- Interview by
- Karthik Purushothaman
In an election year that has been a mixed bag for democratic socialists in the city and the state, Kristen Gonzalez defeated Queens Democratic Party–backed Elizabeth Crowley by more than twenty-five percentage points in the race for New York State Senate District 59. Gonzalez’s win, despite being outspent four to one by her opponent, with real estate special interests pouring additional millions into negative ad campaigns, testifies to Democratic Socialist of America (DSA)’s formidable presence in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria as well as in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
Gonzalez’s victory also attests to the importance of rent control and climate infrastructure development as she joins State Senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport in their efforts to pass pending legislations such as Good Cause Eviction and Build Public Renewables in Albany. With yet another socialist poised to take office and work together as a bloc of legislators held accountable to the DSA-led coalition, writer Karthik Purushothaman talked to Gonzalez about her legislative priorities and how she hopes to achieve them.
As a socialist running for office, you not only won, but you won by twenty-five points. Looking back at your campaign, can you retrace the steps of how you got here, starting from its launch?
We launched in February for a district with different boundaries. The initial Senate District 17 had two of the most populous neighborhoods, Long Island City and Greenpoint — which are still in Senate District 59 — extending up to Ridgewood and parts of South Queens. At the beginning of the campaign, I was canvasing in Richmond Hill. Then we had this redistricting process, and with three months until election day from the day Senate District 59 was drawn, Astoria, Williamsburg, and parts of Manhattan were added.
While we weren’t starting from scratch in Long Island City and Greenpoint, suddenly we had the only tri-borough district in the State Senate, including the new territory in Manhattan, but also our ultra-base in Astoria, where we overlapped with five different Democratic Socialist electeds, as well as our ultra-base in Williamsburg. Then it became a field game, and what makes DSA so strong is our field game. We got to knocking tens of thousands of doors and had over nine hundred volunteers on this campaign, and that’s how we caught up in those three months between the day the district was redrawn and election day.
In one of the live streamed debates that took place, other candidates seemed to position themselves as compassionate reformist bureaucrats or political insurgents, but you held it down as the “organizer candidate,” maintaining that in Albany you need more organizers than proceduralists. What difference would an organizer like you in office make?
An important part of our campaign is that we are bigger than one seat, one elected, or one office. It’s about the larger movement, and we were the only movement candidate in the race. I’m also coming into this as an organizer, which is just inherently a different type of politics. We want to organize in office. We don’t want more career politicians.
We had the largest coalition in the race. We had not only DSA but also Working Families Party (WFP) behind us, and by the end of the campaign cycle, we had over fifty endorsements from elected officials across the Left, unions, other political organizations, and advocacy groups. What makes this so important is that, at a time when we’re seeing the Right so incredibly organized in stripping away our rights at the federal level and trying to bring that energy into our State Senate and State Assemblies, we need candidates and electeds who are organizing and unifying the Left to counter the type of far-right politics that we’re up against in Albany and across the country.
I feel like socialists getting elected in New York state legislature is as big a story as Republicans taking over school boards, strictly based on effectiveness as a long-term political project. Can you describe the long-term project of the DSA and the socialist left in New York City and New York state? What role do you hope to play in it?
As I said, it’s bigger than one seat or individual. Of course, it’s fantastic to elect more socialists to every level of government, and we have been doing that, right? With this seat, for the first time in the century, we have a democratic socialist at every level of government representing Astoria, which is huge and that’s a part of the goal of the project.
But more importantly, every single campaign, win or lose, is a way of building our base. With every campaign, we not only increase the number of DSA members across the city, but we also develop leaders and skill sets as every campaign builds off the last one.
For example, in this campaign, our Manhattan operation where we saw incredible success — people were not expecting to see a democratic socialist have such success in places such as Stuytown and Waterside, which we won — was run by former Illapa [Sairitupac] volunteers. This campaign was built off of Illapa volunteers, former AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] volunteers, Zohran Mamdani volunteers, and Julia Salazar volunteers.
Our 4-1 victory in Brooklyn was not only fueled by our membership there but also the success of democratic socialist electeds such as Assemblymember Emily Gallagher and State Senator Julia Salazar. Part of movement-building is that we’re never starting from scratch and are always stronger after every campaign because we have the volunteers and voters behind us. Our 2-1 victory in Queens and 4-1 in Brooklyn, and our wins in Stuytown and Waterside prove that not only are we strong but we are growing as a movement.
Your election obviously has been democratically decided now that you have won with a mandate, but in running candidates as a slate selected by DSA, how do you ensure that the nomination process within the organization is democratic keeping in mind all constituents and not becoming its own little club?
