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How to Use Elected Office to Build Socialism

In recent years, Democratic Socialists of America members elected to all levels of government have been faced with a new challenge: what to do with their office. Three staffers for New York State assembly member Phara Souffrant Forrest discuss how to organize for socialism from a state capital.

New York State Capitol in Albany, New York. (Matt H. Wade / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Oren Schweitzer

Last summer, nurse and democratic socialist Phara Souffrant Forrest was elected to the New York State Assembly with a slate of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–backed candidates. She’s been busy since then, playing a key role in winning $4.3 billion in new taxes on the rich to fund New York public schools, a rent relief program, and an excluded workers fund, which provides benefits to workers ineligible for federal benefits, often due to immigration status. In Brooklyn, her office has pioneered innovative forms of in-district socialist organizing, such as using constituent services to organize working people around housing and unemployment issues.

Jacobin’s Oren Schweitzer sat down with Fainan Lakha, Justin Freeman, and Tascha Van Auken, three staffers in Souffrant Forrest’s state assembly office, to discuss what it looks like to carry out socialist organizing from Albany.


OS

How do you view the role of elections in fighting for socialism and how do you think Phara’s campaign contributed to this?

TVA

Elections are a great way to build leadership quickly as you work to put somebody in power who can then pass legislation and fight for our socialist program. NYC-DSA campaigns are run by volunteers, and a democratic organization is central to their candidates’ running and being elected; that process changes how they are able to legislate and be part of a movement in office. That doesn’t happen if your campaign is run by handing power to a couple of consultants who then own all the relationships and institutional knowledge.

FL

You can build a campaign in a way that builds a movement for the long haul and that reaches so many people and pushes a transformative program. You want to build a movement that lasts.

OS

New York City DSA’s electoral work has been particularly strong in recent years. Why?

FL

You can run a great campaign. You can also run a really crappy campaign. But it’s very rare to run a great campaign that brings people into an organization that fights for a vision not only during elections but also during the legislative cycle. It’s a comprehensive democratic project that makes our electoral work effective.

TVA

Historically, most campaigns are a flash in the pan — a burst of energy — that goes away after the election. The challenge isn’t just to run one big campaign and win it, but to build something that lasts.

On most campaigns, volunteers are asked to do menial tasks over and over and over again. The relationships and institutional knowledge are moving with a very small number of staff members, usually consultants. At the end of the campaign, the candidate wins, and the people who did a ton of work on the ground can’t take that information and knowledge and use it toward something else. Or the candidate loses, and then nobody but the consultants get anything.

To build a movement, you need something that people can plug into, learn from, and develop themselves through. We have to grow fast if we have any hope of dealing with climate change and every other incredibly urgent issue. The only way we can grow fast is by developing leadership fast. For DSA, I see that as the biggest thing that we do that keeps people around — developing people into leaders and training them to develop other people into leaders.

FL

One way we do that concretely is by building these electoral working groups that have several subcommittees doing research, data, comms, and field operations. The role of the people on the committee is to recruit and build a team that will do all the comms work or run the field operation.

Additionally, the endorsement process is a place where people come together and are thinking about the work we’re doing and how to advance and extend it. The campaigns shape how people think strategically about where and who we are going to endorse.

OS

You just mentioned how NYC-DSA’s electoral campaigns have brought in large numbers of volunteers and then brought them into DSA. How has Phara’s office thought about continuing to create those opportunities to educate people about socialism while bringing in volunteers?

JF

First, we make connections with people or community-based organizations that already have an infrastructure to connect people with services. We ask how and where we can help and figure out what those organizable issues are. From this process, we’ve gotten volunteers into the office. We’ve had people with unemployment or housing issues that we’ve plugged into the office. And those are two of the biggest volunteer teams that we’ve created.

FL

Our office has two, maybe three, major outward-facing projects. We did a week of outreach in February and called through a list of tons of people and, through that, built a base of volunteers. We have a constituent services team. Like Justin said, there’s a lot of people with housing issues or who are unemployed. Right now, especially in the context of the pandemic, lots of people come to our office for unemployment. Many people know that your state legislator can help you get unemployment faster. Those kinds of issues present organizing opportunities.

