New York Progressives and Socialists Are Hoping to Turn Legislative Setbacks Into Electoral Electricity

After key bills on climate and housing stalled in the legislature, left-wing organizers are working to topple Democratic incumbents and build a united front in Albany.

Karma Samtani

Sarahana Shrestha, a climate activist and organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America, is challenging incumbent New York assembly member Kevin Cahill.

In the early days of June, progressives and climate organizers in New York State were feeling cautiously optimistic. The Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), a hallmark bill of the state’s burgeoning left-wing electoral movement, had just passed the New York State Senate. Headed to the State Assembly, the climate bill was gaining momentum as a sophisticated organizing campaign appeared to be swaying undecided assembly members to vote yes.” Advocates hoped that the state’s transition to renewable energy, largely dependent on the will of private corporations, would soon be revitalized by legislation that would authorize the publicly-owned New York Power Authority to build renewable energy sources. Now, all that was left before the bill reached New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk was a vote in the assembly, expected to be called by Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie. 

But that vote never happened. Just as quickly as momentum for the bill had grown, advocates watched in dismay as the end of the legislative session grew nearer without a vote on BPRA. In a holding pattern that has become familiar to progressives, entrenched party leadership and special interests worked together to unravel years of organizing. The BPRA failed to pass, despite New York State Democrats enjoying supermajorities in the legislature and holding the governorship — a development that enraged activists in a state widely seen as one of the most progressive in the nation. 

Now, organizers across the state are hoping to turn this setback into a clarion call to elect more left-wing candidates to the state legislature, so that BPRA and other progressive policy bills can finally become a reality. 

Sarahana Shrestha, a climate activist and organizer with the Mid-Hudson Valley Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, was one of the many advocates who watched as BPRA inched closer to passage before being shelved. In our team, the instant reaction was, yeah, we need to get our democracy back,’” Shrestha recounts. Organizers were especially angered by the fact that, by their account, BPRA had enough votes to pass. A coordinated phone banking campaign found that a total of 83 legislators, by advocates’ count, had committed to support of the bill — more than the 76 votes needed to pass the assembly. To many advocates, Heastie’s refusal to call a vote on BPRA was the sole obstacle to its passage. 

Organizers see BPRA’s failure to pass the legislature not as an aberration, but as an example of the plight of many pieces of progressive legislation in New York State. In fact, of all the major policies pushed by New York progressives, BPRA came closest to passage. Other major priorities, such as Good Cause Eviction, a bill that would institute a ban on arbitrary evictions by requiring good cause,” while also regulating rent increases, failed to even be brought to the floor — despite strong public support and backing from organized labor. The New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer healthcare system in the state, also failed to pass this session, despite having enough co-sponsors in both the State Senate and Assembly to become law. 

While these losses have disheartened progressives, they’ve also served as a boon to insurgent state assembly campaigns across the state. New York’s progressive movement has seen rapid growth in recent years, and this election cycle, organizations including the Working Families Party (WFP) and New York Chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have composed slates to contest an unprecedented number of seats held by Democratic incumbents — seven in total. These candidates are running in the June 28 Democratic primary.

Sarahana Shrestha is one of those candidates. Endorsed by both DSA and WFP, she is challenging incumbent assembly member Kevin Cahill, who has been in office since 1999.

She sees the lack of action on progressive priorities as injecting new urgency into the campaign. We have never before been able to illustrate so clearly the failing of our legislature in the way we were able to illustrate with [the] Build Public Renewables Act,” Shrestha says. Cahill was one of the Democrats in the State Assembly who refused to support the BPRA up until the final days of the legislative session. Even though in the last hour, perhaps to save himself, he pledged support for this bill… he was not able to use his seniority to actually get it done,” Shrestha says. 

Johnathan Soto, running against 17-year incumbent Assembly member Michael Benedetto in a coastal district that encompasses parts of the Bronx, has seen similar momentum in his campaign following the end of the legislative session. A longtime community organizer who most recently worked for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to organize her Homework Helpers” program, Soto returned to his home of Puerto Rico in 2017 following the deadly Hurricane María to assist with recovery efforts. During the Covid-19 pandemic, after noticing parallels between conditions in his homes of the Bronx and Puerto Rico, as well as the effects of austerity policies on his daughter’s education, Soto was compelled to run for Assembly. I’ve seen how a lot of mayors in Puerto Rico controlled [the] waterfront and schools, and during times of crisis, they just divvy up the resources to big donors,” Soto says. During the pandemic, I started paying a lot of attention to the mayoral control of schools [in New York] … and I started putting the dots together.” 

Soto’s candidacy has been boosted by endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez (who represents a majority of Soto’s district in Congress) and progressive groups like Citizen Action and Sunrise Movement NYC. Benedetto, meanwhile, has refused to sign onto Good Cause Eviction as a cosponsor, and has castigated advocates for bullying” him by organizing actions to urge the assembly member to sponsor the bill. 

Ocasio-Cortez is also backing the candidacy of democratic socialist and mutual aid organizer Samy Nemir Olivares in Bushwick and Cypress Hills. If elected, Nemir Olivares would be the first genderqueer member of the New York State Assembly. Nemir Olivares is running against Erik Dilan, whose father, Martin Dilan, was unseated in 2018 by DSA member Julia Salazar in a largely overlapping district. Nemir Olivares’ candidacy enjoys the support of Salazar, as well as a slew of labor unions including UNITE-HERE and the Communications Workers of America who have made the highly unusual move of backing a challenger over an incumbent. Dilan, who has not cosponsored Good Cause Eviction (a bill introduced by Salazar), has irked progressives in recent years. As someone [running in] a rapidly gentrifying district, I know firsthand how dire the housing crisis is — I hear about it nearly every day when I talk to my neighbors,” Nemir Olivares says. To me, the failure to pass Good Cause just proves that the state legislature once again gave in to the real estate industry. Tenants in our community deserve better.” Nemir Olivares’ race has excited many activists, who see their campaign as an opportunity to make further inroads in majority-Latinx Bushwick and Cypress Hills, after progressive activist Sandy Nurse defeated an incumbent in a landslide for a seat in an overlapping district last year. 

