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New York’s Successful Socialist Slate Shows the Left Should Think Big

In New York City, the Democratic Socialists of America ran a five-candidate slate for state office — and won across the board. The campaign’s overwhelming success points to a model of radical electoral organizing in the wake of Bernie Sanders. 

NYC-DSA members campaigning for Marcela Mitaynes in South Brooklyn, New York. Photo: NYC-DSA

Four socialist legislators will join New York State senator Julia Salazar in Albany next year. In June, candidates backed by New York City’s Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), the nation’s largest chapter with over 5,800 dues-paying members, swept races in Brooklyn and Queens, solidifying the organization’s role as one of the most powerful forces in electoral politics in the state. In the midst of a devastating pandemic, a national uprising, and economic recession, 100,000 New York voters cast their ballots for socialist candidates, promising sweeping change.

In this historic moment, socialists have the opportunity — and the imperative — to grow and build the mass movement we need to win the working class’s demands for workers’ rights, universal health care, and a homes guarantee. NYC-DSA illustrates that one way to build such power is by running a socialist slate.

With its strength in numbers, a slate has many advantages. It is a highly visible formation, capable of amplifying its message across several candidates and neighborhoods, and transforming an individual campaign into movement organizing — a particular weakness for establishment Democrats, who struggle to build a volunteer base and connect with everyday people.

This is the story of NYC-DSA, which, fueled by rent law wins in Albany, ran a slate of five state candidates: Jabari Brisport for Senate; Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, and Zohran Mamdani for Assembly, and once again, Julia Salazar for State Senate.

The slate stood for a clear socialist political program: universal health care, a homes guarantee, a Green New Deal for New York, and the decarceration and decriminalization of working people, particularly people of color. This massive redistributive program is now made viable thanks to the success of the slate — powered by the movements — soon to be in the legislature. Going by the name “DSA for the Many,” the slate’s program reflected the politics and priorities of NYC-DSA more broadly, which promotes a shared platform focused on justice for working people.

Running a slate within a mass organization ensured that our goals and demands both predated and outlived the election cycle. It also meant that NYC-DSA could build a caucus before even getting to Albany. A slate lends credibility, flexibility, and durability to socialists’ individual campaigns. The socialist slate became shorthand for both the organization and socialism itself.

Credibility

Even before making the decision to run, the slate’s candidates were deeply embedded in working-class organizing, both within and outside of DSA. Phara Souffrant Forrest, for example, is a union nurse whose entry to socialism was through her work as a tenant organizer. Jabari Brisport is a union public school teacher who came to DSA as an activist in the gay rights and Black Lives Matter movements.

Alone, these candidates are impressive. But with the support of a slate, NYC-DSA, and a coalition of progressive organizations, they stood for a movement — the kind of movement necessary to stand up to New York City’s establishment politicians. Their candidacy, and come January, their office, expands the arena for working-class struggle and grows the socialist movement’s credibility with voters and community members.

Unlike Democratic political clubs or nonprofit organizations, NYC-DSA endorsed in races early, kicking off field operations — the arm of organizing that includes having conversations with people and persuading them to vote — in November for the late-June primary. This gave organizers the time to build a base of support within the districts, and to connect the state races to a national platform: Bernie Sanders was still in the race for president, advocating for the same issues the DSA for the Many slate was fighting for.

As DSA members campaigned nationally for Bernie through an independent expenditure, NYC-DSA connected local issues to the Sanders platform. When knocking on doors in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for example, volunteers talked about both Mitaynes’s and Sanders’s fight for universal rent control. Not only did linking our slate to Bernie grow in-district support and volunteer energy, but the national scope of the Democratic Primary and the scale of Sanders’s second presidential campaign lent credibility to our local socialist movement.

When Bernie dropped out of the race, our volunteers reminded voters that the fight for universal health care wasn’t over — it was sustained through our state elections, and through DSA’s ongoing organizing. Organizing through the slate maintained organizers’ focus on a broader goal of achieving a socialist future, rather than allowing their disappointment to turn to burnout and distrust of electoral politics. By sustaining the connections we had made between his socialist platform and the state candidates’, we carried on the political revolution ignited by the Bernie campaign.

