On Valentine’s Day, three hundred airport food service workers protested for healthcare and a living wage outside Terminal 8 at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Protesting alongside them were Zohran Kwame Mamdani, Samelys López, and Jabari Brisport, all of whom are running for office in New York. “We were standing in solidarity with the workers,” says López, “but also standing in solidarity with each other.”
López, Mamdani, and Brisport are part of New York City’s Democratic Socialists of America (NYC DSA) electoral slate this year, along with Marcela Mitaynes, Phara Souffrant, and Julia Salazar. Of the six members of the NYC DSA slate, only Brisport and Salazar have run for office before. Salazar was elected in 2018, unseating incumbent Martin Dilan to become a New York State Senator.
“We are dominated by a capitalist system, so it’s very difficult for democratic socialists to find reinforcement in the mainstream political world. It can be very isolating,” says López. Half a dozen socialists running on a joint slate changes that.
Unlike the other five members of the NYC DSA slate, who are all running for seats in the New York state legislature, López is running for New York’s 15th congressional district in the Bronx. She has been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom she hopes to join in the US House of Representatives. But like the others, she’s running on a platform that includes single-payer healthcare, new social housing and tenant protections, pro-union legislation and minimum wage increases, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college and an end to school privatization, and the end of mass incarceration, including of immigrants.
The NYC DSA slate is a way to cultivate a shared political identity and “to show the working-class power we’re starting to amass,” says Marcela Mitaynes, who’s running for New York State Assembly District 51 in Brooklyn. She says that the group identity and teamwork yields a broader reach and higher campaign impact than individual candidates would likely achieve on their own. Members of the slate have traveled to Albany as a part of progressive campaigns together, fundraised together with DSA’s support, and released a joint DSA-made platform video that focuses in particular on their shared housing agenda.
Members of the slate are also in frequent communication during the pandemic over a shared group chat. “We talk every day,” says Julia Salazar, who represents New York State Senate District 18. Salazar says that though she’s an incumbent, she still feels like an isolated insurgent, both because of her socialist politics and because she’s still new to the job. But at least in running for office this time, she feels less isolated now — not just because of the support of members of the slate, but because “people just take DSA more seriously now, whether they’re legislators or organizations that issue endorsements.”
Salazar says the canard that socialism is a subcultural trend for young white hipsters seems to have disappeared in the last two years. It’s harder to make that claim when you look at who’s running for office under the socialist banner now. Every member of the NYC DSA slate is a person of color, and every member is also either an immigrant or a second- or third-generation New Yorker with roots in immigrant communities. Souffrant has family ties to Haiti, Salazar to Colombia, Brisport to Guyana, Mitaynes to Peru, López to Puerto Rico, and Mamdani to India and Uganda.
Jabari Brisport, who’s now running for New York State Senate District 25, ran for City Council in 2017 with DSA’s backing. He agrees with Salazar that running for office as a democratic socialist is far easier today than in the past, and that the slate makes a major difference. “There’s collaboration between socialists running for office that’s never been seen before in New York.”
Socialists on the Move
DSA has over 66,000 members nationwide. It experienced explosive growth in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign in 2016, and another membership bump when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who are DSA members, were elected to Congress in 2018. (Ocasio-Cortez is running for reelection and is endorsed by NYC DSA, and while she did recently appear on a DSA elected officials organizing call, is not considered part of the slate.) Since March of this year, when Bernie Sanders’s second presidential campaign wound down and the coronavirus pandemic ramped up, the organization has added roughly ten thousand new members.
In the years since the organization began to balloon in size, chapters have coordinated a diverse array of non-electoral campaigns and elected dozens of socialists to office all over the country, up and down the ballot. But running groups of DSA-aligned socialists together on slates is a recent development for the organization, a sign of its political maturation and rising ambitions. Chicago elected six DSA-endorsed, openly democratic socialist city council members in 2019. Now in 2020, NYC DSA is trying to achieve a similar outcome in the state legislature.
The emphasis on the statehouse is not accidental. In 2018 Salazar was the only democratic socialist elected to serve in Albany, and she was carried to victory on a broader progressive wave. Those progressives successfully unseated several conservative Democratic state legislators, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who caucused with Republicans. Additionally, the state senate was flipped from Republican to Democrat-controlled, making New York a trifecta blue state, with Democrats controlling both houses of the state legislature and the governorship.
With the IDC successfully defeated and Republicans disempowered in the state senate, electoral activists in DSA see an opening. If the first step was loosening the bipartisan conservative grip on Albany, the next step is electing more socialists to the state legislature.
Central to the insurgency are several homegrown DSA activists. This is another sign of DSA’s political evolution, indicating that the organization has been politically active long enough to have developed political talent and leadership from within its own ranks. People who cut their teeth in the organization, including by working on other DSA-backed candidates’ campaigns, are finally feeling capable and confident enough to run for office themselves.
Zohran Mamdani, who’s running for New York State Assembly District 51 in Queens, went to his first DSA meeting in early 2017. He worked on DSA-backed City Council candidate Khader El-Yateem’s campaign early that year. Then after El-Yateem’s campaign ended, and while Mamdani was working as a foreclosure prevention housing counselor, he started attending DSA meetings and became a member of the organizing committee of the Queens DSA electoral working group.
Mamdani went on to help coordinate DSA’s organizing on behalf of Tiffany Cabán’s race for District Attorney before deciding to run for office himself. “You can go in and make trouble and have an incredible impact like Julia Salazar has done in her two years in office,” he says. “But if we want to change the nature of politics in New York State wholesale, it will require bringing in a lot more DSA members.”