While advocates of the BPRA successfully compelled incumbents like Cahill to pledge their support for the bill in the closing days of the legislative session, organizers argue that paper support at the last minute isn’t enough — especially when it was insufficient to force an Assembly vote. Despite attempts by many incumbents to placate the left with co-sponsorships of these bills, this session has made clear that a bill having sufficient support does not make its passage inevitable. Progressives have argued that the only way to gain concessions from leadership is to grow the bloc of elected officials firmly committed to fighting for progressive legislation. 

Since being elected, New York’s caucus of Socialists in Office have regularly met with DSA—part of a pledge to remain accountable to the grassroots organization that helped mobilize to elect them. Organizers see this degree of collaboration as crucial to passing legislation like the BPRA. While entrenched incumbents may pay lip-service to progressive bills, this session has shown that electing clear progressive advocates rather than sympathizers is crucial to the passage of key legislation. To me, the end of this legislative session just further proved how crucial it is to elect more organizers, more activists, and more fighters to the State Assembly, so that next year, both Good Cause and the BPRA will pass both houses,” Nemir Olivares said.

While left organizers point to policy differences between incumbents and progressives, they have also argued that contrasts in strategy are equally important. Despite incumbents like Cahill boasting of their experience as an asset when campaigning, Shrestha argues that this legislative session has exposed flaws in that argument. People who are not even elected, [we] were able to get 83 votes,” Shrestha argues. There are a lot of people who are elected, who don’t know how to organize inside Albany. What that means is we end up having a government that is mostly organized by lobbyists, because they’re good at organizing”.

Shrestha, along with Soto, is a member of the New York Working Families Party’s We Can’t Wait” Slate of candidates. Running in districts outside of progressive havens like North Brooklyn and Western Queens, Shrestha and Soto’s candidacies represent the heightened ambition and strength of New York progressives. As Nina Luo, deputy state political director for the WFP, recently said, It’s not about vendetta, it’s about values and policies and what people fight for when they’re in the legislature. So we want to run a slate of folks who are extremely value-aligned, disciplined politically.” 

Similarly, DSA, often derided by opponents and the media as a party of gentrifiers, could help shed this image if candidates like Nemir Olivares, running in largely working-class and non-white districts, are victorious. Aside from Nemir Olivares, NYC-DSA has endorsed community organizer Keron Alleyne, running in majority-Black East New York, and former rideshare driver David Alexis, who is running for State Senate in a Flatbush district home to prominent Caribbean and Bangladeshi communities. 

The significance of a bloc” in Albany is part of the reason DSA and WFP have opted to compose unified slates of their respective endorsed candidates. Even if half of us won, that would make a difference,” Shrestha says, pointing to the power of co-governance and the increased leverage that a committed coalition of progressives would enjoy in Albany. According to Soto, individualism and this superhero myth has to be deconstructed. We need to organize in movements.” 

Jessica Altagracia Woolford, a WFP-endorsed candidate challenging incumbent Jeffrey Dinowitz in the Bronx, recently told City & State, You need to have dedicated progressives who are in the Assembly working together in a bloc to really get through some of this noise… It doesn’t matter if we have Democrats in charge if they’re not the kind of Democrats who are really going to fight for good cause eviction, for Build Public Renewables.”

Although candidates like Soto have gained momentum in recent weeks, they also face unprecedented opposition compared to previous years. Super PACs such as Voters of New York” and Common Sense New Yorkers,” have plans to spend large sums against progressive candidates. Mailers have already been sent out attacking Shrestha and Nemir-Olivares, with one decrying Nemir-Olivares as a Dangerous, Reckless, Socialist.” Invoking fears of rising crime, Super PACs are attacking DSA and WFP-endorsed candidates for pledges to reduce police funding and reroute it to social programs. These mailers, largely funded by Republican SoulCycle owner Stephen Ross, were also deployed against progressive and socialist city council candidates in 2021, to varying degrees of success. However, progressives remain optimistic about their prospects in these races, with DSA and WFP running sophisticated field programs. While polling in state legislative races is limited, a recently released Data for Progress hypothetical poll found a candidate like Shrestha leading a candidate like Cahill by 9 points. 

Many progressives see electing a more accountable group of legislators as a prerequisite to any major change in the next legislative session. Having a greater number of unapologetic progressives in the New York State Assembly would allow lawmakers to lobby their colleagues, and a larger number of passionate supporters of bills like BPRA in the Assembly could provide progressives crucial leverage to force votes on key bills. While organizing on the outside” has helped bring bills like BPRA to the forefront, many organizers see marrying grassroots power with institutional strength as crucial to finally implementing progressive legislation. 

Advocates see the path to BPRA or Good Cause Eviction running through a new class of legislators accountable to the grassroots, rather than leadership or special interests. Amid astronomically rising rents and a worsening climate crisis, anti-establishment sentiment and dedicated organizing by an energized base could soon send a new wave of progressive representation to Albany. According to Nemir Olivares, voters are ready for a change.”

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Karma Samtani is a writer who covers youth organizing and progressive politics.

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