On July 22, after three nail-biting days of absentee ballot counting at Queens Borough Hall, Zohran Mamdani and his supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief. They were at the end of a months-long campaign for the Democratic nomination for New York’s Thirty-Sixth Assembly District. And the final count showed that Mamdani had beaten twelve-year incumbent Aravella Simotas by 424 votes.
“For the first time in a century, there’s going to be a Socialist caucus in Albany,” said Mamdani, a foreclosure prevention counselor, in an impromptu victory speech.
Mamdani’s win was the last of six victories for the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) in New York’s June primaries — victories which cemented NYC-DSA’s status as a major player in the New York political scene, alongside other progressive groups like the Working Families Party and New York Communities for Change.
As it gains power, DSA has weathered criticism from established liberal politicians. “I am deeply concerned about the future of Brooklyn and this new movement to utilize Black candidates as a trojan horse,” Laurie Cumbo, majority leader of the City Council, wrote in a Facebook post obliquely referring to DSA following the election results.
Howard Graubard, a longtime commentator on New York City politics, likewise questioned whether New York’s democratic socialists actually represent the working-class constituencies they claim to. “Simotas was probably more working class than Mamdani was,” Graubard said in an interview, noting that Mamdani is the son of an academic and a filmmaker.
Despite their qualms, both Graubard and Cumbo recognize NYC-DSA as a force whose power is likely to grow.
The power that it displayed this past summer was four years in the making. DSA membership nationwide has exploded since 2016, with the number of dues paying members growing from 8,000 then to approximately 70,000 today, around 7,000 of whom live in New York.
NYC-DSA first ventured into electoral politics in 2017, with fewer than 5,000 members citywide. It endorsed two candidates for City Council, both of whom were soundly defeated by candidates backed by local party machines. Since then, NYC-DSA, working alongside a coalition of left-leaning organizations such as the Working Families Party, has become capable of rivaling and even defeating those machines, providing a model for how organizations committed to internal democracy and membership engagement can organize effectively and win power.
Earning a DSA Endorsement
DSA endorsements are difficult to obtain. The endorsement process is as convoluted as it is democratic. Candidates seeking endorsement first fill out an extensive questionnaire, with questions ranging from “Are you willing to run publically as a socialist?” to “Do you support eliminating the jaywalking violation?”
The electoral committee of each local branch then meets with the candidates to discuss their responses and votes on whether to recommend any. Recommended candidates meet with the full membership of the branch, which requires its endorsees to win a 60 percent majority. Finally, each branch’s decisions are sent to the Citywide Leadership Committee, an elected body of several dozen members. Upon winning a 60 percent majority vote of the Committee, the candidate is officially NYC-DSA endorsed.
All told, the process is “crazy and democratic and long,” said Leanna Ballester, an electoral organizer with Brooklyn DSA. Ballester says the length and arduousness of the endorsement process ensures volunteers are committed. For NYC-DSA’s endorsements to be effective, Ballester said, “It’s not that [members] have to be generally supportive of a candidate. They have to be enthusiastic, willing to take two to three hours, or in some cases, twenty to thirty hours, out of their week to push it forward.”
So far, the strategy of using the endorsement process to build enthusiasm seems to be working. After endorsing Jabari Brisport for State Assembly, Central Brooklyn DSA rallied over a thousand volunteers to make more than 350,000 phone calls on his behalf, according to the campaign—nearly one call for each resident of the district. They also raised funds from more than 7,000 individual donors, breaking the New York State record for most donors to a state-level campaign.
Even Brisport was surprised by his volunteers’ dedication, he said in an interview. “We had groups of fifteen, twenty, coming out to our weekly canvasses in January, March, to knock doors in the freezing cold,” he said.
Volunteers powered Brisport’s campaign at all levels, from canvassers to top positions. Maddie Zimmerman, who volunteered as communications director, worked a full-time day job as an eviction prevention counselor throughout the campaign.
“When I clocked out of my day job, I started working on the campaign, and often worked until I was ready to go to sleep,” Zimmerman said. “Working in eviction prevention makes you angry enough during the day that at night you have the energy to fight back.”
Volunteers often end up being hired on to paid roles. Brisport’s deputy campaign manager Grace Mausser had been a longtime volunteer with DSA before being hired as full time staff. After joining DSA in August 2018 “to get more politically involved,” her involvement with the group intensified.
“Sometime in the spring of 2019, I looked at my calendar and three nights of the week were DSA meetings,” she said. “My boyfriend, who joined DSA before me, would look at that and say, ‘I’ll go to one of those with you.’”
