Liuba Grechen Shirley points to a faint scar on her right wrist to tell an engaging story about her brand of politics. She says she got the scar at age 3, during a period when her mother participated in the campaign to close the Shoreham nuclear power plant. When Grechen Shirley overheard that part of the campaign had been successful, she says she ran to tell her mother and accidentally put her hand through a glass door.
Now she has the scar, and she’s running an outsider, activist campaign for the Democratic nod to take on Rep. Peter King, the Seaford Republican seeking a 14th term.
Grechen Shirley, 37, is a textbook example of what might be called the blue-wave hopefuls, candidates moved to run by President Donald Trump’s 2016 win. The Amityville resident once worked in international development, then started a civic group, New York’s 2nd District Democrats.
“I just kept posting action alerts, and that is what kind of got me through the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency,” she says.
Some of those actions targeted King, who did not originally support Trump but has become a big booster. Grechen Shirley says she and other activists asked King to hold an in-person town hall forum. “He told me it would diminish democracy,” Grechen Shirley says. This is the origin story for her run.
Parts of Grechen Shirley’s campaign make it clear why the much-heralded blue-wave hopefuls think something big is coming. She has become a good fundraiser, in the first quarter of this year outraising her main primary challenger, Suffolk County legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory, Democrat of Copiague, by more than 2 to 1. She campaigns door to door in sandals with Band-Aids protecting her heels, talking to North Babylon Democrats tired of King standing with Trump. And she has drawn national attention for successfully lobbying the Federal Election Commission to let her to pay for child care with campaign funds, an opportunity to remind people of uphill struggles for female candidates.
But there are also signs of the difficulties challengers face ahead of the midterms from inside and outside the Democratic Party. In the June 26 primary, Grechen Shirley will first face Gregory, who has the backing of Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk County Democratic Party chairman. Grechen Shirley has tussled with Schaffer, including in a previous attempt to run for a Babylon Town Board seat.
Beyond county politics, Grechen Shirley hasn’t always played nice with local power brokers. When King opposed the Senate version of Trump’s health care legislation, the union-backed Healthcare Education Project took out an ad in Newsday praising his position. Grechen Shirley in turn wrote a blistering online post saying she was “insulted” by the union group’s “misleading advertisement” given King’s earlier vote for the legislation in the House.
She has received endorsements from new progressive groups. But she didn’t win the nomination of the Working Families Party, which supports Gregory.
There don’t seem to be many policy differences between the two Democrats. Largely, the choice seems to be between a longtime Democratic politician who is rallied around by the party faithful and a new face for the Trump era.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.