After Years of Advances, New York’s DSA Faces Electoral Headwinds

A series of New York State primaries this June featuring Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed candidates will be a testing ground for the strength of socialist politics in a new, embattled era for progressives.

Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest during a press conference announcing the signing of the Less is More Act, September 17, 2021. (New York State Assembly)

New York continues to be a hotbed for socialist organizing, even as the national tide turns against Democrats and daunting wedge issues, like rising crime, emerge for the broader left. New York City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is running a slate of five insurgent candidates and backing the reelection of incumbents who first won in 2018 and 2020. North of the city, in the Hudson Valley, another DSA-backed challenger has a strong chance to knock off a Democratic assemblyman who has held office for more than twenty years.

Even with DSA’s growing volunteer base and fundraising clout, this election could present serious challenges for the socialist organization. Since exploding in popularity in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, DSA has become a significant force in New York politics, drawing the ire of power brokers who had traditionally determined the direction of most Democratic primaries. Each election cycle has brought new victories, as well as opportunities for DSA’s opponents to begin fighting, in earnest, against socialist power. Incumbent Democrats and their allies in the real estate industry and organized labor — the unions that reflexively support Democrats in power — no longer sleepwalk into campaigns against DSA. Slothful, Joe Crowley–like targets are harder to find.

Morphing from a marginal discussion group of aging leftists into a youth-driven electoral powerhouse in the span of five years is a remarkable achievement. In addition to helping to send Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman to Congress, DSA boasts two state senators, four state assembly members, and two New York City Council members. The DSA members in Albany behave as a voting bloc and exert pressure on progressive Democrats who don’t identify as socialist. DSA has successfully integrated into the larger activist infrastructure of New York politics, helping to empower a tenant movement that is no longer on the defensive.

Once again, DSA is wisely putting housing policy at the forefront of their state legislative campaigns, since a large majority of voters in New York City are renters and most housing policy is set on the state level. They have wielded effective slogans (like “evict your landlord”) and the candidates are focusing on building momentum around the “good cause” eviction bill which would make it much harder for landlords to evict tenants across the state.

Unlike the Working Families Party (WFP), organized labor, and most activist groups, DSA chooses a narrow slate for each election cycle and intentionally seeks out candidates who will be most loyal to their organization. This approach produces genuine allies in office but also carries the risk of electoral defeat. In 2021, DSA’s New York City Council slate lost four of six races, in part due to risks city socialists were willing to take. In retrospect, several of the candidate choices were not the best, given the contours of the particular races.

In 2022, DSA’s campaigns are a mix of likely wins and relative long shots. All socialist incumbents are safe except one: Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and activist in Brooklyn who won a big upset in 2020 over a close ally of Hakeem Jeffries, the anti-DSA congressman and rumored successor to Nancy Pelosi. The neighborhoods in Forrest’s assembly district have seen pitched political battles between DSA and Jeffries’s Democratic faction. Last year, Jeffries’s candidate, Crystal Hudson, narrowly defeated housing activist Michael Hollingsworth in a furious race that saw more than $100,000 in real estate cash spent against Hollingsworth.

Forrest is still a heavy favorite and should command the lion’s share of endorsements as an incumbent. But Olanike Alabi, a former Democratic district leader, is running a competent campaign against her and could draw the backing of Jeffries and his allies. The trouble for DSA is that a Jeffries battle against Forrest — or a refusal of NGO and activist groups to effectively aid her — draws socialist volunteers away from other races that will need plenty of help. Prominent progressives in Brooklyn, like public advocate Jumaane Williams and Brooklyn borough president Antonio Reynoso, have not backed Forrest so far.

The friendliest territory for DSA remains a new northern Brooklyn and Queens State Senate district, which ropes in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Long Island City, affluent enclaves home to young progressives. Kristen Gonzalez, the DSA-backed candidate, should be well-positioned to win, though former City councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley is a formidable opponent. The district takes in conservative pockets of Queens where Crowley’s law-and-order messaging will resonate, but Gonzalez should be able to build a coalition of younger voters and Latinos to overcome Crowley.

