- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Since the rise of socialist electoral activity in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, socialists have won office in districts and states all over the country. But there is only one neighborhood in the United States that has put socialists into office on the city, state, and federal level. That neighborhood is Astoria, in the New York City borough of Queens.
There were glimmers of potential even before the recent wave, when for example progressive gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout came within a hundred votes of winning Astoria in 2014, significantly higher than her 33 percent vote share statewide. But the real turning point came in 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress. Astoria was critical to her victory.
In 2020, democratic socialist Zohran Mamdani was elected to represent Astoria in the New York State Assembly. And this year Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost her race for Queens district attorney in 2019, won a spot on the New York City Council. All three are open democratic socialists, and members of the Democratic Socialists of America, which campaigned heavily for these victories in coalition with other progressive groups.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Zohran Mamdani about the problems ordinary people face in Astoria and how socialists have been able to get through to them, as well as the demographic realities of Astoria’s political transformation. He sees in Astoria fertile ground for further socialist organizing, electoral and otherwise, and a success story that is replicable outside the boundaries of the neighborhood.
Less than fifteen years ago, Astoria was voting for Republican mayoral candidates. How did the same neighborhood manage to elect open democratic socialists to local, state, and federal office in the space of the last three years?
In many ways the political establishment’s strengths here are just imagined. They’re not real. They may have been real many decades ago, when the Democratic Party could provide jobs and structure and was a significant part of the fabric of community life, but that’s not the case anymore. The Democratic Party has moved away from that, and people’s relationships to it have diminished.
That became clear when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran against and beat Joe Crowley, landing her in Congress. That race covered more than just Astoria, but Astoria was a big part of her victory. Importantly, her campaign was such a break from what people thought was an acceptable way to challenge power. She spent so much time in the community, meeting people and talking face-to-face, which her opponent was not doing. So the short answer to your question is organizing.
Now Astoria has a socialist congresswoman, AOC; a socialist state assembly member, me; and a soon-to-be socialist City Council member, Tiffany Cabán. All of those campaigns were won the same way, through deep and sustained organizing and involvement in the community.
To back up a bit though, it’s important to point out what happened right before all of this. The first campaign that I worked on in a serious way was the campaign of Khader El-Yateem, a DSA-backed Palestinian-American Lutheran pastor who ran for City Council in Bay Ridge in 2017. There was so much energy around that campaign, and the reason why people had asked him to run and rallied around him was because Bernie had done so well in his district.
This was a shock because Bay Ridge in Southern Brooklyn had not been considered fertile ground for democratic socialist politics. At the time, the debate was actually about whether that area was red or blue. Nobody considered that it might go so dark a shade of blue that it might become red again. But Bernie made people think twice about it. Clearly there was untapped potential there that was being obscured by the politics-as-usual of the Democratic establishment.
It was that same data and that same kind of analysis that led to AOC’s race in 2018, to Tiffany Cabán’s unsuccessful race for Queens district attorney in 2019, to my race in 2020, and to Cabán’s successful race for City Council in 2021. What’s really important to note is that none of us are ambiguously or incidentally socialists. Socialism is not in the margins or footnotes of our political philosophy. It’s right there in the header, which is exciting because it means people are not voting for us in spite of our socialism, but in many cases because of it.
Who lives in Astoria, and how do you get through to them politically?
There are lots of immigrant communities in Astoria, some older and some newer, including Italian, Greek, Balkan, Bangladeshi, and Arab, particularly Moroccan and Egyptian. Astoria is close to Manhattan, so there are also lots of white professional-class transplants. Technically we’re considered the last assembly district in Queens that’s majority-white, though that comes with an asterisk since according to the census Arabs are considered white.
Astoria has historically been a place where immigrants would land and then use it as a foundation to build their lives in America. As they got more successful they would leave Astoria for Bayside or Long Island or wherever they could afford more space. But that’s happening less now. In fact, many immigrants in Astoria are discovering that they aren’t really able to find stability. And when they leave it’s not because they’re headed for a bigger house in the suburbs, but because gentrification is pricing them out.
The major issue here is housing. There was actually a New York Times article about Bangladeshi immigrants being priced out of Astoria and moving to Detroit that was published twenty years ago, before there was all of this discourse about gentrification, and it’s only intensified since then.
In Astoria you have so many people who’ve moved or whose parents moved to this country on the promise of what America would give them if they played by the rules. And they’ve found that they are the exceptions to this promise. From taxi drivers who were sold a dream by the city and by lenders as to what that medallion would mean, to people in the restaurant industry working hard to uphold their end of the bargain, people are frustrated to find they’re in the exact same place as they were twenty years ago.
