“Democratic Socialism Is About Building a Just Society”
Jessica Mason is a Navy veteran and socialist running for Congress in Texas. In an interview with Jacobin, she discusses the importance of unions, her time in the military, and why both parties “demonize democratic socialism because they are scared of it.”
- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run democratic socialists have seen tremendous gains in the electoral terrain at a local, state, and national level. Chicago elected six socialist aldermen in 2019, New York now has elected six socialist representatives in the state legislature, and four US Congress members belong to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Jessica Mason, running in Texas’s thirtieth congressional district, is trying to become the fifth.
Growing up in the Hamilton Village apartments in South Dallas, Mason’s family struggled to keep the lights on and eventually faced eviction, forcing her to move in with distant relatives as she finished school. She says she saw firsthand how economic insecurity leads to instability — including a lack of access to affordable health care, good schooling, and secure housing.
Mason is a Navy veteran, housing activist, and democratic socialist running for congress in one of the bluest districts in the country. She sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss her insurgent campaign in a district that’s been dominated by the establishment.
What inspired you to run for Congress?
I know that my district deserves better. I grew up here experiencing poverty, food and housing insecurity, and the nightmare that is this country’s medical system since the age of seven. My community was set up to fail by design. When you have someone in office that has had the privilege to not have to campaign, to not have to see her neighbor suffer, it builds an enormous gap between our elected officials and the reality that the people in our community are facing. I am running because my story is the story of so many children and people in Texas-30. And that’s the cycle that I’m trying to break.
Tell us a little bit about where your campaign is at right now.
We announced at the end of January and were the first to do so. The incumbent, Eddie Bernice Johnson, is retiring and has already endorsed Texas House representative Jasmine Crockett. Jane Hamilton, who is a former lobbyist and the state lead for the Biden campaign in Texas is also running. I’m going to be the only progressive, the only democratic socialist in this race.
What does being a democratic socialist mean to you?
I am a democratic socialist because of what money hoarded by the 1 percent has done to this country and my community. What we need is an equitable distribution of wealth — where profits are used to support public needs rather than collect in the hands of the few. Democratic socialism is about building a just society, and it’s desperately needed in America to give a greater voice to everyday Americans.
Democratic socialists have been elected across the country over several cycles. Has their success had any impact on you?
Their success shows it can be done. Democratic socialism is no longer taboo. It’s not something that’s going to hold you back from pursuing and winning office anymore.
Of all the DSA members that have run before me, Jamaal Bowman is especially inspiring. He embraced class struggle, and that messaging resonated with people in communities similar to mine. A lot of people might not have even known what democratic socialism is, but his campaign was able to present it in a clear and positive way to his constituents. I’m trying to do the same.
How do these elected democratic socialists in office work into the broader movement?
They are putting the movement on the map. Before Bernie Sanders ran for president, I didn’t even know what democratic socialism was. I just considered myself a Democrat. I didn’t know there were different images of what a Democrat could be.
Since Bernie and others like the Squad have run, democratic socialism has become much more mainstream and DSA has grown exponentially. Having progressives in office also helps legitimize the movement, especially as more legislation and organizing wins come from it.
What does a movement campaign look like in Texas-30?
I come from an organizing background, so the field operation is the bread and butter of the campaign. We are fortunate to have the support of progressive organizations like DSA. As the campaign develops, we’re hoping to form a coalition with other local progressive groups.
So far we’ve knocked on over ten thousand doors. What we’re focused on is turning out voters. We have a population of over 780,000, but in the last cycle, only 264,464 showed up to the polls. The incumbent is complacent. She never knocked doors or got out the vote. We are trying to take advantage of that historic absence. We’re going out to reach out to everybody from Eddie Bernice Johnson voters to progressives to folks who have been disenfranchised in electoral politics.
We have a large Latino population in the district that is relatively unengaged because no one typically goes to talk to them.
How important is it to you to differentiate yourself from the establishment?
It’s really important, because we’ve had an establishment politician in office for the last thirty years. That’s brought us austerity, rising rents, new prisons, less union density, increased poverty levels, and pollution. She has been beholden to corporations. She gets funding from wealthy donors, but when it comes to our community, we’re always left out. I want to make sure that the community knows that it does not have to be this way. This is how establishment politics works — not how Dallas has to work.