Ever since Julia Salazar crushed Martin Dilan, a conservative Democratic state senator in Brooklyn, in 2018, DSA members have hungrily eyed the assembly district represented by his seemingly feckless son, Erik Dilan. A 2020 challenge went awry when a candidate dropped out. Now DSA is trying to take out the younger Dilan again, supporting Samy Nemir Olivares, a Democratic district leader, against him. The Bushwick and Cypress Hills–based district may have enough younger and newer residents to power Olivares to victory, though the territory is not as friendly to DSA as Salazar’s district was four years ago. Last year, Eric Adams won 42 percent of the first-round Democratic vote there, easily besting Maya Wiley, the progressive runner-up, who took only 23 percent. If Olivares can’t win over working-class black and Latino voters, Dilan could survive another cycle.

DSA has a more daunting challenge in another Brooklyn race, where David Alexis, a young climate organizer, is attempting to defeat State Senator Kevin Parker, a controversial and combative lawmaker. Parker has assaulted a news photographer, called a female colleague a “bitch,” and tweeted “kill yourself” at a State Senate staffer who called him out for misusing a parking placard. In addition to his disturbing conduct, Parker is a known energy industry shill with politics that put him to the right of the Senate’s growing progressive flank.

Nevertheless, redistricting has been kind to Parker, who now represents a smaller Senate district that takes in much of his East Flatbush base. In 2021, when he unsuccessfully ran for city comptroller, he still managed to beat Brad Lander, the eventual winner, within the district, though Lander’s 28 percent in the first-round vote wasn’t far from Parker’s 32 percent. What’s tougher for DSA is that Adams crushed Wiley there, taking 56 percent to Wiley’s 22 percent. DSA will have to win votes from a black working-class base that has been traditionally unwilling to back insurgent candidates and those who are overtly left-wing. Alexis is a strong contender, though, and energy appears to be building around his bid. One internal conflict within DSA was Salazar’s decision to not back Alexis, a show of deference to Senate Democratic leadership that prefers to defend incumbents.

In East New York, Brooklyn, DSA has decided, with the Working Families Party — WFP is also backing Alexis, Gonzalez, and Olivares — to support Keron Alleyne’s assembly campaign. Alleyne, running solely on the WFP line in February, lost badly in a special election to Nikki Lucas, another close Jeffries ally. Alleyne is a protégé of Charles and Inez Barron, the proud black nationalists and socialists, and DSA is hoping to coalition-build with the Barrons among the black working-class voters that have sent the Barrons to office repeatedly. Nikki Lucas, the Democrat who beat Alleyne in February, is now the incumbent assemblywoman for the June primary. Perhaps WFP and DSA, together, can pull off an unlikely win.

Two other assembly campaigns offer intriguing opportunities for DSA. In lower Manhattan, DSA-backed social worker Illapa Sairitupac is running an energetic race to replace Yuh-Line Niou, who is vacating the seat to run for the State Senate. Sairitupac’s fate may be determined by the status of another candidate in the race, Alana Sivin, who self-identifies as a socialist but does not have DSA’s backing. Sivin could potentially siphon votes from Sairitupac if she makes the ballot; there’s a chance, due to issues with her petitions, she may not. If she is driven from the ballot, DSA will only have to overcome Grace Lee, a moderate Democrat who ran and lost against Niou two years ago, and another activist, Jasmin Sanchez. The district, a distinct mix of working-class Chinese, Latinos, and much wealthier Manhattanites in Battery Park, will test DSA’s ability to unite diverse coalition.

In the Hudson Valley, it’s possible Sarahana Shrestha, a Nepali-American climate organizer, could dethrone Kevin Cahill, a moderate Democrat representing an area that has swung left in recent years. DSA is targeting Cahill for insufficiently combating climate change in the assembly and could find purchase in a more rural part of the state where the Democratic establishment is weaker. Another Hudson Valley race presents a notable pick-up opportunity for socialists: Vanessa Agudelo, a former city councilwoman in Peekskill, is vying with DSA’s endorsement in an open primary to replace the retiring assemblywoman Sandy Galef.

DSA still has a long way to go to transform the state legislature into a socialist haven, but each victory grows a voting bloc that, in time, can drive legislation and terrify complacent leadership. It’s a painstaking process that socialists in New York rightfully understand is the way to make tangible change.