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Zohran Mamdani’s New York State Assembly Victory Shows What Winning Socialist Campaigns Can Look Like

Zohran Mamdani, a Democratic Socialists of America–backed candidate for New York’s state assembly, has officially won his race. His campaign shows us what a serious socialist electoral bid looks like: class-conscious politics, an uncompromising program, and deep face-to-face organizing. There should be many more like it.

DSA member and housing counselor Zohran Kwame Mamdani in New York. (Photo by Kara McCurdy.)

A swath of electoral upsets in New York City saw the DSA for the Many slate winning a clean sweep of its races, electing four new democratic socialists and reelecting another by a wide margin.

Among the victors is Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a twenty-eight-year-old housing counselor and Queens DSA member, who unseated ten-year state assembly incumbent Aravella Simotas. The race was clear-cut: an unapologetically socialist candidate running on bold demands like housing for all, up against an establishment candidate failing to keep up with one of the most progressive districts in the country.

After years of Simotas taking corporate donations and rubber-stamping austerity budgets from New York governor Andrew Cuomo, Mamdani and groups like the DSA resolved that Astoria would put a stop to politicians, who took money from real estate interests and police unions, running working-class families out of their city with rising rents and over-policing.

Simotas tried to rewrite her tenure in office with a mildly progressive campaign, returning half the police union donations she had received during her time in office, after days of pressure from Mamdani’s campaign. She even called for the defunding of the New York Police Department (NYPD). But it was ten years too late, and it would not have happened without a serious primary challenger emphasizing class struggle.

Mamdani, on the other hand, refused all corporate money, taking in an average donation of $36. He ran on a campaign rooted in solidarity. This campaign won by coalescing a group of working-class Astorians who understood that the only way we can win a better world is if we organize for it.

From Mamdani’s success, we can learn valuable lessons about what it means to have a “class-struggle” electoral approach, how that looks in action, and why socialists should be waging similar campaigns across the country.

1. Drawing a Clear Class Line

Class-struggle elections like Mamdani’s are helping to rewrite the narrative of “electability” and proving that when working-class people come together and fight for common interests, they are more powerful than political consultants and billionaire donors.

Politicians have pursued austerity and tax cuts for the rich with impunity, in part because of the absence of an organized left strong enough to fight back against the corporate greed and blatant neglect facilitated by the ruling class. Accordingly, one of the key tasks of socialist candidates is to draw clear lines for constituents to differentiate moderates and faux-progressives with real champions of the working class.

In the final month of the race, Simotas started to adopt progressive rhetoric similar to the language Mamdani had been using consistently on the campaign trail. But the rhetoric was incongruent with her record in office.

Once the Left began to seriously challenge New York’s Democratic machine with electoral upsets like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and the fight against Amazon in Queens, Simotas pledged not to take any real estate money, but her campaign finance disclosures revealed she had reneged on this promise — because without capitalist donors, the Democratic establishment cannot withstand the pressure of a coherent working-class movement with demands such as universal rent control and an end to mass incarceration.

Millions of workers struggle with the consequences of policies designed to exploit them, implemented by politicians beholden to vested interests. To beat these politicians, a class-struggle candidate must be willing to hammer that message home: to make sure every working-class voter knows just how unfairly their elected leaders have treated them.

Our campaign communications were relentless in contrasting the two candidates’ approaches — namely that Zohran is accountable only to the working-class constituency that drove the campaign. This allowed him to name our enemies: the real estate industry, pharmaceutical companies, and private energy companies. By contrast, Simotas is beholden to the interests of her corporate donors — whose contributions totaled over $230,000 — and therefore could not openly challenge them (even if she wanted to).

Yet, while corruption rots the halls of Albany, simply pointing that out is not enough if we actually want to change our material conditions.

2. Building Multiracial Working-Class Solidarity

Despite all the lip service Democrats pay to racial justice, bettering material conditions for working people of color is not high on their agenda. In New York, Democrats have pursued policies of austerity and displacement, and structured the political system to disenfranchise and disempower their constituents — resulting in some of the lowest voter turnout in the country. For these communities, class-struggle electoral campaigns can offer an avenue into the political process, building solidarity and empowering us as a class.

Astoria is home to a large Arab and South Asian population. Our campaign sent out mailers and other materials in multiple languages, including Bangla and Arabic, that touched on specific issues important to these communities, like bringing halal food into public schools and protecting the rights of immigrant taxi drivers.

This outreach allowed us to bring working-class Muslim and South Asian people, some of whom were participating in electoral politics for the first time, into our campaign. This collective struggle for a better Astoria saw these ordinary neighborhood residents take it upon themselves to do outreach to family, friends, coworkers, and anyone else they knew in the district.

On election day, our campaign organized seven green taxicabs for a “Get Out The Vote” parade, with speakers on the megaphone yelling “Vote for Zohran!” in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Bangla. This display encapsulated the multiracial working-class solidarity that is necessary to wage a successful class-struggle campaign.

