Jonathan Soto Is a Bronx Socialist Running for State Assembly

Jonathan Soto

Jonathan Soto is running to represent the Bronx in the New York State Assembly and join the growing bench of democratic socialists in Albany. Jacobin spoke to him about why he’s running and his anti-austerity, pro-tenant platform.

New York State Assembly candidate Jonathan Soto (left) with his family. (Jonathan Soto for Assembly)

Interview by
Sara Wexler

Since 2018, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has steadily grown its bench in the New York state legislature, now boasting five assemblymembers and three state senators. But though DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez prominently represents the Bronx in Congress, DSA has not yet elected any representatives from the borough at the state level.

Jonathan Soto, a community organizer and former staffer for AOC, hopes to change that. He is running for the 82nd State Assembly District, which includes the neighborhoods of City Island, Co-op City, Country Club, Edgewater, Morris Park, Pelham Bay, Throggs Neck, and Westchester Square. Soto is challenging incumbent Democrat Michael Benedetto, his second attempt after trying for the seat in 2022. Jacobin sat down with Soto recently to discuss why he’s running and what he hopes to accomplish alongside other socialist legislators in Albany.

Sara Wexler

Why are you running for state assembly?

Jonathan Soto

I am a public-school parent — a democratic socialist who has a thirteen-year-old kid in New York public schools, a school that has been defunded by the mayor. The mayor supports my opponent, Michael Benedetto, who also happens to be the education committee chair for the entire state [in the assembly].

I think that, since last time I ran two years ago when I received 36 percent of the vote, conditions are different. Not only in terms of the likelihood of our chances of winning — because we are running with the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City branch — but also because the mayor, who is Benedetto’s main surrogate and ally, is deeply unpopular. The Bronx Democratic Party is a paper tiger, whose time has come to yield to the working-class power that’s in this borough.

The system of governance of our schools, which is under mayoral control — a $40-billion budget with oversight [in the hands of] the mayor — Benedetto is the key person that makes that happen because it gets renewed at the state level. I’ve also seen the use of censorship through mayoral control of schools: of teachers who are being suspended for pro-ceasefire protests, of community education council parents who are being doxed and harassed.

As a DSA member, [I think] the Build Public Renewables Act is a great piece of legislation, but we need an executive who’s going to make sure that the law and the agency mandates are met. The state legislature and the state assembly specifically is well-positioned [to push that] — with the Socialists in Office working as a bloc to make sure that there’s a greater expression in the legislature and in our government of the working-class power and socialist politics we need.

Sara Wexler

You’ve already spoken to them a little, but what would you say are the main issues you’re running on?

Jonathan Soto

In addition to democratizing our schools, housing [is a big issue]. Our district is majority renters. In our district, we have the United States’ largest cooperative development in Co-op City, with over forty thousand residents, which was built by trade unionists in the ‘60s. Labor built that house, and I think it’s one of the last refugees of affordability in the Bronx and the entire city.

It was created by the Mitchell-Llama Program, which was a state-animated program that no longer [builds new housing] because the state got out of developing housing. The federal government has retrenched, and we need a revival of the Mitchell-Llama Program, which I believe [should be a] green social housing program. I point to Co-Op City as an example of a high-quality-of-life, really dynamic working-class community, primarily municipal workers who are in unions, but with a deep legacy of solidarity.

[We] also [need] good cause eviction. We need to fight for TOPA, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. We need to develop more housing, but it needs to happen parallel to tenant protection. There needs to be a both-and approach, where the state takes a more robust role in developing housing.

Climate is incredibly important for our district. We live in a coastal district; we get flooded all the time. The infrastructure is weakened; for example, in City Island, we have rampant flooding.

Sara Wexler

Rents and the cost of living have been skyrocketing in New York City recently. What are the causes of this, and how can we help resolve it? For the past few years, DSA-endorsed state senator Julia Salazar has sponsored a good cause eviction bill — what’s your position on that?

Jonathan Soto

Good cause is incredibly important, and it must pass in our state right now. The state legislature is negotiating with the governor, who says she doesn’t want good cause eviction; this is the time for the state legislature to be muscular, to assume its role as the people’s house and take on the executive, who is bought by real estate.

We cannot have a limited good cause eviction only for New York City, because that will create negative externalities. We need a statewide approach to good cause. Lots of people upstate need it, and we have a full New York State vision of democratic socialism. We need to fight for every community, whether in Buffalo or down here in the Bronx.

