In a Political Climate Moving Right, New York Socialists Are Still Making Gains

The Democratic Socialists of America has made inroads across the country, but nowhere does it wield the kind of political power it does in New York. A new, more conservative political climate is putting the group’s inside-outside strategy to the test.

Assemblywoman Sarahana Shrestha campaigning for public power. (Sarahana for Assembly)

New York continues to add to its socialist bench in the state legislature. This primary season, all six of the incumbents (four in the assembly and two in the senate) endorsed by New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) kept their seats and added a new state senator, Kristen Gonzalez, in a district that included parts of Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Mid-Hudson Valley DSA also secured a victory for an assemblywoman, Sarahana Shrestha. (Neither will face a significant Republican challenger in November).

The victories are significant for the obvious reason that now, a couple more lawmakers in Albany have socialist values and priorities. By itself, that may not sound like such a big deal. Many progressive organizations endorse candidates who support good things, and those candidates sometimes win. What distinguishes NYC-DSA and other DSA chapters in the state is a commitment to a disciplined “inside-outside” strategy of formal coordination between its grassroots organizing and its elected officials.

In 2019, following a wave of progressive victories that ousted many conservative Democrats, and NYC-DSA’s first state senate victory (Julia Salazar, in North Brooklyn), the socialists joined a broad coalition of housing groups and were able to pass the biggest expansion of tenants’ rights in decades. In 2020, the organization got more socialists elected to state government (a second state senator and three assembly members, plus a fourth socialist assemblymember who worked closely with the NYC-DSA slate once in office and has since been endorsed by the group).

Following these electoral successes, the group led the wildly successful Tax the Rich campaign, and along with a broad coalition of working-class groups, was able to pass the most progressive state budget in decades.

During this time, the mechanics of the “inside-outside” strategy evolved. NYC-DSA endorses candidates already active in DSA, and then dedicates extensive organizing resources to electing them. Once they’re in office, the elected officials join a larger project: Socialists in Office (SiO). The project is always a work in progress, but it’s how membership and elected officials coordinate their priorities. The goal is to set those priorities together.

Members then organize and bring pressure on the state government to pass the legislation, while the elected officials organize their colleagues around those same priorities. There are frequent meetings of SiO, which take several different forms: the elected officials debrief weekly, not only with each other, but with the members who serve on the Socialists in Office committee. The elected officials meet and text with one another frequently to debrief and coordinate. They also meet with the membership in mass meetings.

Tax the Rich succeeded through this close coordination, and the Albany machinations were backed up by organizing pressure from constituents, primarily through protest, phone banking, and leafleting voters’ doors. Tax the Rich was wildly popular, attracting broad participation, and was a success, winning badly needed funding for public schools, pandemic relief, rent assistance, and much more.

This year, despite its electoral victories, NYC-DSA hasn’t enjoyed comparable legislative successes. The group’s two major priorities were Good Cause Eviction (a law protecting tenants from being evicted without a good reason) and legislation to publicly fund renewable energy (the Build Public Renewables Act, or BPRA). The SiO’s level of coordination wasn’t the same, as some of the legislators had bills of their own they wanted to push for. It was also hard to organize issue campaigns because members were focused on the elections. Most of all, in the legislature, the political climate was more conservative because redistricting had put many Democratic seats in peril, and because of the rise of the Right both in New York and in the nation.

The lack of concrete progress in the legislature has caused some disappointment and distress in the local chapter. Stylianos Karolidis, an NYC-DSA organizer who has been working closely with the socialist legislators to pass BPRA, says they made impressive progress on BPRA, which did pass the Senate, only to stall in the Assembly.

The electoral campaigns helped the bill get as far as it did, says Karolidis, and the focus on renewable energy also helped elect the new socialist officials. For example, David Alexis’s primary challenge to state senator Kevin Parker, chair of the senate’s Committee on Energy and Telecommunications, was the reason that Parker allowed the bill to move forward and pass the Senate.

The Assembly is a more conservative body and therefore a tougher nut to crack. But there, too, DSA’s primary challenges reverberated. Hudson Valley state assemblyman Kevin Cahill was overheard begging Carl Heastie, Assembly speaker, “I need you to pass this bill or I’m going to lose this seat.” Karolidis reports with amusement: “And we can confirm that he was correct! He didn’t pass that bill and he lost his seat.” Sarahana Shrestha, a Mid-Hudson Valley DSA activist and Cahill’s primary opponent,
opposed him with climate as her main issue, and it worked.

There were other successes in the campaign for public renewables this year. The New York climate left had not previously been united on a large, statewide policy priority. Karolidis points out, “We re-aligned the entire NY climate left around publicly owned energy.” In addition, he says, NYC-DSA made fossil fuel money an election issue. Taking money from the fossil fuel industry is now a progressive deal breaker, a sulfurous accusation in the same way that “taking real estate money” has been in New York since 2018.

All that’s huge. But one of the biggest successes, Karolidis says, is that “we proved that climate is a winning issue with working-class voters.” Shrestha won a tough and very tight race by talking about climate. Kristen Gonzalez won her seat for a variety of reasons — part of her district was already sympathetic to socialism and DSA — but she clearly won Manhattan by talking about renewable energy. Now they have a mandate.

In the SiO meetings, there is no sense that members are lobbying or pressuring the elected officials or even “holding them accountable.” The relationship is more collaborative than that. Says Karolidis of the socialist officeholders, “They are working just as hard to pass this bill as I am, it’s not just me calling and texting them, they’re calling and texting me, with new ideas on how we can pass this bill.”

He explains, “We like to say in DSA that we are ‘building power.’ [The elected officials are] the most visible representation of that power” since they collectively represent over a million New Yorkers (not just DSA members but their constituents). Because of this power, Karolidis says, “Now people are more willing to meet with us, talk to us.”

Take State Senate deputy leader Mike Gianaris, for example, who is not a socialist. Because of the power DSA has built in his western Queens district, Karolidis says, “we were able to persuade him to work very hard on this.” Then, because of Gianaris’s support, and because DSA has been winning elections, labor unions were more open to discussion on the issue. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) went from opposing BPRA to writing its labor language.

It’s not impossible that the Assembly could bring BPRA to a vote and pass it this year, but it’s unlikely. What’s probably needed is more of the “outside” piece of the inside-outside strategy — that is, pressure comparable to the grassroots agitation NYC-DSA brought to Tax the Rich.

New York’s socialists have the momentum for this undertaking. Many people have been newly organized by the group’s recent electoral campaigns — both successful and not — and organizing to pass BPRA is the perfect campaign for them.

To be sure, building publicly funded renewables isn’t as obvious a unifying working-class call as “Tax the Rich.” The latter had the advantage of being crucial to every possible budget priority, and being embedded in a budget fight for all the vital human needs. Not only that, but “Build Public Renewables” isn’t as easy or fun to say as “Tax the Rich.” Still, many are ready and eager to organize on climate, and BPRA is an exciting goal — the idea of public power is the kind of visionary policy that the climate movement needs.

To do more, NYC-DSA may need more coordination, more focus, more sense of long- and short-term strategy. But to pass BPRA, Karolidis says, “We need more people doing this. We need 500 new leaders.” With all the new energy from the elections, those five hundred people may not be too hard to find.