38 p.m. — More Candid writing and editing, and shooting off an email of gratitude to a funder who gave us a no-cost extension on a project in light of coronavirus.
5:15 p.m. — Hour-and-a-half of individual check-ins with our six campaign staff.
6:45 p.m. — Family dinner.
7:30 p.m. — Quick midweek campaign-team check-in to share updates.
8:30 p.m. — Webinar with Mel and Dan Kaminsky, who runs Social Justice Tours in NYC. They discuss income inequality, the history of rent strikes, and healthcare. Very geeky, very good.
9:40 p.m. — Hang out with my kids in their room. Let them stay up too late because I like talking to them.
10:15 p.m. — Debrief the day with Mel.
10:42 p.m. — Collapse on the couch. Scroll through all the campaign socials. Answer emails. Read more news. Check Act Blue. Update fundraising tracker. How do you compete against Goldman Sachs and corporate PACs when you refuse corporate cash? Feel the knots in my shoulders radiating.
11:35 p.m. — Put on Colbert, snuggle up next to Mel. Running a campaign as a married couple is hard. We have to remember to be spouses. Pass out sometime after midnight.
Day 3: Friday, May 15, 2020
6:30 a.m. — Nope. Smash that snooze.
7 a.m. — It’s rainy and cold. We stay inside. I try to steal myself another hour of sleep, but I’m too awake and stressed out about [gestures broadly].
7:49 a.m. — I give up and put on the kettle. I think my blood might be made of Bustelo now. No, I am not a paid representative. I just can’t live without it. Those who know, know.
8:01 a.m. — Read the news. Check my work email and get a handle on my calendars. Pop into the social media channels. Scream into the void.
9 a.m. — Deep-dive into work stuff. Between a pandemic and a Congressional campaign, work is...relaxing. I love my job. I am so well-supported at Candid. Such a rare, lucky thing.
10:30 a.m. — Check-in with Mel to map out the day and messaging.
11 a.m. — Daily comms call. Today is Nakba Day. We work on messaging our support for human rights. Our comms consultant, Peter Feld of The Insurrection, is a longtime peace activist and his expertise here always teaches me something. Mel is an anti-war candidate who will fight for human rights all over the world.
11:24 a.m. — Back to work stuff.
1:27 p.m. — Quickly eat a salad and check campaign messages.
1:50 p.m. — Back to my work inbox. I love getting it to empty on a Friday. Then, individual check-ins with my development team. I look forward to these a lot — my team is dope and I enjoy spending time with them.
5:57 p.m. — I shut my laptop. This feels even better.
6 p.m. — Make dinner with the kids. We sing. We dance. Joy feels like sweet rebellion these days.
7:42 p.m. — Pop the laptop back open and clear out campaign inboxes.
8:45 p.m. — Family hang time. Then, Mel and I debrief.
10:28 p.m. — We try to “turn off” the campaign. This is, in many ways, the hardest part for both of us; we spend so much time together, but miss each other so much. Fun fact: We met when we were 18, in Washington, D.C. We were introduced by a homeless man named Harold at Union Station while waiting for trains home from school. We started dating at 22. We have quite literally grown up together. Our son’s middle name is Harold.
Day 4: Saturday, May 16, 2020
10:12 a.m. — Wake up, make Bustelo. The one silver lining of having all of the kids’ activities canceled (sorry, kids!) and not having in-person events is that one day a week I sleep in. My comms director Karina Sahlin is taking the day off, but she loaded a morning tweet so we could sleep. We encourage everyone on our team to spend 24 hours each week shutting off the campaign and all notifications to maintain mental health. I want the work we do and the way we treat each other to model the change we want to see.
10:30 a.m. — Check-in with Mel. Topics for the day: losing our privacy rights, taxing the rich, big tech, and the need for journalism.
11:48 a.m. — Train kung fu in my living room. Shower. Bad Bunny lighting up my life in my headphones.
12:38 p.m. — Walk to the post office to ship campaign T-shirt orders. The kids put on their masks, grab their scooters, and come with me for the walk. God, it is beautiful out.
