This article is a response to “Socialists Don’t Vote for Cop Budgets” – eds.
Socialists in office fight an uphill battle in hostile terrain. They thread a strenuous needle between upholding their most optimistic socialist principles, while effectively navigating a system that is stacked against them, in order to produce real material gains for working people. Not long ago, we were all but locked out of the halls of power. Today however, our resurgent movement has begun to see the fruit of our project blossom, with the election of over a hundred socialists around the country in recent years.
These few initial victories have unlocked a new battleground, on which we’re still finding our footing. In Los Angeles, DSA has three members elected to City Council. It is one of the most powerful city councils in the country, with just fifteen members for a city of nearly four million. Since the election of Nithya Raman in 2020, followed by the election of Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martínez in 2022, there has been an intense and hopeful scrutiny on these socialist electeds from the left.
Jack Lundquist takes a harshly critical look at two recent votes cast by two of these members, emphasizing a vote to approve a city budget with significant funding for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The article, which is ultimately used to promote a specific proposal at the upcoming DSA National Convention, shows a limited perspective of the work of DSA-LA’s electeds, and cites “sources” including various individuals on Twitter, while the author did not communicate with DSA-LA about our work with our endorsed electeds. Still, it raises questions about electeds’ responsibilities that should be at the forefront of any socialist’s mind, and allows an opportunity to consider the balance between coalition building, socialist independence, and antagonism.
In this article, we’ll argue that socialists must set expectations based on material analysis, not idealized visions of “resolutionary” victory. Elected officials must navigate complex coalitions in order to have influence in government, even after election. There is a time for antagonism as well as negotiation, and our movement is not served by joining in the eagerness of our enemies to punish our own socialist champions.
The Budget and the Vote
To begin, let’s analyze the context of the primary vote for which council members Raman and Soto-Martínez have been called to account. On May 18, 2023, the Los Angeles City Council voted whether to approve the mayor’s proposed city-wide budget. What’s more, the outcome was also predetermined by a united bloc of the other twelve council members who had already committed to approve it. DSA members Nithya Raman and Hugo Soto-Martinez joined in the “ayes” and member Eunisses Hernandez cast the sole “nay.”
Leading up to the vote, our representatives had already done the difficult political work of negotiating a number of budgetary gains. They won huge increases to the budget for providing housing and fighting homelessness, and they successfully allocated an unprecedented amount of funding away from police and toward unarmed response – a significant decrease in the LAPD budget from the mayor’s original proposal. Our DSA-endorsed council members also identified specific strategic fights they could win, like a motion diverting $7.4 million intended for a new LAPD helicopter to be instead used for electric school bus funding, which is currently moving through committees. In fact, while the overall police budget did grow due to contractual obligations for cost-of-living adjustments and pensions, the city’s discretionary spending on LAPD actually decreased for the first time in years. While a budget with a huge share of total funding to LAPD is not anything our city should be proud of, there are reasons to be proud of the work that was done to revise it.
Ultimately, two DSA representatives chose to express overall support, and one chose to withhold it. Regardless of how they voted in this instance, we stand proudly with all three of our DSA members. We did not win every point on this budget, but we engaged in politics.
If the outcome of the vote was beyond the influence of any DSA member, all we’re left to talk about are the optics. Would DSA and the socialist project have benefited if all our members took a symbolic and antagonistic stand here? Or was there something to be gained by a decision to side with the majority for a budget that would pass regardless? Through the rest of this article, we’ll look at the balance of what can be gained and lost from the political approaches of coalition building and negotiation versus antagonistic purity.
The Realities of Coalition Governance
DSA-LA alone did not win office for any of our electeds. All three were elected with the backing of large political coalitions, including progressive nonprofits, community organizations, and organized labor. This was the only option. DSA is not in a position to be the sole driving force behind large elections if we want to win real gains.
This reality doesn’t stop when a socialist takes office. In order to win policies that materially benefit their constituents, socialists form coalitions in office. The alternative is to maintain a hardline approach at all times, demanding concessions from opponents, while making no concessions themselves. Politicians can be petty and vindictive, and it is no small challenge to build power in office as a socialist. But the reality is that socialist minority blocs will never pass legislation unless they win votes from people who do not share their ultimate vision for a transformed society.
Contextualizing Local Criticism
The article criticizing LA’s socialists in office cites Twitter posts from a single account as an example of “the trust lost from activist and working class Los Angelenos.” The referenced Twitter account and some of the folks behind it, an organization reported by the Los Angeles Times to have a total of 12 members, have been hostile to DSA, but their inclusion actually presents a perfect opportunity to look at contrasting approaches to winning power and results.