When someone comes with a housing issue, sometimes it’s generalizable. When someone comes with unemployment, maybe there’s an opportunity there to ask them to get further involved. We’ve figured out how to work with volunteers to drive them to go into buildings and set up new tenant associations. We have about a dozen buildings that we’re in touch with and working with. In that process, we can develop new working-class leaders. We don’t just do it ourselves, but we also have volunteers coming through the office, helping people work through that process with the goal of scaling our outreach and building lots and lots of new organizations for people to participate in.

TVA

Having an elected’s office as a sort of base to work from allows you to build different relationships with people than you could through volunteering with DSA. You’re seen as being in a position of power. The office is a place that has some influence. We can use that to build these relationships, but then start to flip the script on what people think their relationship with an elected or elected’s office should be.

There’s a lot of reverence for power in Albany. Everyone in this office, including Phara, has wanted to push back against that. With constituents, Phara often says, “I work for you.” That’s the relationship we should have. It’s reversed in the world generally. The norm is people reserving time for an elected to come at the last minute to tell everybody some “wise” thing everyone already knows. In this office, we have an opportunity to dismantle this dysfunctional way people look at electeds and power.

OS

On the Left, we often debate elections and the Democratic Party. But we talk far less about how socialist electeds should actually act in office and what types of work their offices should do. What do you view as your office’s task in organizing for socialism?

TVA

There’s not an easy answer. Deferring to power is a big part of how Albany works. There’s an immediate tension between being a movement candidate who wants to aggressively push legislation from the outside and is connected to an outside movement, and, on the other hand, wanting to build relationships in Albany to be able to organize internally.

Some electeds are going to like the internal organizing in Albany more. Some are going to likely spending more time in their districts. For Phara and the slate, it’s a work in progress. There are some good people in Albany that want to do good stuff. We don’t want to unnecessarily alienate people that we have to work with every day.

We all know that our power comes from the outside, from movements and the organization we’re a part of. The one thing we don’t ever want to do is alienate people doing the movement work every day outside of the state to push for legislation that will make people’s lives better.

Socialists in office in New York State (L-R): Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Mamdani, Jabari Brisport, Emily Gallagher, and Julia Salazar. (Courtesy NYC-DSA)
FL

Our legislators and Phara really fight for our organization’s priorities and for a socialist program. We need to combine pressuring electeds outside of the state with pressure inside the state. The latter means building relationships and being able to persuade people. It’s not going to win socialism in one day, but it does create the space to move and fight effectively.

The result of this approach is seeing $4.3 billion raised in the state budget this year to ensure no budget cuts and fund public schools, rent relief, and the Excluded Workers’ Fund. Through policy writing, organizing, and working within the state, we were able to move something that made pretty significant gains and made sure this budget wasn’t an austerity budget.

OS

State legislatures are notoriously opaque. What’s been your experience with that opacity, and have you been able to change it?

TVA

Albany is indeed opaque. It’s opaque to legislators, too. And it’s not just because we’re new. Albany is designed that way. A really important goal is to fight against that opacity by having our relationship with constituents be very open and honest about how it’s opaque to us, too, and how we want and are working to change this. 

It would be great if, when you call our office and ask, “Can you help get this bill into committee or voted on?” we could respond, “Yeah, we can help with that!” But we literally can’t right now. It’s not a particularly democratic process. The legislators who are elected by people to represent them do not have a ton of power to move things through the legislature. We have to be honest with people about what exactly is happening and build some real pressure against the way some of this stuff works.

JF

Being a volunteer on the Tax the Rich campaign showed me how much I didn’t know about the budget process in New York State. These campaigns are how you can educate people and get them involved in politics. In our constituent services meetings that we have every month, we teach each other different aspects of government and services.

This whole process of trying to pull back the veil of politics is part of building working people’s agency in our district. If people can see they can build those connections with each other and that connection to the government through our office and get the things they actually need, they can fight to redistribute wealth and services in the way they should be distributed.

OS

Going back to the Tax the Rich campaign, your office worked with NYC-DSA on this campaign during the budget fight, with over one thousand volunteers, 120,000 doorhangers left, and nearly 350,000 phone calls made. Can you tell me a bit more about how your office collaborated with NYC-DSA on this campaign, and how it synthesized the work in and outside of the state?

TVA

The biggest collaboration was that Phara was a huge champion for the Tax the Rich bills. We had a lot of meetings with DSA to understand the bills and to strategize about how to move them forward, as well as rallies and press conferences. 

