“We Have an Obligation to Ensure That Justice Is Not Defined by the Borders of Our District”
Zohran Mamdani is one of five new democratic socialists that just joined the New York State Legislature. We spoke to him about housing justice, taxing the rich, and why it’s crucial for elected officials to speak out for Palestinian rights, even at the state and local level.
- Interview by
- Hadas Thier
Last month, Zohran Mamdani, a housing counselor, hip-hop artist, and democratic socialist, assumed office as assembly member for New York’s 36th district in Astoria, Queens. Mamdani joined three other new state assembly members and two state senators to form the first socialist caucus in Albany in a century.
In a wide-ranging interview — condensed and lightly edited below — he spoke to Jacobin’s Hadas Thier about what inspired him to run for office, the importance of connecting domestic and foreign policy issues, his legislative priorities, and how to keep elected officials accountable to the movements they come from.
First of all, congratulations on your win. It’s historic to have so many socialists in Albany. And it’s also historic to have become New York City’s first South Asian elected official. Could you start by telling us a little bit about why you became a democratic socialist?
I don’t think that my politics have changed all that much in my life. I can look back and identify the same core values that I have now that I had growing up. But there was definitely a point at which I started to call myself a socialist, and that was Bernie’s 2016 campaign. Because I saw all of these beliefs and these values that I held so dear, espoused by a man who proudly called himself a socialist as a result of those beliefs.
I realized that hemming and hawing around what I identified as, or what all of these values together should be described as, actually hurts our ability to bring those things to fruition, because they don’t just happen to be socialism. The core of the ideology is what we really need to talk about — the fact that it’s not different sectors of our economy that are failing us, it’s capitalism.
What made you decide to run for office?
I started organizing around solidarity for Palestinians. I cofounded my college’s Students for Justice in Palestine. And when you get started in that kind of organizing, you typically have zero to negative ambition to political office in the United States.
Soon after I graduated, I worked a bunch of different jobs, as seemingly everyone my age does. And then I heard about a man named Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian Lutheran minister who was running for city council in Bay Ridge and southern Brooklyn. He was a socialist, he was pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), and he was running for local office. These are all things that I had been told could never exist simultaneously in a person. And their existence was not a cause for fear or anxiety among so many but, in fact, of inspiration.
I ran the paid canvass for that campaign, and that was the beginning of my work within local politics in New York City in a serious way. From there, I became campaign manager for a state senate campaign in the same area, Ross Barkan. I then became a foreclosure prevention counselor at an organization called Chhaya CDC in Jackson Heights. I simultaneously became a DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) point person on the Tiffany Cabán for district attorney campaign.
What led me to make the jump to run myself was sustained involvement in DSA, and then a good friend and fellow member asked me at an electoral meeting to run for this seat. That was the first time I thought about mounting a primary challenge. And here I am.
One of the things that I found exciting about your campaign was that you didn’t shy away from foreign policy issues, particularly around the question of Palestine, which has been a third rail in American politics for so long. What do you think is the connection between domestic and foreign policy? Why is it important for local politicians to take a stand on international issues?
First, I want to mention that the main reason I got excited by and involved with DSA is because DSA is unique in that it does not draw a distinction between Palestine and the rest of the world. Growing up in this country and having lefty politics, you very quickly learn the phrase PEP: “progressive except Palestine.” And then I found this organization that didn’t draw a line in the sand, saying when we talk about justice, it goes up until this point, and everything else is a little too complicated for us. Seeing not only consistency but a desire to make the universality of these values clear in supporting a movement like BDS — that was critical in me feeling like this is actually my political home.
Now, to your question of why it’s important, I think there are a few reasons. One is because what happens in this country does not stay in this country. It’s like the opposite of Vegas. The United States’ domestic policy, specifically with regard to Native Americans and reservations, served as the inspiration for so many other apartheid regimes, whether we’re talking about South Africa or Israel. We have a responsibility in engaging with the consequences of our domestic policy.
Additionally, the federal government funds the Israeli government with billions of dollars every single year. So there’s the additional responsibility that we are directly paying for the policies that happen there.
In the context of local politics, all of these politicians go on paid-for junkets to Israel — anyone with any political ambitions decides to make that trip. There are trips that occur to other countries that are paid for by other groups. But what stands out about these trips to Israel is their regularity and their attendance. And there is great pressure to toe a certain line with regard to Israel as a local politician in New York City and in New York State.