1:12 p.m. — Take the kids to my favorite local bagel place, Baker’s Dozen in Kew Gardens. Then, we go to the corner store and grab candy and drinks, and walk over to Maple Grove Cemetery to have a picnic and a nice long walk. This is one of my favorite places in NYC — it’s a beautiful historic site. The kids love visiting Mel’s grandparents there; the older two still remember them.
1:33 p.m. — Notice that I just missed a call from Shaniyat Chowdhury; he’s our dear friend who is challenging Congressman Greg Meeks in NY-5. I message him back; apparently I had just missed him at Baker’s Dozen. Queens is both very big and very small. It’s a beautiful place to call home.
4:15 p.m. — I call Dani’s House of Pizza and order a pepperoni pie and a pesto pie with sauce (again...if you know, you know).
5:18 p.m. — Family dinner over said pies.
6:26 p.m. — Pop open my laptop and knock out more campaign work.
8:57 p.m. — I shut my laptop. Hang out with the kids more.
10:20 p.m. — Debrief with Mel. We commiserate about how much we wish we were knocking on doors.
10:56 p.m. — I pour myself a bourbon. We put on Netflix and finish The Midnight Gospel. Have a hard, cathartic cry at the final episode. Highly recommend.
12:06 a.m. — Scrolling through our social media again, making sure there’s nothing missed or unseen. Pass out on our couch as usual. Mel, who suffers from the insomnia of a Congressional candidate, will wake me up an hour or two later to put me to bed. A nightly routine of sorts.
Day 5: Sunday, May 16, 2020
8:38 a.m. — Wake up and make...you know it...Bustelo.
9:02 a.m. — I’m back on my laptop working on campaign finance and troubleshooting data issues.
10 a.m. — Meeting with our field director Kyle Levenick about all matters of data.
11 a.m. — The team converges on Signal to discuss the thing that keeps us ALL up at night, but Kyle more than the rest: the board of elections (BOE). The NYC BOE is often a hot mess of sorts, but now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo put in an executive order for all registered voters to be sent an absentee ballot application, things are messier than usual. Kyle checks in with the BOE about various questions daily at this point. The safest and most democratic thing to do would be to just mail all registered voters an ACTUAL ABSENTEE BALLOT, but Cuomo won’t do it. He will do it the way that wastes the most time and money and decreases potential turnout. Democracy, baby!
The safest and most democratic thing to do would be to just mail all registered voters an ACTUAL ABSENTEE BALLOT, but Cuomo won’t do it. He will do it the way that wastes the most time and money and decreases potential turnout. Democracy, baby!
11:48 a.m. — My kids are rolling their eyes as Mel and I go on another rant about how Cuomo failed New York as hard as Trump failed the U.S. when it comes to COVID-19 response, but how both are good at news cycles and propaganda. We eat takeout from Queens Bagels. Our kids are really looking forward to June 23.
12:22 p.m. — Karina sends us a new piece from The New York Times about how Raytheon has been profiting from the conflict in Yemen. This is one of the topics that gets us heated and keeps us going. Our opponent takes PAC money from Raytheon, and votes against decreasing our military budget.
1:47 p.m. — Back to banging out emails. Work with Karina on messaging for the rest of the day’s social media posts. Our topics will be the failure of the government to respond to the coronavirus crisis, and Medicare for All.
4:15 p.m. — I do work for my day job. This has become a Sunday afternoon ritual for me during the campaign.
6:45 p.m. — I take the kids for a nature walk in Forest Park. It’s kind of cool and grey and it’s dinnertime, which is perfect. It won’t be crowded. We see that our neighborhood Chinese joint is finally open again and celebrate by ordering massive amounts of dumplings, mai fun, and orange chicken.
9:06 p.m. — Pop back into Signal, check emails, scroll through socials.
