How Democratic Socialists Took On Centrists and the Right Wing at the Ballot Box

David Duhalde, deputy director of the Democratic Socialists of America, discusses the group’s recent electoral success—and what they have planned for 2018.

Sarah Jaffe November 25, 2017

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. We’re now sev­er­al months into the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, and activists have scored some impor­tant vic­to­ries in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many peo­ple, the ques­tion of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with orga­niz­ers, agi­ta­tors, and edu­ca­tors, not only about how to resist, but how to build a bet­ter world.

We want to increase the standards to get endorsed, and also, look at now we helped people win. We also want to make sure we hold them accountable—we don’t want people coming to us to get volunteers and leaving.

David Duhalde: I am David Duhalde, deputy direc­tor of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.

Sarah Jaffe: You had a pret­ty suc­cess­ful elec­tion night. Tell us what you were think­ing when you start­ed hear­ing the results come in?

David: It was very fun­ny for me. I will be quite hon­est that a lot of us were maybe deeply affect­ed by 2016 were, [Laughs] maybe not as opti­mistic as we should have been. I was speak­ing at a con­fer­ence for the Euro­pean Left. It was in Bel­gium, and I was many hours ahead. I thought, I am just going to go to bed and I will wake up and I will see how we did.” I didn’t want to stay up and lose sleep. Then, I awake to a flur­ry of text mes­sages and Face­book mes­sages like, Oh my god! Lee did it!” Refer­ring to Lee Carter in Vir­ginia. And, Oh my God! J.T. Scott won in Mass­a­chu­setts!” It was tru­ly like…I didn’t burst into tears, but I was fight­ing back tears in a hotel room alone because I had almost no one to share it with. But I did at least have Face­book and was mes­sag­ing peo­ple. It was tru­ly one of the best expe­ri­ences of my life. It was just such a pleas­ant sur­prise. It real­ly had exceed­ed my and a lot of oth­er people’s expec­ta­tions who want­ed it bad­ly, but just weren’t sure it was going to happen.

Sarah: Was there a par­tic­u­lar one that you were real­ly sur­prised and excit­ed by?

David: I am going to be uncre­ative and say the Lee Carter race in Vir­ginia, part­ly because I work out of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. office of DSA. So I was able to meet Lee for the first time at a major meet­ing we had after the elec­tion, where about 140 peo­ple came. He came and spoke and he impressed me deeply. He had come to a cou­ple of things, includ­ing my Labor Day bar­beque, to pitch his campaign.

Then I went down to vol­un­teer. But when you vol­un­teer it is hard to get a read some­times on the crowd. So, I was very hope­ful of course, but he had hired some great DSA mem­bers who were all under 23 and he was tak­ing on this huge incum­bent with a war chest who then dropped this anti-Com­mu­nist mail­er on us. I was just very worried.

Even though I knew we were doing every­thing right [the wor­ry is] you can do every­thing right and it doesn’t mat­ter. That was just a huge sur­prise. But the J.T. Scott race, too. I had actu­al­ly lived in Somerville, Mass. where J.T. is now an alder­man. It was impres­sive to me because I knew the machine. I remem­ber how dif­fi­cult it was to beat them and how recal­ci­trant some of the res­i­dents could be towards new peo­ple and change. So, even though it is a Demo­c­ra­t­ic strong­hold, there were def­i­nite­ly a new vers­es old res­i­dents [sit­u­a­tion]. And to see him take on this incum­bent — who I know def­i­nite­ly had a base and had been there for 15 years — but he just did it through blood, sweat and tears. It was just tru­ly overwhelming.

It was just tru­ly great to see all those grass-roots cam­paigns led by DSA, but also work­ing with Our Rev­o­lu­tion to real­ly sweep these elec­tions. But, [we had] lots of oth­er allies, espe­cial­ly in the Carter race, such as Planned Parenthood.

Sarah: That is inter­est­ing you men­tion those two in par­tic­u­lar, because one of these was against, of course, a Repub­li­can incum­bent. The oth­er one was against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty machine. I would love to hear you talk about that aspect of this; that in some places you were going up against these Right-wing peo­ple and in oth­er cas­es you are tak­ing on cen­trist Democrats.

David: It was an inter­est­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing scope of races that we took in. We ulti­mate­ly endorsed six can­di­dates nation­al­ly. Some of whom were run­ning against Democ­rats, like Gin­ger Jentzen, who was in Social­ist Alter­na­tive. She ran against two Democ­rats, actu­al­ly, in a ranked-choice vot­ing race. Oth­ers, like Jabari Brisport who is a Green [Par­ty mem­ber], ran against the machine Democ­rats. Most of them were Democ­rats them­selves and were run­ning either in pri­maries like Khad­er Al-Yateem in Brook­lyn and Tris­tan Rad­er, who won as well in Lake­wood, Ohio.

