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New York’s Democratic Socialists Are Playing the Long Game

Democratic socialists are slowly becoming a force in New York state politics. But as the movement grows, it faces backlash and new obstacles.

State Senator Julia Salazar speaking to the press about efforts to decriminalize sex work in New York. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s a familiar story by now. In 2018, a bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, mobilizing volunteers through Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Justice Democrats, defeated the head of the Queens Democratic Party, becoming a Congresswoman and international phenomenon. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign had inspired a spike in DSA membership and activism, and with AOC’s victory, the group enjoyed yet another surge, politicizing many young people who had never considered socialism before.

The same year, in North Brooklyn, the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) threw down for an activist named Julia Salazar, who won her race for state senate, becoming the only DSA-endorsed politician in Albany. In the next election cycle, NYC-DSA endorsed more candidates for state senate and assembly races. Four of them won — in the assembly, Zohran Mamdani of Queens, and Brooklyn’s Marcela Mitaynes and Phara Souffrant Forrest; and in the state senate, Brooklyn’s Jabari Brisport — making, with Salazar’s reelection the same year, a slate of five (a sixth socialist, Emily Gallagher, who also won a seat in the assembly that year, has since joined the group). In 2020, as well, Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx school principal and longtime education activist endorsed by NYC-DSA, joined Ocasio-Cortez in Congress.

This is more state power than New York City socialists have enjoyed since the 1920s. To figure out how to use it, those politicians, and NYC-DSA, have had to work quickly. As Salazar told Jacobin about her socialist slate, “We’ve spent the last year learning how to exist.”

Taxing the Rich

Despite the excitement around these recent victories, NYC-DSA has not been content to simply elect socialists, and rightly so, as that would simply result in adding more socialists to the Democratic Party machinery, without building the movement or advancing any of its specific goals. Although the work of electioneering has continued — with two DSA candidates winning seats on the New York City Council this year — the chapter has also been finding new ways to use electoral politics to advance its own policy agenda and build the socialist movement.

Measures have been taken to support the group’s elected politicians while also keeping them focused on socialist goals and principles, as well. A NYC-DSA committee called Socialists in Office ensures that on the state level DSA’s elected officials act in significant coordination with DSA, holding meetings between the slate and NYC-DSA members. Its aim is to ensure that the organization’s issue campaigns are in sync with the elected officials’ legislative work, and discuss new issues or bills they should take on, a union organizing drive or other campaign to which an elected official could lend visibility. These meetings take place weekly.

“In the world of an elected official,” Salazar emphasizes, “that’s very frequent. I’m not necessarily proud of this but, I love my mom very much, and text her every day but I don’t know that I even call her weekly.”

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)

The state senator also emphasized the duration of the call, adding, “There’s hardly anyone in my life that I spend an hour and a half on a call with every single week.” On top of that, the slate spends significant time meeting with one another, texting, supporting each other through frustrations and strategizing on their legislative agenda.

The offices of NYC-DSA’s elected officials are also becoming hubs for organizing in their districts, as well as for providing constituent services to working-class people coping with everything from food insecurity to potholes and school bus delays. NYC-DSA has been working to combine these two functions, on the insight that many constituents who call the office may be open to organizing politically to change the institutional structures at the root of their complaint.

For example, when tenants call DSA-backed Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest’s office about a problem with their landlord, her staff or volunteers might help them organize a tenants’ union in their building. DSA members provide extensive volunteer labor for these efforts, which go beyond answering the phone calls and emails that come into the elected official’s office with problems; volunteers even knock on constituents’ doors to seek out such problems and let them know how Forrest’s office can help.

Considering that as a group, they’ve only been in office for a year, the accomplishments of all this work on NYC-DSA’s part have been significant, swelling the group’s membership, yielding several legislative victories, and helping many workers’ and tenants’ struggles.

Each of the elected officials work on their own to advance legislation, or take action that helps their working-class communities. One example is Forrest’s “Less is More” bill — cosponsored by Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, a former member of the state senate — which reforms the parole system so that people are far less likely to spend time in jail on technical parole violations. They’ve also used their high profile as elected officials to work with DSA in solidarity with local labor struggles.

Along with one of his progressive Assembly colleagues, Yuh-Line Niou, Zohran Mamdani joined taxi drivers in a fifteen-day hunger strike to demand relief for drivers facing crippling debt, a rampant problem given the predatory structure of New York City’s cab industry, one that has even led to several suicides among drivers. In early November, they won many of their demands and ended their fast. Mamdani is now pursuing several legislative strategies to ease the economic pain of cab drivers.