Then you can see the different ways our state works with the Israeli government. For example, there were times when the NYPD would go for training with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and local Israeli police departments. We have the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute on Roosevelt Island, a partnership between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which has helped to develop a lot of the weapons capacities for the IDF.
So there are all these different ways we have an obligation not only to have a view about what’s going on, and to call a spade a spade, but to take action to ensure that justice is not defined by the borders of our district. There is no border to the fight for justice.
To take a step back to the assembly itself, what are your legislative priorities?
I ran on three major issues: housing, justice, and energy. What unites those issues is a belief that every single New Yorker deserves dignity, and we need to fight for legislation that brings that dignity into their lives.
The priority for this legislative session is the fight for revenue to pay for these things. We are in a budget hole for this year and moving forward. We are constantly told that there’s not enough money to pay for even the basic necessities of life. Now, the governor has proposed an executive budget with a range of cuts that are just horrific. We need to not simply be reactive and defensive to this brutal agenda of austerity but to fight for an affirmative vision.
We have a set of six bills known as the Invest in Our New York Act, which, at minimum, would raise $50 billion by taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers. When we talk about the wealthiest New Yorkers, its most expansive definition would be the top 5 percent. But more often than not, within these bills, it would be people who fall in the top 1 percent, or even the top 0.01 percent of income earners in New York State.
Every single day, the guiding light of this legislative session is the fight for revenue. The money is here. It lies within our state. Our state is making a decision not to tax that wealth.
Can you break down what makes the New York tax code so regressive?
The people who face the heaviest tax burden are not the wealthiest New Yorkers, because we basically have a flat system of taxation with regard to income. We have all of these sales taxes, which disproportionately impact working people, because these are the things that people consume. And then we tax capital gains at a different rate.
We don’t have a wealth tax in New York, constitutionally. We do have a property tax, but it mostly impacts middle-class families, whose only source of wealth is their property. If you’re only going to have a property tax, then the wealthier you are, the less your wealth is taxed, because the more money you get, the more you diversify where your money is invested.
Oftentimes, when you say we want to raise taxes on New Yorkers who make more than $300,000 as single filers or $450,000 as joint filers, we’ll hear, “You want to raise taxes on the middle class?” Nobody making $300,000 as an individual is a member of the middle class (which itself is an amorphous concept that is used for political gain). But if $300,000 is the top 5 percent of income earners, there’s no way the word “middle” can be used to apply to that.
What’s so exciting about this fight is that it’s not only a chance to finally reset the terms of engagement about taxation but also to reckon with the history of our state cutting taxes for the wealthiest New Yorkers again and again. And all of the lies that have been peddled as reasons why that has been done. We have a chance to finally poke holes in those false narratives with actual facts.
Housing is an area where we have made some progress, thanks to state senator Julia Salazar and activists and organizations pushing this agenda. What is your sense of the next steps around housing justice?
The first thing we need is for the state to pay the back rent of tenants across New York, to provide relief to small landlords, and to make sure that the burden of this act is not on the tenants, because people are in real danger of being evicted from their homes across the state.
All we have is an eviction moratorium, and it will end at some point, and then it’s going to be an avalanche. We cannot just keep kicking the can down the road — we need to actually deal with this problem at its root. And the root of this problem is that people cannot afford their rents because they have lost their jobs.
In addition to that, it is critical to pass a piece of legislation known as good cause eviction. Julia [Salazar] sponsored this in the Senate. Pam Hunter is the lead sponsor in the Assembly. This bill, if passed, would create the framework for universal rent control across New York State.
We have to deal with a lot of bad faith arguments as to why we cannot pass these bills. So often, we hear about the small landlord, we hear about the black and brown homeowner whose ability to gain equity in these properties would be impacted by legislation like this. I’m excited to be in the Assembly for many reasons, but one of them is that I used to work exclusively with black and brown homeowners across Queens, and in working with them and analyzing this legislation, I understand that this bill would in fact help these small landlords. There’s an exemption that the universal rent control would not apply to one- to three-unit live-in property owners. For all of these people who are renting a unit to pay their mortgage, that’s not who this bill is about. Second, so many of these property owners are being priced out of their neighborhoods because of corporate landlords and because of financial speculators.
Often what capitalism does is disconnect the dots and present false binaries about who your opponent really is. All you get to see is the person closest to you in the rung up the ladder. But in fact, the person profiting from the situation is far above your eyesight. And that is what’s happening in this debate. What we need to do is talk about the reality of it, and who’s been profiting from it, and address it that way.
