- Interview by
- Ben Beckett
The race to represent New York’s 15th District — encompassing the South Bronx — has become increasingly crowded, with multiple current and former city council members and state legislators vying for the Democratic nomination. Within this field, the campaign of Samelys López stands out. A community organizer from the Bronx and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), López’s campaign received New York City DSA’s endorsement in December. A cofounder of the collective Bronx Progressives, which endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, López has since received the endorsement of AOC’s new Courage to Change PAC.
To learn more about the campaign and the issues at the heart of it, Jacobin spoke with Samelys López.
The district you are running to represent is one of the poorest in the nation. What are conditions like for people in New York’s 15th district?
It’s very poor, there is a lot of worker exploitation. We are in the midst of a gentrification and displacement crisis, and people are in fear of being priced out of their community. There is a lack of childcare and job opportunities, and there is a growing opioid crisis. We also face a lot of environmental racism. At the same time, we have a very strong environmental justice community that has weathered all storms, and we look to them for inspiration.
We need to realize the 15th district is not just the poorest, but also the most resilient community in the entire country, and I credit it with saving our family. We moved there when I was ten. Before that we were in an unstable situation, moved around a lot. But the Bronx really represented a second opportunity at life and gave us a stable home. We need to honor that legacy and the revolutionary history that the South Bronx has always had. I am standing on the shoulders of a movement that has always been here in the Bronx.
I’m so grateful we ended up getting the DSA endorsement because if there’s any community that embodies who DSA is fighting for, it’s the South Bronx.
You can’t discount people because they haven’t read Marxist theory, and they may not yet speak the language of socialism. Their personal experiences are the embodiment of working-class struggle, and that informs how they navigate the world and the things they need to fight for. We need to elevate and highlight those experiences.
Tell us about your story and how you decided to run for Congress.
I am a daughter of the struggle, born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. My mom was from the Dominican Republic. I came to the South Bronx when I was two years old. My mother worked in sweatshops in the Bronx, twelve- to thirteen-hour days as a seamstress. She made two or three dollars an hour. She didn’t always have enough money for a babysitter, and I would do my homework at the sweatshop. So that was my early reality growing up in New York City. It exposed me to inequality and the need to organize and be involved in social justice and to center working-class struggle and the labor movement.
Unfortunately, my mom ended up in a bad situation with my stepdad and became a domestic violence survivor. We ended up in a homeless shelter system in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and my brother was born in the shelter system. Seeing my mom as an immigrant trying to make it, being exploited physically, verbally, and in terms of her labor, facing the indignities of the welfare system — all of this grounded me in working-class struggle in a deep way. When we talk about these things, we need to center the most affected people.
When you go through that situation as a child, you think everything you go through is normal. But when I got to college, I realized it wasn’t normal, and it was not our fault and that we had to do something about it. It’s hard to imagine things can be different until you experience something different. That told me we needed to work on leveling the playing field.
In college I worked in Congressman [José E.] Serrano’s office, helping people secure housing when they were facing a housing crisis. But I would see many of the same people come back six months later and wonder if we were really doing enough to help.
Later, after the 2016 primary, I cofounded Bronx Progressives to continue organizing with Bernie Sanders organizers in the Bronx and to create real grassroots political power independent of the Bronx Democratic Party establishment.
In my opinion, the role of a representative is to continue to look at the labor movement and to our community movements, workers who are being exploited, and to stand for them.
It’s a very crowded field. What would you say makes your campaign different from the others, especially the various self-described progressives running in the primary?
One of the things people have been saying at the doors is they feel I am connected to their struggle, that I understand what they are going through. So my personal story is something viable in and of itself because people connect to it. People want to see somebody who has gone through what they’ve gone through. This is what we’ve been told time and again: “She understands what I’m going through because she’s been through that struggle. She knows what it feels like to be oppressed, to not have enough food, to not have a good education for my children.”
My brother has asthma because of the way highways have cut up our neighborhoods, and the way that trucks go through our neighborhood. People understand that. It’s someone like me who can be a partner and have the humility to center their stories, somebody who has the ability of using politics to build community across racial and ethnic lines. The representative this district deserves is someone who’s going to talk to everybody and make sure that everybody is connected to this campaign.
There are a lot of people in the Bronx establishment who want to say, “this is a Black district,” or “this is a Puerto Rican district,” or “this is an ‘x’ district.” Instead of using race as a divide-and-conquer tactic, we need to highlight our diversity and figure out what we have in common — which is poverty, worker exploitation, white supremacy. These are all things that unite us and that we need to be fighting against collectively. People understand that and gravitate toward it. They feel we’re speaking to them in a way that none of these campaigns can speak to them.
The establishment has used the community for their own political gain, and people see that. They want someone who is going to be a servant-leader in the role, someone refusing corporate PAC money. They appreciate that I prioritize movement-building above all else. If you are raising money from private companies, from bosses, real estate developers, from anyone that is opposed to the struggle of workers, you don’t need to be in office.
