Democratic Socialism in New York City: Results and Prospects

Reflections from a NYC-DSA member on recent successes and shortcomings, as well as prospects for future growth.

During a chapter wide debrief immediately after the New York State Assembly races this election cycle, a comrade described our electoral project as a small sailboat with a single oar, dependent on the winds to move us in the direction we wish to go. It was an apt metaphor. I have been a DSA member active in the New York City chapter since 2021, and in my time so far I have seen many of our failures analyzed – both rightly and wrongly, as being the result of outside forces. Whether it be low turnout, another progressive candidate, well funded attacks by the establishment, or bad press due to the actions of others. Many of our victories have been due more to the winds blowing in our favor than our own actions. These include events on the national level, a global pandemic, re-redistricting, and inept opponents.

The idea that we would need outside help to improve our chances of winning whatever campaign we’re running at the time is not lost on people. During a meeting of chapter leadership, it was discussed that a strong top of ticket race would increase voter turnout, and thus improve our chances of winning. I believe this logic has merit, as the recent local elections showed that with low voter turnout the campaigns better equipped to get out the vote won, and in most cases that was the incumbent who was usually supported by the establishment. Another idea discussed in many parts of the chapter has been to actively seek and join coalitions both in electoral and legislative campaigns. This too has merit as we are not the only people in New York State fighting to improve the lives of all New Yorkers, and we lack the capacity to tackle every issue with the dedication they require.

My issue with both ideas is that they overlook the potential our chapter has to be a real organizing force in New York and fail to account for the shortcomings in our work. The shortcomings include our inability to share clear and simple messages that allow people to connect with our candidates and issues, our field operations not being vehicles to mobilize voters, and the lack of effective internal communication within the chapter that would best utilize the work done within the individual bodies. This is not to say that we are completely hopeless. Even as we failed to properly learn from our electoral and legislative campaigns since our 2020 sweep, attempts have been and continue to be made to build our organizational muscle to take on bigger fights in the future. These include citywide resolutions that challenge branches to devote capacity to local and base building organizing work, greater calls from rank and file membership to reexamine the role our electeds play in the chapter and movement, and structured attempts to mobilize voters.

In my view, the circumstances that made our electoral sweep in 2020 possible got us into the pattern of relying on the political environment to become more favorable to our needs. In the years leading up to the election the chapter didn’t have much of a presence in local politics. Outside of an inspiring Bernie run in 2016 we only had one elected official, State Senator Julia Salazar, and the chapter was still finding its footing with an explosion in membership and a realigning of priorities that resulted in greater energy devoted to electoral and legislative campaigns. The forces that helped turn this group into one that entertains endorsing gubernatorial campaigns include a Trump administration that had liberals clutching their pearls, an uninspiring Democratic nominee in Joe Biden, and most importantly a global pandemic that kept millions in this country stuck at home without any sort of clue what would come next. The protests that sprung up after the murder of George Floyd also added to the collective fear many people had and made them long for a better alternative to the establishment. DSA was the only group capable of filling that role at the time.

Reflections on Recent Defeats

It was on the heels of this historic sweep that I found my way to DSA, and with little more than a desire to impact how we as a chapter express ourselves to the rest of the state, I was recruited to do communications work for chapter member Brandon West’s campaign for City Council in early 2021. It was my first time ever working on a political campaign, so I thought it best to simply take it all in. But even then I saw problems. Brandon’s credentials were solid. An organizer during Occupy Wall Street and for the New Kings Democrats, he also worked within the city government, making him a strong candidate to bridge the gap between on the ground organizing of our base and the growing electoral work of our chapter. However, the voice of our campaign was limited to field event promotion and rattling off our platform similar to how Elizabeth Warren did it during her presidential run. A bad idea in both instances, the consequences of which were greatest felt in the chapter’s Defund the Police campaign.

The Black Lives Matter and Defund protests dominated the political and cultural discourse in 2020, and became major touchstones in that year’s presidential election. However, a tepid response from Biden during and after the election highlighted a countermovement that in New York resulted in the election of pro-cop Mayor Eric Adams and consistent attacks from the right and center against bail reforms that continued through 2022. With West as the right candidate and folks from our Racial Justice Working Group eager to fight back against the lies and misinformation, we were in a great position to redefine the discourse. Instead the campaign was silent, even after the platform was directly challenged in a debate, leaving us at the mercy of the political winds. Luckily, people learned from this experience and began putting in the work that will benefit future campaigns.

