There’s a lot for democratic socialists to be proud of in Tuesday’s New York Democratic primary election for the state assembly. In Queens, Zohran Mamdani cruised to victory — no one dared challenge him. In northeast Brooklyn, Emily Gallagher beat her opponent 80-20 (numbers are as of Wednesday afternoon — final results are still being tabulated). In southeast Brooklyn, Marcela Mitaynes won 82-18. And in north-central Brooklyn, Phara Souffrant Forrest beat a well-funded challenger with a 34-point margin.
In the Hudson Valley, in the most exciting race of the night, Sarahana Shrestha defeated a twenty-three-year incumbent and conservative Democrat. Shrestha will be the newest member of the growing caucus of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in Albany — and her victory proves that DSA can win outside of New York City in more rural and suburban areas.
Of course, the Left’s critics will almost certainly focus narrowly on what New York DSA — and its allies, including the Working Families Party (WFP) — didn’t win in last night’s elections. In hard-fought insurgent races in the Hudson Valley, lower Manhattan, and in east Brooklyn, three DSA-backed candidates came up short. Vanessa Agudelo, Illapa Sairitupac, and Keron Alleyne ran impressive campaigns against tough opponents. (Alleyne’s campaign was spearheaded by the black community organization Operation POWER, and DSA provided support as an allied organization.) They may not have won, but their work helped build a base for democratic socialist politics in new parts of the state. And the results are still coming in for Samy Nemir Olivares in north Brooklyn.
It’s a sign of how far DSA has come that anything short of total victory might feel like a letdown. The reality is more promising. Despite a difficult moment and a strong counterattack by the Democratic Party establishment, DSA remains a powerhouse in New York politics.
The DSA Powerhouse
Tuesday night proved that DSA is building a formidable political machine in New York State.
Just five years ago, the organization was still emerging from years in the wilderness. Today, it has built a significant beachhead for democratic socialist politics in Albany, with six democratic socialist incumbents and at least one new member on the way.
From the get-go this election cycle, DSA’s machine showed that it can handle new challenges. DSA members spent months in deliberation on the composition of its 2022 slate. Once it had decided on a slate, more than 2,750 volunteers went into the field and knocked almost 190,000 doors. Tens of thousands of petition signatures were gathered with literature distributed. In return, tens of thousands of people turned out to vote for democratic socialist politics.
DSA-backed candidates also benefited from deeper organizing. Phara Souffrant Forrest, for example, easily fended off her challenger, in part thanks to her office’s deep organizing efforts. Souffrant Forrest’s office has helped constituents navigate the unemployment insurance bureaucracy and fight landlords. And Sarahana Shrestha no doubt benefited from the deep organizing that community organizations like For the Many have been engaged in for years, fighting for health care, good housing, immigrants’ rights, and much more with a primarily working-class base.
Tuesday was a test of whether DSA could hold on to its seats and expand its bench. It did both.
The Moment and the Counterattack
There’s no doubt, however, that not everything went the way DSA would have liked it to go.
In part, the political moment we’re living in is to blame. From 2017 to 2020, the wind seemed to be at the Left’s back both nationally and locally. Democratic socialists won races up and down the country. Bernie Sanders’s second campaign promised major new opportunities. And the teachers’ strike wave and Black Lives Matter rocked the nation.
Today, at least in electoral politics, that sense of unobstructed forward progress is weaker. And the Right is on the move again. It seems to be gliding toward near certain victory in this year’s midterm elections and potentially the presidential election in 2024. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has handed down setback after setback to people’s rights and progressive priorities.
The result is a palpable malaise among progressives’ natural base of left-wing workers and professionals. That malaise probably partly explains why voter turnout in this year’s primary cratered compared to 2018 (though the absence of a competitive governor’s race was also a factor).
A tough electoral environment was compounded by a strong counterattack by the Democratic Party establishment (with a strong assist from right-wing donors). Millionaires and billionaires poured significant sums into races to defeat DSA-backed candidates. Their attack mailers accused DSA’s candidates of being too radical and soft on crime.
It’s hard to assess how big an impact that counterattack had. But there is some suggestive evidence. For example, while most incumbents cruised to victory this cycle, Assemblymember Ron Kim in Queens was targeted by these same attacks. Kim’s race was unusually close, likely as a result.
DSA now has to pivot to making the most of some new opportunities.
The most immediate task will be to mobilize once more for the next round of elections. Democratic primary races for state senate are in August, in which DSA will defend two incumbents, Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar, and try to pick up two new seats, David Alexis and Kristen Gonzalez.
Where the organization goes from there, and what changes it makes to its work, will partly be decided by members at NYC-DSA’s convention in autumn. Some possible opportunities stand out.
Democratic socialists have a chance to turn the general malaise among progressives around. We can’t do much to stop the rise of the Right nationally given our size. But at the state and local level, democratic socialists can draw a much stronger contrast between our vision and strategy and that of the Democratic Party establishment’s. DSA’s de facto caucus in Albany, the “Socialists in Office,” can go on the attack. People are angry with Democrats’ incompetence and timidity in the face of the rising Right and climate catastrophe. Democratic socialists can provide an alternative, if we can draw clear lines between us and the party’s leadership.