No one else in this race has taken that perspective. There are a lot of people in this race who have pushed for rezoning in Washington Heights and East Harlem, and I’ve never wavered. I was against that. I was against the Jerome Avenue rezoning. I was against the FreshDirect warehouse coming to the South Bronx while the political establishment was for those things.
Do you agree with Bernie Sanders that the United States needs a “political revolution”? What do you think that would look like?
Absolutely. I think it means building a multiracial working-class coalition that centers the lives of the oppressed, the marginalized, the working class, immigrants, undocumented sisters and brothers. One of the things I really love about Bernie Sanders is the way he stands with the immigrant community.
That coalition is what a political revolution means to me. There are extreme divisions between classes. The top 1 percent is reaping all the benefits, but it’s the working class that creates the wealth in this country, wealth that they cannot get access to.
In our door-knocking, people overwhelmingly love Bernie Sanders, and they feel he’s fighting for them. In 2016 it was a different conversation because he wasn’t as well known, but now people really say, “Listen, I’m going to support you because you are supporting Bernie Sanders.” People are really taken with his message and feel that he is a transformative candidate who is going to fight for the working class and immigrants and our undocumented brothers and sisters.
The kind of political revolution that Bernie Sanders is talking about is what we need. We need the working class and the marginalized to rise up and organize for what we need. Without us, the 1 percent would not have what they have, and we need to rectify that imbalance.
Over the course of his campaign, Bernie Sanders has talked a lot about how real change comes from the bottom up. How do you view your campaign building working-class power in the Bronx, along with or beyond electing you to office?
I take leadership and guidance from the movement. It’s our responsibility to continuously be connected to grassroots organizers and frontline communities on the ground. It’s absolutely key for us to be working together and continue to talk to each other. If I were to get elected, that’s how I would govern. I would have town halls, visioning sessions. I would be intentional about reaching out to communities and workers who haven’t had a seat at the table.
Really, all campaigns should be movement-led. And really, the elected official should be accountable to that movement. People in the Bronx have sometimes forgotten that they are the ones who have power, and the elected official is supposed to channel that power. It has become a situation where the community works for the elected official, not the other way around. That needs to change.
Let’s turn to housing, an issue I know is very important to you. Can you describe your vision for housing in New York City and in the United States?
I think it is critical that we have a homes guarantee, national rent control, and that we target speculative land practices that have preyed on our communities and raised rents. We need to take the profit motive out of housing.
In the richest country in the world there should not have been people like me who grew up in the shelter system. There are children who have only ever known the shelter system. At the same time, not everybody even gets access to it. The system definitely made a difference in my life, but we need to demand more and be bolder in our vision.
That is why we need to push for a homes guarantee and build twelve million units of social housing in this country in the next decade to combat the homeless crisis. Ilhan Omar has already introduced the Homes for All Act, which is the policy version of the homes guarantee. We need to decommodify housing and have it as a human right.
The other very important thing about the homes guarantee is it was really directly impacted by people who came together to fight for an ambitious plan. We need to continue to center people closest to the crisis in shaping housing policy. In addition to building new housing, the homes guarantee says we need a form of reparations that addresses those racist redlining policies that this country enacted by law.
What is your approach to the labor movement? What can a member of Congress do to reduce the boss’s control and make the economy and the workplace more democratic? How do you plan to earn the support of organized labor?
First, I fully support the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. We need to expand the ability for workers to unionize. We need to support card check because it makes it easier for people to unionize. We need sectoral bargaining and to create standards collectively across industries. We need to repeal “right to work.” And we need to support our undocumented brothers and sisters. We’re seeing that workers are being targeted and deported when they organize.
What I would like to focus on in the labor movement is empowering the rank and file to mobilize and hold leadership accountable, because at the end of the day it’s the rank and file that sustain the labor movement. They need to be able to set the terms of how the labor movement approaches politics. We need to empower the rank and file and politically activate the rank and file.
And one thing I want to say is that in terms of the rank and file of the unions and what they go through, DSA and the rank and file have a lot in common in terms of values, and we need to work together and build worker solidarity with each other.
DSA has a lot of respect for the labor movement. There’s a misconception in the labor movement that there is a disconnect between what they’re doing and what DSA is doing, and I think that is being used by bosses to divide us and keep us weaker. The rank and file of the major unions in NYC and DSA members who are working in the labor committee have so much in common, and I’m very excited to draw experiences from both and learn and try to bring people together. There are a lot of rank-and-file members from these major unions who are DSA members, too, and I’m really excited to see what they can do. It’s the rank and file that live in the communities we’re fighting for. We need to develop more accountability, and we need to develop class independence.
So I’m focusing on the rank-and-file members of every major union. In endorsement interviews I’ve attended, I’ve said: “I appreciate you for creating a space for our movement for being in this room. Regardless of what you decide to do, we’re going to keep talking about labor and the working-class movement. Because our message is a just message that people gravitate towards.”
In my work helping to take out the Independent Democratic Congress, some of the people we fought for to be in the state legislature were able and willing to be led by the housing activist movement on the ground. It was the community organizers on the ground that fought for those tenant rent protections that passed, and the elected officials essentially amplified their message. That’s the model we need to create not only in this district and in NYC, but beyond.