At this year’s citywide convention, where delegates vote on which projects the chapter should devote resources to and amend our constitution, a resolution passed that challenges branches to devote resources to local and base building projects in association with our working groups. In the case of the Racial Justice Working Group, they were already underway in a couple of neighborhoods with regular tabling shifts to speak with people about public safety. The initial purpose of these shifts was to invite people to a social event run with help from one of our electeds where to discuss in depth about the issue, and following it one on one conversations with people interested in working on it along with continued tabling in preparation of organizing meetings. This is certainly a grind of a project, but it is moving in the direction I believe the chapter wants. The only question is whether we will use the spotlight guaranteed by elections to promote this good work.

The chapter also supported the City Council campaign of Mike Hollingsworth in the same cycle. His district included the neighborhood of Crown Heights, which is home to a high concentration of DSA members. Parts of the neighborhood are represented in the State Senate and State Assembly by Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest, respectively, both of whom are DSA members. The district was represented on City Council by Laurie Cumbo, whose policies on housing had her at odds with many of the New York City Left, including Mike, who passionately organized tenants. Mike’s opponent was on Cumbo’s staff. Despite all of these strengths, we lost due to what I believe to be a combination of not taking full advantage of having elected officials who are members and being unable to connect with anyone outside of our base.

There is no doubt that our talking points intend to speak to the working class. However, without an organized working class, in order to win elections we need to speak with people who don’t immediately connect with our message. This was the case in Mike’s district where there is a large Hasidic community. Our stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict made many in the community uneasy, which helped lead that neighborhood to overwhelmingly support our opponent. However, since City Council members do not influence US foreign policy, a diplomatic answer would suffice in order to segue to how our policies help them specifically.

The slogans we use that express our desire to help all New Yorkers isn’t just talk, and the argument can be made for how every issue on our platform can help groups outside of the working class. A good example is the issue of housing, which continues to be a fight throughout the country. If someone is interested in jobs, we can point out how a stable home improves the chances of someone getting and keeping a well paying job. If someone is interested in public safety, we can point out how people in a stable home will put down roots and want to protect those roots. If someone is interested in education, we can point out at least in NY where public services like education are paid by property taxes how people in stable homes and well paying jobs invest more in the local economy. This makes the neighborhoods more enticing to businesses which increase property values. Our policies do in fact help everyone, we just need to show people how.

Part of what makes the New York chapter unique within DSA is the amount of people we’ve gotten elected to public office. It is a testament to the growing popularity of our movement, but it also presents a number of unique challenges around what happens after they get elected. At the time of writing this, there is no clear vision either within our chapter or elsewhere that details a governing strategy. I believe this is a by-product of a system that demands our attention only once or twice a year every 2 – 6 years. However, unlike these seasonal moments it is the work that happens in intervening years that has a direct impact on people’s lives. Whether it is helping constituents navigate a purposely complicated bureaucracy to access the services they are entitled to, educating themselves and others how the laws discussed and voted on impact the lives of their constituents, or working with like minded groups within their districts to improve the lives of all, when we canvas for a candidate or issue we want to show voters what this system is supposed to be and not just what it shouldn’t be.

And while just about every one of our electeds does some kind of constituent services work to help people access the services they are entitled to, there is still work to be done around further organizing in the districts we’ve already won. In late 2021 members of our South Brooklyn branch came together to discuss that very thing. Known as the District Organizing Committee, it set off to highlight the groups doing direct organizing in the district and how both the electeds and the chapter can work with them. Though there has only been one meeting of this group, the work continued through the office of DSA endorsed State Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, who has worked closely with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee to get needed money to undocumented workers who were essential during quarantine and has helped educate public housing tenants how recent laws impact them.

2022 Debrief

2022 was by far the busiest cycle for the chapter with 13 electoral campaigns and a number of legislative ones, and as one of the co-coordinators of the Brooklyn Electoral Working Group I was smack dab in the middle of it working with the communications directors of the campaigns to mobilize volunteers. It also gave me a far wider perspective of our electoral strategy to see an organization that still hasn’t quite figured it out yet.

