“They say I ‘came out of nowhere,’” India Walton, 39, said at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention in August. She was referring to the political establishment and media punditry that had dismissed her underdog campaign for mayor in the Democratic primary in Buffalo, N.Y.
“What they really mean is that people like me aren’t supposed to become the Democratic nominee and presumptive mayor-elect of a major American city,” she went on.
Walton, a community organizer who has never held elected office, defeated four-term incumbent Mayor Byron Brown (who didn’t even bother to campaign against her). Running openly as a democratic socialist, Walton spoke candidly about the circumstances that propelled her toward politics. The alienating treatment she received from a “racist, sexist, for-profit healthcare system” as a 19-year-old mother of premature twins inspired her to become a nurse, for example, then a staff organizer for her union.
Walton’s campaign knitted together various forces opposed to decades of neoliberal development and racist policing, including DSA, the Buffalo Teachers Federation, activists galvanized by summer 2020 protests, and the New York Working Families Party (which broke its long-standing endorsement of Brown to anchor Walton).
This alliance’s impressive grassroots mobilization culminated in 19,000 calls to voters on the eve of the election. The next day, Walton finished with a 1,500-vote lead.
Some members of Buffalo’s Democratic establishment are now suggesting the city eliminate the position of mayor altogether, to be replaced by a city manager. But if Walton takes office, she will join the more than 100 DSA members or endorsees elected to local, state and federal office in the past five years. While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other congressional members of “the squad” are the most well-known, the largest cohort is in local government, where 60 politicians affiliated with DSA are shaking things up on city councils from Denver to Chicago and Knoxville, Tenn. Many, though not all, are among DSA’s 95,000 dues-paying members or self-identify as democratic socialists.
And in cities like Richmond, Calif., and Somerville, Mass., socialists and their progressive allies even wield majorities — which are testing the limits of local governance.
You may already have a socialist to thank when you flush your toilet or turn on your tap. Beginning in the 1880s, socialists and other reformers wrenched essential services out of private control and established some of the first public utilities for water, sanitation and electricity across hundreds of cities in the United States and the U.K. By 1920, Socialist Party members held office in more than 350 U.S. cities. Fifty years of socialist governance in Milwaukee created a dazzling public park system, which some refer to as the “first Green New Deal.”
Walton, with her emphasis on nitty-gritty infrastructure projects to solidify Buffalo as a climate refuge, looks set to pick up where last century’s municipal socialists left off.
Yet where the “sewer socialists” emphasized gradual, local reform (earning them the nickname “slow-cialists” from the critics of the day), the existential threat of climate change and a global pandemic afford no such luxury today. A 21st-century municipal socialism must improve local conditions while building a larger movement against the convergent crises of climate change, racism and inequality.
In These Times talked with socialist organizers and elected officials in more than a dozen of the 40-some cities with a DSA endorsee or member on city council. Collectively, they mark a defiant alternative to the Democratic mayors and councilors who have run cities with a neoliberal hand for decades, offering tax breaks to corporations and cash to developers.
But elected socialists generally remain isolated on city councils, if not solo acts. Ambitious socialist platforms run up against not only entrenched political legacies, but long-lasting structural problems, such as crippling municipal debt and state laws that preempt taxing the rich.
When socialists have been able to move the needle, it’s by working directly with grassroots movements. Resurgent housing and racial justice movements have presented opportunities to win reforms — including tenant protections and reallocation of police budgets to violence prevention programs — and demand farther-reaching changes.
Organized labor, once the lynchpin of sewer socialist strongholds, remains a missing piece of the puzzle, with union density and militancy so low. But socialists can play a role in feeding the sparks of labor’s revival, as in Aurora, Colo., where the City Council’s two resident socialists were among the first to show up to the picket line of striking Nabisco workers in August.
For socialists in local office, daily interactions with constituents and mundane (but impactful) decisions about zoning and land use can also present “an opportunity to show people who are not socialists what socialism means in practice,” according to Erik Forman, a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center who studies left-wing municipal movements.
Self-proclaimed “sidewalk socialists” (a nod to their sewer socialist forebears) in Somerville, Mass., for example, are rolling out a municipal sidewalk snow clearance program this year, which they ground in a class analysis. They note pedestrians navigating icy winter sidewalks while drivers enjoy plowed streets as one of myriad small reminders for working-class people — especially the elderly and those with disabilities — that their cities aren’t designed with them in mind.
