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“We’ve Definitely Pulled the Conversation to the Left”

Chanan Suarez

Chanan Suarez is a socialist running for city council in Washington State. We spoke with him about why he decided to challenge the liberal incumbent, the connection between democracy and socialism, and the “need to fight capitalism, but also to win meaningful reforms.”

Chanan Suarez, candidate for city council in Bellingham, Washington. (Chanan Suarez for Bellingham / Facebook)

Interview by
Jason Farbman

Chanan Suarez is running for city council in Bellingham, Washington, a small city (population ninety thousand) not far from the Canadian border. He has campaigned for “housing for all”; a Bellingham Green New Deal; workers’ rights; “sanctuary for all”; municipalization of electricity, childcare, and hospitals; and financing reforms by taxing the rich.

A socialist since returning from Iraq as a Navy corpsman (an enlisted medical specialist), Suarez — a Miami native — settled in Seattle, where he became one of the leading figures on the left. As the founder and president of the Seattle chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Chanan addressed thousands and led marches throughout the Bush years. He later founded Queer Ally Coalition to protect the LGBT community from intensifying gay bashing in Seattle’s rapidly gentrifying Capitol Hill.

Suarez is currently shop steward at the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3937, where he works at the Social Security Administration as a bilingual claims specialist. He is also the cochair of the Whatcom County chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

With the election looming on November 5, Chanan took some time out from canvassing to speak with Jason Farbman, Jacobin’s associate publisher.


JF

You’re running against a union member who identifies as a progressive. In the Trump era, there are plenty of people who would bristle at running against a progressive. What made you want to run?

CS

I was actually asked to run by my DSA chapter, where I had been cochair for a year. I decided I would run as an open socialist.

I’ve said frequently that my opponent has done good for the community. I’m not here to devalue the good work that she’s done, but ultimately, it’s a difference of vision.

One of the clearest indications is that my opponent is endorsed by the police. That means her platform is unlikely to address the needs of all workers — particularly undocumented immigrants, homeless LGBT youth, or those fighting to make black lives matter. I’ve been advocating for civilian oversight of the police and sanctuary for all, to protect Bellingham residents from ICE. I’m the only one who’s really touching that.

Also, Bellingham is changing rapidly, demographically, and the city council is not reflective of the actual population. There are no people of color on the council, and there are no openly LGBTQ people on the council, of which I am both.

JF

In your view, what distinguishes a socialist candidate from a progressive one?

CS

The most important is actually naming the real causes of all the issues working people face, which is capitalism. We’re in a moment that is totally open right now, with huge potential political reconfigurations. So, our task is to be as clear as possible and be as direct as possible about the type of bottom-up politics we need to fight capitalism, but also to win meaningful reforms.

JF

Your platform is expansive for a municipal race. I think it’s wonderful because it connects so many different issues and struggles. Which parts of your platform have resounded immediately?

CS

One of the big issues in Bellingham is housing. I’ve called for social housing — for allocating 3,500 units of housing, which the city owns but is tenant managed, paid for by progressive property taxes, among other means. If we want housing to be affordable, then we have to make it not only affordable but permanent, and we have to get housing out of the private sector as much as possible. I’ve also campaigned to end discrimination against nonviolent, formerly incarcerated people.

“Housing for all” has resonated with people for sure. My opponent addresses housing but is a NIMBY [“Not In My Backyard”], so nothing like housing cooperatives, paid for by taxes on the rich.

When I talk about my platform directly with people, there’s so much they’re on board for — my Bellingham Green New Deal platform, workers’ rights, expansion of public services to include public childcare, a public hospital, public internet . . .

JF

With a platform as ambitious as yours, how do you respond to the inevitable “well, how are you going to pay for it?”

CS

Tax the rich! I’ve been very explicit throughout my campaign. I don’t want any more burden on the working class because they shoulder enough already. We’re going to be looking for a remedy from the high earners and big-box businesses. We can also look at other things, too, like bonds.

My opponent has not called for taxing the rich. Her proposals for new fees are more consistent with the same old centrist, liberal Democrat line.

JF

Of your six main platform planks, one is dedicated to “workers’ rights.” Why was it important to you to make workers’ rights so prominent?

CS

Bellingham’s workers need a citywide $15 minimum wage — now, in 2020 — with regularly planned increases. We need mechanisms to support workers who experience wage theft and discrimination. Ultimately, twenty-first-century socialism has to get to the heart of democracy at the workplace. I want to establish municipal funding and other support for worker-owned co-ops.

That’s a perspective put out consistently on the campaign trail, which simply would not appear if it were just liberals and progressives in the race.

JF

Are there parts of your platform you’ve had to convince people about?

CS

Hmm. “Sanctuary for all,” in the way we mean it, has challenged people to connect the dots between different oppressed groups. I’ve called for strengthening Bellingham’s sanctuary city status, but also implementing the Black Lives Matter recommendations on law enforcement protections; expanding protections for the LGBTQ community including rights to homeless shelters; assisting those suffering under the war on drugs by creating safe consumption and rehabilitation sites; decriminalizing sex work; and more.

JF

In New York City, socialist campaigns expect the need to raise $150,000 to be competitive — an enormous sum. But in Bellingham, it seems as though neither of you has needed to raise more than $15,000. Can you describe what campaigning has been like, without the need for such intensive fundraising?

CS

This campaign has been bottom-up, grassroots from the get-go. The platform was discussed and democratically decided on, through a vote. There was a month and a half when we decided to pay two very dedicated volunteers to focus on the campaign. The rest has been volunteer-driven.

The dedication we’ve experienced has been beautiful. We launched the campaign mid-May on a Friday. The following day, we already had a canvassing team out. We’ve been canvassing since, with people showing up on a weekly basis. It’s been very inspirational. We’ve knocked on a little over five thousand doors.

We’ve also had a little over fifty people contribute one way or another to the campaign, from our literature to canvassing, fundraising, everything. One comrade, Celia, designed the campaign’s beautiful logo.

JF

In five months of campaigning, what do you think you were able to achieve?

CS

We’ve definitely pulled the conversation to the left. Other candidates are now regurgitating my talking points at least around housing and the Green New Deal.

JF

It seems as though your DSA chapter was integral to your campaign. Has your campaign helped build DSA as well?

CS

Oh, absolutely. We gained members and increased our profile. Don’t get me wrong, there were comrades that were doing incredible work, like with immigrant rights and other projects. But that work was with other people’s projects and not Whatcom DSA projects.

More folks joined from diverse backgrounds, some more seasoned organizers who have been out of the loop for a while gravitated back, and then there were people who were brand-new to politics. In Bellingham, people know who DSA is now, what we’re about, and they take us seriously.