Differences between members of that group and DSA-LA spilled into public focus in 2020, when one such individual was running for Los Angeles City Council in the same district as Hugo Soto-Martínez. Their candidate’s hardline approach to issues like defunding the LAPD were moral and admirable on the surface, but their antagonistic, posting-led approach did not build any coalition and did not translate into any impact on city politics. The candidate finished last place in the primary, earning just 4.4% of the vote, compared to Hugo’s 40.6%.
Socialists do need agitprop, which the folks behind the aforementioned Twitter account excel at. But we also need to be savvy and distinguish between times when criticism of our own is useful, and times when it is being used to undermine our democratic project. Lundquist seems to share the approach of the Twitter account they quoted. We fear that a DSA following those political instincts would see similar results at the polls and produce no tangible wins for the left.
Weighing the Risks Locally and Nationally
In DSA convention season, most of the focus is on national politics and socialist electeds like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). There are lessons to be learned when comparing the influence of municipal socialist leaders in Los Angeles and national ones like her in Congress.
The biggest difference, perhaps, is the tiny size of the fifteen-person LA City Council. In Los Angeles’s city hall, navigating personalities and personal relationships becomes incredibly important when aiming to construct a bloc capable of passing votes. Interfering with initiatives championed by other council members or the Mayor puts a council member at risk of having their own positive initiatives scuttled. In fact, for decades LA City Council has operated under an assumption and practice that council members don’t interfere with projects or funds specific to another district. This is not a democratic practice, but it does mean that socialist electeds enjoy an almost executive oversight over funding in their own districts. Taking a stand against proposals in other districts could upset this balance and jeopardize their own abilities to serve their constituents. It’s a cost-benefit analysis not taken lightly.
Demanding principled isolationism is complicated even further when we examine the political makeup of the council compared to past years. Many sitting council members, even those who are opponents of DSA’s priorities, are stalwart allies of organized labor, and current Mayor Karen Bass appears open to progressive influence and collaboration. By taking principled isolationist stands at times when there is not a mass, organized base of Angelenos proactively demanding them, we risk harming our ability to win new battles that are near majority support. Our members are not navigating a deadlocked Congress with an unapologetically neoliberal executive, but a government much like that of Brandon Johnson’s in Chicago, where DSA is on the verge of a pro-labor social democratic governing majority.
There is a similarity between local and national dynamics. In attacking some DSA-LA electeds for prioritizing coalitional organizing over justifiable antagonism on specific votes beyond their influence, we see similar tactics to those who go after AOC for actions like normalizing a relationship with Nancy Pelosi. While we all love a firebrand, we’re also able to see that constant antagonism has consequences. An anti-progressive majority has the ability to punish their political enemies, and principled socialists are no exception. In Los Angeles, that type of punishment would have negative consequences not only for our electeds’ constituents, but for all Angelenos.
We’ve already seen an example of this type of punishment locally. From 2020-2022, Nithya Raman (along with non-endorsed DSA member Mike Bonin, until his retirement) often represented the only pro-renter perspective on city council. In the leaked conversations recorded in October 2021 at the offices of the LA Labor Federation, other council members were caught on tape discussing their plans to push Nithya out of office by redistricting her away from the most renter-dense sections of her district. By the time the tapes were released, we had already seen the results of this redistricting.
Our Fighters in Office
Lundquist attempts to demonstrate contrasting examples between DSA-LA’s socialists in office and others around the country, by only focusing on the negative elements of a single vote in LA, while pulling in inspiring quotes and examples from other socialist leaders.
To be clear, our electeds do pick fights for what we believe in. In nearly every council session this year, at least one standalone vote has called to increase LAPD funding through various grants. Council members Soto-Martinez and Hernandez have voted against every single one, sometimes joined by Council member Raman. Prior to council member Raman being elected, the establishment of new “41.18 Zones” – areas of the city where unhoused people can be arrested for sleeping – sailed through unanimously. DSA council members have voted against every single one, and the block of council members opposed to them has gradually grown, such that these votes now typically get 6 No votes. We can debate the merits of one vote, but the overall track record is clear. When called upon (and they are often called upon), Raman, Hernandez, and Soto-Martínez consistently stand up for the working class of Los Angeles, for labor rights, for the undocumented, for the unhoused, and yes, against the brutality and overreach of the LAPD, even if it means being in the minority.
Our three council members have just finished a successful fight for the beginning of a true Sanctuary City Ordinance, which will end any use of city resources or personnel cooperating with federal immigration authorities. This ordinance has been a focus of DSA-LA campaigning since 2017. In Hugo Soto-Martinez’s district, DSA-LA worked hand in hand with the council member to remove a fence around a public park (previously installed as a hostile anti-homelessness measure), and integrate outreach and services. The three show up to picket lines in solidarity with striking workers, and Hugo and Nithya were arrested last month, alongside DSA-LA members, as part of a civil disobedience action in solidarity with hospitality workers.