What role do banks and the real estate industry play in New York in creating a housing crisis?
You have neighborhoods that have been hollowed out, because investors buy properties and flip them. There’s a piece of legislation to implement a flip tax, which would put a 15 percent tax on any property bought and sold within a calendar year (exemptions include people selling to family). You have neighborhoods that are being made into skeletons because properties are just being moved in this kind of way. And there are no actual neighbors moving in. It’s all about a bank balance.
I know people who are being harassed by realtors to sell their homes; they’re being told, “We can offer you money in cash.” There are people who are followed to the grocery store by realtors trying to set up a deal and by developers who want to flip that property.
Then there’s also the fact that you have corporate landlords and predatory equity companies, who will set up arrangements to buy apartment buildings. And the loan that they get from the bank is predicated on their ability to push out the long-term tenants in that building and jack up the rents by getting new tenants to come in. That’s the only way they can make their payment, because the income is not high enough from the existing tenant base. The whole financial arrangement is based on mass displacement.
Last, there are New Yorkers who have worked for decades and have bought a home and are struggling to stay in that home because the cost of homeownership is so high. One of the differences that determines whether they can stay or not is property value. If their property value goes up too high, their property taxes go up too high. There are literally people who are priced out of their own homes, because they can’t afford to keep up with the value of the home. There were homeowners in my district, in western Queens, who did not want Amazon to set up headquarters in Queens because their property values would go up, and then they wouldn’t be able to afford their taxes.
We’re often told that everybody wants property values to go up, because then they can sell it again, or they can get a home equity loan. But for people who are just barely holding on to something, it can be the difference between whether they can stay in their neighborhood or not. So there are all of these different ways the real estate industry not only facilitates displacement but depends on displacement to turn a profit and to remain an industry.
What role has Governor Andrew Cuomo played in the struggle for more progressive policies?
He plays the role of an obstacle. We need people to understand who this man is. If you have any vision for progressive legislation, if you have any vision for New York living up to its promise, it is a vision that will require defeating Andrew Cuomo. And I don’t just mean at the ballot box, I mean, every single legislative fight.
We’re going through his executive budget right now. It’s just heartbreaking to see the cuts that he has proposed, cuts to the most vulnerable New Yorkers. And yet this is a man who has received an Emmy, who wrote a book on leadership during a pandemic when our state has had more than forty thousand people lose their lives. It’s just gobsmacking.
He’s a master communicator, and it’s our job to make it very clear that there’s more to it than what you see on TV.
You and other socialists on the DSA slate ran what have been called “class struggle electoral campaigns,” which seek not just to win office but to build working-class power. What does the transition from a class-struggle campaign to a class-struggle legislator look like?
I think there is an inherent tension. The transition from the campaign to elected office is hard for us, because we did not grow up worshipping elected officials. They were the source of a lot of different emotions. Now to become one is quite surreal. I think the way you bridge the gap between those two things is to ensure that you’re not just accountable to yourself. That’s what separates all the many politicians who have been far more talented and intelligent than me — the organization around them.
You go into that chamber, and the whole way it is set up is for you to bend to power. All of the incentives are for you to bend to power. And what will stop us from doing so is not some individual brilliance or anything about who we are as people. What will stop us from doing so is that we are members of what will soon become the largest socialist organization the United States has ever seen. The power of that organization is in our rank-and-file membership. Our relationship to power is built on a foundation of ordinary, working-class New Yorkers, not of individual political calculations.
In conversations that I have in Albany, I tell people that you and I can have a conversation. But I want you to know that I’m not the president of DSA, where I can call someone and tell them not to do something. This is an organization that is democratic in every way. And I also make it very clear to them that I am exactly who I was when I ran this campaign. I have to stay true to those principles, not only because that’s who I am, but because that’s who put me in office.
It’s important, as we grow stronger as an organization, that we make it very clear that, when we talk about socialism, we’re talking about the extension of democracy past the ballot box. We are in our offices not for the advancement of our political career, but to redistribute whatever capital we can and to continue the political project of the organization.
That’s also why it’s so fantastic that we all endorsed the next round of city council candidates, because we have a fundamental understanding that it doesn’t end with us. There’s that phrase that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” And yes, that’s true. But at the same time, there are far more of us that we’ve been waiting for and that we need to ensure can also come forward. Our project — dignity for all New Yorkers — cannot be successful unless we are fighting at every single juncture, at every single moment, on every single issue, and in every single ballot box.