By far the biggest legislative achievement — for the slate and for NYC-DSA — was the 2021 state budget. NYC-DSA ran a grassroots “Tax the Rich” campaign, in which a thousand volunteers made phone calls and hung flyers on New Yorkers’ doors, asking them to call their legislators and demand that the budget address critical social needs — funding food pantries, schools, public transit, hospitals, emergency unemployment — by taxing the state’s wealthiest residents. Within the first week alone, more than nine hundred people reached by NYC-DSA’s volunteers called their legislators. “Tax the Rich” was the most successful launch of any single-issue campaign in the chapter’s history.

Members of the DSA slate also engaged in extensive activism and lobbying on the specifics of the budget. Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes joined other activists on a hunger strike demanding that the budget include an “excluded workers fund” for immigrants not included in the federal COVID relief programs.

“Tax the Rich” was in many ways a successful campaign: the legislature ended up passing the biggest increase in tax revenue in almost a century, and says Salazar, “arguably the most progressive state budget that New York has ever seen.” The budget included a long-overdue commitment to fully fund public schools, which education justice activists had been fighting for, in the courts and in Albany, for decades. It also included housing assistance and an excluded workers’ fund.

DSA was, at the time, muted in its declarations of victory. After all, the budget fight had showed the limitations of the socialists’ power — they only won a tenth of the new revenues they demanded.

They also lost on some key issues, including vouchers for the homeless, full funding for CUNY, and the size of the excluded workers’ fund. As DSA activist Fainan Lakha, Phara Souffrant Forrest’s legislative and communications director, said, addressing the volunteers on a Zoom call at the time, the legislature proved willing to save existing programs but not to “build anything new.”

To overcome the moneyed resistance to building anything new — single-payer health care in the state, for example – DSA needs more power. That means, more members, more elected officials, bigger and more active chapters all over the state. Still, speaking of the 2021 budget, “I count that as a victory and it’s arguably the thing we have done together this year that has had the most significant impact on people’s lives,” says Salazar.

The Backlash

It’s perhaps not a surprise that the conservative side of the Democratic party, the faction tied to ruling class interests, especially the real estate industry, responded to the budget victories with rage and revenge. In Buffalo, DSA-endorsed mayoral candidate India Walton beat longtime incumbent Byron Brown in a Democratic primary this year, the fallout become clear. Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Party, enraged that the socialists in Albany had successfully raised taxes on the rich, parried the argument that the party should support the winner of the mayoral primary in Buffalo with an outlandish hypothetical: What if the primary voters had endorsed David Duke?

The real estate–funded wing of the Democrats was willing to work with Republicans to beat Walton, even though the Republican turnout predictably cost the Democrats other races, especially a sheriff’s seat, as Raina Lipsitz reported for the New Republic.  Despite winning the primary fair and square and facing no official Republican candidate, then, Walton lost the general election. Brown called his victory “a rebuke of socialism.”

India Walton walks to a polling place with supporters in Buffalo, New York, on October 28, 2021. (Matt Burkhartt for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

The centrist Democrats — and given the outcome of the sheriff’s race, even more so the Republicans — won that round, but the Democratic Party is far less unitary and disciplined in its relationships to socialists than this episode, taken on its own, might suggest. Salazar says Jacobs is trying to divide the left of the party by vilifying the socialists, and especially by stigmatizing popular policies as socialist when they risk offending big real estate and finance industry donors.

But, despite the result in Buffalo, Salazar says of the New York Party chair’s rhetoric, “I haven’t seen the response that Jay Jacobs would want.” Many active in the Democratic Party, including many of her Albany colleagues, she says, “recognize that it’s absurd. And I think people aren’t afraid of the word socialist anymore.”

Fellow Travelers?

Illustrating Salazar’s point, Democrats in Albany work with the socialists on issues of common ground, cosponsoring bills and even joining protests together. In a more direct rebuke to the Jacobs side of the party, both New York senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, who are centrist Democrats, endorsed India Walton after she won her primary. Schumer has embraced some of the socialists’ top priorities, even showing up for the taxi workers’ protest. Salazar explains, “Senator Schumer is a shrewd politician who has his ear to the ground, and sees that politics are changing and that communities are electing democratic socialists because these are the policies they support.”

In New York, Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed Julia Salazar was reelected to State Senate. (Photo courtesy Julia Salazar)

She points out that outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio, too, has been friendly when asked publicly about socialists and socialism, refusing to red-bait when asked directly about DSA: “To see that positive response from someone with a lot of power in an executive position,” she says, “tells me that they understand they have to work with us. That our movement is growing and it’s better to embrace it than pretend we’re powerless.”