Likewise, deepening public participation in decision-making can “give working-class people a real taste of power,” Forman says. Given that any socialist gains will inevitably face backlash, he adds, “that’s what will make socialism something people are not just willing to vote for every once in a while, but also willing to defend.”
In the hundred years since 1913 (when sewer socialists claimed more than 100 local elected officials) and 2013 (when the Times of India mistakenly called the Seattle City Council’s Kshama Sawant “the first elected socialist” in the United States), various U.S. left groups have made countless forays into electoral politics. But two Red Scares destroyed the Socialist Party and sent politicians running from the “socialist” mantle.
The Great Recession of 2009 and worldwide rebellions against austerity programs set the stage for a socialist revival. Class politics crept back into the national conversation by 2011, with the Wisconsin statehouse occupation and the Occupy Wall Street movement. In 2013, in addition to Sawant’s watershed victory in Seattle, Chokwe Lumumba won the mayorship of Jackson, Miss., running on a radical platform of cooperative economics and participatory democracy.
But before Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, the question of what dozens of socialists would do if elected wasn’t even much of a question.
The surprise national appeal of the avuncular democratic socialist from Vermont reignited electoral enthusiasm across broad swaths of the Left, spawning organizations like Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats and the Sanders campaign spinoff Our Revolution. And before 2016 was through, thousands of Sanders supporters had poured into DSA, though the self-described democratic socialist was not a member.
By March 2017, DSA’s membership had tripled to 19,000. Flush with Sanders socialists, DSA formed a symbiotic relationship with the new crop of electoral organizations (as well as the longstanding Working Families Party). These groups recruited and trained candidates, while DSA provided unmatched volunteer campaign labor.
In the Boston suburb of Somerville, for example, Our Revolution-backed city council candidates Ben Ewen-Campen and J.T. Scott showed up to one of the Boston DSA chapter’s first-ever electoral working group meetings in 2017. The two introduced themselves as new DSA members, like so many others, and asked for help. DSA’s door-knocking propelled the highest turnout of any of the local contests, sending Scott and Ewen-Campen to victories over their real estate-backed opponents.
In total, 19 DSA members won local office in 2017— among them, former Sanders field director Tristan Rader of Lakewood, Ohio, and Sanders convention delegate Dylan Parker of Rock Island, Ill., who campaigned on municipally owned broadband.
In 2018, three more DSA members won local office. In 2019, 22 more. In 2020, 15 more.
The working relationship between DSA chapters and their endorsed candidates varies. Some chapters— in Chicago, Silicon Valley and Lansing, Mich., for example — have even ended up censuring or breaking with the city council members they helped elect. But particularly in localities where city council is a part-time job, officials sometimes rely on the DSA volunteers who got them elected. In Somerville, where representatives have no staff, Ewen-Campen credits Boston DSA’s healthcare working group with a successful push to ban police teargas in the city this spring.
In some cities, DSA has evolved from endorsing outside candidates to fielding candidates from within its own ranks. This year, Boston DSA’s 12 metro-area endorsements include a former chapter co-chair, as well as members of the chapter’s Afrosocialist Caucus and national Ecosocialism Working Group steering committee.
“We’re in a really different space in 2021 than in 2017,” says Beth Huang, Boston DSA’s membership coordinator. After five years in the trenches together, she says, “The candidates are us. We are the candidates.”
But the most common scenario is still that candidates from outside DSA come knocking for an endorsement, often becoming members in the process. Many are already self-described socialists. In fact, it’s difficult to find a socialist officeholder besides Sanders who hasn’t joined DSA’s big tent. Even Sawant, the forerunner of the new crop of socialist officeholders, is now a member.
Other candidates seeking DSA’s endorsement are community organizers or activists who might have run for office regardless. With “socialist” still wielded as a cudgel by opponents (successfully or not), it’s worth asking why this group, especially, embraces a socialist affiliation that comes with baggage, as well as volunteers.
For social worker and youth development expert Candi CdeBaca, who sits on Denver City Council, DSA’s endorsement was initially a way to avoid kissing the Democratic Party ring. CdeBaca was already known for her activism against highway expansion in the diverse, industrial neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea, where she grew up. Her council bid was an outgrowth of her work with Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education), which she founded at 18 in response to local school closures.
Teaching youth about traditional forms of policy advocacy felt pointless, CdeBaca says, “because there was nobody on the inside who was going to be responsive to what they were doing.”