On your website you say that your district is “struggling by design.” What do you mean by that?
Special interests reign supreme in politics everywhere, and Dallas is no exception to that. We have had a black representative in Congress since the inception of our district, but that does not automatically mean that she is going to help the black community — or any other community. She’s going to help the people who fund her campaign. She has real estate developers in her pockets that lead to her supporting harmful policies like redlining.
By passing and preserving harmful laws, the establishment has purposefully kept economic opportunity away from underserved communities. For example, over the last year, our mayor helped six major large corporations move into the city of Dallas. That has pushed a lot of working-class people out of the city, with rents skyrocketing. When they say they want to make Dallas an “elite city,” they mean they want to make it a business hub. And when you design it like that, you are disenfranchising so many other people — people who lived here for their whole life, people like my family.
Your father is a Teamster. What did growing up with a parent in a union mean to you?
I started working at the age of sixteen at a nonunion grocery store for minimum wage. I would come home and complain to my dad about my job, and he would always say, “I would never have to deal with that because I have a union.” I quickly realized when you’re in a union, you can be protected from working too many hours, access to better pay and benefits. When you look at it that way, it becomes really clear how important unions are.
Now I’m running with the hopes of getting labor’s endorsement after the incumbent, Eddie Bernice Johnson, lost the Dallas AFL-CIO Central Labor Council endorsement twice for voting for NAFTA and fast-tracking the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. It’s basically unprecedented for labor to not endorse the incumbent Democrat.
How did your experience in the Navy impact your politics, particularly around war and US foreign policy?
A lot of people go into the military as a way to escape poverty, and I was no different. I enlisted as a medic specializing in mental health. I saw war through the eyes of people on the front lines who experienced the negative tolls, mentally and physically, that it takes on you.
While I was in the Navy, I was also getting my bachelor’s degree in pre-law and government. It was there that I took an international relations class and learned more about what the mission of the military is: imperialism. We send working-class kids to war to extract resources from other countries for profit. Even though we say we are intervening for humanitarian reasons, there’s always an economic motivation behind it.
The military uses people with seemingly no other options in life as pawns, and they really don’t care about the mental toll or the loss of life that happens to soldiers. The end goal is to make money for Dick Cheney and everyone else tied up in the military-industrial complex.
What has the effect of the US military been like in your district?
While I was doing mutual aid work for an organization called Dallas Stops Evictions, we did a lot of tenant organizing in low-income areas where a lot of veterans stay. So many veterans live in neglect now, not taken care of and unable to get adequate care from a VA [Veterans Affairs] under threat of privatization. They understand that they risked their lives for wealthy individuals and corporations who will ultimately turn their back on them.
On your website, you talk about charity not being enough. Why is that?
In my experience, working in affordable housing communities and trying to bring in resources was just never enough. I would help someone out one week with rent assistance, and then once they made a couple of payments on their rent assistance, they would fall back behind. These are people with full-time jobs and families just trying to make it. And no matter how many resources nonprofits bring in, no matter how many rent assistance applications I put in for this person, they’re always going to be behind. They’re never going to be able to catch up.
Same thing with the stimulus checks: once people got those, they paid rent and bills. But without adequate pay, you’re never going to catch up. We have a lot of mutual aid organizations in Dallas, a lot of nonprofits, and yet we still have rising poverty levels, incarceration rates, and evictions.
Texas-30 is a deep blue district, but do you think that democratic socialism is viable there?
I do. We have gotten overwhelmingly positive responses at the door when we talk about the universal policies associated with democratic socialism. When I talk about Medicare for all, and I ask: How do you feel about your current health care? People, of course, hate it. When I ask them: Do you feel like everyone should be able to receive free health care? The answer is always yes. When I talk about housing for all, and ask: Do you feel like everyone has a right to a home? Everyone says yes. When I say: Do you think corporations should pay their fair share in taxes? People say yes. So when I talk about the policy, people agree.
The Democratic Party and the Republican Party together have done a good job at trying to demonize democratic socialism because they are scared of it.