So when I talk to people in the community, I talk a lot about housing. I talk about the specific ways that Muslim and South Asian communities have been cut out of housing opportunities in the city, and I also talk about the universal manner in which the commodification of housing increases financial pressures on people and causes displacement. I tell people that the cycle can only be changed with large-scale legislative solutions, and that we can’t do that if elected officials are taking money from those who profit from the current status quo.
I find other issues to connect with people on, too. For example, the Muslim community’s experience with the police is one of surveillance and targeting. After 9/11, [Michael] Bloomberg created the Demographics Unit of the NYPD tasked with surveilling Muslims. They went up and down Steinway Street, one of the major streets in Astoria and a center of Muslim immigrant life, surveilling Muslims in barber shops, cafes, hookah lounges, mosques, even going to Astoria Park and writing down when Muslims were playing soccer. That experience opens up a conversation about whether the police are really working for public safety or in order to uphold the capitalist state.
Another issue I bring up when I’m talking to Muslims is the issue of Palestinian rights, which DSA does not compromise on or back down from. One of the most beautiful things about our ideology and our organization is that we do not have exceptions to our beliefs. After decades of “progressive except Palestine,” people notice and appreciate that conviction.
There’s a media narrative, one recently reiterated in a City & State profile on AOC and the Left for example, that gentrification brings about more progressive politics because new residents — mostly white professionals — are more attracted to these ideas. How does Astoria fit into this narrative?
Our coalition is not reducible to professional-class transplants. At the same time, it’s also true that they are an important part of our coalition. We can hold both things in our mind at the same time. The media is often very resistant to the Left, to put it politely, and one way that manifests is the constant attempt to portray socialism as an external force, something foreign and artificial that’s imposed on places by outsiders.
I can tell you that I was not elected solely or even primarily by twenty-eight-year-old white transplants who moved to New York City three years ago. To say that is to erase all of the Astoria taxi drivers who did a rally on election day with me. It’s to ignore all of the Egyptian uncles and aunties I door-knocked with who had never been given the time of day because consultants did not think they were likely to vote.
The truth is that we have a large multiracial coalition, and that speaks to the different ways in which people of many backgrounds are left behind by this economic system. And on the topic of young white transplants, if you came of age in the last thirty years, you have lived through so many different crises that you are far more open to looking past the false promises of capitalism. You’re more likely to realize what this country is and what it needs to be, just by virtue of having witnessed the last three decades.
After AOC’s victory in 2018, did the Democratic establishment mount a serious defense in Astoria against you or Tiffany Cabán in an attempt to “retake” Astoria? If so, what did that look like?
Tiffany Cabán ran for Queens district attorney before I ran, and I was one of the key DSA leaders on her first campaign. There were multiple assembly districts voting in her election, and Tiffany won more than 70 percent of the vote in this assembly district. We did not receive much pushback during that campaign in Astoria. It was like the establishment left Astoria to us as they sought to run up the numbers in their strongholds. So in Astoria it was more a question of whether you’d heard of Tiffany, rather than necessarily convincing you.
My race was very different, because I was challenging someone exclusively in Astoria. I raised something like $250,000, which is a lot of money for an assembly race. My opponent raised double that and also had donations coming into an independent expenditure. So there was north of $500,000 being spent for her and against me in this race, and a total of $750,000 just in this one assembly district. In that way, it became a full-scale battleground in a way it hadn’t been before.
As for how my opponent behaved, less than attacking me she was more emulating me. By the end of the race, my opponent was calling to defund the police. She did everything she could to ensure that the average person was incapable of differentiating between us, so that the money would decide the outcome rather than politics.
Another way the establishment pushes back is that it sees your potency and your clarity, and it seeks to capture that and showcase it as its own so that it can maintain power. When we think about what obstacles lay ahead of us as we continue to do socialist electoral work, we have to imagine not simply better-funded incumbents who are not asleep at the wheel — that is, who are running fully active campaigns — but also opponents who try to look and sound like us in order to confuse voters.
Most of the most public successes in Astoria have been electoral, but is there other organizing work that’s been important to the development of socialist politics in the neighborhood?
The formative issue-based organizing that happened in this neighborhood was around Amazon, where we were knocking doors to convince people to join us in fighting back against the proposal to build Amazon’s HQ2 in Long Island City. Long Island City is south of Astoria, not the same neighborhood, but it’s so close that the ramifications of an Amazon headquarters being built there would have been felt in Astoria.
