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The Socialist Movement’s Strength Is Growing in America’s Most Diverse County

Since 2016, under the influence of Bernie Sanders and NYC-DSA, the socialist base in Queens, New York has transformed from an eclectic mixture of progressive voters into a multiracial movement of the working class.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraces Tiffany Cabán, who won her primary for city council this summer, at a Bernie Sanders event in Queens, New York, 2019. (Preston Ehrler / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

By the end of election night, Zohran Mamdani led Aravella Simotas by 589 votes in last year’s Democratic primary to represent Astoria, Queens, in the New York State Assembly. Nearly eight thousand votes had already been tabulated from the early and in-person returns, but an equal number of mail-in ballots were still outstanding. Simotas would need to win them by about 8 points to hang on to the seat she’d held for close to a decade. Team Zohran was cautiously optimistic that such a turnaround was unlikely, but they’d been burned by absentee ballots before. And when the vote count finally resumed a month later, it seemed like it was happening all over again.

The proceedings kicked off with two precincts that Simotas won 69 to 31 percent on election night, netting her 65 votes. After the mail-in ballots were tallied, she’d won them 74 to 26 percent and netted a whopping 221 votes. As each ballot was opened, Team Zohran observers recorded the result in a Google sheet so those working from home could follow along, their despair mounting with every new cell populated. Their Slack channel, normally bustling with good cheer, fell silent with grief. As the numbers grew more dire, Zohran posted the music video for “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” by Fall Out Boy, a grim reminder that not only were they losers, they were geriatric millennials to boot.

But this self-pity was premature. The two precincts the count had started with were wholly composed of the Queensview apartment complex, a sprawling network of co-op buildings packed with prosperous homeowners and pro-machine sympathies. The remaining ballots weren’t nearly as hostile, and Zohran prevailed in the end by a margin of 424 votes. One year later, Queensview again expressed its displeasure with Astoria’s political transformation when it voted against Tiffany Cabán by 25 points in her campaign for the overlapping city council seat.

So perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that Bernie Sanders won 46 percent of the vote here against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and came within sixty votes of a majority.

Consider also the case of Astoria Heights, another enclave of conservative sensibility in the heart of New York’s socialist movement. Thirty minutes by foot from the nearest subway station, it’s the last corner of the neighborhood relatively untouched by gentrification. Its streets are lined with single-family homes featuring American and Italian flags flying at full staff right on the front lawn, and signs in the windows reading “Macedonia is Greece.” Simotas took 70 percent of the vote here too. Earlier this year, John Ciafone — a city council candidate who ran on a promise to “stop radical communism” — won several Astoria Heights precincts in the first round of ranked-choice voting. In the final round, it formed the largest cluster of resistance to Cabán.

Yet, in 2016, Sanders ran basically even with Clinton in Astoria Heights, performing even better there than he did in Queensview. Stop radical communism indeed!

All this illustrates a painful truth that the Left has been grappling with in the post-Sanders era: much of his support in 2016 was driven by animus toward Clinton rather than belief in his agenda. Precincts like these were canaries in the shuttered coal mine of the Clinton campaign, a sign of just how toxic she was among culturally conservative whites. Given the challenges left-wing candidates have also faced in winning favor with voters of color, the prospect of a radical movement of the multiracial working class has at times seemed quite remote.

But the Left has reason to take heart. In the five years since the Sanders campaign, New York’s socialist movement has seen impressive gains among voters of color that have built on the Bernie legacy. Back in July, I documented this phenomenon at work among working-class black voters in central Brooklyn. Now let’s take a look at how the political revolution is faring in Queens.

Queens After Sanders

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sanders earned just 38 percent of the vote in the world’s borough, and failed to win a majority in any of its major ethnic enclaves. Clinton crushed him three to one in majority-black precincts, and two to one in those dominated by Hispanics and Asians. Clinton even edged out Sanders in whiter neighborhoods, highlighting his struggle to appeal to urban voters regardless of race or identity.

Nevertheless, his campaign did succeed in laying the groundwork for future victories in the form of the people he inspired to take up the fight. In 2018, a Sanders alumna named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to run for Congress against Queens machine boss Joe Crowley in New York’s Fourteenth Congressional District. And not only did she defeat Crowley in precincts with white, Hispanic, and Asian majorities, she improved dramatically on Sanders’s margins in those neighborhoods as well.

Two caveats are worth mentioning. First, AOC failed to meaningfully improve on Sanders’s performance in heavily black precincts, where she earned less than a third of the vote. Her margin also fell off in precincts that were more than 75 percent Hispanic. Though this was still an exceptional performance, it underscores the difficulties faced by socialist candidates in cultivating a base in more segregated neighborhoods, particularly those with large numbers of non-English-speaking residents.

Second, turnout for midterm primaries in New York is always notoriously low, and 2018 was no exception. Sanders won greater raw vote totals in all of NY-14’s ethnic enclaves than AOC did, suggesting that mobilizing progressives, rather than persuading skeptics, was the essential element of her victory. But that’s always the case with midterm elections, and a dynamic that benefits insurgents of every variety. Building the infrastructure necessary to turn out your base in the off years isn’t cheating, it’s good politics — a lesson Joe Crowley would have done well to remember.

