After Sweeping Statewide Races, DSA Aims to Put a Socialist Caucus on New York’s City Council

Through democratic, grassroots-powered campaigns and an army of volunteers, socialists are flexing their muscle to bring a left-wing policy agenda to New York City.

Annie Levin

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On January 9, tenant organizer Michael Hollingsworth joined a human chain blocking bulldozers from entering a worksite in Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights neighborhood. The previous spring, a judge in a rezoning suit issued a temporary restraining order on construction, but real estate developers had ignored it. New York City police officers present at the site also refused to recognize the judge’s order and arrested several of the organizers who formed the blockade.

Hollingsworth links the ordeal to bad decisions made by his City Council representative, Laurie Cumbo. Cumbo, who voted in favor of the rezoning and is named in the lawsuit, is one of 35 New York City Council members whose seats will become open” next year as incumbents face term limits, out of the full 51-member Council. We had to sue her because she never engaged with the community in terms of what we wanted for rezoning,” Hollingsworth says. After being part of the blockade, Hollingsworth wrote to his tenant union, saying that empty City Council seat in 2021 is starting to look really good.” 

On November 14, the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsed Hollingsworth and five other socialists running for City Council: Adolfo Abreu, Alexa Avilés, Tiffany Cabán, Brandon West and Jaslin Kaur. The endorsement announcement came less than two weeks after the November general election, which saw all of NYC-DSA’s endorsed candidates on the ballot — for seats ranging from state senate to the House of Representatives — win their races. 

With the majority of seats coming open on the New York City Council, at least 300 candidates have already thrown their hats in the ring. All of NYC-DSA’s endorsed candidates will be running for open seats, with the primary election slated for June 22, 2021. This will also mark the first election to use ranked-choice voting since the democratic reform was adopted as a ballot measure in 2019

Should the DSA slate be voted in, candidates have signaled they intend to form a socialist caucus on the City Council. According to DSA organizers, this caucus could work in coalition with other progressives to form a large enough bloc to bring significant changes to the body, from choosing the next Speaker of the Council to passing a budget that prioritizes working people. 

NYC-DSA, with a membership currently numbering over 5,800, has made significant inroads into local government since Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her historic primary in 2018. But it wasn’t until the organization swept in its endorsed state races this year that its locally endorsed candidates came to be viewed as potential frontrunners. The November election saw Jabari Brisport win a seat in the New York State Senate (where he joins DSA-endorsee Julia Salazar), while DSA-backed Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes and Zohran Mamdani were elected to the State Assembly.

DSA’s winning strategy, according to its National Electoral Committee’s strategy document, includes developing its own candidates and building out a campaign infrastructure that is democratically controlled by membership. According to DSA, this model allows the organization to stand up to the Democratic Party establishment by developing its own power base — one that includes data collection, fundraising and fieldwork, with a volunteer canvassing army in the thousands. The aim is to have candidates rely on DSA, instead of the corporate Democratic machine, for campaign support. 

As local New York politics have moved left in recent years, many candidates now run on progressive platforms, but only a select few earn access to DSA’s resources. Leanna Ballester, a former DSA organizer who was involved in candidate selection for the 2021 races and now serves as campaign manager for DSA-endorsed City Council candidate Brandon West, says the process included in-depth candidate interviews, questionnaires and research on district demographics. After weeks of assessment, candidates were selected and presented at candidate forums and then, in October, voted on by the membership at geographic branch locations. Finally, this democratic process was ratified by an elected representative body known as the Citywide Leadership Committee. Out of over 50 individuals who sought the group’s endorsement, just six received it. This long democratic process gets us to candidates that the membership has bought into and is really excited about,” Ballester says. 

With meetings moved to Zoom during the pandemic, hundreds of members were able to attend the DSA candidate forums. Attendees were given the opportunity to speak and to question potential candidates, with more well-known DSA members such as former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, as well as current elected office holders, waiting their turn to speak alongside rank-and-file members. 

The candidates selected from this process run the gamut of left-wing organizing in New York City. Like Michael Hollingsworth, Alexa Avilés in Brooklyn and Adolfo Abreu in the Bronx have backgrounds in housing justice organizing — a high priority for the slate given the high rents and housing shortage in New York City. Jaslin Kaur, 24, is an organizer in Queens who has advocated against gender discrimination in schools. Brandon West is a campaign manager at the Center for Popular Democracy and an organizer in DSA’s Afrosocialist Caucus. Tiffany Cabán, probably the most well-known member of the slate, was a public defender who ran for Queens District Attorney in 2019 on a decarceral platform and came within a hair’s breadth of victory. 

