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New York’s Political Establishment Has Been Blindsided by an Obscure Phenomenon Called Politics

Since the clean sweep victory for the Democratic Socialists of America’s slate of New York legislative candidates, the local political establishment has been in a state of shock. Slowly it’s beginning to dawn on them that there is such a thing as “politics” — and that right now they’re losing at it, badly.

DSA-endorsed candidate Phara Souffrant Forrest wins in the 57th assembly district in Brooklyn.

When the news broke last week that Phara Souffrant Forrest defeated incumbent Walter Mosley in New York’s 57th assembly district primary, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) proudly announced a full sweep. Five DSA-endorsed candidates, all of them open socialists and members of the organization, set their sights on Albany together. And now, having won their primaries in districts that reliably vote Democrat, all five appeared to be headed there.

Souffrant Forrest, a union nurse and tenant organizer, had criticized her opponent for accepting real-estate money. Mosley responded, “I have to engage with [real estate] to demand what we need and what we want.” This exchange demonstrated the divide between the two: Mosley may not be the worst Democrat in Albany, but he also isn’t willing to break with the wealthy interests driving the housing crisis in his home district.

On election night, Souffrant Forrest was trailing Mosley by 588 votes, but as ballot-counting continued she pulled ahead by about 2,500, ousting the eight-year incumbent. After the dust settled, Mosley voiced fear about what Souffrant Forrest and her fellow democratic socialists might get up to in Albany. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with him published earlier this week:

Mosley expressed concern that the group of newly elected DSA-aligned lawmakers will not just try to push their agenda in Albany, but also influence other statewide lawmakers and future candidates to take their side to advance their political careers. “You know, a lot of it is about self-preservation, about how I can keep my feet,” he explained. “You have members who are currently sitting in the Assembly, who have befriended DSA and their affiliates that you have to concern yourself with their allegiance and their priorities. If you’re a younger person who’s in the legislature, maybe your alignment is with DSA because you know they’re going to be around, potentially, for a very long time.”

Elsewhere in the article, which was published in Jewish Insider and primarily focused on the defeat of a strong ally of Israel (Souffrant Forrest supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement along with the rest of DSA), Mosley blamed his loss on “outside forces, coupled with the exorbitant number of people who are first time and ideologically-driven voters.”

Mosley’s comments seem to confirm many DSA members’ feeling that Democratic lawmakers are asleep at the wheel. For one thing, convincing lawmakers who don’t necessarily already agree with you that you and your allies are powerful enough to be taken seriously, and doing so in order to advance an agenda that you came into office with the express and stated intention of realizing, is Politics 101. That is, unless you prefer to glide frictionlessly through collegial patronage networks, guided more by the prospect of prestigious committee appointments than the positive political vision on which you were elected.

Likewise, standing very clearly for one set of interests in society over a competing set of interests  — in Souffrant Forrest’s case, chiefly tenants over landlords and real-estate developers, but more broadly the working class over the capitalist class — tends to introduce an ideological dimension to an electoral contest and thus increase the engagement of “ideologically-driven voters.” It can even have the effect of activating people who don’t normally believe politics can have any impact on their lives, who may then end up becoming “first time voters.” These are some of the building blocks of grassroots politics.

Finally, Mosley’s reference to “outside forces” is illustrative of many Democratic lawmakers’ limited political imagination. We can guess that “outside forces” here refers to the fact that DSA is a national membership organization. Very few of these exist in our donor- and coveted-endorser-driven political landscape, so perhaps Democratic lawmakers can be forgiven for not quite knowing what they’re looking at. However, they can’t be forgiven for implying that support from a national grassroots political organization is a form of carpetbagging, as Mosley endorser and New York City Council majority leader Laurie Cumbo recently suggested.

National connections are not by themselves evidence of a nefarious conspiracy. Instead they’re often a sign, wherever they occur along the political spectrum, of a well-defined political movement that resonates beyond local issues and geographical boundaries. Of course, if you have strong and coherent political commitments, it makes sense to proactively find others who share them and exercise collective power for maximum efficacy. If you’re successful, this will naturally lead you to make common cause with those who live elsewhere and who cheer you on, or even financially support you, from a distance. (That said, the vast majority of Souffrant Forrest’s financial support came from New York.)

To his credit, Mosley was one of the 67 cosponsors of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which includes a raft of exceptionally strong tenant protections in New York state passed last summer. Souffrant Forrest was in Albany in June of 2019 too — as a protestor who was arrested while participating in the statewide tenants’ movement’s actions outside the capitol.

That vignette should give you a good indication of the different political outlooks of Mosley and Souffrant Forrest, and of your typical Democratic lawmaker and DSA-elected official. But if any doubt still remains, Mosley’s bafflement at the concept of “ideologically-driven voting” ought to clear things up.