New York’s Socialist Bench Just Got Even Bigger

Democratic Socialists of America now boasts eight representatives in New York’s state government and an ambitious legislative agenda focused on working-class issues like childcare, transit, and housing.

Kristen Gonzalez speaking at a rally in support of the Unemployment Bridge Program, New York, January 11, 2023. (Kristen Gonzalez / Twitter)

As of last week, when new elected officials were sworn in and began their jobs in the Albany, New York state has a total of eight socialists serving in its Assembly and Senate — more socialist representation than any other state in the country, and more than New York has seen in over a century.

This year the legislative group, which calls itself Socialists in Office, has ambitious plans, building on the recent legislative achievements of New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA).

The newcomers are Kristen Gonzalez, a twenty-seven-year-old Queens-born tech worker and community organizer, in the state Senate, and Sarahana Shrestha, a Nepali immigrant and climate activist in the Hudson Valley, in the Assembly.

Shrestha and Gonzalez will join an existing slate of six socialists, all of whom were endorsed by NYC-DSA. They have pledged to work closely with the organization — and among themselves — to coordinate legislative priorities with organizing campaigns.

The six socialist legislators who already comprised DSA’s slate are relatively new to government. In the state Senate, Julia Salazar, of North Brooklyn, was elected in 2018 — the same year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an upset victory over the longtime boss of the Queens Democratic Party, and a cabal of conservative Democrats was ousted from state government by progressives. Jabari Brisport was elected to the Senate from Central Brooklyn in 2020, and that same year, Sunset Park’s Marcela Mitaynes, Greenpoint’s Emily Gallagher, Astoria’s Zohran Mamdani, and Phara Souffrant Forrest of Crown Heights joined the Assembly.

For a small group of neophytes, the socialists have punched above their weight. Each can point to specific legislative victories of their own: in 2019, for example, Salazar played a crucial role in the biggest expansion of tenants’ rights in decades, and in 2021, Souffrant Forrest introduced — and passed — a bill reforming the parole system. Their biggest victory as a group was in 2021, when DSA, in coalition with other organizations, ran a grassroots Tax the Rich campaign. At a time when many New Yorkers were facing dire budget cuts, the legislators managed to save many vital public services from the austerity axe.

This time, the socialist slate — and DSA — aim to go bigger. With 2021’s Tax the Rich campaign “we stopped the era of austerity,” says Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus, a spokesperson for NYC-DSA’s Tax the Rich campaign. “Now we are fighting for an era of abundance.”

The socialist elected officials — backed by members tabling and knocking on doors to convince neighbors to pressure their colleagues — aim to tax the rich again, this time to raise $40 billion in new revenues to fund an exciting array of much-needed public goods. Asked about the year’s priorities this week, Gonzalez told me, “As part of the Socialists in Office caucus, our priority is to materially improve the conditions of the working class.”

To that end, the socialists are pushing for huge investments in mass transit to increase frequency and fund needed repairs, as well as to make buses free. A robust organizing campaign around a cluster of bills called “Fix the MTA” is already bringing in people who have never been involved in DSA before.

While that campaign focuses on the city, Shrestha is also working to bring more public transit to the Hudson Valley. When I caught up with her this week, she told me gas prices were one of the top concerns in her district, and her constituents, especially senior citizens, voiced great interest in public transit as a solution. At present, she says, transit in the area is unreliable and doesn’t even reach most people: “Me, for example,” she laughs. “I would love to be able to take it to work.”

This year’s Tax the Rich revenues would also fund a New Deal for CUNY and SUNY, the public universities of New York City and state, respectively, making them tuition-free; universal childcare (a special priority for Brisport, who has been working with organizers and lawmakers around the state advocating for this basic service enjoyed by parents around the world); and social housing modeled partly on Vienna’s system, which is one of the most enduring and successful in history.

Urgently, given the climate crisis and many New Yorkers’ untenably high energy bills, the socialists are also working with a growing coalition to pass the Build Public Renewables Act, which would, just as it says, publicly fund renewable energy and begin to lay the political and economic foundations for public ownership of all utilities.

The socialist elected officials are also working to pass Good Cause Eviction — a badly needed law protecting tenants from losing their homes for no good reason — and the New York Health Act, which would create a single payer health care system in the state. The latter is an uphill climb, especially given the resistance of large public sector unions, but the idea continues to gain support in the legislature and among the public

The socialists’ rising strength is taking place in an alarming larger context. New York City mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, is hammering the working class with austerity, and his fearmongering on urban crime helped Republicans win big in the suburbs in the midterms.

State Democratic Party leader Jay Jacobs, who is more interested in attacking leftists than in running serious campaigns against Republicans, is inexplicably still employed even after presiding over a gruesome midterm scenario in which New York was the only blue state to have suffered this year’s predicted red wave. And Democratic governor Kathy Hochul is so uninspiring that she almost lost her liberal-to-moderate electorate to a right-of-Trump Republican.

After Governor Hochul’s lackluster State of the State address this week, the eight socialist elected state officials released a statement accusing her of failing to use her muscle to tax the rich and address real human needs, instead offering “unfunded half measures and non-solutions.” While Hochul claimed that housing was a “human right” and that climate change was the “greatest threat to our planet,” the socialist lawmakers observed that she has no plans to protect tenants or create enough housing for working people, nor did she “commit the revenue or propose the policies needed to take power back from the fossil fuel companies.”

If the mainstream New York Democrats continue to flail and deteriorate, and to struggle against far-right Republicans, they’ll create both obstacles and opportunities for socialists. On the one hand, the centrist Democrats seem more resistant to compromise with the Left, and often, more focused on fighting socialists than in defeating Republicans. Yet focusing on the socialists’ issues — which as Gonzalez says, address the material conditions of the working class — could also help with the latter cause. Build Public Renewables, for example, is more popular with the public than the governor. Turnout for Shrestha helped Democrat Pat Ryan beat a Republican in a close race for a congressional seat in an overlapping district.

In our conversation, Shrestha pointed out that “affordability is not just a Republican issue.” The Democrats have allowed the Republicans to capture the cost of living as a talking point. Although the struggle to afford the basic needs of life — from gas and eggs to rent, tuition, and daycare — is more politically salient than any other issue, and a matter of survival to millions, neither major party has much of an answer.

For socialists, a key part of the answer is socializing the provision of basic human needs: transit, education, health care, childcare, housing, and much more. In the short run, when the economy as a whole is squeezed, cost-of-living woes can be eased by redistributing wealth: forcing bosses to pay workers better and taxing the rich to socialize as many necessary goods and services as politically possible.

That’s why Shrestha won in the Hudson Valley, by explaining how public ownership of utilities — and in the short run, publicly funded renewable energy — could lower regular people’s energy bills while also addressing the climate crisis, and that rich people and corporations could afford to pay for it. That campaign was a model for doing politics and points to a way forward for NYC-DSA this year, even in the context of a Republican surge.