In New York, the Socialist Electoral Project Is Strong

Zohran Mamdani

The New York City primaries have been a mess, with delayed results, botched results, and everything in between. But we do know one thing for sure: the question isn’t whether socialists will win any seats, but how many.

Tiffany Cabán and Zohran Mamdani in Astoria, Queens, 2020. (@ZohranKMamdani / Twitter)

Interview by
Hadas Thier

Last week, New Yorkers voted in primaries for the city’s next mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and dozens of city council seats. New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) ran six socialist candidates for the New York City Council. Two of them — Tiffany Cabán and Alexa Avilés — have won, and several other races are still too close to call.

The election was also the first time New York City used ranked-choice voting. With ranked-choice votes and absentee ballots still being counted, the outcome of several elections are up in the air, including a very tight mayoral race between front runners Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, and Maya Wiley. Adding chaos to the anticipation, the NYC Board of Elections, “the last bastion of the old patronage system,” nullified its initial results yesterday because it failed to remove test ballots from the system.

Jacobin’s Hadas Thier spoke with Zohran Mamdani, a state assembly member from Queens and one of six socialist state legislators in Albany, about how to assess the recent elections in New York City and the state of the socialist electoral project.

Hadas Thier

The New York City elections are a mess at the moment. In addition to the complicated political terrain, the impact of ranked-choice voting on the outcomes, and the unknown outcomes of the recent elections, we have a particularly messy waiting game driven by long-standing incompetence within the New York Board of Elections (BOE). What’s behind this mess? And is there anything we can do, in the short term or long term, to address this situation?

Zohran Mamdani

This is a state responsibility, in terms of the way the Board of Elections is constructed, and it’s in dire need of being professionalized. It’s very clear from both the performance and the makeup of the institution that it’s long been a site of patronage politics.

The city has some powers in appointing individuals to the board. But the state has a lot of power in structuring the board. At the city level, there has to be a lot more pressure on city council members regarding who they approve to the board, to make sure that people don’t sail through the appointment process uncontested. For every city council person that is critiquing the performance of the Board of Elections, there should be a similar retrospective analysis as to how they’ve been voting on appointments to that board, and whether they’ve just been rubber-stamping party machinery picks.

At the state level, there’s a serious need to overhaul the way this body is being run. There’s a never-ending list of incompetence and injustice that we have to tackle across the state as legislators. But this has to be one of our priorities. Especially in light of the fact that we’ve switched over to ranked-choice voting, there are many people who are not familiar with this method of democracy. It’s our job to increase familiarity with this process and to increase trust in this process. There are many who have been trying to sow doubt about it. And the mistakes that were made by the BOE only serve to further that agenda.

There’s a lot more at stake than just the BOE’s reputation. When it operates in the way that it does, it adds fuel to the fire for people who say we should not be engaged in our democracy.

Hadas Thier

A narrative has emerged that because the two most likely winners of the mayoral race are Eric Adams or Kathryn Garcia — both opponents of “defund the police” and both pro–charter school and pro-landlord — there’s a mandate for centrist politics.

Particularly in regard to Adams’s base among the city’s black and Latino voters, the narrative is that left politics do not connect with the city’s multiracial working class. This is despite the fact that neither Adams nor Garcia cracked a third of the vote. What’s your take on what the elections do and don’t tell us so far?

Zohran Mamdani

It’s too early to draw a full analysis, because we don’t know who’s won. Even the difference between Garcia and Maya Wiley — which will determine who becomes the finalist against Adams in the final round of the ranked-choice tally — was less than a percentage point. So the whole premise of the argument could be different because we’re waiting for more than a hundred twenty absentee ballots.

Matt Thomas wrote a piece about the “Cabán-Adams” voter. You have people who are voting for both Cabán and Adams, and yet these two candidates present to the media pundits completely opposing ideologies. What that speaks to is that most people don’t just vote for the policies that are being proposed. They’re also voting for people that they know and trust and are familiar with.

Adams is a very interesting politician because he represents many different things to many different people. For many, he is the defender of the police, and yet for a lot of voters who may have been engaged over the last twenty or thirty years, they might know him from his critiques of the police department. So to position him as somebody who is a repudiation of “defund” in every aspect is a misreading of the complexity of his appeal.

The other thing is that you get what you organize for. We did not have a mayoral campaign that premised itself on defund. Maya Wiley supports a billion-dollar cut from the New York City Police Department, but it took a long time for her to get there. And that was not what she built her campaign around. So viewing these results as a final analysis of where New Yorkers lie on the question is not accurate, because it wasn’t the choice that was presented.

I think that if we had an unabashedly leftist campaign that had organized left and liberal together, and it was the flagship campaign for many months, then we’d be able to draw a more accurate analysis of how people feel. In the absence of that, I wouldn’t take the mayoral race as an indicator.