I would see it not as its own little club but as a representation of a different type of politics where good leaders are asked to lead by the people around them. I was asked to run for office by people whom I not only personally admired but have also organized with. And I wasn’t considering running for office — I said no at first. It took convincing! And I think that made me a stronger candidate, because I was asked to lead at a specific point intentionally in a way that was representative of the district.
I had fought with these organizers against the fracked gas power plant in Astoria and won; I organized with them against Amazon in Long Island City; these are the same people with whom I’ve been fighting for the Build Public Renewables Act in Brooklyn. These organizers are representative of the district because they have been doing the work, and they want the people we recruit to run for office to be organizers who have grown through the movement because they will be stronger leaders. So, certainly a different politics from what I was up against — a career politician from a political dynasty who is part of the larger machine.
That’s why our campaign was strong and as a candidate I was stronger; we saw our district receive me better. In the future, I’m excited to continue growing more movement candidates. Coming back to the slate, it’s not only about coalition-building, but it’s also about building a community that says we are unified in our party and with parties across the state. It was powerful to be on a slate with Sarahana [Shrestha], because we were making a statement that from New York City to Hudson Valley, we reject career politicians and corporate money, and we believe in a Green New Deal and affordable housing and are fundamentally talking about a better future that works for all of us, built by working-class people across the state.
In one of the debates that ended with candidates asking each other questions, you confronted Crowley about the money she took from corporate lobbyists and real estate, while others asked more ornamental questions. Looking back, one of the strongest aspects of the Bernie Sanders campaigns had to be the fact that he could point at those standing with him on stage and say they took money from the people I want to fight. How strong a point of distinction did it become between you and your opponents?
When you are grown as an organizer or as a movement candidate, you are accountable to that movement, and not taking money from corporations, real estate, lobbyists, and Republicans is another way of saying that I want to be accountable to everyday New Yorkers.
In this district, it was even more important because whether it’s Astoria, or other parts of Queens, Brooklyn, or Manhattan, one of the biggest themes was the housing crisis. So, in Stuytown and Waterside, they are up against large corporate developers such as Blackstone and Brookfield. Having people who would fight for tenant rights is so important for those members of the community at a time when we’re seeing real estate interests pour money into elections across the city and the state, because they want to protect their power, continue to raise our rent prices, and continue to displace us. So, we need people who will be accountable to tenants and the housing movement, not taking money from real estate, and genuinely being able to say “I will be accountable to tenants” was a defining factor in our success in Stuytown and Waterside.
On the flipside, now that you are the Democratic nominee, if not the state senator–elect, your election puts forth a platform as a mandate chosen by Democratic voters. Elected socialists are portrayed as freak accidents but you were elected by 65 percent of your district. Which communities and neighborhoods have come out strongly for you, and what are their core issues? You did mention that your district has multiple unionized Starbucks stores.
Yes, we have unionized Starbucks in Queens and in Brooklyn. It’s a district of working-class people who believe in a better future for workers. We had support and did well in all three boroughs. We only trailed Crowley by four hundred votes in Manhattan, so we made huge inroads into what was new territory for us, adding to our superbase in Brooklyn and Queens. This speaks to the core issues across all three being housing and climate.
In Astoria, rent prices, Good Cause Eviction, and universal rent control were among the big housing things we talked about. We also talked about fighting against fracked gas power plants in Astoria; being a waterfront district, climate was one of the biggest issues for Astoria. But then you connect that back to Stuytown, where you have the largest number of rent-stabilized units in the city being threatened by a large corporate developer that wants to destabilize those units. Moreover, not only are Good Cause Eviction, rent control, and rent stabilization important there, but they also fought off a power plant a couple of years ago. So, the issues of housing and climate are clear themes across the river.
In Brooklyn, neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg are being rapidly developed. I knocked on thousands of doors where people said they were not sure if they could afford to renew their lease because their rent had been hiked up hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Climate is also a huge issue in Brooklyn because you have huge flood zones in Greenpoint, which also had the largest underground oil spill in the entire country, so there’s a history of being wronged by fossil fuel. Then you have the North Brooklyn pipeline between Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which meets the national grid. So, housing and climate were the defining issues in this race.
More immediately, it looks like you support legislation such as Good Cause Eviction and Build Public Renewables, but you’re also pushing for statewide single-payer health care and public ownership of local energy. Starting with top priorities, can you lay out practically how you and the DSA slate intend on achieving these goals?
We’re going to continue organizing. Another seat is another way to implement our inside-outside approach. The organizing on the ground on the outside doesn’t stop. We’re one part of the climate movement that includes not only the DSA, but also Sunrise, and organizations such as Triage. We’re going to continue building with those organizations, doing joint canvasses, and actually speaking with New Yorkers — in short, our approach during the campaign is the same approach we’ll apply in office. It does not stop simply because the election happened.
