Queens Has Quietly Become a Hub of Left-Wing Organizing and Socialist Electoral Wins

In parts of Queens, socialists hold office at the local, state, and federal levels. Those victories are no accident: they’re the fruit of years of local organizing in a borough known for being anything but flashy.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán celebrates her victory with supporters after the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney on June 25, 2019. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

With the recent certification of the August 23 primary election results, Kristen Gonzalez is officially the Democratic nominee for State Senate District 59, which spans western Queens, northern Brooklyn, and parts of Lower Manhattan on the far east side. In parts of Astoria, Queens, socialists are present in every level of government: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, City Council member Tiffany Cabán, and soon-to-be State Senator Kristen Gonzalez (who is running unopposed in the general election in November 2022). As a result, many people are now affectionately referring to the western Queens neighborhood as “the People’s Republic of Astoria.”

This is especially noteworthy because Queens is not historically a place associated with the cutting edge of political and social change. On network television, Queens has historically been a cultural backwater, a provincial place you wanted to leave, like The Jeffersons, Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, or George Costanza’s parents in Seinfeld. These days, Queens has been dubbed “The World’s Borough,” famous for its immigrant populations, two airports, and incredible ethnic and linguistic diversity.

But compared to neighboring boroughs to the south and west, Brooklyn and Manhattan, Queens is somewhat of a “flyover state” of the five boroughs, a place many New Yorkers only see from the highway en route to JFK Airport or the Rockaways, but otherwise an outer boroughs joke, with a landscape decimated by Robert Moses’s multilane interstate exchanges, suburban mini-mall type construction, and earnest immigrant ambitions. As City and State noted in 2021, any political observer prior to 2018 would assume a socialist upset might come from more culturally cutting-edge neighborhoods like the East Village or waterfront Brooklyn. That changed with AOC’s surprise primary upset in 2018. While some observers have suggested that “demographic changes” like gentrification explain AOC’s victory, such claims often ignore the specificity of Queens’s communities. Queens by its nature has a unique set of cultural, physical, and social conditions that enabled dense social, solidaritistic, civic networks. These conditions allowed for surprising inroads for socialist electoral and left victories.

Tiffany Cabán and Zohran Mamdani in Astoria, Queens, 2020. (@ZohranKMamdani / Twitter)

David Friedlander (who is, incidentally, my neighbor in the borough) argues in his book about the “AOC Generation” that NY14, where AOC won in 2018, was a district “ripe for revolution.” As real estate and housing prices grew in the 2010s, many working families priced out of Brooklyn and Manhattan began to settle in western and central Queens. Friedlander discusses the expressions of the grassroots outrage on our neighborhood listserv in the days right after Trump’s inauguration, when western Queens constituents realized that our Democratic state senator at the time, Jose Peralta, had joined the Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

But to understand how this outrage became politically effective, we have to rewind to the conditions that allowed for this collective outrage to blossom in the first place. Queens attracts families because many of its apartments and streets are newer, more affordable, and bigger than brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan because much of Queens’s development came after World War II. As a result, it has the fewest subway stations, smallest amount of green space, most built infrastructure for cars, and thus many unmet needs for urban and diverse populations.

When I arrived in Jackson Heights in 2013, much of the social infrastructure I appreciated — online and in-person groups dedicated to civic and family causes including gardening, street safety, green spaces, and public school advocacy — were the result of volunteers and activists building organizations and networks to meet our many unmet needs. Since many newcomers did not come with family connections, newly arriving Queens residents and families had to build their own networks. The listserv that was used to stir outrage at Senator Peralta when he joined the IDC was created by parents who moved to Jackson Heights in the early 2000s and wanted to connect with other families about schools, childcare, and other ways to make living in the community better.  These activists even helped create the first preschools in the community.

Jackson Heights and many similar neighborhoods in Queens thrived because of the density of local social and civic networks, focused often on quality of life issues, which in turn created networks of solidarity and trust: the conditions that allowed for socialist and progressive candidates and campaigns to thrive.

Prior to my involvement in Queens politics (which like many, was fueled by a sense of urgency sparked by Donald Trump’s presidency), it had a rich history of community organizing and fights against privatization. Sunnyside, Woodside, and Jackson Heights, for example, have public green spaces below city averages. The limited park space led to a diverse coalition of public space advocates who fought for expanding public play space, such as the fight waged since 2008 in Jackson Heights for a “play street,” a car-free street adjacent to a public park in our neighborhood.

Perhaps the most striking example of grassroots organizing against the interests and positions of Queens Democratic leaders was three successful fights against attempted privatization of the beloved Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the surrounding residential area and immigrant-owned small business. The fight to save Flushing Meadows in the 2010s was carried out by grassroots activists, community organizations, churches, and some local elected allies. These community advocates fought against powerful Democratic elected officials. This included former mayor Michael Bloomberg, former congressman Joe Crowley, former senator Peralta, and other members the New York Democratic leadership supported.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with supporters during her during her victory celebration at La Boom night club in Queens on November 6, 2018. (Rick Loomis / Getty Images)

Together with private interests, these Democrats pushed forward a plan of privatization and commercialization of Willets Point, building of a potential new Major League Soccer stadium (without even having a soccer team) in Flushing Meadows, as well as expansion of the US Tennis Association stadiums. The efforts of a multiracial, cross-class coalition, including organizations such as Fairness Coalition of Queens, Make the Road New York, Asian Americans for Equality, Faith in New York, and Queens Community House, played a pivotal role in stopping these multiple “land grab” efforts between 2012 and 2017.

Even today, Queens residents in southern and southeast Queens who are poorly served by existing subway infrastructure are fighting — against the wishes of Mayor Eric Adams — for the revival of a three-and-a-half-mile existing rail line to connect northern and southern Queens. This effort includes Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, community activists, transportation advocates, environmentalists, racial justice activists, and even homeowners and small business owners. Incidentally, building new transit in transit-poor areas of Queens was a key platform for Jaslin Kaur, a democratic socialist who made a respectable second-place showing for city council in a very moderate area of southeast Queens in 2021.

What has been the outcome of this dense, interconnected community? On the electoral front, socialist electeds like AOC and Mamdani’s radical approach to constituent services continues to change the way politics is done in Queens. They build power, using volunteers to bring change — not by engaging in the mutual back-scratching of patronage politics, but in a way that builds and improves the lived conditions of their Queens constituents and beyond. This advocacy approach to governance not only creates activists out of constituents, it changes political possibilities.

As an example: state assemblymember Mamdani and then soon-to-be-elected council member Tiffany Cabán defeated a proposed NRG Energy power plant, which would provide energy for the community using fracked gas. While NRG claimed it would try to fight this decision, its continued appeals failed. Recently, NRG filed a petition with the state to sell its peaker plant to Beacon Wind, shifting from fossil fuel to renewable energy generation.

Socialism isn’t just winning in Queens — it’s creating a better, more livable future.