It real­ly shows a cou­ple of things. It shows, to me, that what I appre­ci­ate about the new DSA, the one post-Trump elec­tion, is how com­mit­ted it is to being flex­i­ble. Being will­ing to work around local con­di­tions. I think that is what is going to make a mod­ern DSA thrive. It is not nec­es­sar­i­ly hav­ing a one-size-fits-all mod­el, but real­ly allow­ing these grass-roots chap­ters, who are autonomous, to work with nation­al to do what fits them.

Some­times that meant, We are going to take on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine, like in Somerville and in Lake­wood.” Both of those actu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed, but some­times it is just win­ning the Demo­c­ra­t­ic bal­lot line that no one wants, like the Lee Carter race or Karen Lowe, who won the school board. What is real­ly excit­ing for me too is khalid kamau—who won and was one of our first nation­al­ly endorsed can­di­dates after Bernie — is that we are real­ly focus­ing on lots of these local races. Learn­ing the good lessons of bad peo­ple, see­ing how the Right wing has built such a great pipeline of local can­di­dates who are now part of the rul­ing class and part of the con­gres­sion­al Republicans.

We feel that it is very crit­i­cal for groups like DSA to be flex­i­ble, but also see our folks train them on races where they can learn, because it is very hard to win a race. What I think is beau­ti­ful about Bernie Sanders is how he ener­gized peo­ple. But what is also kind of wor­ri­some for an old man like me is that he made it seem too easy, I think, for peo­ple. Some peo­ple didn’t appre­ci­ate how much work he had put in through­out his career to win those races and to get to that place where he could do that. We’re work­ing with our folks and get­ting them to be flex­i­ble and know that, What works in Peo­ria, doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly work in Syra­cuse,” or vice ver­sa. It has been a real­ly great expe­ri­ence to see how DSAers and oth­er Social­ists that we have worked with have learned that.

Sarah: Take us back a lit­tle bit to the think­ing and the plan­ning around elec­toral strat­e­gy this year. You had the con­fer­ence, but talk about how the strat­e­gy came togeth­er and how peo­ple with­in DSA now are think­ing about elec­toral politics.

David: It is a very fas­ci­nat­ing process for us and real­ly one that evolved over the course of the year after Bernie Sanders first declared his inten­tion for the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry. DSA has come out of a move­ment that had real­ly want­ed to make the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty a Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, and a real­ly gen­uine pro­gres­sive par­ty. With the rise and suc­cess of neolib­er­al­ism in the 1990s and Clin­ton, both Bill and Hillary, and so many times Barack Oba­ma, it was very clear that the idea of chang­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was not real­ly in the cards.

So DSA shift­ed away from elec­toral pol­i­tics and its bread and but­ter mis­sion and focused on social move­ment work and oth­er forms of sophis­ti­ca­tion. But, Bernie Sanders real­ly ener­gized peo­ple and espe­cial­ly us. So DSA put a tremen­dous amount of ener­gy and sup­port into his can­di­da­cy, doing inde­pen­dent expen­di­tures. Then peo­ple start­ed com­ing to us for endorse­ments. He real­ly re-ener­gized the idea of peo­ple want­i­ng to run as Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists. We had to step to the plate.

We start­ed pret­ty small. We just did a hand­ful of endorse­ments with­out much work behind them, such as Mike Sylvester, who is now a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Maine, and Ian Schlak­man, who ran as a Green for the Bal­ti­more City Coun­cil and end­ed up stay­ing involved in our nation­al elec­toral com­mit­tee. That was pret­ty good. Then, khalid kamau came out of nowhere and Let’s work with you.” That is when we start­ed real­iz­ing we could build a nation­al pro­gram, using khalid’s cam­paign as a mod­el where we called dozens of chap­ters and got them to phone bank for him. Peo­ple were just so excit­ed to work for this amaz­ing mem­ber and fel­low Social­ist. That made us real­ize we could real­ly start build­ing Social­ist elec­toral power.

Then, we had a hand­ful of more peo­ple come to us for endorse­ments. Then by the spring of 2017, we kind of had to say, Stop.” What was hap­pen­ing was peo­ple were com­ing to us ad hoc, espe­cial­ly with our con­ven­tion com­ing up. We just didn’t have the band­width to take on peo­ple as need­ed. So, what we did was — and I think it shows to how strong DSA has got­ten — we cre­at­ed a nation­al elec­toral com­mit­tee. It includ­ed Ian Schlak­man who had run and nine oth­er great DSA mem­bers who applied and were accept­ed. They ranged from peo­ple who were with Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics, to peo­ple who had done vot­ers rights legal work, to peo­ple run­ning cam­paigns on their own, and allowed can­di­dates to apply to be endorsed.