Come January, as an elected, that’s where the inside approach starts because we’ll be using the seat to strengthen our Socialists in Office bloc, which has now grown by two, between myself and Sarahana. I’ll continue to meet and organize other electeds. From day one, I know exactly who I’d be working with, and they are not just socialist electeds — for example, I’d be working with State Senator Brad Hoylman, who endorsed us in Manhattan, around Good Cause Eviction, pushing for better climate legislation, and other core vales we share. With Assemblymembers who endorsed us such as Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, we’ll be working around reproductive rights.
I could point to exactly who in office, as an organizer, I would continue to organize with to get more and more support in the State Senate and the Assembly for bills like Good Cause Eviction, or Build Public Renewables Act, which passed the Senate, so our focus now is how I can use this role to push the Assembly to pass it as well.
In the longer run, you seem to have passing single-payer health care in New York state on your agenda. How do you plan to achieve that?
By continuing to get support from other electeds in passing the New York Health Act. We know that that is a hard fight, but it’s a necessary one. For me, it’s personal. I grew up in Elmhurst, Queens. During the pandemic, I was doing mutual aid efforts in Elmhurst where my mother lives and saw neighbors who are working class, black and brown, and immigrant New Yorkers dying due to lack of response from the government. It is imperative for me to fight for a future where we never let that happen again and making sure we have universal health care is a great way to do that.
It’s a budget issue, it’s a policy issue, and so we will push other electeds to fight a moral fight, learn from our mistakes, say that we will never leave people without health care, and continue fighting for budget justice and increased funding for hospitals such as Elmhurst Hospital, as well as for increased mental health services because when we’re talking about health care, we’re also talking about the quality of care that our New Yorkers are receiving, and ensuring that it includes physical health, mental health, and so much more. Taking a holistic approach to health is, as an organizer, going to be important in office.
Especially now under Mayor Eric Adams, you see New York City touting crime statistics to increase police funding. In one of your debates in the Democratic — and not Republican — primary, the moderator asked if you would support armed security guards at schools. This attitude toward policing is increasingly becoming the party platform. What policies do you support in policing and bail reform?
In this campaign, we were up against a candidate and PACs [Political Action Committees] that used a lot of fearmongering tactics around public safety, and our win shows that New Yorkers in this district united to say that we are rejecting the politics of fear and division. We’re too smart to fall for the lies that are being spread around public safety from these PACs, including literal disinformation that we saw in the mailers, for example.
I think it’s important to state that as a district, we reject the politics of division and fearmongering, we’re too smart for the lies, and in the future, I hope this sets a really great precedent to show that you can’t just throw money into fearmongering and buy districts. New Yorkers deserve better than that in our elections. So, I hope these people — the real estate developers and Trump Republicans — who literally spent over a million dollars against this campaign learn a lesson and do better.
When it comes to public safety, that’s a great segue from the conversation we had about a more holistic approach to health in Albany. Our public safety platform is a public health approach to public safety. We know our communities thrive when we are fully funding them, and that looks like more mental health services, fully funding our public schools, and more job programs and youth programming. At the core of our public safety platform, we are tired of just focusing on the punitive and we want to start focusing on the preventative.
What are the intervention points before a crime happens? How do we fund communities that have been under stress for years in a public health crisis and been destabilized by job loss and by being sick in the pandemic, so that they are recovering, and we are moving forward stronger together as a city? The [New York Police Department] might be controlled at the city level under Eric Adams, but we need to be focusing on what the state can do to fully fund our community and focus on a public health approach preventing crime.
Coming to bail reform, we didn’t support any roll backs to hard-fought bail reform, and we believe that no one should die at Rikers — and I’m devastated that even during this campaign more people died — awaiting trial. I’m really proud to overlap with City Council member Tiffany Caban who has been doing this work around public safety for years to support the closing of Rikers, and to support a more compassionate approach to public safety.
In light of the Inflation Reduction Act that passed in Congress as the first ever substantial climate legislation, can you speak to the extent to which climate is actually emphasized in federal and state policy? Also, since the DSA slate was also a “climate slate,” can you speak to your district’s expectation and how your priorities differ from the norm?
We’re happy to see that at the federal level we’re taking some action on climate, but we know that a lot needs to happen at the state level. We already talked about our climate priorities being passing climate legislation, because we haven’t passed any climate legislation in over four years, and we ended another legislative session without any significant investment in climate in our billions and billions of dollar budget.