Much more surprisingly, the moderate Democratic governor Kathy Hochul — former lieutenant governor who stepped into office after Andrew Cuomo unexpectedly had to resign his post amidst multiple sexual harassment allegations — has been somewhat responsive to socialist demands. Just after taking office, she called the legislature back into session to extend a moratorium on evictions, something many progressives support but that has been very publicly associated with socialists. Hochul also added significantly to the rental assistance program — another persistent demand from the DSA slate — and is now asking federal government to continue funding it.

Hochul not only signed a bill that Julia Salazar sponsored — giving tenants in loft buildings the same rights that other New York tenants enjoy, including to sue landlord who don’t provide heat and other basics; legislation that Salazar is not sure Cuomo would have signed — but initiated a press event in Salazar’s district to announce that she signed it, attracting press attention and allowing Salazar’s constituents to see her work supported by the governor.

Hochul and Schumer are no leftists, but they understand that NYC-DSA is here to stay. Their friendly gestures to the socialists illustrate one way that DSA’s presence in New York is reordering politics in the state.

Another sign is that the socialist victories are inspiring more democratic socialists to run campaigns for office that are not endorsed by NYC-DSA. Some are DSA members who unsuccessfully seek DSA’s endorsement and win anyway. Others are progressive politicians who might not have admitted their socialist sympathies and now feel emboldened to do so more openly. Julia Salazar uses the charmingly old-fashioned term “fellow travelers” to describe the whole spectrum of such politicians, while left journalist Ross Barkan calls them “DSA-lite.”

In Albany, that group includes Jessica González-Rojas, a Queens reproductive justice activist who won her assembly seat in the 2020 election, at the same time as the five new members of the DSA slate. The incoming City Council, in addition to two new DSA-endorsed members (Tiffany Cabán and Alexis Avilès), also includes several open socialists who are not part of the DSA slate, like Kristin Richardson Jordan and Shahana Hanif.

An outreach event cohosted by Jessica González-Rojas and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Other incoming “DSA lite” new members include Sandy Nurse, Lincoln Restler, Chi Ossé, and others. In some cases, DSA might want to organize them into joining its slate. Emily Gallagher, for example, was not endorsed by DSA when she ran for Assembly but has enthusiastically joined the DSA slate in Albany. Says Salazar, “I think we could be better or at least more intentional about bringing more of our colleagues into identifying as democratic socialists and caucusing with us.”

But others might remain fellow travelers and questions of how the organization should relate to them goes back to the 1920s (and later, the mid-century Mike Quill, who often supported the Communists but broke with them when he had to choose between their agenda and the interests of his fellow transit workers, specifically on a proposed fare hike). NYC-DSA has already made a few missteps in this area – sometimes splitting the socialist vote in races where more than one socialist is running – but as the group becomes more accustomed to operating in a political environment with more socialists, the art of working with fellow travelers should evolve.

Party Discipline

NYC-DSA works so closely with state senators and assembly members — an approach that will be replicated on the City Council level — that the concept of “accountability” almost doesn’t apply; the elected officials are part of the organization and integral to its work, and in this way there’s little room for them to stray from DSA’s principles or agenda. But the same can’t be said of congresspeople like Ocasio-Cortez, or Bowman, who are under very different pressures, especially on foreign policy issues, and are in any case still a minority within the Progressive Congress, which is itself a minority within the larger body. Recently Bowman fell afoul of DSA’s principle of boycotting travel to Israel; some members called for his expulsion from the organization, and a divisive fight within DSA ensued, much of it waged on the very public terrain of Twitter.

As unfortunate as it was, the fight may have led to some clearer thinking on how DSA should relate to its Congressional elected officials, and DSA’s National Political Committee has announced an effort to form a Socialists in Office structure to work more effectively with its Congressional members as well. With Congresspeople, DSA may not have the power, either to effectively execute what NYC-DSA electoral veteran Michael Kinnucan has called “the mean model of accountability,” in which the elected official does something members don’t like and, as he puts it, “we yell at her on Twitter” and possibly withhold endorsement next cycle, nor to work in coordination with them in a way that would necessarily benefit either side.

The scale of Congress and the everyday pressures on Congresspeople are so much greater than state government or city council, such that it’s extremely difficult for a grassroots group to make itself essential enough to these politicians. Still, it’s clearly essential that democratic socialists serve in Congress, and the new effort to bring structures that have worked locally into the national sphere is intriguing.

