In N.Y. 1, a Focus on the Working Class

Brendon Henry Kristen Asher

The youth-led movement to demand changes to gun policy in the wake of the latest mass shooting at a school indicates a swelling desire among the young to make their collective voice heard. This, said Brendon Henry, the youngest of six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin in New York’s First Congressional District, bodes well for his campaign. 

The 37-year-old bartender and musician, who also works for a plumbing supply company in Center Moriches, where he lives, said that his life experiences — working two jobs to pay a mortgage, serving thousands of ordinary residents and, in the process, learning of their everyday problems — have uniquely positioned him to represent the district. 

“It gives you a good focus,” he said, “and a finger on the pulse of what’s happening.” 

The 115th Congress does not represent the people, Mr. Henry charged this week. Instead, “it’s rich guys representing rich people. Not a lot of working people representing working people.” People are anxious for change, he said, evidenced in places like Wisconsin’s First District, where Randy Bryce, an ironworker and veteran, is challenging Representative Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. “People are ready for it, because the congressional seat is not anybody’s seat, it’s all of ours.” 

Mr. Zeldin, he said, “had you believe he was going to be the working-class guy, that he was going to stand up for us.” Instead, he said, Mr. Zeldin voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “He’s a supporter of gutting our health care from underneath us. God forbid you get a medical emergency — you’re bankrupt. We’ve got to make sure we can protect working people.”

At a January forum at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, Mr. Henry, who is from Westhampton, said that he supports Medicare for all. “We can’t be the only country in the civilized world that doesn’t have it,” he said of universal health care. “The Affordable Care Act isn’t affordable for a lot of people, but it got a lot of people into the system. . . . We need to take the power from the insurance companies.”

Mr. Henry also likened Mr. Zeldin to President Trump. “He made the decision that that divisive mentality works,” he said, criticizing the presence of Stephen Bannon, who worked for the Trump campaign and administration, at Mr. Zeldin’s December fund-raiser in Manhattan. “We’re not like that here,” Mr. Henry said of the residents he hopes to represent. “We’re not that extreme.”

In the 2018 campaign, “he’s going to have to deal with people who are from the street, the town, the community,” Mr. Henry said. “And he doesn’t like facing people from the community, obviously.” 

Mr. Henry predicted that the legions of youth protesting the nation’s gun laws, coupled with the surge in activism since Mr. Trump’s election, will create a formidable bloc of young people committed to change. 

“These kids are finally waking up,” he said, “and realizing the greatest trick they were ever told was that their vote doesn’t matter. Now they are seeing their vote does matter. . . . People who have never cared about this are now getting involved. If you want change, you have to facilitate it. Be the change you want to see. We have a generation of kids that are coming into their own and are going to do it. These are people who got the short end of the stick — the high loans, the failing infrastructure. They’re inheriting these problems and are starting to tackle them.” 

Reforming the Second Amendment and “getting lobbyists out of government” are priorities, he said. 

Immigration, in the district and across the country, is among the most pressing issues, Mr. Henry said, something his experience in the service industry taught him. “They’re not going away,” he said of undocumented immigrants. “We’re not going to build a wall.” He advocates “practical, realistic immigration, where people can register, become legal, pay taxes, get a driver’s license, have safe rentals, not be taken advantage of.” Immigrants, he said, “just want an opportunity to take a chance for the American dream.”

Congress must attack the opioid crisis, for which pharmaceutical corporations share blame, he said. “I’m a musician and have played for the last 20 years. We’ve been crushed by this. Our scene has been totaled. I had to miss a candidates forum because we were having a memorial for one of my friends. . . . I want to see accountability put on Big Pharma for lying to the American people that OxyContin has no addictive traits.” 

At the January forum, Mr. Henry described himself as “the son of two hippies” and thus antiwar. “We wasted money and lives for so long, on war and the war machine, the military industrial complex,” he said this week. “It’s the majority of where our tax money goes, and our quality of life has diminished. . . . We have to start looking at it as, we could be a war machine, or this great country that built itself back up, that fixes infrastructure, its health care, and is still a humanitarian force around the world.” In January, he said, “We need to take care of the veterans we have and not create more.” 

The candidate said that his campaign has revealed an electorate enthusiastic to participate and foster change, evidenced both in the volunteers canvassing for him and the high school students calling out politicians beholden to special interest groups like the National Rifle Association. “The country is in the right place,” he said. “A lot of them felt slighted in the last election, and are seeing that their voices matter, that what they can do is important and powerful.” 

The western part of the First District does include a large conservative base, he conceded, but a large millennial demographic as well. “The hope is to get as many out for the primary, and to get them all out in the general,” he said. “Make sure they realize the importance they have. That will be the deciding factor. Everywhere we go, the rooms are filled. People are energized like I’ve never seen.”

And, Mr. Henry added, of the six candidates for the Democratic nomination he is the sole lifelong resident of the district. “I’m the local guy,” he said. “I stayed here because I love it here. I have such an understanding of this community, and I could do a great job, given the opportunity.” 


This is part of a series examining the Democratic candidates for the First Congressional District.