Second, we need to make sure that we develop more housing and social housing; the green social housing agency that’s being proposed is something that our campaign 100-percent supports. The state needs to get into the business of developing housing. The private market will not build the affordable housing that we need, because they’re incentivized by profit. A public-private-partnership model of developing housing in New York State has not only been shown to fail time and time again, but it’s now accelerating the crisis of housing that we’re seeing throughout our entire city.

Also, there’s the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which is a great bill that allows tenants to organize with their neighbors in buildings and apartments throughout to [get] cooperative ownership of their buildings. That’s important when we think about leveling the playing field between renters and workers and these unaccountable, multimillion-dollar real-estate LLCs that just gobble up properties and flip them for profit.

My opponent supports vacancy-decontrol efforts, which would repeal a lot of the vacancy-control measures passed in the 2019 historic wave of rent reforms and protections that Senator Julia Salazar spearheaded. Benedetto is in the pocket of real estate; he takes donations from real estate.

We need more housing for all people, but more specifically for those who are being priced out the most. This is a comprehensive vision of development, but development driven by the state, that is deeply affordable, that includes tenant protections and opportunities for cooperative power through TOPA.

Sara Wexler

One of your main issues is access to quality public schools. Mayor Eric Adams has proposed massive budget cuts to libraries and New York City public schools.

Jonathan Soto

Because the mayor is now so deeply unpopular, he is backtracking on the cuts that he proposed and talking about restoring some of these cuts. That’s not going to help him: in spite of turning back these specific cuts, in the last year or two, he’s already defunded my daughter’s school, Truman High School in Co-Op City, by over $3 million. That defunding has been structural, and it has been devastating. We see, as you mentioned, cuts to public goods, like libraries and parks and access points for people to have recreation.

Education is a $40-billion budget, and that’s why I think when it comes to mass politics, we need to think about budgets and the Department of Education budget when it comes to that. Because it’s a really large budget, and Adams has been grifting and creating cronyship at the expense of our kids and their education. For example, we have overcrowded classrooms. My daughter has thirty-three kids in her classroom. Even though there’s a state mandate to lower class sizes, this administration is violating the law.

Right now there is a debate around mayoral control of schools. The long and short of it is that Michael Bloomberg created it in 2002 in order to increase privatization through charter schools. It gets renewed every four to five years, because the state in its constitution guarantees a right to education. The state cannot yield its entire authority to a locality like New York City, but it does it through this billionaire-concocted mayoral control system — which has devastated Chicago, which has devastated Philadelphia.

These cities have been eliminating mayoral control, [but not] New York City. Now it’s getting reauthorized, and the state legislature is close to finding an alternative. We need to take power away from the mayor, and there’s a proposal for doing a version of municipal or city control of schools, where, say, the city council would have priority over the budget when it comes to education. We need to take power away from the mayor and democratize our education budgets.

Sara Wexler

You were raised by working-class parents and grew up moving between New York and Puerto Rico. How did that upbringing shape your politics?

Jonathan Soto

I came from a family in Puerto Rico that was very religious and also were sugarcane workers in the western part of Puerto Rico. In the Caribbean, sugarcane became a tool for capitalists to exploit local communities; my family was four or five generations of sugarcane workers.

In the movements or protests of the sugarcane workers, a lot of the know-your-rights education that I heard about from my family happened in the houses of worship — just because they were gathering together at a minimum of fifty-two times a year. That shaped a lot of my life growing up, because my parents were ministers and moved back and forth.

It was very cultish, to be clear. Because there’s an element of Christian nationalism, which is what’s animating Donald Trump right now. It’s the same thing you saw at that time in Puerto Rico through the missionaries.

However, I found power in how it interacted with workers’ rights, especially as I started reading more and learning about history, labor, and religious socialists like Eugene Debs for example. When you look at the red-letter, socialist Bible, just the words of — “The last will be first,” “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” “Don’t fear those who can destroy the body, fear those who can destroy the soul” — there’s a working-class abolitionist interpretation, which I saw twisted and used to honor the capitalists and the rich and the powerful and the military.

That’s what I think my life is — a reaction to that, and my organizing and liberation theology was a big part of it. In New York City, I started organizing with the end-stop-and-frisk and Fight for $15 movements.

