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Meet Marcela Mitaynes. She Just Gave Brooklyn’s Democratic Socialists Their First Big Upset In This Year’s Primaries

Marcela Mitaynes, a Peruvian immigrant and Brooklyn tenant activist, overcame long odds — with the help of the city’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter — to defeat her incumbent rival in last week’s primaries for a New York State Assembly seat. Her story underscores the power of socialism to connect radical politics with everyday struggles.

@marcelaforny / Instagram

Of the five candidates endorsed by NYC-DSA and running for seats in New York state government this year, Marcela Mitaynes’s bid for Assembly in Brooklyn’s District 51 seemed to many observers to be the longest of long shots. There were two progressive challengers in the race, both women, a situation that seemed almost certain to split the left vote and throw the race to the incumbent, who had been in office since 1994. And while all the DSA candidates faced the formidable obstacle of organizing from their homes during lockdown, after working hard to establish effective door-knocking operations, Mitaynes endured another: in late March, she contracted COVID-19 and was sick for a month.

Yet, while the early counts look promising for all NYC-DSA’s state races, and State Senator Julia Salazar was decisively re-elected, Mitaynes is the first of the organization’s challengers to win a concession from an opponent, incumbent Felix Ortiz, who proved to be her main rival in the race. “I’m still in shock,” Mitaynes smiled broadly, speaking with Jacobin on Sunday morning.

Mitaynes, now 46, came with her family from Peru when she was a baby. Her indigenous family was undocumented, eventually achieving citizenship under President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty. When she was five, they moved from Hell’s Kitchen to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, where she lives today.

Her father worked at Tad’s, a steakhouse chain (which closed its last Manhattan restaurant in January). He began as a dishwasher, and eventually learned English, went to community college and became a general manager. After thirty years with the company he retired from its Herald Square location. Her grandparents worked in garment factories.

In 2006, the rent-stabilized building where Mitaynes had lived with her family for over 30 years was purchased by a new owner. Within six months half the families living in the building were displaced. Mitaynes began organizing her fellow tenants, and went to court, but was ultimately forced to move to a new home, with a monthly rent more than three times that of her rent-stabilized apartment. This fight shaped her politics and transformed her into a community leader.

“I quickly learned the hold that real estate had on New York politics,” she says, “and why existing legislation wasn’t protecting tenants.” Ever since then, she says, “I’ve been really involved, really energized and really wanting to make a difference so that folks don’t go through what I went through. I needed to like, fight like hell and I needed to something good to come out of it.” While she was still battling her own eviction, she began working with a community organization called Neighbors Helping Neighbors, organizing other tenants. “I couldn’t afford childcare for a long time,” she says, recalling that her daughter (now 20) was eight years old at the time. “I dragged my kid to all these meetings.”

She’s been organizing ever since, which means that far more than most people who run for political office, Mitaynes has deep relationships in her neighborhood, one reason for the success of her campaign. She is not only a leader in the community – from the PTA presidency to the Community Board to tenant organizing – Mitaynes has, as real organizers do, made other people into leaders. “These leaders have been able to take these skills and use them in other parts of their life.  So someone that I’ve worked with to help stand up to a landlord who wasn’t making repairs is suddenly now standing up to the Board of Education because they feel that their child is not getting adequate services.” And those tenants brought those skills to her campaign.

Her campaign manager, Labiba Chowdhury, also points out that being a leader in the tenant movement — which has won significant legislative victories, the largest expansion of tenants’ rights in decades — gave Mitaynes credibility. “That’s just the easiest way to point out that we know how to get things done, right?” Chowdhury emphasizes. “That means we will do it again and we’ll continue winning and continue building this movement.” Mitaynes’s campaign platform emphasized social housing and improved tenant protections, as well as taxing the rich.

The other reason for the success of Mitaynes campaign is the organizing infrastructure NYC DSA has built: the growing socialist organization can find volunteers all over the city. “DSA feels like a very supportive family, “ Mitaynes says, emphasizing the logistical and comradely emotional support among candidates and members throughout the campaigns. “Everyone is lifting each other up. It’s beautiful to know that we have a shared vision of what this world could look like and we’re working together to do it.”

That vision is socialism, of course. Before working with DSA, she says, “I wasn’t familiar with socialism.” But a lot of DSA members were involved in housing activism in her community and she was convinced by their ideas. “It just really resonated to me,” she says, “after all these years of fighting for social justice. I was explaining to my dad, ‘I guess I was a socialist and just didn’t know it!’”

“I had decided some years ago that housing shouldn’t be a commodity,” she explains. “Why is it that these people have certain rights just because they own [property]?” She emphasizes how unfair it is that having money determines our “access to something so basic as shelter.”

Mitaynes has been talking with others in her community about socialism. She recalls a tenant leader who had qualms about her decision to run as an open socialist. “Despite her hesitation and her fear of not knowing what socialism was,” Mitaynes says, “the relationship that we had and the fact that she knows who I am and what I stand for really allowed for that conversation, for her to understand that maybe she too is a socialist and doesn’t realize it.”

The Sunset Park tenant leaders and activists worked with those DSA-organized volunteers who didn’t speak Spanish, too, giving them Spanish lessons so they could better reach the voters. “The tenants were really great sports,” Mitaynes laughs. “‘More ‘R’! More ‘R’ I remember we were really trying to roll those Rs and make sure we had fun along the way.”

For DSA, Mitaynes victory is significant, and all the more so if the rest of the slate wins.  “We made historic gains with one socialist in office,” says Labiba Chowdhury, referring to the recent expansion of tenants’ rights legislation following the 2018 election of Julia Salazar. “Imagine what we can do with five!”