Flexibility

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the slate with daunting obstacles, but it also opened up new possibilities for organizing. Salazar’s 2018 race was won through a massive mobilization of canvassers, and that’s what the campaigns had prepared for. But in early March, the onset of social distancing guidelines put an end to door-knocking.

But thanks to a committed, talented cadre of electoral organizers, the slate’s campaigns were able to quickly adjust to the crisis, drawing upon the technical and organizational expertise of NYC-DSA electoral leadership.

This structure allowed staff and volunteers to not only quickly adjust to phone banking as the primary method of voter contact, but also to shift the campaign’s messaging in response to the COVID-19 crisis. When volunteers connected with voters over the phone, conversations focused on the failures of elected officials to protect the health, safety, and livelihood of New Yorkers during the pandemic, and what an adequate response would look like. As the candidates amplified this message, volunteers connected voters to socialists who were responding to the pandemic by calling for the cancellation of rent, organizing workers in the restaurant industry, and building mutual aid networks.

As legislators prepared to vote on the state budget, our slate of insurgent candidates backed Salazar, who voted “no” to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s austerity measures, and rallied support for NYC-DSA’s People’s Bailout for New York. These budget demands became an organizing focus for both electoral and issue-based campaigns, making clear the significance of electing socialists to the state legislature, where they have the power to tax the rich and redistribute wealth. As DSA pushed for all workers’ rights to unemployment insurance, and essential workers’ rights to personal protective equipment and hazard pay, the slate brought these demands to voters.

Along with NYC-DSA members, the slate took to the streets during the George Floyd uprising. As speakers, they amplified the demand to defund the police, leading marches to the homes of New York City Council members to demand a “no” vote on any budget that did not cut the NYPD’s $6 billion budget in half. The candidates’ solidarity with protestors points to the possibility that movement candidates can become movement legislators; rather than redirecting protesters toward what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has criticized as “more reasonable means,” in-office organizers can use their position to actively support protesters in their fight for justice.

Durability

Throughout the election cycle, the “DSA for the Many” slate made it clear that volunteers and supporters were growing a movement, not just supporting a few candidates. Even when deployed through electoral campaigns, our organizing was not just about winning elections; we are focused on broader goals.

After most election cycles, energy dissipates. Campaigns lose touch with supporters, volunteers are deactivated, and voters resume their daily lives, without the expectation that much will improve. The slate, by contrast, wanted volunteers to gain valuable organizing skills so that they could transition directly from electoral work to issue-based campaigns, like Defund NYPD or Public Power. After the slate’s victories, NYC-DSA membership surged, with new members bringing enthusiasm and militancy to further invigorate projects.

The slate campaigns built a membership and organizational culture, which focused as much on bottom-up organizing as on identifying and developing new leaders, who grow DSA’s capacity to run future electoral campaigns and fight against austerity with the next state budget.

Because each campaign was member-led and embedded in a mass organization, we were able to direct volunteers and resources to where they were most needed. The knowledge and expertise cultivated during these races — including systems for data tracking, volunteer management, and relational organizing — were not only shared among the campaigns, which remained in constant communication throughout the election cycle, but preserved within NYC-DSA.

Establishing the DSA for the Many Multicandidate Committee, a political fundraising tool, also supported our long-term movement goals. Rather than giving money to a single candidate, supporters donated to the slate. Funds raised this cycle will go on to support socialist candidates NYC-DSA endorses in the future.

Winning

DSA’s slate paves the way for independent political power in New York. By running on a shared platform that responded to the changing landscape of people’s lives during the pandemic and protests, these movement candidates differentiated themselves from the establishment. They were a collective of democratic socialists, not true-blue Democrats.

Their victories set a precedent for future elections and also warn establishment (and even progressive) Democrats that New York City is ready for socialism. New Yorkers are not only ready for Julia, Jabari, Phara, Marcela, and Zohran as individuals, but they are ready for the movement these now electeds represent.

The slate’s sweep also suggests possibilities for other cities and counties across the country: while running state races may not yet be feasible or favorable, organizers can create slates that respond to local conditions. East Bay DSA, for example, endorsed slates of candidates for City Council, School Board, and Rent Board. Elections can serve as a way to not only build governmental power, but to train organizers to build movement power.

In New York, voters’ despair over Albany’s twisted politics was met with a movement of reasoned hope. The DSA for the Many candidates couldn’t build a socialist future alone. But with a slate, they don’t have to.