Mausser became campaign manager for Boris Santos’ DSA-endorsed campaign for State Assembly in September 2019. Santos suspended his campaign in February 2020. “I wallowed in self-pity for a few weeks after Boris dropped out,” Mausser said, “But two weeks into hanging around the apartment, after I had watched both Sex and the City movies and all three Bridget Jones’ diaries movies, I knew that was a low point and I had to get back in.” Mausser started volunteering with Brisport, and was quickly hired as deputy campaign manager.
The pandemic posed obstacles to DSA’s volunteer-based model of campaigning, which has traditionally centered on door-knocking. But phone banking was an effective replacement.
“They clearly have phone banking down,” said Graubard. “I maybe got one call in favor of Tremaine Wright. But the number of calls I got from Jabari’s people was unbelievable.”
Besides looking to volunteers for phone banking and door-knocking, DSA prioritizes skill-building among its volunteer base, training volunteers in technical areas like campaign finance law, graphic design, and data analysis.
“So many electoral campaigns don’t recognize that volunteers can do things on their own,” said Fainan Lakha, Brisport’s campaign manager. “Volunteers designed our mail and ran huge parts of our organizing.” Volunteers also planned canvass launches, scheduled phone banking shifts, designed the campaigns’ web and print materials, translated campaign literature into Spanish, and even produced video ads.
Ross Barkan, a journalist and former State Senate candidate, said that there is no recent parallel to DSA’s volunteer capacity in New York politics: “DSA has really revived youth interest in local politics. I have no memory of there being such youth engagement in the 2010s or 2000s, except perhaps under Obama.” (Disclosure: Barkan sits on New York Focus’ advisory board.)
But Barkan noted that in contrast to the Obama campaign, which was widely criticized for demobilizing its volunteer army after 2008, DSA seeks to keep volunteers active indefinitely. This allows the group to build up an institutional memory and organizing toolbox whose strength and breadth is rare among volunteer-based organizations.
Even with its dedicated volunteer force, DSA’s 2020 electoral efforts represented a new level of ambition. After its 2017 defeats, the group endorsed just two candidates in 2018: Julia Salazar for State Senate and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Congress. After both candidates won, DSA scaled up its mobilization in 2020, endorsing six candidates for state legislature and two congressional candidates.
“For a while there, we really felt like we had bitten off more than we could chew,” said Michael Kinnucan, an organizer with Brooklyn DSA. But DSA’s previous campaigns had built its volunteer base and organizational capacity, and six out of its eight of the endorsed candidates convincingly defeated their opponents.
The DSA Slate
Members say another unconventional tool has been key to DSA’s success: the “electoral slate.”
Once each geographic branch endorsed its chosen candidates, citywide DSA endorsed the combined “slate” of all branch-endorsed candidates. The slate presented all NYC-DSA candidates as running on a shared socialist platform congruent with NYC-DSA priorities. The slate was a public declaration of common purpose between the candidates and NYC-DSA, but it was also a vitally important organizing tool, members say, that enabled collaboration between the campaigns.
Staff from each of the campaigns communicated through a WhatsApp group chat, sharing tactics and technical advice. And the candidates had a group chat of their own, which Brisport described as an important source of comfort and encouragement: “As a slate, we can constantly check in with each other. By the end I was texting them every day, just like, ‘hang in there,’ and we’re still texting every day now.”
Brisport, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2017, says he likely wouldn’t have run in 2020 without the slate.“Running for office is a really lonely, scary thing. It’s really hard on your mental health,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to go through that again.”
Already, the slate candidates are working together to use their newfound status to shape New York politics. On September 26, Phara Souffrant-Forrest, Jabari Brisport, and Marcela Mitaynes held a “Tax the Rich” rally outside Michael Bloomberg’s mansion in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The electeds have also been meeting over Zoom every week with DSA member State Senator Julia Salazar to discuss how they will work collaboratively in the 2021 legislative session to advance the New York Health Act and other DSA priorities.
Fundraising with the Slate
Besides motivating volunteer efforts, the slate was effective as a fundraising tool. In late March 2020, NYC-DSA members founded a Multi-Candidate Committee, a type of PAC that is allowed to coordinate directly with individual campaigns. The committee, which was named DSA For the Many (DSA-FTM), raised over $200,000 in support of its candidates, quadruple its initial goal of $50,000.
The slate enabled fundraising strategies beyond the reach of individual campaigns. Over $60,000 of DSA-FTM’s fundraising total came from a virtual “variety show” hosted by actor Cynthia Nixon, for example, featuring appearances by the candidates as well as drag performances, music, and comedy. Without a combined PAC, individual campaigns and local chapters would have had more trouble securing such a high-profile supporter.