When CdeBaca first decided to run in 2017, she had planned to only campaign alongside local, grassroots organizations. She quickly learned that fundraising and voter data was largely controlled by the two major parties. So CdeBaca teamed up with the newly launched Colorado Working Families Party and the fledgling DSA Denver chapter, which helped double turnout in her district. She clinched a tight run-off with 52% of the vote in June 2019.
CdeBaca says she’s gotten something else from DSA — a “political home.” One of the most valuable aspects, she says, is being part of a bigger political project, rather than a lone voice in the wilderness. “For me, being isolated as a minority voice on council, that’s what gives me the reassurance and the camaraderie that I need to continue moving forward.”
An obvious place for socialists in local government to start is simply to oppose establishment Democrats and the agenda they’ve embraced over the past four decades, such as auctioning off public assets, privatizing social services and throwing public money at private-sector boondoggles.
In August, CdeBaca replied “hell no” in her voice vote on Democratic Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s plan to borrow $160 million to build a 10,000-seat arena in her district, part of the city’s effort to jumpstart economic recovery with a Western-themed venue “just as much for the cowboy as for the urbanite.”
CdeBaca had talked with neighborhood residents who spoke bluntly to City Council members ahead of the vote. “I don’t want to be a part of this rodeo,” one said, suggesting the city invest in trash pickup and public transit instead.
Ultimately, a majority of the 13-member council voted to refer the issue to Denver voters in November. Thanks in part to CdeBaca’s vocal criticism, the question will be separate from a broader ballot question about infrastructure.
In Chicago, democratic socialist Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa created a community-driven zoning process to give residents more control over development after his election in 2015. Now, developers seeking a zoning change to build high-rise luxury condos must go through a participatory community process. Through the new process, community groups successfully blocked the sale of a city-owned parking lot to a luxury developer, instead developing plans for a 100% affordable building near public transit. It broke ground in September 2020.
Other attempts to shape urban development, including the classic socialist demand for public ownership, have floundered in the face of municipal financial woes.
In Rock Island, Ill., Alderman Dylan Parker attempted something one might expect if a sewer socialist woke up in 2021: universal municipal broadband. With support from City Council, Parker tasked the city’s information technology department to evaluate the idea. When it came back with a $50 million estimate, “We pretty much hit a brick wall,” says Parker, especially given the city’s pension debt. (A ballot measure for a progressive state income tax might have helped that bottom line, but it failed to pass in November 2020.)
“My experience for the past 4.5 years,” Parker adds, “is realizing how fundamentally flawed the way in which our governments are funded.”
That speaks to an inherent limitation of municipal socialism, says David McDonald, professor of global development studies at Queen’s University, who tracks municipal ownership efforts worldwide. “You can’t have socialism in one city, or for that matter, socialism in one sector,” he says. “The levers of municipal politics just simply aren’t big enough to meet those kinds of transformative change.”
But socialists can wield local office to tip the balance of power toward grassroots movements that transcend city limits — including a resurgent tenant movement that has battled evictions throughout the pandemic.
In July, with the help of DSA, Charlottesville, Va., became the first city in the South to fund legal defense for tenants facing eviction. Michael Payne, an affordable housing organizer and DSA member elected to Charlottesville City Council in 2019, saw a line item in the city’s draft budget allocating $450,000 for new police department data terminals. So why couldn’t the city instead use that money to help keep people in their homes?
For the last year, DSA members had spent every week at eviction court, informing tenants of their rights, then attending their hearings and providing follow-up support. DSA documented the outcomes of nearly 150 eviction hearings between July 2020 and March 2021 — more than half of the total hearings in that time.
At the March budget forum where Payne floated the idea of funding tenant defense, another member of the five-person council questioned whether evictions were even happening, given the federal eviction moratorium during the pandemic. The socialist court-watchers stepped in: While landlords couldn’t pursue evictions for non-payment, they were finding other ways, Charlottesville DSA co-chair Elizabeth Stark told the council.
DSA’s data revealed that a third of tenants who lacked legal representation ended up with immediate eviction judgements against them. And while landlords almost always had lawyers, fewer than 8% of tenants did. The discussion ended with the mayor asking Stark to email the findings to the council.
Charlottesville ultimately allocated $300,000 for a pilot aid program, though legal aid groups stress that won’t be enough to guarantee an attorney for every tenant. But it is a significant start in landlord-friendly Virginia that could be replicated elsewhere.