Sarahana Shrestha’s win is a big boost for this work. Shrestha will add a new voice outside the city, proving that democratic socialist priorities like publicly owned renewable energy and free public-college education are not only of concern to people in New York City.
In a similar vein, DSA has an opportunity to invest more energy and resources into drawing clear contrasts between our candidates and our opponents. While DSA has mostly focused on promoting our own candidates to date, our opponents have become much craftier. They now present themselves as progressives and campaign on almost identical platforms. Yet they benefit from right-wing donors who run anti-DSA attack campaigns.
Pointing out to voters that our so-called “progressive” opponents are in bed with millionaires, billionaires, and the far right needs to be a high priority.
There are challenges too. The goals of the “defund the police” project are correct. We absolutely have to shift funding from bloated police budgets to social services. But the slogan was used as a major line of attack against DSA-backed candidates this cycle, just as it was last year — despite none of DSA’s candidates running explicitly using it. It’s impossible to stop socialists’ opponents from calling us “soft on crime.” But left-wing activists should think hard about how to counter these attacks.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing NYC-DSA in the next year is how to do deeper organizing between elections.
Experiments run by Phara Souffrant Forrest’s office and the work of For the Many show how important it can be. On an expanded scale, constituent service organizing in other districts could help socialists build out a base.
But deep organizing has to go beyond service organizing. Right now, DSA’s support is confined primarily to a small number of districts. These are districts populated by a large number of middle-income, college-educated millennial professionals and workers. This base is concentrated in neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Astoria, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The limited size of that base is captured well by election results for the progressive gubernatorial candidate Jumaane Williams.
This map of the NY governor's race results is instructive. Really shows where the core of New York City's nascent progressive/left-wing coalition lives right now. Jumaane Williams won (in green) where @nycDSA has won and Bernie did best. (Source: https://t.co/gfOEfceDko) pic.twitter.com/4dNdBFEcQ3
— Neal Meyer (@nealmeyer) June 29, 2022
Moving beyond these districts and building a base in the city’s broader working class will require putting a lot more resources into workplace organizing. Only by organizing workers where they spend the bulk of their day, under oppressive and exploitative conditions, can socialists build a strong working-class base.
Most importantly, socialists need to put new energy toward recruiting rank-and-file organizers who can organize directly in unionized and nonunionized workplaces. These organizers can help build the networks that will radically transform the existing labor movement and mobilize the full strength of the working class. Fortunately, while the electoral moment is challenging, there hasn’t been a moment in decades that seemed as promising for union organizing as this one does.
Thinking Long Term
Longer term, we also need to think seriously about how we build our organized power.
One important step is building DSA’s name recognition in communities. In a membership organization, a lost campaign doesn’t have to really be a loss, because even when we come up short, our campaigns build our infrastructure and gain talented organizers who have honed their skills in the field and who will be back for the next project.
Socialist races could be even more powerful if we used the organization’s name more explicitly in campaigns to build DSA’s recognition and people’s identification with democratic socialism. If at the end of every race, thousands of people who voted for our candidates came away from it explicitly identifying with and eager to join and get active in the democratic socialist project, that would be a major boon. Every new election cycle we would be building on the self-identified base we had already built.
This is how both the Democratic and Republican parties work. Tens of millions of people don’t need to know a single thing about the candidates. They just need to know that the candidate is part of a larger party and therefore supports a particular strategy, and then people vote for them on that basis.
Ultimately, this is the reason having an independent ballot line is so important. Ballot lines help organize what is otherwise a very confusing conflict with dozens of names to remember. But even short of a ballot line, socialists can build DSA’s identity in communities by running explicitly as democratic socialists and promoting DSA in conversations with voters.
On a longer horizon, yesterday’s results highlight the need for major electoral reform. Even in the most difficult races, DSA-backed candidates were able to win about 30 percent of the vote. That’s in a Democratic primary of course. But assuming the Democratic coalition in a state like New York encompasses about 60 percent of the population (that’s what Joe Biden won in 2020), then democratic socialists ought to hold about 20 percent of the seats in the New York State Legislature. That’s a far cry from what socialists hold now. In a proportional representation system, however, we could expect to be there already. It’s a travesty for democracy that we’re not.
Finally, Tuesday’s results underline the enduring problem of building a mass, class-based left-wing organization. DSA is a powerful group capable of doing quite a bit. But long term, we will need a larger and more representative organization to incorporate the whole working class and our allies in the middle class. Organizers in projects like DSA and the WFP and hopefully left-wing unions could be working in sync better if we were all part a membership-based left-wing alliance (or, dare we imagine it, even a party). Projects like the Richmond Progressive Alliance show how important this can be.
Today, only national leaders like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and progressive union leaders have the power to create such an organization. It ought to be a major question that the Left wrestles with: How do we move these national leaders toward building such a project?
For now, though, democratic socialists in New York must continue to debate and assess the big opportunities and challenges emerging from Tuesday’s results. And we have our work cut out for us in August’s state senate primaries. The establishment might be mobilized and ready to strike, but we can beat them.