“Someone like Cynthia Nixon might not go to four individual fundraisers for four candidates she doesn’t know about,” Mausser said.
Multi-Candidate Committees, unlike super PACs, are allowed to coordinate directly with the campaigns they fund. The candidates submitted requests for mailers, voter contact efforts, or other campaign costs directly to DSA-FTM, which also purchased expensive phone-banking software for the campaigns. Major expenditures were subject to a vote of a six-person board whose members were appointed by each branch of NYC-DSA.
DSA-FTM distributed funds in part based on campaigns’ needs. It prioritized lower-income districts, where campaigns could raise less money locally. And when Brisport received Bernie Sanders’ endorsement and a subsequent influx of donations, it reallocated funds to other races.
DSA-FTM still has about $30,000 in the bank. New York City’s matching funds program, in which every small donation is matched eight-to-one with public funds, means that the money is less necessary for City Council races. But plans are already being made to use the money to get 2022 state legislative campaigns off the ground, especially important since initial costs can be major obstacles for candidates who are not wealthy and well-connected.
“It’s really critical to have this money to help working-class candidates run, people who have never run before and who don’t have a robust fundraising network,” Mausser said.
Thinking About Accountability
Now that DSA has won a handful of seats, one major concern ahead is accountability. How can the organization ensure that the candidates it elevates to office remain committed to its values and politics?
One proposed solution is to run candidates with deep roots in the organization. The four candidates newly elected this cycle, for example, were all active DSA members before their campaigns.
“The big thing for DSA is electing their own,” said Barkan. “A member is less likely to betray you than a non-member.”
What will determine whether DSA elected officials stay in step with the organization’s agenda, predicted Kinnucan, is whether the group can build support and organize effectively enough outside the legislature to make fighting for its priorities politically viable within the legislature.
“The right thing to be worried about when you send fantastic leftists to the state legislatures is not that they’ll betray you,” Kinnucan said, “but that they’ll be isolated and prevented from doing useful work and will end up making compromises that you disagree with.”
Another challenge for DSA’s future electoral efforts stands out: what if rather than coalescing behind a candidate during the endorsement process, DSA’s membership is divided? It’s a difficult question for a democratically run organization like DSA.
Just north of the city, one DSA chapter has experienced this issue firsthand. In the highly-contested Democratic primary for New York’s Sixteenth Congressional district, both Jamaal Bowman and Andom Ghebreghiorgis sought the endorsement of Lower Hudson Valley DSA (LHV-DSA) in their efforts to oust incumbent Eliot Engel. Both were running on progressive platforms that included DSA priorities. But because the chapter’s membership was divided between the two, neither mustered the requisite 60 percent vote.
“DSA was torn between two candidates,” said Luke Hayes, Bowman’s campaign manager. “If Andom hadn’t been in the race, we would have gotten the endorsement.”
The week after Ghebreghiorgis dropped out of the race on June 1, LHV-DSA endorsed Bowman. But coming barely a fortnight before the election, this did not allow time for major volunteer mobilization. The presence of two candidates who shared DSA’s vision in this case limited LHV-DSA’s ability to exert sway on one of the most hotly contested primaries of the 2020 cycle.
The late endorsement may also limit the degree to which Bowman feels accountable to DSA. Hayes said that Bowman would like to continue to work with DSA, but only as one of “many groups in the district.”
NYC-DSA didn’t have to contend with this situation in 2020. The endorsement processes “were pretty undramatic because everyone was so excited about Jabari, Phara, and Marcela,” Ballester said.
She attributed this excitement to the candidates’ deep roots and political activism in their neighborhoods. The three candidates have lived in the neighborhoods they will be representing in Albany for nearly their entire lives. And their backgrounds are similar to their districts’ constituencies: Mitaynes immigrated from Peru as a child, and Souffrant and Brisport are of Afro-Carribean descent. And the three have pasts as activists for affordable housing, all having been arrested at housing protests within the past five years.
But in the 2021 City Council races, there are multiple districts in which more than one strong candidate — including, in some cases, more than one DSA member — is applying for DSA’s endorsement.
“With increased response from candidates interested in our endorsement, we are navigating different challenges with City Council endorsements that we didn’t have to with state [endorsements],” Ballester said.
Whether DSA has staying power, and whether its electoral strategy will continue to succeed, remains to be seen. But for the moment, DSA has shown that volunteer-based socialism can win big in New York, and has taken its place in the constellation of progressive organizations working to push New York left.
“There’s a huge desire in this political moment to be able to do useful work,” said Kinnucan. “But people don’t know how to do it. Being able to identify those people and give them the opportunity to do something that is meaningful and useful in advancing a political project is an incredible thing to do.”