- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Over shots of homeless city residents and shiny skyscrapers, Fielder narrates, “Our state senator is the most real-estate-backed politician in California.” Fielder is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and she is endorsed by both local and national bodies of DSA. Like many DSA-backed campaigns, hers features a strong focus on economic equality and an unsparing critique of her Democratic Party primary opponent Scott Wiener.
“I’m taking on a politician, who’s chosen to put his backers in the real estate and charter school lobbies above his working-class constituents here in District 11,” Fielder adds. “Here’s what I’m about: homes that are affordable to us all, housing the homeless, making our public education system the greatest in the country, and fighting the climate crisis. 2020 is the year we take back our district, our state, and our country from corporate interests and put working people first.”
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Fielder about her history of political activism, the financial contrast in her State Senate race, and why California is ripe for what she calls “a workers’ revolution to take on entrenched special interests.”
Your path to democratic socialism runs through the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Why did you get involved in that fight, and how did it shape your politics?
I have indigenous relatives at Standing Rock who were battling the Dakota Access Pipeline, which crosses our treaty territories. I went there to join their fight. When I was there, I saw how the North Dakota government was pushed to enlist the help of multiple levels of law enforcement to intimidate, harass, and abuse unarmed water protectors who were standing up against the pipeline.
When I came back to San Francisco, I became interested in making the connection between capital and police violence. Our communities face intense repression from the state because it is profitable. Whether upholding the prison industrial complex or protecting the intrusion of fossil fuel corporations onto indigenous lands, this all serves capital. And so I decided to follow the money. And that’s how I became an organizer for the San Francisco Public Bank Coalition.
In fact, you cofounded the San Francisco Public Bank Coalition, and that battle has been waged successfully so far, as I understand it. What is the rationale for public banking?
Here in San Francisco, our budget is about $12 billion. But we don’t use all of that $12 billion in one day. We need somewhere to put it. And right now, we entrust it to about several dozen different big-name banks, like Bank of America, Citibank, and Royal Bank of Canada. What we want to do with our own public bank for the City of San Francisco is take that money out, keep it in our own public institution, and invest in things that we need, such as affordable housing and renewable energy. I think people get confused about financing versus funding. It’s not free money. It’s the money that is continuously circulated through our local economy. But it’s basically a public option for finance.
You’ve been involved in a number of other recent local political initiatives as well, such as the “No on H” campaign, which put you in touch with San Francisco DSA. What was that campaign?
When I was an undergrad and after college, I was inspired by Black Lives Matter to become a police accountability activist. At that time, I was looking at police policies from the local level to the state level, and the flows of money from police unions to political candidates. Because I had some experience in this realm, I was recruited by the local DSA chapter to co-manage the chapter’s campaign against a dangerous use-of-force policy put onto the ballot by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
We were outspent five to one, and yet we defeated the measure by more than 60 percent. This was in early 2018, so it was one of DSA’s first wins. We also campaigned for another measure around universal right-to-counsel for anyone facing eviction, and we won that, too. And that was the start of my involvement with DSA.
Now, with this new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, we’re seeing one of my biggest dreams from that era come true, which is the divorcing of law enforcement unions from more progressive candidates. Earlier in the month, I challenged my opponent, Scott Wiener, to donate the more than $70,000 of campaign contributions that he’s received from law enforcement unions. And he surprisingly conceded somewhat. He’s had a whole career of siding with the police union, even supporting that measure back in 2018 alongside the local Republican party. He ended up donating about a third of what he has received from police unions since 2016.
Of course, I had pledged from the start of my campaign to not accept that funding. And I’m certainly not the first. Dean Preston, our democratic-socialist superviser, made that pledge a long time ago. And he is now at the helm of eviction defense and a lot of other important measures that have kept our city afloat through this difficult time.
Your opponent has given back some of his police union funding, but I assume he’s funded by other conservative forces. What are the finances of your race?
I announced my candidacy in late November 2019, going up against someone who has had one term in the State Senate but has had a fifteen-year political career. When I announced, he had $1.3 million in the bank.
From the start, I pledged to not accept contributions from fossil fuel industries, real estate developers, charter school advocates, and law enforcement unions. These groups would never support me anyway, but just wanting to make clear that I wouldn’t do it. In California, it’s uncommon for someone to swear off these funds in a State Senate race, because the maximum contribution limit for this race is high — $4,700. Many candidates perceive it as a real risk to swear off that money. And that’s how we, in my view, have the lack of political will in California politics to take on these various industries.
In any case, we crossed a really big milestone on July 1, passing the $350,000 threshold. It’s been a stretch to get to, because we are all grassroots-funded. My opponent has all the connections and friends, from being the establishment candidate that he is, to get people to contribute the maximum of $4,700, and then get their whole family to do the same if they’re millionaires and billionaires and the elite of the city. His average donation, up to the most recent filing deadline, was somewhere around a thousand dollars. Whereas I’m asking people for $25, and often less than that.
He is the most real-estate-funded politician in the California legislature. And I’m really proud that our biggest contributors are workers, students, and even people who are giving us cuts of their unemployment checks.
Bernie Sanders was unsuccessful in seeking the Democratic Party nomination, but he managed to breathe life into the organized left and galvanize a new generation of socialist and progressive insurgents. How do you see your race fitting into this broader national trend?
I’m 100 percent inspired by the successes in recent years among democratic socialists. It’s so exciting to see. A lot of these victories are coming from New York, and I’m so thankful and honored to have the support of DSA member and state senator Julia Salazar, as well as our comrade Jabari Brisport, who has an amazing lead in his New York State Senate race.
My hope for the longest time has been for that same wildfire to take hold here on the West coast. And so that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. I am committed to seeing democratic socialists in as many districts as possible here in my home state. Our district has a million residents, and we’re expecting a turnout of about 500,000 people this November. If we win in November, it’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this will be for California politics. This is a race that has the future of California politics hanging in the balance.
California is ripe for a revolution. The state has the highest concentration of billionaires in the country, but we also rival Florida and Louisiana for the highest poverty rate in the nation. In San Francisco, we have places like Hunters Point, where the median income is something like $35,000 a year, and then only half a mile away, the median income can be $120,000 a year. We have 18 million renters out of 40 million people in California, but two or even maybe just one renter in the whole California state legislature. In fact, a lot of our state legislators are landlords. California is truly primed for a workers’ revolution to take on entrenched special interests.
What’s on your policy agenda for Sacramento?
We want a $100 billion California housing emergency fund. We want at least a $20 minimum wage. We want to defend and expand funding for public schools. We want to house the homeless. We want to defund the police and corrections and actually invest in health care, housing, and a Green New Deal for California. And we want to end fracking in the state. You’d be surprised, but Governor Gavin Newsom has approved a number of fracking permits during this coronavirus pandemic when nobody’s paying attention.
In response to the pandemic, we want to cancel rent and potentially cancel mortgages. We’re already seeing stories of landlords harassing and intimidating and locking out tenants who have just lost their jobs, and not a single legislator in the California legislature has proposed any measure for canceling rent or mortgages. All they have is a dubious renter debt scheme. We really need someone in California politics to stand up for the everyday person, for the workers who are feeling really scared for their future right now.
What do you mean when you call yourself a democratic socialist?
Democratic socialism means a society in which housing, health care, and education are regarded as human rights, and people have the ability to actualize their own lives. The government is integral to that. I believe in a state that has the power to remedy the severe wealth inequalities and redistribute wealth and power so that everyone has the same opportunity to live a dignified life. The privatization of basic human necessities that we’ve been pursuing for over two hundred years is not working. It’s time to try something else.