This new year should be a good one to build on — and expand — the victories in the state legislature, and for the first time since the 1950s, create and fight for a socialist municipal agenda in the City Council. In Albany, short-term goals include expanding tenants’ rights, taxing the rich more, a return to free tuition at the City University of New York, and, perhaps most ambitiously and urgently given the federal government’s paralysis on climate, publicly owned power. In City Council, much can be accomplished on the budget, and although the incoming mayor is a conservative Democrat who has declared his antagonism to the socialists, DSA’s agenda on most issues will find many allies.

It’s not clear where all this is going in the long run. Long-term strategies are hard to come by in most local DSA milieus and we’re entering a period of extreme political uncertainty. It’s hard, for example, to predict how the politics of inflation will play out. Gun violence in cities also has political implications, but is beyond our control and difficult to anticipate. We don’t know if the far right will succeed in recapturing Congress or the presidency, eviscerating prospects for progressive politics at the national level.

Those are familiar problems but then there is some additional, uncharted terrain: How long will this pandemic persist? As for climate disasters, it’s probably a matter of when, how many, and how bad. Socialist legislators and mass movements have existed in the United States before, and have helped win reforms, but have never yet brought us close to a social democratic, much less a socialist, society. Then again — for better and for worse — they may never before have existed in the context of so many other multiple crises. In these ways, the moment challenges both prognostication and analogy.

The Long March

Within five years, it feels as if just about anything could happen. Yet at present it’s clear that DSA, even in New York, is nowhere near executive power. The organization did not engage in the recent mayoral race, for sound reasons: as Ross Barkan has pointed out, DSA still lacks the power to have an effect in a race that large. The outcome of that race showed the limits of NYC-DSA’s reach thus far. The new mayor, Eric Adams, a centrist former cop, has positioned himself as the voice of working-class Brooklyn, yet he is openly contemptuous of NYC-DSA and its goals. Given his close relationship to big real estate and finance, Adams and DSA could never be true allies, but most of the public disagreement has been on policing.

Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost her run for Queens district attorney in 2019, was elected to New York City Council District 22 in 2021. (cabanforqueens.com)

During a spike in homicides, and in the wake of a massive cultural reckoning on police violence, Adams presented himself as the candidate who, given his history as a law enforcement officer and as a black man who had experienced police brutality, would crack down on both the criminals and the cops. It’s not surprising that this message was popular with working-class New Yorkers concerned about public safety, especially in black neighborhoods.

By contrast, NYC-DSA’s City Council candidates pushed to defund the police, a harder sell especially in a year of horrifying news stories about violent crime: a “Subway Slasher” terrorizing riders on the A train and a child killed in a drive-by shooting. There is significant disagreement within working-class black communities about whether crime is best addressed by moving resources from police to other services, or by putting more cops on the streets.

NYC-DSA has chosen the “defund” side in that argument. It’s clearly not always a recipe for defeat: some of the NYC-DSA candidates touting “Defund the Police” most prominently, Tiffany Cabán, for example, did win. Volunteers on her campaign often found that voters resisted the idea of defunding the police but were amenable to persuasion. The call to “defund” has helped NYC-DSA to form relationships with the nationwide movement against racist police brutality.

On the other hand, in a climate of fear over crime, NYC-DSA’s embrace of the “defund” idea also allowed centrists like Eric Adams and Byron Brown to paint socialists as a menace to black working class safety. There is no one “working-class” view on policing, but so far, the “defund the police” message could complicate NYC-DSA’s efforts to build a mass electoral base. It’s a risky message both because it can seem out of touch with well-founded fears of crime, but also because to succeed as a policy, defunding the police will only work in tandem with many other social democratic reforms.

Defeating India Walton, Byron Brown declared victory over the notion of defunding police, despite her actually-nuanced approach to that issue. But in going after executive power, having the right message isn’t really the major challenge. NYC-DSA needs to continue to build power. While Walton’s primary victory in Buffalo was a good start, Buffalo is a much smaller city — the entire population is about a third of New York City’s electorate. It’s not clear that there is enough organizing capacity on the Left to win a mayoral or gubernatorial race.

This shouldn’t necessarily demoralize anyone. NYC-DSA’s successes so far are encouraging. While Bernie Sanders’ defeats were painful, democratic socialism was hardly expected to come overnight in a country like the United States. There are, as organizer and author Jane McAlevey often says, “no shortcuts.”