FL

That sense of being in this fight together was very strong for the movement. We were able to speak clearly about what this fight looked like in Albany and what the obstacles were to achieving our goals.

OS

My understanding is that the DSA-endorsed electeds communicate and collaborate with NYC-DSA through the “Socialists in Office” body. Can you tell me a bit about what this work has looked like and what it has been like to coordinate a socialist bloc in the state?

FL

There are regular meetings between DSA leadership and the electeds, and the electeds take positions together publicly. They operate as a group and work together to think about how to move a socialist program. Our offices all work together in our district work, like in-district organizing and constituent services. It makes us all more effective. From our point of view as socialists, it’s important that there’s clarity around the fact that Phara is a socialist and is working as part of a bigger movement. 

TVA

This world really churns through people. It’s hard work, and the budget we’re given in the assembly for staff is really small. It is an impossible amount of work coming from eighty different directions, all urgent and important. Having this slate of people and these relationships through which we help each other out and share information we’ve learned has been really valuable. Being connected to people helps with not feeling completely alone in this system. 

FL

We also have volunteers helping all our offices read bills we vote on and ones we’re considering cosponsoring. There are thousands of bills. There’s just no way we’re going to be able to read all of them unless we have a team of people, and a team of people who want to think about it from a left-wing point of view.

OS

There’s a lot of work that electeds can do directly in their districts. Your office has been particularly innovative in thinking about this kind of work, especially in the context of a socialist project. Could you expand on what this in-district organizing work has looked like?

FL

We start from the point of view that the socialist movement needs to grow into all strata of society. We believe our project is to create new working-class organization and develop new leaders — constituents, working-class people, people of color — and give them that sense that they can fight collectively, and also show that there’s a political program that aligns with that fight. You can organize your building; also, we’re pushing bills that are fighting landlords in general. We develop leaders by giving them a political vision and the opportunity to organize around it.

JF

A lot of the work we’re doing in the district is like running a campaign. We canvass people to connect them with the office. We go out into the district and target specific areas that we know have problems with landlords. Or sometimes, a constituent reaches out to us, and we see an opportunity to reach out to a building and connect them with services. We’re trying to turn those folks into volunteers around those issues that are affecting them. 

OS

Are you working at all with other socialist electeds’ offices to spread this type of in-district organizing throughout working-class communities in New York City?

JF

We work closely with all of the NYC-DSA electeds and their offices. We have a weekly call and talk through our constituent cases, we share information and resources, and offer each other support. We’re building a socialist bloc, a socialist machine — one that can build collective power. 

FL

Right now, since our district overlaps with Jabari Brisport‘s [a newly elected socialist state senator representing New York’s District 25], we’re working with them on a major tenant-organizing project. There are several buildings in our district and several buildings in theirs. We started working with these buildings to figure out their situation and how to build a replicable program to reach buildings, identify leaders, get everyone involved in a WhatsApp chat, and get them involved in regular meetings. 

We reached out to Jabari’s office and said, “Hey, there’s this case. We’ve been able to replicate this organizing program with a few buildings. It seems to be working pretty well. You should try it.” It turns out it’s working well for them too. 

In a couple of weeks, we’re going to have the leaders from all of these fifteen or so buildings come together, talk strategy, figure out how to move the campaign forward, and build a tenant union.

OS

As socialists, we often talk about needing workers to be self-conscious of their interests as well as the organizing necessary to resolve them. This is central to what’s meant by the phrase “class formation.” How do you view your work as furthering this process of class formation?

JF

Our tenant organizing is a great example. Within a building, there are long-standing community members versus people that are often called “gentrifiers.” The capitalist class wants us to look at the working class as stratified — people that drink lattes versus people that drink forties. But they’re all the same people, ultimately, and they all potentially have the same issues: not getting their leases, not getting repairs, the building being under threat of sale. Within one building there might be six people that live in a rent-stabilized apartment, and they’re having issues with their landlord. But people living in unregulated apartments may have the same issues with their landlord!

So the question is how do you bring those stratified folks, with different cultures and other differences, together? You show them that these issues are affecting all of them, that they’re organizable, and that it doesn’t necessarily matter what those differences are. They all need a place to live. We all need some place to rest our heads. Us going out there and organizing around housing helps to break down that stratification and build connections across those different cultural and income differences.