It was the early 1970s when Vivian Viloria-Fisher, an untenured 22-year-old teaching a speech and debate class at Dawnwood Junior High School in Centereach, New York, was called to the principal’s office. When she arrived, the head of the board of education, the superintendent for curriculum, the principal and vice principal — all men — were waiting for her. She had just listed Roe v. Wade, the ongoing Supreme Court case about abortion, on her curriculum and they wanted her to remove it, she said.
In a speech during January’s Women’s March in Port Jefferson, she told the crowd her response.
“If you want to tell my kids that they don’t have freedom of speech, then you go to my classroom, and you tell my kids,” she recounted.
This defiant exchange was hardly the first precursor to Viloria-Fisher’s time in office, where she’s championed civil rights causes as a Suffolk County legislator.
Growing up a devout Catholic, at 16 she stood up to her church mentor while visiting a single mother of 11 children and was reprimanded for informing her she could speak to a doctor about preventing another pregnancy, she said.
In 2007, after a successful bid for office, Viloria-Fisher found herself standing alongside the American Civil Liberties Union in opposition to then-Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s proposed bill targeting loiterers. The ACLU said the bill essentially criminalized day laborers, or “standing while Latino.” After the 59-year-old Dominican Republic-born legislator voted against it, she said, she was called derogatory names and harassed with signs outside of her house for hours.
By the time she found herself in Washington, D.C., on a tour of the capital with Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in August 2017, Viloria-Fisher had been out of office for six years. But after an hour of conversation that she described as no more than “unsatisfactory talking points,” Viloria-Fisher decided she was ready to challenge him for his seat. He wasn’t standing for the people in the 1st District, she said, dipping a biscotti into a hot drink at her hometown Starbucks in East Setauket.
“He’s the complete antithesis of what I am,” she said. “I believe that people here in Suffolk County cherish the rights and privileges of every resident who lives here and I don’t think that Lee Zeldin respects that.”
In Suffolk County, Long Island, Viloria-Fisher is in the early stages of a House race in one of New York’s most conservative areas, the 1st Congressional District. If she secures the Democratic nomination, she will face the incumbent Zeldin, who won re-election with a landslide victory in 2016.
The upcoming months will foretell whether the greater part of the district will welcome Viloria-Fisher’s inclination to stand up to authority and fight for civil rights or whether Zeldin can sustain reelection without benefitting from a presidential coattail.
As Viloria-Fisher had entered Starbucks, a friend greeted her before she ordered and saved her a seat. As a resident of the area for 30 years, she has long been an active voice in her community. She was a Girl Scout leader, soccer coach, senior class adviser, teacher and more.
“I was the president of the homeowners association,” she said. “I was the chair of the first breast cancer walk in Suffolk County.”
It has been five years since Viloria-Fisher needed to gear up for a campaign. Her first was in 1998, when she was teaching Sunday school at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in her hometown and was asked by former legislator Nora Bredes to run.
Viloria-Fisher, a mother of five, found support in her family.
“I went home and went to my family,” she said. “My son Marc, who was 19 at the time, said, ‘You know Mom, we need honesty in politics, and you’re the most honest person I know.’ That clinched it for me.”
Viloria-Fisher also drew motivation from the passing of her mother and sister in November 1997 and February 1998, respectively.
“It was one of those times where you say, you know, life is short,” she said. “If you’re gonna do something, do it. So at the age of 50, I changed my career.”
In 1999, Viloria-Fisher, then an AP Spanish teacher and chair of the department of foreign languages at Ward Melville High School, went on to win in a special election. She served as a Suffolk County legislator for Brookhaven’s North Shore from 1999 to 2011 before running up against term limits.
Still, she was not ready to retire. Activism isn’t something she picked up for political gain, she said, but something that is rooted in her upbringing and part of her DNA.
At age 3, Viloria-Fisher and her family moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States, where they lived in an apartment in the Bronx. Her father, a musician, died when she was 6. Her mother was left with six children to support and, unable to keep up with rent, moved the family into a housing project.
“She made all of our clothes except for our underwear,” she said. “She would work all day and sew at night, which made me a good cook because my sisters either pretended or didn’t know how to cook.”
Receiving her bachelor’s degree in English from Hunter College, Viloria-Fisher moved to Long Island, where she earned a master’s degree in linguistics from Stony Brook University and taught at Middle County schools.
During her time in the legislature, she served as Deputy Presiding Officer for six years and sponsored bills that would cap carbon dioxide emissions and limit the use of pesticides.
Unlike Zeldin, who she says “only carves out Long Island for political reasons,” she protects the environment because it’s what she has been doing since 1970, she said, carrying her reusable bag compacted into a pouch the size of a handball.
“It’s the values that are our difference,” she said. “It’s not just political expediency for me.”
She lost races for Suffolk County Clerk and Brookhaven Town Supervisor in 2006 and 2013, respectively, and is now up against five other candidates in the upcoming Democratic congressional primary in June, including former fellow legislator Kate Browning.
Browning and Viloria-Fisher had previously butted heads over a piece of legislation introduced by Browning in 2011. Viloria-Fisher stood with activists who said the bill, which would require registering prepaid cell phones, would hurt immigrants and victims of domestic violence. She made sure to bring this up during Stony Brook’s College Democrats’ “Meet the Candidates” night. Browning, an immigrant herself, took issue with this interpretation of the bill.
“As an Irish-Catholic, when the British army comes and knocks on your door, and takes your father out of your home, do I want that to happen to anyone else? Absolutely not,” Browning said.
Stony Brook College Democrats President Tyler Muzio, who was also in attendance, met Viloria-Fisher during a 2017 fundraiser for Suffolk County Town Clerk candidate Cindy Morris at Viloria-Fisher’s home, where she lives with her husband, Stuart Fisher.
“Her den area walls are covered in awards and plaques,” Muzio said. “Vivian is not only a great and accomplished candidate but a great person. That’s what makes her special. She has genuinely cared about issues I care about, for years, as a legislator and activist.“
Most of Viloria-Fisher’s staff are younger volunteers, including Stony Brook graduate students, recent graduates and a few undergraduates. Having taught high school students for half her teaching career, she feels young people are the most passionate.
“I feel that age is a number because I taught for so many years,” she said. “Boy, I almost flipped out when I heard a congressman say 17-year-olds couldn’t be doing this organizing in the Parkland shooting. I said, ‘God, do you know 17-year-olds?’”