After Sweeping Statewide Races, DSA Aims to Put a Socialist Caucus on New York’s City Council – Through democratic, grassroots-powered campaigns and an army of volunteers, socialists are flexing their muscle to bring a left-wing policy agenda to New York City.

On Jan­u­ary 9, ten­ant orga­niz­er Michael Hollingsworth joined a human chain block­ing bull­doz­ers from enter­ing a work­site in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neigh­bor­hood. The pre­vi­ous spring, a judge in a rezon­ing suit had…

On Jan­u­ary 9, ten­ant orga­niz­er Michael Hollingsworth joined a human chain block­ing bull­doz­ers from enter­ing a work­site in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neigh­bor­hood. The pre­vi­ous spring, a judge in a rezon­ing suit had issued a tem­po­rary restrain­ing order on con­struc­tion, but real estate devel­op­ers had ignored it. New York City police offi­cers present at the site also refused to rec­og­nize the judge’s order and arrest­ed Hollingsworth and his fel­low orga­niz­ers who formed the blockade. 

Hollingsworth links the ordeal to bad deci­sions made by his City Coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Lau­rie Cum­bo. Cum­bo, who vot­ed in favor of the rezon­ing and is named in the law­suit, is one of 35 New York City Coun­cil mem­bers whose seats will become ​open” next year as incum­bents face term lim­its, out of the 51-mem­ber Coun­cil. ​We had to sue her because she nev­er engaged with the com­mu­ni­ty in terms of what we want­ed for rezon­ing,” Hollingsworth says. After his arrest, Hollingsworth wrote to his ten­ant union, say­ing ​that emp­ty City Coun­cil seat in 2021 is start­ing to look real­ly good.” 

On Novem­ber 14, the New York City chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) endorsed Hollingsworth and five oth­er social­ists run­ning for City Coun­cil: Adol­fo Abreu, Alexa Avilés, Tiffany Cabán, Bran­don West and Jaslin Kaur. The endorse­ment announce­ment came less than two weeks after the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion, which saw all of NYC-DSA’s endorsed can­di­dates on the bal­lot — for seats rang­ing from state sen­ate to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives — win their races. 

With the major­i­ty of seats com­ing open on the New York City Coun­cil, at least 300 can­di­dates have already thrown their hats in the ring. All of NYC-DSA’s endorsed can­di­dates will be run­ning for open seats, with the pri­ma­ry elec­tion slat­ed for June 22, 2021. This will also mark the first elec­tion to use ranked-choice vot­ing since the demo­c­ra­t­ic reform was adopt­ed as a bal­lot mea­sure in 2019

Should the DSA slate be vot­ed in, can­di­dates have sig­naled they intend to form a social­ist cau­cus on the City Coun­cil. Accord­ing to DSA orga­niz­ers, this cau­cus could work in coali­tion with oth­er pro­gres­sives to form a large enough bloc to bring sig­nif­i­cant changes to the body, from choos­ing the next Speak­er of the Coun­cil to pass­ing a bud­get that pri­or­i­tizes work­ing people. 

NYC-DSA, with a mem­ber­ship cur­rent­ly num­ber­ing over 5,800, has made sig­nif­i­cant inroads into local gov­ern­ment since Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez won her his­toric pri­ma­ry in 2018. But it wasn’t until the orga­ni­za­tion swept in its endorsed state races this year that its local­ly endorsed can­di­dates came to be viewed as poten­tial fron­trun­ners. The Novem­ber elec­tion saw Jabari Brisport win a seat in the New York State Sen­ate (where he joins DSA-endorsee Julia Salazar), while DSA-backed Phara Souf­frant For­rest, Marcela Mitaynes and Zohran Mam­dani were elect­ed to the State Assembly.

DSA’s win­ning strat­e­gy, accord­ing to its Nation­al Elec­toral Committee’s strat­e­gy doc­u­ment, includes devel­op­ing its own can­di­dates and build­ing out a cam­paign infra­struc­ture that is demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly con­trolled by mem­ber­ship. Accord­ing to DSA, this mod­el allows the orga­ni­za­tion to stand up to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment by devel­op­ing its own pow­er base — one that includes data col­lec­tion, fundrais­ing and field­work, with a vol­un­teer can­vass­ing army in the thou­sands. The aim is to have can­di­dates rely on DSA, instead of the cor­po­rate Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine, for cam­paign support. 