The experience of racism, in addition to the material circumstances found in any working-class neighborhood in America, generates sympathy for socialist politics, and running a class-struggle campaign offers an avenue for people to organize around these issues.

3. Non-Electoral Organizing Tactics

The work we did around tenant rights and food distribution was key in building trust and recognition for socialists within the communities that the Democratic Party has long taken for granted. Housing is one of the biggest issues in Astoria, with 24 percent of tenants spending half of their income on rent. Working with the Astoria Tenant Union we were able to connect dozens of constituents with tenant organizers, tenant rights resources, and talk to them about our campaign’s plan around housing for all.

With COVID-19, elections and every other aspect of life dramatically changed —  so the campaign had to adapt. We responded by helping to raise $65,000, separate from the campaign, for mutual aid that paid for over fourteen thousand hot meals (mostly for Iftar during Ramadan) and more than one thousand bags of groceries, feeding over two hundred families.

The campaign office also became home to the Astoria Food Pantry, where anyone was able to come in for a meal, no questions asked. The campaign is continuing its food distribution program, and passed out food at a Defund NYPD action at New York City Hall earlier this month.

Beyond the practical needs that our food distribution program and housing work served, they built trust and excitement around organizing for the election — an important distinction being: we were not simply doing charity; we were building solidarity and organization within our community to ensure that in the future there is no need for charity.

4. Bold, Openly Socialist Platforms

Having a clear, openly socialist message that spoke directly to the material needs of working-class Astorians was vital to our success in this campaign, and important for our long-term goal of building working-class power.

Not only did our platform mobilize DSA volunteers and inspire others to put in the long and hard hours necessary for a grassroots campaign, but it was also consistent with our message about how to build a better world. (i.e., refusing corporate money and not moderating our stance in hopes of winning over more conservative voters.)

Universal demands like single-payer health care and public housing do not need to be hidden from the average voter. These demands speak to the needs we face under capitalism. No matter what district you are in, there is someone who has had to choose between paying for food and rent or medical bills because our current economic system doesn’t guarantee that one’s most basic needs will be met.

The three central tenets of our campaign were: housing, justice, and energy for all. Originally it was: decommodify, decarcerate, and decarbonize, but then we understood the need to use clear and direct language. As socialists, we have an obligation to ensure that campaigns are accessible to all. On the campaign trail, we often had supporters join our campaign because they saw our volunteers chalking a sidewalk or our posters in a storefront. From there we were able to bring them into more explicitly political struggle.

5. Developing Relationships With Constituents

Zohran did a ton of personal voter outreach himself, including in-person conversations (before quarantine) about the issues facing Astorians. This speaks to the need for a candidate with whom people can interact with themselves. Another remark often heard on the campaign was, “I started volunteering after I got a phone call from Zohran personally!” But no single candidate can talk to every individual voter, nor would that be consistent with a class-struggle approach.

If our goal is to organize a strong working-class movement, then our campaigns need to be embedded in the working class. We are not running campaigns to speak on behalf of working people — we are helping to bring them to power.We developed a relational organizing program that facilitated political organizing throughout all of Astoria. It helped supporters connect with people they knew (family, friends, coworkers, etc.) in the district, and encouraged them to vote for Mamdani.

Sometimes this led to a chain of organizing wherein each person contacted spoke to someone they knew, and so on. We developed a web of support that was able to reach a number of voters we otherwise wouldn’t have, since canvassing during the pandemic was not an option.

Our text and phone bank programs — created and run by local volunteers — served as another important medium for voters to connect with volunteers about the campaign. After decades of political neglect, people just want to be heard.

Often the alienation we experience under capitalism makes these conversations awkward to approach, but the only way we will win elections, organize working-class voters, and build power beyond a single campaign is if we have explicit political conversations with everyone we know — and everyone we don’t yet know.

The excitement that brought volunteers out to poll sites at 5:30 AM in the morning speaks to more than Mamdani’s personal charisma and good looks. A clear mandate is forming within the working class of Astoria and across the country: we are tired of the status quo, and not afraid to dump establishment Democrats in favor of candidates who offer alternatives to rent hikes and health care deductibles.

While elections alone are not going to bring about socialism, they have proven to be crucial to the resurgence of the Left. One of the purposes of participating in elections is of course to win office, but maybe even more important is to reach the millions of working-class people whose main or only political engagement is at the ballot box; to bring those people into a struggle that is broader than one candidate or race (i.e., organize them into DSA, labor unions, tenant unions, etc.); raise their expectations of what we can win; and to draw a clear line between us as workers and the capitalists who exploit us.

Nothing short of a mass movement can win the political freedoms and economic gains socialists desire, so we should utilize opportunities like elections to popularize our ideas, elevate other forms of organizing, and clarify our position, which is staunchly on the side of the working class. If we can do this strategically and grow our movement, then we will position ourselves as a uniquely legitimate force for good in the eyes of working people.