The Cabán Campaign

But was the Left really building that infrastructure, or was AOC’s victory merely a demographic fluke, as her critics asserted? The answer came a year later during the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, when public defender Tiffany Cabán came within fifty votes of victory on a platform of radical decarceration.

Boroughwide, Cabán’s coalition was considerably more diverse than Sanders’s was in 2016; she outperformed his vote share in majority-Hispanic and majority-Asian precincts even while competing against a larger field. More impressively, Cabán improved on AOC’s vote share in NY-14 across all categories of majority-minority precincts, including a double-digit surge in the district’s Asian areas.

But most impressively of all, Cabán rallied a blockbuster turnout in NY-14 that in some places eclipsed AOC’s raw vote totals from the year before, a striking development in an off-year election for local office. More people voted for Cabán in the district’s majority-white and majority-Asian precincts than had voted in the midterm, and turnout was almost even in black and Hispanic areas too. This was made possible not only by AOC’s endorsement but by many of the same organizers who helped her defeat Crowley in 2018 occupying key roles on Team Cabán.

By 2019, the New York left was already cultivating a reliable base of support for radical politics, as well as building a bench of campaign talent who would go on to score further victories for the socialist movement in the years to come. In fact, one of them was about to run for office himself.

Zohran Mamdani was one of Democratic Socialist of America’s (DSA) top organizers on the Cabán campaign. The month after it ended, he launched a bid for state assembly in Astoria, eventually defeating the incumbent assemblywoman, Aravella Simotas, in a squeaker. Though the district is more diverse than many realize, there are no precincts where any non-white racial group constitutes a majority. While this makes it difficult to get a sense of how different communities voted, we can still glean some insights by zooming out.

The race was remarkably uniform throughout the district, but it’s clear that Zohran did better in more diverse precincts while Simotas did best in those that are mostly white. These are the least gentrified parts of the neighborhood in Astoria Heights and the east Ditmars area, where Simotas has lived her entire life and where the Greek community is most densely concentrated. This pattern is a reversal from 2016, when Sanders did best in the whitest precincts and slightly worse in more diverse ones.

Also notable is the fact that Zohran underperformed Sanders’s 2016 margin in the district, not to mention the 40- and 60-point landslides that AOC and Cabán notched there in their own races. This is because none of those campaigns were vigorously contested in Astoria. Crowley had no real field organization, and Katz beat a strategic retreat to southeast Queens to focus on turning out her base. By contrast, Simotas spent over $500,000 fighting tooth and nail for every vote. She was aided by the fact that New York’s NGO mafia mostly stayed neutral in the race, disciplined by the sticks and carrots brandished by assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

That Team Zohran still prevailed under these circumstances is a testament to the strength of DSA’s field operation and Astoria’s highly ideological voters. It also benefited from the fruits of prior organizing. Tiffany Cabán was one of the few prominent progressives to endorse Zohran, and generously worked with his team to produce digital content, print literature, and earned media that went a long way toward persuading skeptical voters in her home district.

Cabán would later go on to score a commanding 25 point victory in the overlapping city council seat earlier this year. Significantly, Cabán won prevailed in places where she’d struggled during her district attorney campaign, including Astoria Houses, the only heavily black segment of the district. Back in June, I reported on Cabán’s performance there, the significance of socialist candidates building support among black New Yorkers, and what it means that voters who backed Eric Adams in the mayoral primary chose a prison abolitionist to represent them on the city council.

But for the Left’s most impressive achievement among voters of color in Queens to date, we must turn to the candidate who came up just short overall.

The Kaur Campaign

Jaslin Kaur, a twenty-four-year-old socialist organizer from Glen Oaks, ran for city council in east Queens against Linda Lee, a nonprofit executive and establishment ally. Few in the press took Kaur seriously due to the perceived hostility of the district: older than average, a high share of homeowners, and no presence of progressive gentrifiers. But the machine understood that, for all these reasons, her victory would be a powerful rebuke to the narrative that socialism holds no appeal in the borough’s more suburban and conservative eastern half. It threw its full weight behind Lee and called in a six-figure assist from the billionaire real estate tycoon Stephen Ross, who bankrolled a defamatory independent expenditure.

Ultimately, Kaur notched 46 percent of the vote, a remarkable showing given the opposition her campaign attracted from the ruling class. Just as remarkable was the coalition she assembled. Bernie Sanders and Tiffany Cabán both earned just one-third of the vote in the CD-23 precincts that are less than 20 percent white. Kaur earned 52 percent to Lee’s 48 percent. In precincts that are less than 10 percent white, Kaur’s margin increased to 59 to 41 percent, a stunning performance among voters of color for a first-time socialist candidate.

Sadly, this movement of the multiracial working class was defeated by a coalition of the multiracial owning class. Though Kaur scored big in the South Asian precincts below Union Turnpike, Lee scored bigger in the East Asian ones above it. Kaur also suffered considerable bleed in her base areas through ranked-choice voting in a way that Lee did not. Throughout the campaign, two other South Asian candidates — older men incensed that a twenty-four-year-old woman refused to defer to their imagined authority — conducted a spiteful whisper campaign against Kaur and encouraged their voters to leave her off their ballots altogether. Finally, though there are only eight majority-white precincts in the district, Lee netted a whopping 518 votes out of them, a full 40 percent of her winning margin. These Glen Oaks whites hit different.

Still, considering where the Left was at five years ago in east Queens, there are much worse problems to have.