Candidates from such different corners of left-wing organizing could potentially bring large coalitions together around their platforms. For Jaslin Kaur, this coalition development will be a vital part of her work on the Council if she wins her race in East Queens. In her jurisdiction, she plans on using her campaign’s relational organizing” — which facilitates outreach between friends and neighbors — to continue campaigning, she says, beyond just the ballot.” In order to build democratic socialism through the City Council, Kaur says the slate will need to expand the electorate, build out a DSA membership, and build out socialism within our respective districts so we can continue building this organizing model and bringing people into these policy issues.”

Brandon West believes that if the slate is elected to the Council, this coalition development will be key to pursuing its policy agenda. I think the socialist caucus can be an opportunity for us to set the narrative of what real change is,” he says. West believes that one of the ways they can accomplish this is through working with left-wing unions in the city that have rank-and-file folks who are pushing the union leadership in the direction they should go in, who are taking the political center of gravity from where it’s always been.” 

A candidate like West, who has both worked in Mayor de Blasio’s Office of Management and Budget and helped organize the June occupation of New York City Hall to defund the NYPD, could help bring together organizations and community groups that would not otherwise be in the same spaces. A number of the DSA-endorsed candidates boast this multiplicity of experiences in which they have one foot in governance or progressive nonprofits and the other in local grassroots organizing. 

Bianca Cunningham — a former NYC-DSA Co-Chair who also helped organize the June occupation of City Hall — attended Brandon West’s forum and encouraged the membership to vote for him because of his DSA bona fides. Brandon is cadre,” she said, describing him as an active organizer who had been with her on the front lines of the protests.

Sean Reilly, a DSA member and organizer in Brooklyn, attended Hollingsworth’s endorsement forum and supported his candidacy, impressed with his work with the Crown Heights Tenant Union — an organization that had helped Reilly organize a tenant association in his own building. 

One of Hollingsworth’s most vocal supporters at his forum was DSA-endorsed Assembly Member-elect Phara Souffrant Forrest. Living in the same building in Brooklyn, they helped organize their tenant association together. 

As DSA endorsees, the City Council candidates are expected to work as a team, and to share resources. West’s campaign manager Ballester says, the strength in numbers is really important when you’re working against an establishment that has a lot of money and a lot of power. From an emotional and mental state, it’s important not only for the candidates but for everybody doing the work for them. Also, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel because somebody had already done it and can share.”

With Covid-19 cases continuing to rise, team organizing is becoming especially important as campaigns have fewer opportunities for door-knocking and in-person campaigning. Souffrant Forrest believes that this camaraderie was essential to DSA’s primary wins over the summer. She said of her fellow NYC-DSA slate members: We come out for each other. It’s everything you could imagine as an incoming legislator no one wants to let you know. It’s super helpful to have at least four brains working together and that’s what I wish for the City Council too.”

DSA organizers hope that the group’s electoral strategy — combining democratic buy-in with a strong infrastructure — stands as an example of how a socialist organization can develop staying power and expand its base in the face of a powerful Democratic machine. However, this emphasis on electoral work is unique among many grassroots organizations where, traditionally, community organizing precedes electoral victories. In New York, DSA reversed this old formula to gain traction in the districts where it’s currently building bases of support. As Brandon West puts it: It’s weird that this has been inverted, but mainly it’s because the establishment is so incredibly poor at engaging people that DSA had to do the work and then run the table very quickly.”

The endorsed Council candidates hope to work alongside DSA endorsed state elected officials as well as other left-leaning lawmakers and groups such as the Working Families Party and Make the Road New York to achieve goals such as undoing austerity, defunding the NYPD and taxing the rich. When it comes down to policies,” Souffrant Forrest says, we ain’t asking for half of anything.”

Should the NYC-DSA City Council candidates succeed in their races, the slate will follow in the footsteps of the six DSA-endorsed candidates elected to the Chicago City Council in 2019. As in Chicago, the New York socialists’ capabilities in office will be a measure of how well they can build bottom-up coalitions that will come out in support of their policies, even in the face of entrenched corporate power in the city. 

The NYC-DSA candidates are quick to point out they’re under no illusion that the structural changes they’re proposing will trickle down directly from the state capitol in Albany, or from the City Council. The solidarity and camaraderie built during the campaigns, they say, must extend into the districts they represent to truly shift the balance of power in New York City from the corporate class to working people. 

For us to have the changes that are necessary, the tea kettle has to be boiling, piping hot,” Souffrant Forrest says. People have to be out on the streets, and elected officials have to be in session, screaming about it. That’s the only way we’re going to get the things we need.” 

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office. The author is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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Annie Levin is a New York City-based writer and arts organizer. Her recent work can be found in Protean Magazine, The Progressive and The Indypendent.

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