9:37 p.m. — Put the kids to bed. Debrief with Mel. We talk about how badly we want to win, and why. About the pressure. The kids our government has put into cages. The kids in Yemen getting killed by our bombs. Our undocumented neighbors who can’t get any relief and are scared. Our elders that are perishing in nursing homes. There is a fascist in the White House, and our opponent voted no on impeaching him three times. She didn’t flip her vote until after Mel registered to run. We live in a safely blue district that deserves better. We plan and pace together. We’re fighting for a better world. We’re so tired.
11:02 p.m. — We collapse on the couch.
Day 6: Thursday, May 28, 2020 (almost two weeks later)
6:50 a.m. — Wake up heartbroken, exhausted, and angry. Know it’s 1/1,000 of the heartbreak, exhaustion, and anger Black folks across the country are feeling.
7:35 a.m. — Take kids out for our morning walk. Try to burn through rage while exercising. Talk to them about what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mel and I have raised them to be anti-racist. It’s hard and messy. They are worried about their friends and cousins.
8:55 a.m. — Still have to have breakfast, still have to get everyone ready for school.
9:30 a.m. — Get a call from urgent care; my son broke his thumb yesterday. I spend my morning at the doctor’s.
12 p.m. — Campaign comms call. Start discussing legislative action we would take to ensure long-lasting change when it comes to policing. We’re not elected, yet, but once we are we will work to ensure radical reform. This meeting plants the seed for the Medium piece Mel will write that eventually gets boosted by Alex Vitale. Discuss messaging on the potential of ending of qualified immunity for police. We learn a lot from Mel and all of the work he’s done alongside justice-impacted and formerly incarcerated folks for change.
1:30 p.m. — I took off from work today because of my son’s appointments. Thinking about my team, though, particularly the women of color that I am lucky to work with, and plan to check in with them later. Everyone is sad and tired.
2:10 p.m. — I don’t have an appetite, but I try to get something down for lunch. Scroll through social media. Read more about how to be a better ally. Think about all the times I talked too much. I still struggle with knowing when to step up and when to step back. I have much work to do.
2:33 p.m. — Karina messages the team to pitch an idea for a graphic underscoring our opponent Grace Meng’s vote for the Thin Blue Line Act, which would increase the usage of the death penalty. I get our graphic design director Eric Doctor to create a mock-up. I spend a minute wondering how any Rep from Queens could vote for this, especially during the Trump administration.
2:45 p.m. — I go through all of my campaign check-ins early today so that Mel and I can be present at dinnertime and listen to the kids. There is so much to do. We have less than four weeks left until June 23.
4:15 p.m. — I’m watching the news again. The kids have so many questions.
5:32 p.m. — We start reviewing the framework that Mel has drafted for his Medium piece. I am always floored by how righteous and detailed he is on policy. It’s the constant reminder as to why this is worth it.
6:45 p.m. — Family dinner.
7:30 p.m. — Quick midweek campaign-team check-in. We discuss upcoming protests and the risk of contracting COVID. Ways to be there for the community. Ways to do it without being self-serving. Ways we want to push the needle forward on legislation that would end mass incarceration, the surveillance state, and create accountability. We also discuss how this overlaps with militarism.
8:27 p.m. — Try to catch up on the work emails I missed on my “day off.” Think about philanthropy. I know so many people at foundations who are doing wonderful work. I also wish more of them were funding advocacy and frontline groups right now. I wish more of them committed funds to Black-led organizations and movements, and trusted them to do the work without oversight. The endowments of many foundations are not separate from the suffering endured to build wealth in our society. Foundations often ask nonprofits to prove that they are on the path to equity, without acknowledging the irony of holding wealth in an endowment and what that means. This is a topic that keeps me up at night.
9:30 p.m. — Hang out with my kids in their room before they go to bed. Think about how lucky I am that they still like to chill and chat with me.
10 p.m. — Put the kids to bed.
10:15 p.m. — Long talk with Mel. The pain folks are experiencing and the injustice folks endure at once gut him and keep him fighting for justice. I will keep fighting with him.
11:40 p.m. — Fall asleep on the couch together.