Unfortunately the bar is on the ground, and we’re just trying to get climate legislation passed and trying to get money for it. But that’s important to fight at the state level because Build Public Renewables Act will give us the legal right to have publicly owned and publicly operated renewable energy. There is no future for New York State without building cleaner energy.
For the district, aside from the Build Public Renewables Act, we talk about green infrastructure that protects us from flooding, because so many parts of this district are not only at risk of flooding, have been increasingly flooded, but people for example in Queens have seen neighbors pass away as a result of the climate crisis such as during Hurricane Ida. So we need green infrastructure protecting us from the climate crisis.
Next, we need to create new green jobs that are union jobs. We have the opportunity to create tens of thousands of those by building that infrastructure, which might look, for example, like more protected bike lanes. In Brooklyn we have McGuinness Boulevard where so many crashes have happened, so we want to protect pedestrians and bikers, and we also want to make the Boulevard greener, working across levels of government. We want more trees in our neighborhood and our highways.
Lastly, aside from building green infrastructure, creating green jobs, and physically protecting ourselves, we need to continue pushing back against fossil fuel. The North Brooklyn pipeline is going to be a huge fight and one that I’m already tapped into and very excited to continue fighting in office. In “Asthma Alley” in Astoria, we have children growing up with health issues due to the power plants there. How we are closing down those power plants and substituting them with renewable energy is another fight.
Given that every DSA race is pretty much running against the Democratic Party even if primarying to be the party’s nominee, and given the NY-10 Congressional race in which there is talk of the Working Families Party fielding a candidate, do you think New York City and state are prototypes for multiparty politics? On the other hand, now that you’re the nominee, do you gain the support of the Queens Democratic Party?
I’m excited to be a Working Families Party–endorsed candidate, too, and what we’re doing that’s so powerful is that coalition-building. In New York, what we’re seeing actually is our candidates win when they’re backed by DSA and WFP. So maybe that’s less of an answer to the two-party system and more of what it means to unite the Left.
We raised in this campaign over $220,000 from over three thousand individual donors with a $46 average, including more in-district donors than all our opponents combined. So, this was fully a grassroots campaign funded by small-dollar donations, and we were up against an opponent who raised over $650,000 from real estate, Trump Republicans, lobbyists and corporations, and on top of that had PACs such as NY Forward, which was created by the Real Estate Board of New York to funnel additional real estate interests, all of which would have totaled well over a million dollars spent against us.
How we beat a career politician and that amount of money in this campaign is truly by doing the work of building a grassroots campaign funded by small-dollar donations with people behind us. We proved again that people always triumph over moneyed interests. As I mentioned before, we had nine hundred volunteers — it was our field and comms. In terms of field, we knocked on the most doors of any candidate in this campaign, so we did the work of talking to everyday New Yorkers regardless of where they were on the political spectrum. We had great conversations at the doors about what it meant to fight for working-class New Yorkers and how our government was failing us.
It wasn’t about whether I was doing that as a democratic socialist or Working Families Party candidate. I was doing it as a larger, unified movement candidate talking about how we need to push across the Left for these things in Albany. I think that made the difference, the combination of field game as well as the messaging at the doors where we were challenging people to think differently, which in turn was more about the values we were running on and less about the party we were part of.
As for the second question, yes I’m going to be part of Socialists in Office, but it is important to work with people who are part of the Democratic establishment and machine. It’s important to build relationships with more conservative Democrats, and even with Republicans in Albany that are coming from different parts of the state. I’m excited to build those relationships out, and all of those conversations will start from, “As a democratic socialist, I believe that working-class New Yorkers deserve universal health care, a Green New York, fully funded public schools and tuition-free CUNY.” I’m excited to work with them to continue fighting for and accomplishing those things. I’ve not spoken to the Queens Democratic Party since the victory, but I’m excited to start talking to them.
Since the dwindling of Build Back Better and the Roe [v. Wade] overturn, the morale of progressive let alone socialist politics seems to be on a downtrend. As someone who resoundingly won a tough election, what do you have to say about “the movement” to Bernie supporters who might be doubting whether the movement is still alive?
It’s alive, and it’s growing! Our victory shows that our numbers grew in every part of the city. Our membership has grown in every part of the city. Our movement is alive, well, and growing. I want to refer to what Senator Jabari Brisport once said, which was a beautiful sentiment: “I extend an olive branch.” To everyone who may have doubted us before and who maybe endorsed against us, I invite them to join our movement because we’re not going anywhere, and we want to work with as many people as possible.
So, to the Bernie supporters who might think that the movement was dying and may have taken a setback — olive branch; come back, join us, and help us continue to win. To people who have not been part of our movement or had doubts about democratic socialism, such as our mayor? Olive branch, come work with us. We’re fighting for the right things, and New York deserves to win some.