Brian Campbell, Charlottesville DSA’s housing justice committee co-chair, hopes the city’s program will also free up people power for Charlottesville DSA to build tenant unions and demand public housing. The group’s anti-eviction work “is helping people survive capitalism, but it’s not really socialism,” he says.
The idea to court-watch in Charlottesville came in part from socialists elsewhere. In Boulder, Colo., the DSA chapter led a “No Eviction Without Representation” campaign that culminated in a successful 2020 ballot referendum guaranteeing tenants the right to counsel.
Sam Lewis, a member of DSA’s National Electoral Committee, wants to share the concrete policies that socialists could advance locally, nationwide. “We want to create the anti-ALEC,” he said, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which offers cookie-cutter right-wing legislation to lawmakers.
“Instead of this top-down corporate enterprise where lobbyists draft the legislation,” Lewis says, “how do we build a national network of people who are grounded in grassroots movements to develop a political and policy vision?”
That network had a trial in summer 2020, when socialists scrambled to respond to the historic uprising sparked by the police murder of George Floyd. City council members, through loose DSA coordination, identified immediate measures, such as teargas bans, to rein in police abuse while voicing support for protesters. Where DSA-endorsed politicians failed to act — such as in Redwood City, Calif., where Councilwoman Diana Reddy praised the town’s community policing programs and dismissed calls to defund the police — some local chapters cut ties.
Given that police budgets are one of the few areas where cities have flexibility, socialists took up the nationwide calls to slash them. No city or county has managed to push through the magnitude of cuts called for by “defund police” organizers and the Movement for Black Lives. But in Denver, CdeBaca became the first elected official to propose a concrete plan to “directly address defunding and abolishing the police” by creating a “peace force” and establishing a range of expanded health and human services.
The plan “came directly from constituents, from people who were protesting,” CdeBaca says, including at a People’s Town Hall in June 2020 after City Council canceled its regular meeting because of protests. She attempted to refer the plan directly to voters, but City Council roundly rejected it. But the efforts did help expand Denver’s non-police crisis response program, now considered a national model, from a pilot in a single district to a citywide service.
In Richmond, Calif., a Bay Area city in the shadow of a Chevron refinery, a plan to cut the city’s police budget by 20% failed by a 3 – 2 City Council vote in June 2020. One year later, City Council approved a plan to immediately divert 5% of the police budget into expanded social programs, with another 5% next year, including the creation of an office of neighborhood safety to dispatch outreach workers and offer youth job training and support for unhoused people.
Two factors drove the council’s about-face: First, with the backing of DSA, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) was able to gain a City Council majority in November 2020. RPA is an independent electoral group, which was founded by local Green Party activists and Latino community organizers after police abuse at a 2002 Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Second, RPA undertook an extensive political education campaign, including a mailer sent to every household in the 110,000-person city about the fact that policing was 38% of the city budget.
Mike Parker, a steering committee member of RPA, says part of their success is bringing new people into the coalition — including city workers who will staff the programs. While having a majority on City Council is valuable, “We recognize that we also have to win a majority in the community on the issues.”
In Somerville, where democratic socialists and Our Revolution-backed allies already form a governing majority, DSA is fielding a seven-person slate in the hopes of winning an explicitly socialist majority this fall. Ewen-Campen is running unopposed, but J.T. Scott is in a competitive race, and five other DSA members are running as first-time candidates. After a successful showing in Somerville’s September 14 preliminary election, all seven candidates will appear on the November ballot, along with four other DSA-endorsed candidates in Boston, Cambridge and Medford, Mass.
“We’re trying to show people what’s possible in a majority-socialist governed city,” says Huang.
In addition to calling for stronger tenant protections and police accountability, the “Somerville for All” slate is skillfully linking big-picture issues like the Green New Deal with stormwater surges and urban tree canopies, and putting the nitty-gritty of pedestrian safety and traffic enforcement in context of criminalization and climate resilience.
That belies a supposed conflict between the pragmatic and the political. “Are you focused on fixing roads and potholes, or are you ignoring that stuff and just focusing on big issues that you really can’t control?” says Ewen-Campen. “That’s just never how I’ve seen it.”
That makes sidewalk socialism a fitting homage to last century’s political project and a convenient metaphor for how today’s municipal socialists might move beyond it: By involving working-class people in transforming their surroundings, sidewalk socialists hope to lay a path toward something much greater.
Rebecca Burns is a member of Chicago DSA and worked on Chicago Alderman (and DSA member) Rossana Rodriguez’s City Council campaign, but was not involved in any of the electoral campaigns described in this story.
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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.