Even a short time into their tenure, there are many moments from our LA socialists in office that could have fit into the highlight reel perfectly – if one wasn’t just trying to score political points by sharing a one-sided narrative.
Material Conditions, Not Ideal Conditions
As we draw toward a conclusion, we must emphasize that we all as socialists need to base our approach on the material reality of this moment – not an idealized moment. Socialists have taken office in LA as a small minority bloc. But that is not a permanent condition. Our chapter, with the support of DSA members across the country, is pursuing a vision to build a majoritarian movement that can govern on behalf of the working class.
Looking at the material conditions of minority influence and the challenges it presents, we need to confront a crucial question: Does allowing our electeds the freedom to “compromise” in coalition serve to build the movement? Or are we sabotaging our chances at future majority power by forgiving “bad votes?”
In fact, in Los Angeles, we already have a clear example to answer this question. From 2020-2022, when Nithya Raman was the sole endorsed DSA member in office in Los Angeles (walking an even lonelier path then than now), she came under fire more than once from leftists who strongly disagreed with specific votes she cast. Those votes and the ire they drew did not meaningfully undermine our ability to elect more socialists to join her in office. The working class of Los Angeles, and the activists and organizers who are committed to building long term power, have demonstrated an understanding that our socialist vision will not be achieved overnight, and that the path we all tread is a difficult one.
We also know that governance structure and policy making bodies vary dramatically in their function, composition, and purpose around the country. Proposing a highly prescriptive approach to socialists in office that does not factor in varying conditions and structures will not succeed, and undermines the ability of local chapters, who know their organizing conditions best, to work toward tangible goals that align with DSA’s national platform.
Room for Improvement
We are not so arrogant as to think that we cannot do better. We have had some success, but we have not perfected our approach. The fact that our electeds were not able to unify in their vote on the city budget is a tough pill to swallow. In point of fact, on this controversial vote, our chapter did not have a recommendation for our electeds. We did not ask them all to vote a certain way. The situation reinforces our commitment to keep developing our nascent Socialists in Office (SiO) program, as well as the need for a strong national structure to support chapters like ours in building out this work.
Of course, the need to organize is not going to be permanently solved by passing a resolution and expecting our electeds to follow a line. But SiO programs can help. Such a program can allow for clear communication and coordination with electeds and can serve as a model to push DSA legislative priorities forward. Lundquist applauds the coordinated antagonism of NYC-DSA’s electeds on their own recent budget vote, but that coordination happened because of organizing. We’re learning from the experiences of NYC-DSA, and we hope that as DSA devotes more national resources toward this crucial work, others can one day learn from us too.
The vote to approve the city budget was not the only controversial one taken this year. On June 28, council members Hugo Soto-Martínez and Nithya Raman cast a vote in favor of a proposal that would reclassify pandemic-era food aid funding for an LAPD-led gang intervention program in a distant council district. This vote immediately drew attention and anger from many DSA-LA members.
Through the relationships built via SiO, DSA-LA is in consistent communication with our endorsed offices, and was able to express the strong feelings of our membership and collaboratively discuss options to move forward. When the proposal came back up for a vote on August 1, all three of our socialists on the City Council cast their votes against it. That’s the power of organizing – and of not just assuming agreement. We are proud of council member Hernandez for having the integrity to vote no on the proposal the first time around, and of her DSA colleagues for joining the second time.
Socialists who are actually put in positions of power confront conditions almost like a “fog of war.” In moments of decision and conflict, there is reasonable uncertainty about the potential influence of their actions or the plans of their opponents. There are benefits to both coalition-building and to expressing antagonism, and it’s not always clear what the right answer is on any of the dozens of decisions they make on a daily basis. We’ve learned from our electeds that not every choice is as easy to make in the moment as we wish it was. The important thing is to commit to the process of building power together for the long term.
We want to build power for the working class, and we don’t expect it to be a straight line. Our material conditions do not allow us to resolve our way to that power. We’re proud of our socialist electeds, Nithya Raman, Eunisses Hernandez, and Hugo Soto-Martínez, and we will continue to support them through our new Socialists in Office program, as well as organize them when their actions stray from our political line. The socialist project has begun to blossom in LA, and we have our eyes on a long term vision. What we do know is that if we reject our comrades over single votes, we will lose, and the left will surrender its gains.
(This is a personal opinion piece and does not claim to represent the official view of the chapter.)