The Samy Olivares campaign for State Assembly was a unique one among DSA campaigns as they came in having already secured endorsements from several big name progressive candidates and organizations including a top of the ticket candidate for governor. This left wing coalition convinced many of the certainty of a victory. It was sadly not to be, and there are a number of reasons as to why including a shallow door knocking game, an entrenched incumbent, and an underwhelming coalition. I will focus on our canvassing strategy and coalition building.

In the weeks following our 2022 losses, two points that came up repeatedly in both casual and official debriefs were that the number of positive IDs exceeded the number of votes cast and a common response at the door was how people felt those tasked with representing them weren’t doing so, leaving them unwilling to trust that we were different. I believe both points reflect how our canvassing doesn’t go deep enough to mobilize voters. In the case of the positive ID’s, while the system of classifying voters is a logical way to highlight likely voters for recontacting, it suffers a similar downside as the polling done during the 2016 presidential election. Just because someone says they like our platform, doesn’t mean they will actually vote for our candidate. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there wasn’t a good system in place to follow up with voters. The initiative to take detailed written notes isn’t widespread throughout the chapter, and when we do recontact a voter it’s usually a different canvasser who has no information regarding the previous conversation.

As for voters not trusting that we are different from the establishment, the idea of disenfranchised voters is nothing new. A motivating factor for why we run candidates is due to the fact that we feel the working class hasn’t been represented by either party. However, just saying we’re different with a list of good ideas isn’t enough to convince voters who have been promised change with little to show for it. With all this being said, I believe canvassing is an advantage we have over the establishment. They spend millions each election cycle on ads, social media posts, media pundits, and publications to shove talking points down our throat until we accept them as reality. Canvassing provides the human connection the pandemic proved our society needs. It’s only a question of how we make the most of it.

I believe our canvassing needs to be centered around the idea that the first time we talk to someone shouldn’t be the last time, and I don’t mean just knocking on their door five or six times during a campaign. At the first conversation, a concerted effort needs to be made to speak with the voter again. Whether that’s getting their email to share more information about our candidate and platform, inviting them to listen to the candidate or attend a meeting/social event, or scheduling another one on one conversation, we need to empower our canvassers to be more than just mouthpieces for our agenda. The 2022 cycle did see attempts at this in the Sarahana Shrestha campaign in upstate New York and the David Alexis campaign’s “Door to Ballot” drive. In the latter’s campaign select canvassers were encouraged to reconnect with voters about their voting plan in the hopes that the frequent interactions will get them to the polls for David. Though its scope was limited to our Get Out the Vote drive, it was a step in the right direction.

Running Samy who seemingly united the state’s left wing was an opportunity too good to pass up, though I admit at the time I did not vote to endorse them. The reason I didn’t is because I felt they weren’t “our” candidate, which is to say DSA’s candidate. Usually a candidate seeks our endorsement, and then afterwards they – with our help, seek the endorsements of other progressive players. By coming to us after the fact, even though we ran their field operation like we do for nearly every one we endorse, it felt like we weren’t equal partners. This conflict was more apparent in the beginning of the campaign but seemed to have gotten worked out by the end.

As for the other players in the coalition, however impressive their name recognition and war chest, didn’t seem to bring in the votes. Blink and you would have missed Jumaane Williams’ attempt to primary Gov. Kathy Hochul for the democratic nomination. I believe it is because they suffer from the same fault as we do, a superficial relationship with the working class. This is ironic given one of the players was the Working Families Party, but it makes one wonder what roles they and each of the other players had in the coalition. If they weren’t there to secure votes or flip legislators to vote on our bills, then we have to be the ones who do but that means we have to be more active outside of elections.

The Keron Alleyne campaign for State Assembly was another unique one as it was the first time we’ve endorsed someone without running their field operation, instead providing assistance with fundraising and communications. Given our minimal involvement the usual analysis isn’t applicable, but the thing of note was the process that went into giving said endorsement. The usual process involves a very long questionnaire, but one thing missing from it is the topic of capacity. With the amount of campaigns we ran this cycle many comrades brought up capacity concerns, so to address them members of the Brooklyn Electoral Working Group and others drafted a document that explicitly stated what we as an organization were willing and able to provide the campaign. It was the first of its kind and a process I hope continues going forward.

