Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

George Albro, an organizer for Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, was surprised when nearly 120 people showed up at a Hicksville union headquarters just two days after Christmas to help put the Vermont senator on New York’s April 19 primary ballot.

“They were standing in the hallways,” said Albro, who had expected half the number to brave a cold night for the meeting. “We had to divide people into individual congressional districts and put them into separate rooms because we didn’t have space to fit them in one place.”

While the attention is focused on the upcoming Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, local activists since Dec. 29 have been circulating nominating petitions for the New York presidential primary.

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To qualify, candidates must have 5,000 signatures, and their delegates need at least 500 from each of the state’s 28 congressional districts. Petitions must be filed by Feb. 4

Some experts say national front-runner Hillary Clinton has a huge advantage in her home state primary because of her years as a New York senator and deep ties to the party establishment.

Nassau and Suffolk Democratic chairmen Jay Jacobs and Richard Schaffer back Clinton as do most party elected officials, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Jacobs and Nassau Democratic Party lawyer Tom Garry also are heading Clinton’s statewide petition efforts.

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However, a feisty grassroots battalion of Bernie backers say Sanders has punctured the idea that Clinton’s nomination is assured. They say Sanders’ passion on progressive issues has catapulted his poll numbers and they expect the outcome in New York’s late primary will be crucial.

“The momentum is with Bernie,” said Abigail C. Fields, of Cutchogue, who is running as a Sanders delegate. “Clinton’s inevitability has evaporated, and people are starting to see that Bernie is not only electable, but more electable than Clinton.”

Brian Schneck, a union leader who hosted the initial Sanders meeting, said the news media “talks about how Clinton is slipping, but what’s really happening is that Bernie and his message are resonating.” Schneck, president of UAW Local 259, stressed that he is speaking for himself, not the union.

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Schneck said voters can trust Sanders because of his long-held backing of issues such as the $15 minimum wage, free higher education and stiffer rules for Wall Street.

While much of the party establishment is circulating petitions for Clinton, Sanders’ website shows 10 events scheduled for this weekend from which to gather petitions or make calls for Sanders at sites including homes, bookstores and chain restaurant outlets in Islip, East Northport, Malverne, Mount Sinai, Farmingdale, Great Neck and elsewhere.

Jacobs argued that even if Sanders edges ahead in early states, such wins often lead nowhere in presidential sweepstakes. He said New Hampshire results may be skewed because of Sanders’ favorite-son status as a Vermont senator.

“There’s very little daylight on issues between them,” Jacobs said, but Clinton has a “record of showing she can get things done and be commander-in-chief in very trying times.”

But Schneck said Sanders appeals to New York’s progressives and will do better than little known Zephyr Teachout, who gave Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo a major scare in last year’s gubernatorial primary.

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“This guy is authentic and believes in what he’s saying,” Schneck said, “I support Bernie because he supports us. He’s got our backs.”