NYC-DSA Still Has Plenty of Openings to Seize

After electoral breakthroughs in the 2020 state legislative elections, New York City's Democratic Socialists of America have had a disappointing 2021 so far. But the prospect of more major DSA upsets in the near future keeps getting brighter.

NYC-DSA's city council slate in the 2021 primary elections. (Courtesy NYC-DSA)

For the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) New York City chapter, one of the largest and most influential in the country, it’s easy to view the 2021 legislative cycle as a missed opportunity. Only two out of six city council candidates won their Democratic primaries, while other leftist candidates who went without DSA endorsements triumphed. The new city council next year, facing down a potentially reactionary Eric Adams administration, will be more left-wing than ever, but there will be no large socialist caucus.

DSA’s detractors, though, shouldn’t celebrate too much. Hakeem Jeffries may still be spiking the football over finally defeating a DSA candidate in his backyard, but socialists will be back next year in a spate of legislative primaries, looking to grow their power in Albany. There are currently two state senators and four assembly members who belong to DSA. Already they’ve had a remarkable influence, pushing otherwise moderate Democrats to support leftist legislation while raising the specter of more primary challenges.

These challenges are coming. Within DSA, there is a rather cutthroat but proper understanding of politics — the establishment won’t give you anything unless you force them to. Primaries, even against Democrats who seem acceptable on a host of issues, compel change in a legislative body that was, until a few years ago, overwhelmingly sclerotic. Democrats in Albany do not want to lose their lifetime sinecures in a world without term limits.

Albany, ultimately, is DSA’s priority, because the state legislature and the governor determine so much of what happens in New York City. Tenant protections, tax rates, and the subway system are all controlled by the state, not the city. The greater projects of the Left in New York, like socializing housing and creating a statewide single-payer health care system, will only come when socialists find a way to wield real power in the state legislature.

Socialists aren’t there yet. There are 150 members of the state assembly and more than 100 of them are Democrats. DSA will need, at the bare minimum, a dozen socialists to make significant change there — to wield a bloc that the speaker, a cautious liberal named Carl Heastie, will take seriously. The good news for DSA is that, depending on the decisions they make in the coming months, they can double their count in the assembly from four to eight or even go beyond that.

Cathy Nolan, another cautious liberal, represents a rapidly gentrifying assembly district in Queens where DSA has built power. She has been in office more than thirty years and could be defeated with a vigorous primary challenge. The same holds true for Erik Dilan in a gentrifying swath of eastern Brooklyn; Julia Salazar, one of DSA’s two members in the state senate, easily defeated his father, Martin, in 2018. The newly elected Stefani Zinerman in central Brooklyn is representing an assembly district where Jabari Brisport, the other DSA member in the senate, performed very well in 2020.

In eastern Queens, DSA ran a strong campaign for an open city council seat, nearly electing a young South Asian organizer named Jaslin Kaur. Kaur happens to live in an assembly seat represented by David Weprin, an underwhelming veteran Democrat who just lost a race for city comptroller. Weprin’s district, depending on what the new boundaries look like, could add even more South Asian residents, and Kaur would be a strong challenger if she and DSA have an appetite for another tough but winnable primary.

Where else can DSA go? In 2020, in a race with low turnout, Jenifer Rajkumar, who had run unsuccessfully for office in Manhattan, ousted a very conservative Democrat in a Queens assembly seat that has undergone significant demographic change, becoming Latino and South Asian. Rajkumar herself is, at best, a moderate, a staunch supporter of Andrew Cuomo and Eric Adams. Her roots in the district are thin enough that a socialist with ties to the area could run an effective campaign and probably oust her. And if DSA wants to get ambitious in Upper Manhattan, there are centrist assembly Democrats like Inez Dickens, Al Taylor, and Robert Rodriguez who have rarely, if ever, run in competitive elections. With the right candidate and the right set of circumstances, all are vulnerable.

The state senate may present opportunities too. Kevin Parker, a controversial Brooklyn senator, recently ran for city comptroller and did not come close to winning. His district should be very hospitable to a capable DSA candidate in the mold of Brisport. Brian Kavanagh, a progressive Democrat senator in Brooklyn and Manhattan who has nevertheless frustrated socialist housing activists in his capacity as chairman of the Housing Committee, could have to prepare for a primary in the future.

One truth of these campaigns, not always discussed in the open, is that it can be easier for a leftist candidate to run in a primary against a veteran incumbent than in an open, competitive race against a Democrat with a similar platform. In the 2021 races, DSA encountered this challenge: sometimes, their top rival was another young, charismatic contender who supported many of the goals of democratic socialism. These candidates would not be beholden to DSA and did not come out of the movement, but they nevertheless could present themselves to voters as palatable alternatives. In the future, DSA may have to contend with more candidates like these, who are quick to adapt their talking points.

Long-serving Democrats in Albany can’t credibly do this. For DSA candidates, it’s far easier to draw a contrast with them and point to the ways they’ve failed. Many of these Democrats entered office following noncompetitive elections and aren’t very well known in their districts. Invariably, their campaign coffers are stuffed with real estate and corporate cash. The playbook against them is clear. And DSA will be prepared to run it, repeatedly, in the new year.