On the stop-and-frisk situation: There was the death of Ramarley Graham up in the Bronx, when the NYPD followed him into his grandma’s bathroom and killed him. That happened fourteen years ago. I was in the Bronx going to school, and in a social justice class that was organized by faith leaders to protest against this, because there was a tradition of faith leaders standing up to police violence. I think that’s where I started engaging in organizing here in New York City, and then the Fight for $15 movement happened, and lots of faith leaders also were there.

For me, it’s important to relate that to my background growing up, how we may be caught up in institutions that have bad ideology — but within those institutions, people could intuitively organize together and understand we could liberate each other when we have these values. I think the values are there: democracy, internationalism, and worker power.

Sara Wexler

What would you say makes you different from establishment Democrats in New York like your opponent?

Jonathan Soto

Number one, Michael Benedetto has signed on to a very Islamophobic letter in the state assembly, which didn’t get as much attention as it should have. It used us-versus-Palestine, war-of-civilization-type rhetoric and called on us to spread democracy through war.

That [makes for a clear distinction [with] my approach: [I think we need] not only an immediate ceasefire, but we need to pass Not on Our Dime. We need to ensure that we do not aid the nonprofit-industrial complex funding of settler movements that is happening now in Palestine. We need to make sure that the Israeli government is held accountable.

I also support good cause eviction; Benedetto does not. He also wants to reverse the 2019 vacancy control laws, which would be devastating for many in my community.

Benedetto also has taken money from Donald Trump. He took money from Donald Trump for the Trump golf course in our district, which was recently renamed; Benedetto was at the opening ceremony here with Donald Trump back in 2015 and took money after Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency.

Benedetto has also voted in the state legislature to protect Donald Trump’s taxes [from being released]. For me it’s a concerning signal that if Donald Trump returns to the presidency, Benedetto would be a state facilitator of the federal oppression that will come under Trump. He’s taking money from Republicans right now in our district who ran in the recent city council race.

Benedetto, I would say, is a relic of a bygone machine politics of the Bronx that is very brittle, but that causes lots of harm. His toxicity has been most deeply felt in our public schools: The Bronx is last in literacy rates. The Bronx is last in special education services. The Bronx is last when it comes to student outcomes. As the first in command for education in the entire state, this happened under his watch. So that’s the main difference when it comes to our education policy.

Sara Wexler

You are a self-described democratic socialist. What does democratic socialism mean to you?

Jonathan Soto

Democratic socialism means democracy for the many and not power for the few — the few like my assemblymember, but also every single elected official that is bought by real estate, bought by Wall Street, and bought by foreign interests. Democratic socialism is about swinging at the piñata so that everybody has access to the fruits of our labor.

I mentioned Eugene Debs and his vision of fighting for democracy, fighting for internationalism, and fighting for worker power. He went to jail for advocating against suppression of free speech, as an antiwar leader during World War I. He made clear that the workers, through the labor movement, are the ones that need to stand up. And he said something that resonates for me really deeply now, that the people have never declared a war — it’s always been states or governments.

For me, democratic socialism expresses itself in a clear commitment to an internationalist vision: Not on Our Dime, cease-fire now, protecting democracy, protecting speech in our schools, protecting the right to protest. . . . There’s lots of suppression there, and we need to have a revival, I think, of civil liberties that comes from the left. We need to ensure that we have a litmus test for judges in New York State, whether appointed at the top or elected throughout, that they need to be fierce defenders of workers’ and labor rights. That is what democratic socialism means practically in the context that I’m operating in and how it expresses itself through what we’re trying to do.

Sara Wexler

What role has New York City DSA played in your campaign?

Jonathan Soto

New York City DSA was our first endorsement in this cycle, and it happened early. It’s been building a lot off what we’ve done from last time. DSA not only catalyzed the success that we’re having against our opponent, but it is a key part of why our campaign will win this time.

I am excited to be in coalition with a group of state legislators when we come in. As someone who has organized outside of Albany for a long time, it is very difficult to be successful if you’re not organizing as part of a committed bloc with a clear vision.

That is what I feel now during the campaign, not only confident but empowered — knowing there’s a group of state elected officials, but at the same time, an organization that is doing the work on the ground. It’s showing itself in our field numbers and our fundraising, and it’s been powered by DSA. As a DSA member, DSA is my political home, and I’m excited to be endorsed by them.