What we did to rejig­ger and make it eas­i­er for us to insti­tute our elec­toral mis­sion, is we cre­at­ed a three-point cri­te­ria to receive a DSA endorse­ment. You had to be run­ning as a Social­ist. You didn’t have to be a DSA mem­ber, Gin­ger Jentzen is not. But you had to be a Social­ist and be okay with talk­ing about it, even if it wasn’t in the fore­front of your cam­paign. It was very impor­tant to us that you had to have the sup­port of a local DSA chap­ter. That is real­ly impor­tant for us because we don’t want to be that kind of D.C. or nation­al group, that kind of para­chutes in and tells peo­ple who they are going to be sup­port­ing. We real­ly want endorse­ments to come from the grass roots. For exam­ple, unfor­tu­nate­ly Chok­we Lumum­ba, we couldn’t sup­port him because we didn’t at that time have a Mis­sis­sip­pi DSA. Hope­ful­ly, that will be dif­fer­ent now, but we were very strict about that. Even if we real­ly love Lumum­ba, but it wasn’t possible.

The third thing was we real­ly want­ed peo­ple to show us that they had a path­way to vic­to­ry. We didn’t need some­body to say, I am 100 per­cent a shoo-in to win,” but we want­ed peo­ple to real­ly show us they have been think­ing about, what were the steps to win their races? We want­ed peo­ple who real­ly were going to be out there hit­ting the pave­ment and talk­ing to vot­ers. From this, we were able to select six can­di­dates. Then, we real­ly built a nation­al infra­struc­ture to sup­port them through our base. Social media is a huge asset, espe­cial­ly for local races try­ing to draw nation­al and poten­tial­ly inter­na­tion­al atten­tion and dona­tions. But also, using our net­work of hun­dreds of vol­un­teers and thou­sands of mem­bers to do phone bank­ing and to do door knock­ing. For exam­ple, in Seat­tle Jon Grant, who ran as a great hous­ing advo­cate, unfor­tu­nate­ly ran against a very good lib­er­al Demo­c­rat. So it made it a hard race. The DSA knocked on 22,000 doors and we made sure to send out emails for them to reach oth­er mem­bers in the State of Wash­ing­ton they might not have reached.

The same thing with Carter. We worked hard to talk to the media and raise aware­ness, espe­cial­ly in the D.C. Belt­way about his race which helped gen­er­ate atten­tion he might not have got­ten. So, strate­gi­cal­ly, we shift­ed and we are try­ing to look to 2018 about how we are going to expand this pro­gram, because 2017 was kind of the test run. We will see what hap­pens, but we def­i­nite­ly want to be more sophis­ti­cat­ed. We want to increase the stan­dards to get endorsed, and also, look at now we helped peo­ple win. We also want to make sure we hold them account­able — we don’t want peo­ple com­ing to us to get vol­un­teers and leav­ing. There are a lot of ques­tions that are going to come up that the nation­al polit­i­cal com­mit­tee, which is DSA’s lead­er­ship, are work­ing on to real­ly make sure we are still a very rel­e­vant and demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tion that is elect­ing Social­ists who will be held account­able by their constituents.

Sarah: How does the broad­er post-Bernie spec­trum of groups and orga­ni­za­tions fit togeth­er in this moment? There were a bunch of Our Rev­o­lu­tion endorsed can­di­dates, there were some DSA endorsed can­di­dates, there were oth­er local peo­ple who come out of that move­ment all over the coun­try. I am won­der­ing how you think this move­ment, such as it is, fits togeth­er. Or, where are some of the tensions?

David: That is a real­ly great ques­tion. Actu­al­ly, sim­i­lar to how my expec­ta­tions were exceed­ed about how well DSA did on elec­tion night in Novem­ber 2017, I have been rather pleas­ant­ly sur­prised about how well the dif­fer­ent post-Bernie for­ma­tions have been doing and work­ing togeth­er to keep this polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion going. I want to give one great exam­ple, which is Our Rev­o­lu­tion either local­ly or nation­al­ly endorsed all of our can­di­dates that we endorsed nation­al­ly, as well. Not to men­tion tons of local races. We have a very good work­ing rela­tion­ship with Our Rev­o­lu­tion. We often share infor­ma­tion and talk about can­di­dates. We also have this affil­i­a­tion pro­gram where DSA chap­ters can be the local Our Rev­o­lu­tion chap­ter as well. That is to avoid unnec­es­sary con­flicts and dupli­ca­tion of efforts. So, our Knoxville chap­ter — which helped elect two DSA mem­bers— is also the Our Rev­o­lu­tion chap­ter. That is a real­ly great exam­ple of keep­ing this col­lab­o­ra­tion going.