As local New York pol­i­tics have moved left in recent years, many can­di­dates now run on pro­gres­sive plat­forms, but only a select few earn access to DSA’s resources. Lean­na Ballester, a DSA orga­niz­er who was involved in can­di­date selec­tion for the 2021 races (and serves as cam­paign man­ag­er for DSA-endorsed City Coun­cil can­di­date Bran­don West), says the process includ­ed in-depth can­di­date inter­views, ques­tion­naires and research on dis­trict demo­graph­ics. After weeks of assess­ment, can­di­dates were select­ed and pre­sent­ed at can­di­date forums and then, in Octo­ber, vot­ed on by the mem­ber­ship at geo­graph­ic branch loca­tions. Final­ly, this demo­c­ra­t­ic process was rat­i­fied by an elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive body known as the City­wide Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee. Out of over 50 indi­vid­u­als who sought the group’s endorse­ment, just six received it. This ​long demo­c­ra­t­ic process gets us to can­di­dates that the mem­ber­ship has bought into and is real­ly excit­ed about,” Ballester says. 

With meet­ings moved to Zoom dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, hun­dreds of mem­bers were able to attend the DSA can­di­date forums. Atten­dees were giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak and to ques­tion poten­tial can­di­dates, with more well-known DSA mem­bers such as for­mer New York guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Cyn­thia Nixon and Women’s March co-chair Lin­da Sar­sour, as well as cur­rent elect­ed office hold­ers, wait­ing their turn to speak along­side rank-and-file members. 

The can­di­dates select­ed from this process run the gamut of left-wing orga­niz­ing in New York City. Like Michael Hollingsworth, Alexa Avilés in Brook­lyn and Adol­fo Abreu in the Bronx have back­grounds in hous­ing jus­tice orga­niz­ing — a high pri­or­i­ty for the slate giv­en the high rents and hous­ing short­age in New York City. Jaslin Kaur, 24, is an orga­niz­er in Queens who has advo­cat­ed against gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in schools. Bran­don West is a cam­paign man­ag­er at the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democ­ra­cy and an orga­niz­er in DSA’s Afroso­cial­ist Cau­cus. Tiffany Cabán, prob­a­bly the most well-known mem­ber of the slate, was a pub­lic defend­er who ran for Queens Dis­trict Attor­ney in 2019 on a decarcer­al plat­form and came with­in a hair’s breadth of victory. 

Can­di­dates from such dif­fer­ent cor­ners of left-wing orga­niz­ing could poten­tial­ly bring large coali­tions togeth­er around their plat­forms. For Jaslin Kaur, this coali­tion devel­op­ment will be a vital part of her work on the Coun­cil if she wins her race in East Queens. In her juris­dic­tion, she plans on using her campaign’s ​rela­tion­al orga­niz­ing” — which facil­i­tates out­reach between friends and neigh­bors — to con­tin­ue cam­paign­ing ​beyond just the bal­lot.” In order to build demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism through the City Coun­cil, Kaur says the slate ​will need to expand the elec­torate, build out a DSA mem­ber­ship, and build out social­ism with­in our respec­tive dis­tricts so we can con­tin­ue build­ing this orga­niz­ing mod­el and bring­ing peo­ple into these pol­i­cy issues.”

Bran­don West believes that if the slate is elect­ed to the Coun­cil, this coali­tion devel­op­ment will be key to pur­su­ing its pol­i­cy agen­da. ​I think the social­ist cau­cus can be an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to set the nar­ra­tive of what real change is,” he says. West believes that one of the ways they can accom­plish this is through work­ing with left-wing unions in the city that ​have rank-and-file folks who are push­ing the union lead­er­ship in the direc­tion they should go in, who are tak­ing the polit­i­cal cen­ter of grav­i­ty from where it’s always been.” 

A can­di­date like West, who has both worked in May­or de Blasio’s Office of Man­age­ment and Bud­get and helped orga­nize the June occu­pa­tion of New York City Hall to defund the NYPD, could help bring togeth­er orga­ni­za­tions and com­mu­ni­ty groups that would not oth­er­wise be in the same spaces. A num­ber of the DSA-endorsed can­di­dates boast this mul­ti­plic­i­ty of expe­ri­ences in which they have one foot in gov­er­nance or pro­gres­sive non­prof­its and the oth­er in local grass­roots organizing. 

Bian­ca Cun­ning­ham — a for­mer NYC-DSA Co-Chair who also helped orga­nize the June occu­pa­tion of City Hall — attend­ed Bran­don West’s forum and encour­aged the mem­ber­ship to vote for him because of his DSA bona fides. ​Bran­don is cadre,” she said, describ­ing him as an active orga­niz­er who had been with her on the front lines of the protests.