“DSA is my political home,” says Jabari Brisport, who like Mamdani joined DSA during the short period of massive membership growth that followed Trump’s victory. Salazar also calls DSA her “political home” and says she feels a significant sense of accountability to the organization. Salazar joined a few months before Brisport, in the window between Bernie Sanders’ primary loss and Trump’s victory. All three — Mamdani, Salazar, and Brisport — attend DSA meetings and follow chapter and national developments. Brisport was an elected delegate to the DSA national convention in Atlanta in 2019.
Two of the other members of the slate, Phara Souffrant and Marcela Mitaynes, came into contact with DSA through housing organizing over the last two years. Souffrant is a union nurse and tenant organizer running for New York State Assembly District 57 in Brooklyn. “I heard of DSA in the Bedford Armory fight,” she says, a “luxury development that is the pinnacle of gentrification happening in Brooklyn.” Souffrant first became aware of the organization when DSA members participated in anti-gentrification protests organized by the Crown Heights Tenants Union.
A few months later, Souffrant was arrested alongside DSA members for engaging in civil disobedience at a pro-tenant protest. That arrest prompted her to join the organization. “I’m part of the crew anyways,” she remembers thinking, “so I might as well officially join.” When she finally became a member, she says, “I already knew people in DSA. It just felt very natural.”
Marcela Mitaynes immigrated from Peru to Sunset Park in Brooklyn when she was five. She lived in a multigenerational apartment which she calls a “mini Ellis Island,” a place where family members from out of the country landed and got on their feet before branching out on their own. In 2006, the building got a new landlord, and within six months, half of the tenants had been displaced.
Eventually Mitaynes and her family were also evicted from the apartment they’d occupied for over thirty years — but in the meantime, Mitaynes had become a tenant organizer. Through tenant organizing, like Souffrant, Mitaynes met and began collaborating with DSA members. “We started working together because they got involved in the tenants movement and participated in the campaign that won us the historic rent laws,” she says.
Mitaynes is referring to the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, landmark legislation that meaningfully strengthened tenant protections for the first time in decades. Julia Salazar was fighting for those laws in Albany while DSA members were joining in coalition efforts and organizing for them in New York City.
Samelys López started building a relationship with DSA after announcing her run for Congress, a move encouraged by other progressive community activists. But while her campaign is powered and supported by a broad coalition, she says there are DSA members in her kitchen cabinet and that their guidance has been invaluable, as has the support of the broader NYC DSA chapter.
López shares DSA’s outlook, she says, “that the workers that create the world need to get more out of it. We need to balance things out between the 1 percent and the 99 percent in a radical and significant way.” Echoing the words of Bernie Sanders, she calls for a “political revolution.”
DSA issued endorsements prior to 2016, though few were paying attention. Since the organization’s revival, it has continued to endorse politically aligned candidates, many of whom share the organization’s short-term agenda but have weak ties to the group itself. DSA members have spoken for years about the need to cultivate and back elected officials who not only have a working relationship with the organization but actually identify with it — who feel accountable to and responsible for DSA and its tens of thousands of members. The NYC DSA slate seems to indicate the organization is making progress on that vision.
“People Over Profits Is on The Table”
López says that getting people in her district to understand the meaning of socialism is not as hard as you might think. Working-class people are quick to understand that socialism is about “recognizing that workers create the wealth of this country, stopping workers from being exploited, and standing against corporate greed.” Even those who don’t care one way or the other about socialism versus capitalism in the abstract, she says, “understand that we need to fight for housing, healthcare, and childcare as human rights, and that we need to invest in our public institutions and spaces that bring about a sense of collective and community spirit.”
Souffrant agrees that there is a new openness to the fundamentals of democratic socialism among people in her district — a district where forty percent of tenants are already rent-burdened, and that was before the cataclysmic economic contraction that has occurred as a result of the coronavirus crisis. “Putting people over profits is on the table,” she says. “Now it’s all about building the working class.”
But the current crisis presents some major obstacles to that project. The coronavirus pandemic has turned New York City completely upside down. Businesses are shuttered, and people who aren’t working in essential industries are staying indoors. Brisport says this poses a problem for everybody running for office, but especially to the NYC DSA slate, because “the strength of DSA is our incredible field operation.”
Pre-crisis, Brisport’s campaign had marshaled over three hundred volunteers to knock twenty-five thousand doors, “an order of magnitude more than any other campaign” in his race. Now in-person organizing is completely impossible, and all campaigning is remote: digital fundraising, virtual phonebank gatherings, targeted social media messaging. NYC DSA has spent years learning how to out-canvass the competition to make up for lack of wealthy donor money. Now a whole new set of skills is needed, and quick.
Nobody can yet say how the coronavirus crisis will affect the results of the primary campaign. On the one hand, it could strengthen the appetite for substantial social change among working-class New Yorkers, who are watching the contagion and economic devastation sweep through their own communities while the wealthy can afford to insulate themselves from the disaster, battening down the hatches in luxurious condos or simply absconding to the Hamptons. On the other hand, it will be more difficult than ever for candidates to reach potential voters in their moment of outrage and convince them that meaningful transformation is possible though collective political action.
Whatever the outcome, the experience of the NYC DSA slate so far offers a blueprint for how democratic socialist groupings can function in the future, especially when conditions are more favorable. All of the candidates affirmed that the DSA slate felt like more than the sum of its parts, that it has improved their campaign prospects and maximized their political impact, as well as helped cement the broader impression that democratic socialism is desirable and credible.
López recalls the rally marking the 1,000th day of the longest ongoing strike in the United States, New York City’s Spectrum workers’ strike. It was a chilly day in December, but DSA slate was there the strikers, just as they were at the Valentine’s Day airport protest. “That’s what democratic socialism is about, and that’s what the slate is about,” says López. “Standing with the workers all the time.”