How DSA Won — and Lost — in New York City Elections

In this year’s New York City Council elections, the Democratic Socialists of America chapter elected two of its six candidates after the Democratic establishment entered the elections fully prepared to fight the Left. It’s a stark reminder of how hard it will be to take on elite interests and win.

Canvassers in Brooklyn for Alexa Avilés in June 2021. (Photo: Alexa Avilés for City Council)

This year, New York City’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter faced its first real bout of adversity after an astounding post-2016 resurgence. The democratic socialists chose to endorse six candidates for the City Council and only two will end up winning, a setback that’s already causing a bit of schadenfreude among the career Democrats who root against their success.

For socialists, the losses in the 2021 Democratic primaries sting because last year was such a success. In 2020, during the state legislative primaries, all four DSA-backed Democrats won, dethroning incumbents or establishment-backed candidates. DSA’s first state legislator, Julia Salazar, won reelection, and new political stars were minted. A fifth insurgent who ran without DSA’s backing joined their socialist caucus in Albany after winning.

Why did DSA come up short this year? And, more important, does it matter? Critics of DSA — many of them either members of the professional left or centrists who recoil at the idea of socialists taking office — are hoping this portends a coming decline for the organization. But any prolonged losing streak is unlikely. New York City’s chapter, arguably the national flagship, continues to add members and expertise. Many of the young organizers are now seasoned. Next year, with another state legislative cycle in the offering, could very well lead to the election of even more socialists.

But 2021 did not go the way DSA wanted. Part of this can be blamed on the strength of the opposition the group encountered, and part of it can be attributed to choices DSA made: the candidates it recruited and the terrain they chose to compete in.

What sets DSA apart from every other organization that does politics in New York is that DSA does not widely endorse. They did not support any Democrat for mayor. For left nonprofit groups, organized labor, and the Working Families Party, this is a completely alien concept. The ultimate goal of DSA is to build a mass-movement socialist organization, relying on elected officials who will be accountable, fully, to rank-and-file members and the overall socialist agenda.

DSA does not care about sending more politicians with their seal of approval into government if they will behave like conventional Democrats, pivoting to the center and spurning socialist-supported legislation, like statewide single-payer health care, a right to housing, and public ownership of the electric grid. DSA chapters rightfully fret about capacity and only want to support campaigns to which they can lend a full volunteer operation.

Most other groups, while caring about building a greater progressive project, like to project clout — particularly in the media. Claiming victory is extremely important to them. If thirty endorsements are issued and twenty candidates prevail, that’s twenty politicians who can be celebrated in a press release. DSA is volunteer-run and faces no internal pressure to cater to donors or politicians who can secure them funding. Racking up “wins” therefore carries a lot less meaning, since there are no donors who need to be placated.

The slate of six candidates was the largest DSA had ever run in the post-2016 era, when socialists, for the very first time, became a force in New York politics. They were a diverse array of candidates in three different boroughs. One of them, Tiffany Cabán, nearly won the Queens district attorney’s race in 2019. She was an overwhelming favorite for a Queens City Council seat that she went on to win with ease. A second front-runner, Alexa Avilés, breezed to victory in Brooklyn with DSA’s strong support.

The other four candidates faltered in various ways. The strongest of the four campaigns occurred in a stretch of eastern Queens that is suburban in character and not known as any kind of hotbed for leftist politics, let alone socialism. Jaslin Kaur, a young socialist organizer, finished a strong second in a crowded field to Linda Lee, a nonprofit executive running on a more moderate platform.

Kaur faced deep challenges in a district with a large number of middle-class and affluent homeowners. She campaigned hard on a few key issues, like bailing out immigrant taxi drivers, and cannily repackaged the more controversial elements of DSA’s platform, including defunding the police. She stressed reallocating resources to nonviolent responses to mental health issues and homelessness, avoiding the sort of language that could alienate voters who ended up choosing her.

DSA, meanwhile, flooded the area with volunteers, door-knocking in neighborhoods without subway access. The enthusiasm for Kaur was quite genuine. She is a talented candidate who could end up representing the district one day, once Lee is term-limited, or seek another office nearby.

The Kaur campaign, from the get-go, was a well-intentioned long shot. DSA’s support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement likely hampered Kaur’s efforts to reach out to older Jewish voters. In an area with fewer renters, DSA’s traditional embrace of tenant issues would always have less resonance. It can be debated whether it’s worth DSA’s while to pursue the struggle for socialism in eastern Queens, even with its growing immigrant population, but the campaign demonstrated that the future there may be much brighter than one would think.

