By Aleeza Kazmi and Meng Yuan
When Kristen Slevin opened a candy boutique with her husband in Smithtown last February, she had no idea a little more than a year later she would be running for Town Supervisor, the highest governmental position in the town.
Customers of her shop became volunteers for her campaign and helped Slevin get the 1,500 signatures from Smithtown voters that are required under state law for an independent candidate to run in a general election.
As an independent, Slevin is one of at least six grassroots candidates on Long Island running for office in the upcoming election on November 7th. These candidates are community members with little to no political experience who are dependent on small donations to fund their campaigns.
But Slevin is not even accepting any donations to her campaign, instead limiting herself to a personal budget of $1,000.
“No fundraising opens us up to having people get involved,” Slevin said. “Money is always the easiest way to get things done. You always go to money as the first resource, but when you eliminate it, then you are forced to think outside the box.”
As a side business, Slevin worked as a social media consultant for 5 years and has used social media as her primary campaign medium. By spending $10 to boost a Facebook post from her campaign page, Slevin was able to reach up to 2000 people per post, compared to the roughly 980 that follow her page.
The Facebook boosts have cost Slevin $400, and her knowledge of how to navigate social media has saved her the $14,480 the republican candidate for town supervisor, Ed Wehrheim, has spent on consulting during his campaign.
The other two candidates for Smithtown Town Supervisor have extensive government experience. Wehrheim has served as a Smithtown councilman for 14 years and the democratic candidate, Bill Holst, has been elected twice to the Suffolk County Legislature.
Smithtown republicans have said Slevin’s lack of government experience will be a hindrance to her ability to perform as Town Supervisor.
“Someone can’t come in off the street totally unprepared to try to take over as the supervisor, which is the leader of the government,” Bill Ellis, Smithtown Republican Committee chairman, said. “There’s nothing like experience, especially in government and politics.”
But Slevin’s supporters argue her inexperience in government could be a strength.
“I do like the fact that Kristen is not a politician, I like the fact that she’s a small business owner and because she became a small business owner she realized there was a need in Smithtown for kind of grassroots change, because nothing was changing,” Janet Philbin, a volunteer for Slevin and a 40-year resident of Smithtown, said.
Grassroots organizations have emerged on Long Island in the past year as a result of the anti-Trump resistance and the progressive grassroots mobilization that grew out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, Ron Widelec, a member of grassroots organization Long Island Activists, said.
“Often times it does take some kind of catalytic event but the grassroots organizers lay the groundwork, the tinder, so that when that event happens, they have their lists, they have their community organizers, and they can then use the event as the [instance] that finally wakes people up” Lawrence Levy, executive dean of suburban studies at Hofstra University and former Newsday political columnist, said.
Grassroots is not a synonym for progressive, as the Tea Party movement started as a grassroots effort following the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. They can also be bipartisan, Liuba Grechen Shirley, founder of the Long Island grassroots organization New York Second District Democrats, said.
“With electing Donald Trump and then the aftermath of people being really upset on both sides of the aisle, I think that there was a growing movement of people who felt their voices weren’t being heard,” Gretchen Shirley, who founded New York Second District Democrats two months after the 2016 presidential election, said.
Now, Grechen Shirley is one of the Long Island grassroots candidates running for office. She launched her campaign last week for the 2018 congressional election as a candidate for New York’s 2nd district.
As a grassroots candidate, Grechen Shirley said the biggest criticism she hears is that it will be difficult for her to raise the approximately $5 million it will take to run against the two-term incumbent, Peter King. But in the first week of her campaign, she surpassed her donation goals.
“I set out a goal of to have 100 grassroots donors in the first week, we had more than 200 and we are well on our way to having more than 300 donors in the next couple of days, which is incredible,” Grechen Shirley said.
Grassroots candidate for Suffolk County Legislature, Joe Tronolone, said 90 percent of his donations are $50 or less.
“Making a transition from a grassroots activist to a candidate without full resources of the established centers of power and influence is tough, but it’s important that we get out there and do it,” Tronolone, who is a math teacher in Islip, said. “Grassroots politics in general are really the driving force because the things we advocate for really from the grassroots really make it into the mainstream, which makes it into legislation.”
In addition to being a small-business owner, Slevin served as vice president for the Swan Lake Civic Association, which was actively involved in the recent revitalization of downtown Patchogue.
“I think sometimes, not just here locally in Smithtown but anywhere, you need fresh ideas,” Slevin said. “You need somebody who’s going to get out of the trees and look at the whole forest.