In particular, building HQ2 there would have caused housing prices in Astoria to skyrocket, which would have made an already difficult situation totally impossible for working-class tenants. And we weren’t only talking to tenants. There are a lot of people in Astoria who are what my fellow socialist in office Emily Gallagher calls “brick rich,” meaning they own houses and have nothing else. If the property value of their house goes up, so does their property tax. In many cases they won’t be able to afford that, since they have no other wealth, so they’ll be foreclosed upon and evicted, and then probably displaced.
The Amazon campaign we ran was really beautiful. With elections, there’s always some amount of targeting that goes on. We’re not as exclusive as the establishment, but we still have to be smart with our resources. But with Amazon we were just trying to talk to everyone, since nobody had a vote in the issue anyway. It was so exciting to just blanket canvass buildings and talk to whoever answered the door. That really increased our presence in the neighborhood and also gave us an opportunity to talk to people about unabashedly opposing a capitalist project, and open their eyes to socialist views.
In addition to the Amazon campaign, I should add that one thing that’s come out of the pandemic is a bunch of mutual aid organizing in Astoria: the Astoria Food Pantry, the Astoria Mutual Aid Network, the People’s Bodega, Free Store Astoria, the Rolling Library. It’s explicitly not electoral, but it has an impact in the sense that it broadens people’s imaginations. An integral part of the socialist project is providing material benefits to the working class and people who’ve been robbed of what they need by the system.
Recently Matt Thomas wrote an article about the Cabán-Adams voter. He focused his analysis on Astoria Houses, a mostly-black public housing project where Cabán and conservative Democrat Eric Adams enjoyed significant overlap.
What does the prevalence of this type of voter tell us? Are people confused, or do you agree with Thomas that this demographic shows that the Left is actually making inroads through good and persistent campaigning?
I think it definitely does show the Left’s growing strength. It also showcases the holes in the narratives that have been written post–mayoral race about the political landscape of New York City, these sweeping articles that tell us about the death of socialism or even progressivism.
Adams campaigned for the highly-engaged voter as somebody who was repudiating the Defund movement and things of that nature. But at the same time he was putting out ads and sending mailers and has been in the public consciousness for many voters as a critic of the police department from inside.
So it might not be as coherent as it seems for a voter to rank them both. Less engaged voters may have looked at Adams and thought, “Here is somebody who has lived though the oppressive tactics of the NYPD and critiqued it from the inside.” He has a critique of the NYPD, and though his solution and view of public safety is radically different from ours, that difference may not have been apparent to every voter. Plus, there wasn’t an explicit left candidate on the ballot.
But to Matt’s point, Tiffany’s success with some Adams voters in public housing is also a testament to organizing and being present in people’s lives. She ran a fantastic campaign, and one that didn’t view Astoria Houses or other public housing residents as impossible-to-reach voters who simply weren’t worth the time.
We can’t win on the strength of our ideas alone. We have to win also on a practice of engagement. And I think that’s one of the major strengths of New York City DSA. We have so many victories in large part because of the fantastic caliber of the campaigns that we run.
Clearly you don’t think that socialist electoral successes in Astoria are just a stroke of luck, but rather evidence that the neighborhood has a lot of real political potential. What will it take to make the most of that potential?
I think it’s important, no matter how you read the coalition, to not buy into the myth that demographics are destiny. Whether it’s young white transplants or South Asian immigrants or Arab communities, we cannot simply believe that by virtue of who someone is that they will be voting for a certain position. That brings us back to organizing.
The organizing that’s been happening in Astoria is multifaceted. You don’t just have electoral campaigns and mutual aid work but also other campaigns that are relevant to people’s lives, like the Amazon HQ2 campaign, or a campaign now being led by DSA ecosocialists against a fracked gas power plant that a fossil fuel company wants to build. We have to agitate people in different ways in order to open their eyes to how the system is failing them.
It’s important for us to focus on developing and supporting organizers. The establishment is a paper tiger, but we can only take advantage of that if we’re not the same. In order to ensure that this is not a fluke, we have to show up and establish a presence in people’s lives in ways that are remarkable and significant.
There are still people in New York politics who think that DSA is going to be a short-lived phenomenon. It’s up to us to prove them wrong. We have to be ruthless and effective organizers. That’s the only way to impress upon people that socialism is going to be influential in the political landscape for the rest of our lives.