The next toughest race was on terrain where DSA had succeeded greatly last year. Tenant organizer Michael Hollingsworth faced Crystal Hudson, a former staffer for several elected officials, including the outgoing councilwoman, Laurie Cumbo, in a gentrifying Brooklyn district that includes the neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights. Hudson vs. Hollingsworth was the most pitched battle of the cycle — not just for DSA but maybe anywhere — pitting two young, black candidates against each other in an area where DSA just sent two socialists to Albany.

Hudson narrowly won. She had the strong support of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who suffered a grievous loss last year when DSA defeated a local assemblyman who was his protégé. In a bid to work with Jeffries, a potential successor to Nancy Pelosi, all of organized labor rallied behind Hudson, as well as many elected officials. Jeffries conscripted Maya Wiley, who was regarded as the progressive standard-bearer in the mayoral race, to campaign for Hudson personally. In addition, a super PAC supported by the billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross, Common Sense NYC, spent more than $100,000 against Hollingsworth. The district’s sizable Hasidic vote swung decisively against Hollingsworth, because DSA is critical of Israel.

There is little, truthfully, DSA could have done differently here. Hollingsworth was a formidable candidate in the mold of the socialists DSA recently elected, Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest. Unlike the Democrats DSA defeated a year ago, Hudson was far more capable. Her platform, on issues like education, policing, and even real estate development, did not differ much from Hollingsworth’s. She wisely distanced herself from Cumbo, who is reviled by leftists in the district for supporting a controversial development that did not create enough affordable housing. Combined with the heavy outside spending on her behalf — and against Hollingsworth — she was a force DSA could not overcome.

Hudson’s victory demonstrates one looming challenge for DSA: the Democratic establishment is ready for them. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, once a DSA insurgent, was able to take a lazy Queens party machine by surprise in her race against incumbent Joe Crowley, and other socialists followed suit. After losing a pivotal race in his own backyard a year ago, Jeffries leaned in heavily this time, and DSA had to do far more to combat the combined might of labor, real estate, and outside Democratic politicians.

Ask anyone in DSA, and they will tell you that, for these reasons, the Hollingsworth loss hurts. Jeffries crowed on Twitter after the win: “The most interesting take away from this year’s NYC elections may be the battleground city council races. Streets is watching.”

Jeffries shouldn’t get too comfortable, since his district is still fertile ground for socialists. Where DSA probably erred, though, was investing heavily in a neighboring Brooklyn district where their candidate, Brandon West, could not secure a victory. West ran in one of the city’s wealthiest districts, which ropes in the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Gowanus, and Kensington. Home to tony brownstones and many upwardly mobile progressives, the district is not one DSA needs — the goal is to organize the working class, particularly nonwhites, and not the kind of people who own homes that can sell for $5 million.

West was a fine candidate, but he was outmatched by Shahana Hanif, a former aide to the term-limited councilman, Brad Lander. Hanif ran on a platform largely indistinguishable from West’s and will probably function, once in the Council, as a de facto socialist. Opposing her, given the contours of the district, did not make a great deal of sense.

Beyond Hollingsworth, the toughest loss for DSA was probably in the Bronx, where Adolfo Abreu fell well short of winning. Represented by a term-limited right-wing Democrat, Fernando Cabrera, the district nevertheless handed a victory to another left candidate, an Ivy League–educated urban planner named Pierina Sanchez. Sanchez had the support of Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who has a record of backing winning candidates; the leader of the Bronx Democratic machine, Jamaal Bailey; and several large labor unions. It would behoove DSA to figure out why their candidate lost to another Democrat competing in the left lane of a primary in a working-class district. The billionaire-funded super PAC, Common Sense NYC, did spend almost $60,000 against Abreu, which was probably one factor.

There were other districts where DSA could have chosen to support candidates or back eventual winners. Two gentrifying districts in western Queens, home to many DSA members, were ignored entirely. A young activist named Chi Ossé won in central Brooklyn, where DSA chose to back no one; if Ossé wasn’t an acceptable candidate, DSA could have found someone to run instead and maybe would have won. Finally, the outer-borough, overwhelmingly black working-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens had no DSA candidates this year. If socialists won’t run there, they won’t build power there. For next year and beyond, these communities should be a priority for the nation’s premier socialist organization.