Sean Reil­ly, a DSA mem­ber and orga­niz­er in Brook­lyn, attend­ed Hollingsworth’s endorse­ment forum and sup­port­ed his can­di­da­cy, impressed with his work with the Crown Heights Ten­ant Union — an orga­ni­za­tion that had helped Reil­ly orga­nize a ten­ant asso­ci­a­tion in his own building. 

One of Hollingsworth’s most vocal sup­port­ers at his forum was DSA-endorsed Assem­bly Mem­ber-elect Phara Souf­frant For­rest. Liv­ing in the same build­ing in Brook­lyn, they helped orga­nize their ten­ant asso­ci­a­tion together. 

As DSA endorsees, the City Coun­cil can­di­dates are expect­ed to work as a team, and to share resources. DSA orga­niz­er and West’s cam­paign man­ag­er Ballester says, ​the strength in num­bers is real­ly impor­tant when you’re work­ing against an estab­lish­ment that has a lot of mon­ey and a lot of pow­er. From an emo­tion­al and men­tal state, it’s impor­tant not only for the can­di­dates but for every­body doing the work for them. Also, we don’t have to rein­vent the wheel because some­body had already done it and can share.”

With Covid-19 cas­es con­tin­u­ing to rise, team orga­niz­ing is becom­ing espe­cial­ly impor­tant as cam­paigns have few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for door-knock­ing and in-per­son cam­paign­ing. Souf­frant For­rest believes that this cama­raderie was essen­tial to DSA’s pri­ma­ry wins over the sum­mer. She said of her fel­low NYC-DSA slate mem­bers: ​We come out for each oth­er. It’s every­thing you could imag­ine as an incom­ing leg­is­la­tor no one wants to let you know. It’s super help­ful to have at least four brains work­ing togeth­er and that’s what I wish for the City Coun­cil too.”

DSA orga­niz­ers hope that the group’s elec­toral strat­e­gy — com­bin­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic buy-in with a strong infra­struc­ture — stands as an exam­ple of how a social­ist orga­ni­za­tion can devel­op stay­ing pow­er and expand its base in the face of a pow­er­ful Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine. How­ev­er, this empha­sis on elec­toral work is unique among many grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions where, tra­di­tion­al­ly, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing pre­cedes elec­toral vic­to­ries. In New York, DSA reversed this old for­mu­la to gain trac­tion in the dis­tricts where it’s cur­rent­ly build­ing bases of sup­port. As Bran­don West puts it: ​It’s weird that this has been invert­ed, but main­ly it’s because the estab­lish­ment is so incred­i­bly poor at engag­ing peo­ple that DSA had to do the work and then run the table very quickly.”

The endorsed Coun­cil can­di­dates hope to work along­side DSA endorsed state elect­ed offi­cials as well as oth­er left-lean­ing law­mak­ers to achieve goals such as undo­ing aus­ter­i­ty, defund­ing the NYPD and tax­ing the rich. ​When it comes down to poli­cies,” Souf­frant For­rest says, ​we ain’t ask­ing for half of anything.”

Should the NYC-DSA City Coun­cil can­di­dates suc­ceed in their races, the slate will fol­low in the foot­steps of the six DSA-endorsed can­di­dates elect­ed to the Chica­go City Coun­cil in 2019. As in Chica­go, the New York social­ists’ capa­bil­i­ties in office will be a mea­sure of how well they can build bot­tom-up coali­tions that will come out in sup­port of their poli­cies, even in the face of entrenched cor­po­rate pow­er in the city. 

The NYC-DSA can­di­dates are quick to point out they’re under no illu­sion that the struc­tur­al changes they’re propos­ing will trick­le down direct­ly from the state capi­tol in Albany, or from the City Coun­cil. The sol­i­dar­i­ty and cama­raderie built dur­ing the cam­paigns, they say, must extend into the dis­tricts they rep­re­sent to tru­ly shift the bal­ance of pow­er in New York City from the cor­po­rate class to work­ing people. 

For us to have the changes that are nec­es­sary, the tea ket­tle has to be boil­ing, pip­ing hot,” Souf­frant For­rest says. ​Peo­ple have to be out on the streets, and elect­ed offi­cials have to be in ses­sion, scream­ing about it. That’s the only way we’re going to get the things we need.” 

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office. The author is a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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