But also, Social­ist Alter­na­tive, which is one of the oth­er major social­ist groups that endorsed Bernie Sanders, worked with us not only on Gin­ger Jentzen’s cam­paign, but they were big sup­port­ers of Jabari Brisport run­ning on the Green Par­ty tick­et. So, there was lots of good ener­gy com­ing out of team­ing up and keep­ing this work going. That was some­thing you just didn’t know going in after 2016, if that is going to be kept alive.

We are def­i­nite­ly going to see what hap­pens in 2018. I do have Brand New Con­gress look­ing at some of the peo­ple we are look­ing at for con­gres­sion­al races. And Jus­tice Democ­rats, of course, too. There is def­i­nite­ly a lot of poten­tial out there, and it has been real­ly excit­ing to see dif­fer­ent groups who bring dif­fer­ent things are able to still keep this going, and also, You help me and I will help you.” I espe­cial­ly saw that with Our Rev­o­lu­tion and Social­ist Alter­na­tive. That makes me incred­i­bly opti­mistic for 2018 that this post-Bernie ener­gy will keep going. I think Sanders has def­i­nite­ly said all the right tunes to encour­age that. He post­ed about Lee Carter’s vic­to­ry. He is clear­ly still pro­mot­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist can­di­dates and it gets him very excit­ed. That is only going to keep our base ener­gized, too.

Sarah: I want to wrap up by talk­ing about 2018 and what is com­ing down the pike. This is going to be the con­gres­sion­al elec­tions. What are you guys work­ing on so far?

David: Well, we have not made any endorse­ments yet. Def­i­nite­ly, peo­ple have approached us on the con­gres­sion­al lev­el for endorse­ments. We also have lots of locals who are already get­ting excit­ed. I was at our gen­er­al mem­ber­ship meet­ing in D.C. and three coun­ty coun­cil­lors from Mont­gomery Coun­ty, which is the coun­ty north of the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, came to speak. Two of whom are DSA mem­bers, includ­ing one who is run­ning for coun­ty exec­u­tive. If he won, he would be the Social­ist with the largest con­stituen­cy in Amer­i­ca. There are twice as many peo­ple in Mont­gomery Coun­ty as there are in Vermont.

So, we are def­i­nite­ly see­ing peo­ple already com­ing right now. I think what we are look­ing for in 2018 is to expand our net­work of nation­al vol­un­teers who can then real­ly work with local vol­un­teers. Because the key still will be the influ­ence we are going to have will be much more local­ly, rais­ing pro­files nation­al­ly and work­ing to cre­ate new sys­tems to make sure that can­di­dates will come to us with a clear­er under­stand­ing of what they want from us and what we want from them. And look­ing at maybe dif­fer­ent tiers of endorsements.

Very impor­tant­ly, we are also look­ing at how we can sup­port and hold can­di­dates account­able after the elec­tion. We under­stand that, of course, you first have to help get peo­ple elect­ed. Where you help them get elect­ed, that increas­es the inter­est they will have in you, and we want to make sure that we are going to be edu­cat­ing DSA chap­ters to hold peo­ple account­able. That means we are going to have to con­tribute a lot to their cam­paigns, but then also have clear expec­ta­tions. For exam­ple, it was very excit­ing com­ing out of our con­ven­tion, we have a strict pol­i­cy that we only endorse pro-choice can­di­dates and help­ing DSA chap­ters think about how they set their own stan­dards for endorse­ments, I think, will be real­ly key.

Just get­ting peo­ple to think strate­gi­cal­ly, be sophis­ti­cat­ed, but also keep politi­cians hon­est, ulti­mate­ly, is a huge role DSA will play. And, of course, pri­or­i­tiz­ing elect­ing Social­ists will be our niche com­pared to great post-Bernie groups and def­i­nite­ly our focus will still be advanc­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist agen­da more explicitly.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and also with DSA’s elec­toral efforts?

David: You can fol­low DSA at @DemSocialists on Twit­ter. But, if peo­ple have any ques­tions or com­ments or just want to get endorse­ments, learn how the process works, I can always be reached at info@​dsausa.​org and that will go straight to me. We are also going to be putting out a web­site pret­ty short­ly about our elec­toral work. Peo­ple should be on the look­out for that web­site at www​.DSAUSA​.org.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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