This past Sunday, as the Fall Open House was in full swing, a rally for local Democratic politicians was being held in Peace Park, directly adjacent to van den Berg Hall, gearing up for Election Day on Nov. 7. The rally was in part organized by the SUNY New Paltz chapter of College Democrats but was attended by various community members and students.
The rally featured four key Democrats in Ulster County: Congressman Pat Ryan of New York’s 18th district, Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger, District Attorney Candidate Manny Nneji, and Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa. Others participating in the campaigns also saw some time at the podium, such as Deputy Majority Leader Abe Uchitelle and Village of New Paltz Deputy Mayor Alexandria Wojcik.
What was intended as a rally to engage voters toward choosing Democrats across the ballot quickly divulged into an arena of political contestation. Protesters for Palestine quickly assembled around Congressman Ryan to voice their opposition to the nation’s support of Israel in the ongoing war. There were signs and flags showing solidarity with Palestine as well as chants of “ceasefire” which were met in strife with others shouting “keep it local” and “let him speak,” in reference to how Ryan struggled to talk over them. He ultimately did not fully finish his speech but instead invited the protesters away from the crowd to speak with them separately, to let the local politicians have the stage. “What I love about democracy,” Ryan said, “is we are here peacefully, and I greatly respect those peacefully protesting.” Before leaving the podium, however, he reasserted, to supporters, his belief in the importance of voting Democratic in local elections. “What you’re doing here today is going to be the difference in winning these elections and holding our democratic values.”
Next up was County Executive Metzger. She placed her emphasis on the importance of voting in an off-year election. “Local and county elections matter deeply to all the issues we care about, and we cannot afford to let it be decided by a few hundred people in our community,” Metzger said. “So get out there and vote.” She also spoke further about her own policies regarding securing affordable housing, building climate-conscious infrastructure, making communities safe for non-drivers, promoting food security and supporting mental health. By the time she left the podium, the crowd was cheering “vote row A all the way.” Row A is where all Democratic candidates are listed on ballots this year.
Then County Sheriff Figueroa came up, rallying pride in the Democratic Party to encourage a straight Democratic ticket through and through. He listed Social Security, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Medicaid as party achievements, stating that the party talks about “giving people rights rather than taking them away.”
Following a speech by Deputy Majority Leader Uchitelle and an introduction by Working Families Party member Sandra Oxford, Manny Nneji, candidate for the county’s District Attorney, finally got his time to speak. As the only speaker who had not been elected before, there was a different atmosphere when he spoke. He began his speech with an emphatic “Hello, I love you,” to which the crowd responded with even more energy, cheering “It’s Manny time.” Speaking to his roots as a SUNY New Paltz alum and his past as having “never been a politician,” he was able to convey an understanding of county residents. “Just because the District Attorney has a hammer doesn’t turn every offense, or every offender, into a nail. You can say that’s the definition of who I am.” He continued to speak on his views of justice and the role of a county DA. His final remarks encouraged the audience to exercise their right to vote in order to make sure that “MAGA doesn’t take hold.”
This was a recurring theme throughout the rally as the speakers invoked a fear of the opposition to promote Democrats. Nneji capitalized on this as a Democrat currently running against a Republican. Congressman Ryan also shared this sentiment while meeting with constituents beforehand and Sheriff Figueroa alluded to this in his speech when talking about voting Democrats in, saying “if we don’t do it this year, look what’s gonna happen next year,” speaking to the presidential election in 2024.
Each of the speakers following Ryan acknowledged the protestors by voicing their pride in democracy and the protected right to protest in the United States. For these local politicians, a matter of international crisis is often not relevant, especially when the conflict is nearly 6,000 miles away. However, as a congressman in the House of Representatives, Ryan votes on federal policies regarding the situation in Israel. As this war has affected people around the world, regardless of identifying as Muslim or Jewish, it too arose in New Paltz. Ryan spoke with protestors until the end of the event, acknowledging their concerns as his constituents.
The protestors were mostly SUNY New Paltz students though they did not identify as an organized group. Rae Ferrara, SUNY New Paltz student, spoke with The Oracle about their conversation with Congressman Ryan when he invited the group to talk separately from the rally. They said Ryan spoke “like a politician” and avoided giving direct answers. They implored Ryan to promote working towards a ceasefire, clarifying that, as a Jew, supporting Palestine is not an act of antisemitism. “We made it clear that his constituents in Ulster County support a free Palestine,” they said. “Ignoring our voice means ignoring the voices of the people he relies on to vote.”
This echoed the call of thousands of protestors who shut down Grand Central Station in Manhattan, a needed stop for commuters on METRO-North, on Friday night. That protest was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization of Jews demanding a ceasefire. Such demonstrations have taken place around the world. Last Wednesday, New Paltz Students for Palestine organized a vigil for “the people facing genocide in Gaza,” as their Instagram page states. As an act of solidarity, the event drew a large turnout.
In an interview two weeks ago with C-SPAN, Ryan stated his views on the ongoing conflict, which was restated in his conversation with protests Saturday. In calling Israel “our most important strategic ally and closest friend,” Ryan stated his full support for the nation. “We have to back them 100% in everything that they need, particularly vis-a-vis military equipment, munitions and defense supplies.”
After Ryan left, many of the protestors did not feel as though he truly listened to their concerns, but remained committed to their stance for a ceasefire.
The rally was hosted by New Paltz College Democrats, a student organization that discusses current politics and speaks with elected officials. Christopher Parsick, the club president, stated “Our generation leans very democratic, and when we get out to vote we change entire elections. That starts with college students becoming politically active at all state and local levels.” He believes that the toxicity of federal politics has disillusioned many younger people, which contributed to the protests, but sees local elections as a source of hope.