Hadas Thier

Absolutely. The Left saw gains in the City Council. At least a couple socialists won seats (maybe more once final votes are ranked and tallied), along with other progressive and DSA-adjacent city council people, and progressives won the comptroller and public defender positions. And outside of the city, we saw India Walton’s mayoral victory in Buffalo, which makes it hard to make the case that socialist politics doesn’t appeal to the broad working class. What does India’s campaign tell us on the state level?

Zohran Mamdani

India’s campaign, and also Jaslin Kaur’s campaign (for NYC Council, Queens, District 23), are proof that socialism can thrive anywhere. It’s all about the way you make the argument and how well you relate this politics to people’s lives. We do not have a static electorate in which in every election you will have this many people vote left, this many people vote center, and this many people vote right. People respond to what they are presented with.

India made no bones about the fact that she was and is a socialist. Part of why she was so successful is that she did not leave it at that word. She continued to say what this ideology would mean for people’s lives, and how the absence of this ideology has led us to this point.

The crew of six of us socialists in office were the only sitting state electeds who endorsed India. We faced a lot of pushback for that.

India’s victory is so exciting. It really tears up the narrative that progressive politics have a border, and that border is New York City. The story is that when we get upstate, it’s a different world, and we have to understand that and accept that. We’re often told as city legislators, “you just don’t know what my district is like.”

For a socialist to win in Buffalo, it changes the political dynamics of the state representatives. It showcases that tenants’ rights are not a New York City issue; taxing the rich is not a New York City issue. These are the issues of the working class, and the working class live across the entire state.

India’s win is the story. The significance of it is so far-reaching.

In Jaslin’s city council race, we faced so much pushback from political commentators about getting involved in that race, and about how ludicrous it was. But how well she has done [the final outcome is still unknown as of today] shows that there is room for this movement wherever working people are. She ran a campaign that brought people together, who, in different ways had been left behind by our city.

It’s important for DSA members to understand that we don’t always have to go where the statistics tell us is the most likely place to win. There was no data that said that that race was one where we would perform as well as we have. But the whole point, to bastardize the quote, is to change the world.

Hadas Thier

We can’t make any predictions right now. But it seems clear that regardless of who wins the mayoral campaign, we’re going to have a very mixed and complicated political terrain going into next year. Most likely, the next mayor won’t be a friend of the Left. But at the same time, the City Council is shifting to the Left, and progressives, like Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, will be comptroller and public advocate. Are there particular political fights that we should be prepared for on the city or state level?

Zohran Mamdani

I think policing is going to be a major issue. We shouldn’t back away from our belief that a $6 billion police budget is not how you create safety for New Yorkers. We did not actually defund the police last year, so the idea that the Left must own all crime that has occurred since, as if it is a failure of the defund movement, is a fallacy. Crime is continuing despite this immense amount of funding.

Tiffany Cabán, who will be my city councilperson, won 50 percent of the entire vote in Astoria. And on her palm card, one of the three issues was to divest funding from the NYPD and direct it toward things that will actually create social safety. Eric Adams has proposed reforms to the NYPD, but a lot of them are just bringing back failed ideas from the past. We have to be clear about that.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán declares victory in the Queens District Attorney Democratic Primary election, 2019. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

I think the rent guidelines board, and what is recommended as a rent increase, will be another major issue. On the state level we need to pass a “good cause eviction” bill, which would create tenant protections, and take up issues around land use and housing and building. Which New York are we seeking to save, and which New York are we seeking to build?

And we will continue to have this battle around climate, which is a critical issue. We did not pass a single major piece of climate legislation this past year in Albany. That needs to be a real focus.

At the City Council level, we’ve seen that even when there’s money available, the same political choices are being made. And we’re likely going to see that in the municipal budget that will be passed. We are told that we should invest in fear, as opposed to investing in justice.

Hadas Thier

Earlier you said that we get what we organize for. I’ve been thinking lately about how, with the tremendous strides that DSA has made recently in advancing socialism on the electoral level, that it can be easy to forget how new and how early we still are in the process. It could be frustrating to see a mayoral campaign that the Left wasn’t able to have a greater impact on. But we’ve really just begun to see what we’re capable of doing here in New York. What’s your take on the state of the electoral socialist project in New York?

Zohran Mamdani

I think the state of the project is strong. We don’t have all the results yet from all the races that we ran, but we do know that we have at least two victories: Alexa Avilés and Tiffany Cabán. They ran as unabashed socialists, and their victories should be seen as a testament to the power of the project.

A lot of people will count out our project based on any one loss that may occur. But so much of the strength of our movement was built off the back of losses. I had my first victory in the fourth race I was involved in. But it’s premature to even say that given that it’s not a question of if there will be victories, but how many. Then we take those victories and go from there.