The David Alexis campaign for State Senate was another one I didn’t vote to endorse, because I wasn’t convinced we had a chance to win.  During the endorsement meeting the majority of the speakers in favor of endorsing spoke about how awful the incumbent Democrat Kevin Parker was, which is true. Parker is a 20-year incumbent who spends his time in office taking money from fossil fuel companies to kill meaningful climate change legislation and little to improve the lives of his constituents. I didn’t see a winning campaign message centered around how awful our opponent is, at least not without a communications budget like the establishment has to shove it down all our throats.

My views changed during the course of the campaign, in which we once again endorsed the right candidate, not just because of how bad Parker is but because David was the best alternative. David provided a strong contrast with Kevin Parker – an unpopular incumbent against a challenger who has gone above and beyond to look after his family, his coworkers, and community.

David’s campaign contributed significantly to the formation of a new branch of NYC-DSA in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. During the course of the campaign, dedicated comrades created a neighborhood WhatsApp group that is now well over 100 people strong, organized social events, one of which included David speaking, and helped the campaign mobilize volunteers. DSA members in the neighborhood are still active, and meet regularly to organize around projects such as public outreach via regular tabling shifts and churches the campaign connected with, tenant union organizing with Tenants Union of Flatbush and Flatbush Tenant Coalition, and assisting other priority campaigns such as Tax the Rich 2.0, the Membership Drive and Union Power. The only question I have is how things would’ve been different if this group was already up and running at the start of David’s campaign, having already secured the parts of the district where members live, leaving the campaign to focus on the areas more difficult to reach both physically and politically.

Issue Campaigns

The 2022 cycle saw not only electoral campaigns but also legislative ones, and arguably the biggest one was for the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA). Now in this paper I have consistently criticized the chapter for our inability to assert our agenda into the discourse, but in this instance I was pleasantly surprised to see the Ecosocialist Working Group (EcoSoc) effectively brand most of our insurgent campaigns under the banner of the Green New Deal Slate, and though it did not pass the campaign garnered significant media attention as well as a special session of the State Assembly. A reason why it didn’t pass is the political maneuvering of the establishment to set it up so that the bill could be killed by the one person who was politically safe, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Another reason is that the BPRA felt more like an EcoSoc campaign than a chapter wide NYC-DSA campaign.

Much like the Defund and Brandon West campaigns before it and every other legislative campaign this cycle, the BPRA fell victim to a lack of organizational synergy that has been standard operating procedure within the chapter since I’ve been here. Working groups bring their proposals to membership to vote on making them a priority for the chapter, but none present plans on how to incorporate other parts of the chapter, leaving the sponsors to find the capacity on their own. And in a cycle where we ran 7 insurgent campaigns, 3 competitive incumbent campaigns, and another legislative campaign, the volunteer pool was shallow. Of course a united chapter wouldn’t have necessarily stopped Heastie from killing the bill, but it would’ve meant we had everything at our disposal to help which might’ve made a difference. As we get ready for the 2023 cycle, the chapter has come to a similar conclusion in the form of a new legislative campaign, Tax the Rich 2.0.

In 2021, the chapter led a campaign to tax the uber-wealthy in New York in order to fund the social services all New Yorkers would need to live a fulfilling life. Known as Tax the Rich, its impact was felt on the national level with several national news platforms parroting the talking points. Though we didn’t get everything we wanted, the successes we did get both within the budget and within the chapter convinced many that a second go at it was the right move.

Tax the Rich 2.0 is a more ambitious venture than its predecessor as it not only makes similar demands on taxing the uber wealthy, but also includes areas to spend said revenue. It also directly invites other parts of the chapter to join with the bills it will push for including child care, further tenant protections, public power, and free CUNY/SUNY, the public university systems in New York. On a deeper level, the campaign seeks to push a single message that the organizers around the individual bills can work with. I cannot say how things will play out this time, but I am looking forward to the fight ahead.

The issues I pointed out above go far beyond any individual campaign but the chapter as a whole. The listing of our platform at every turn, not doing more to mobilize voters during and between elections, and the lack of communication within the chapter all negatively impact our ability to push our vision and bring about the changes we seek. Over my nearly two years with the organization I have seen areas for improvement, but I have also interacted with many who not only agree that things need to change but are working to make those changes real. I am honored to call them comrades. The path ahead will be long and arduous, but as long as we keep moving forward we will reach our destination.