Three years after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory over Joe Crowley, a year after gaining seats and influence in Congress and in the New York State Legislature, the Democratic Socialists of America are now aiming to gain a foothold in the New York City Council. In that effort, Brooklyn is their home base.
In 2020, every candidate for State Legislature representing districts across NYC who received a DSA endorsement won their race, including now-Senator Jabari Brisport and now-Assemblymembers Phara Souffrant Forrest and Marcela Mitaynes, all representing Brooklyn. Brisport won an open seat, while Souffrant Forrest and Mitaynes ousted long-time incumbents. Additionally, DSA member Emily Gallagher defeated incumbent Assemblymember Joe Lentol, in office since 1973, in north Brooklyn, though she had not been formally endorsed by the organization.
They joined State Senator Julia Salazar, who was elected in 2018 after defeating incumbent Martin Dilan, forming DSA’s delegation to Albany from Brooklyn. Of the seven current state legislators who are DSA members, five represent districts in Brooklyn.
What is DSA?
DSA, founded in 1982 with the merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement, isn’t a political party, but also isn’t exactly an advocacy organization either, falling somewhere in the middle. The group organizes protests, rallies, and the like, and runs issue-based pressure campaigns, but it also fields and runs candidates for office from its own membership roster. Candidate endorsements are voted on democratically by members of the “branch” covering the area the candidate runs in.
The group’s ultimate goal, as the name suggests, is to overthrow capitalism, but DSA works within the system to the extent that they run candidates for office. Short of toppling the world economic regime, the group sees toppling systems of concentrated power and distributing both resources and power to working-class people as a goal of both electoral and street-level organizing. That includes “decommodifying” housing, ending private control of utilities, and democratizing land-use policy.
“My work in DSA is a framing around what I think needs to be done, which is an alternative to capitalism and systems that bring power to working-class people,” said Brandon West, who is running for City Council in District 39 with DSA’s support.
Regardless of what happens with the budget tomorrow, our fight to #TaxTheRich and secure a better life for NY’s working class will continue.
Let’s get it done: pic.twitter.com/HJRwObFFTX
— Brandon West for NY City Council (@brandonwestnyc) March 31, 2021
The group has grown in size considerably since Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run in 2016, a galvanizing event for many young leftists, enabling the group to scale up its organizing activity and increase its political influence. DSA now counts dozens of federal, state, and local elected officials across the country as members. In addition to its presence in Albany, there are also two members representing the city in Congress: Ocasio-Cortez, representing Queens and the Bronx, and Jamaal Bowman, representing the Bronx and Westchester.
To receive an endorsement, candidates must be members of DSA and must be approved through a majority vote by committees and branch member constituencies. Once a candidate is endorsed, however, the organization mobilizes its forces to get that candidate elected.
NYC DSA co-chair Sumathy Kumar explained that the group chooses to devote its resources to a sort of scorched earth ground game approach for its chosen candidates, rather than spreading its resources more thinly in an effort to win more seats.
“When we endorse someone, it means we’re going all-in on their race. We don’t do paper endorsements,” Kumar told Bklyner, referring to endorsements that only appear in campaign literature and don’t reflect actual work being done to get the candidate elected. “We work really, really hard to get our candidates elected. Each endorsement is hours and hours of work, hundreds, thousands of volunteers who go out to canvas, phonebank, get petition signatures.”
NYC DSA now boasts about 7,000 members, an increase from 5,800 members in August of last year, just after the organization swept its state legislative races. That includes 4,300 members in Brooklyn. Nationwide, DSA has about 85,000 members, up from just 6,000 in 2015.
DSA has chosen to support candidates in three races in Brooklyn this election cycle – Michael Hollingsworth, running to replace Laurie Cumbo in Council District 35; Alexa Avilés, running to replace Carlos Menchaca in CD38; and Brandon West, running to replace Brad Lander in CD39. The small slate, said DSA electoral organizer Grace Mausser, allows the organization to maintain close ties with member elected officials once they are in office.
Brooklyn candidates represent half of the DSA citywide slate, which also includes Tiffany Cabán in western Queens’ District 22, Jaslin Kaur in eastern Queens’ District 23, and Adolfo Abreu in the 14th District in the western Bronx.
The organization consults with its electeds in Albany on a weekly basis to discuss priorities and strategy, and would do the same with its members in City Hall, Mausser said. To that end, member elected officials are representing DSA and its priorities as well as themselves and their constituents, but the group views itself as operating in a partnership with its members, rather than controlling them like corporations or unions are often seen as doing.
“Our electeds are part of the org, and that’s something we look for, a candidate who will become an elected official who likes DSA, who wants to be part of DSA, who likes our priorities, and who will work with us once we’re in office,” Mausser said. “We want to collaborate with electeds to push our policy agenda, that’s how we ultimately think we’ll create a better state and city for working-class New Yorkers.”
The candidates are running in the Democratic primary, which in most Brooklyn districts is tantamount to winning the seat; like their state and federal counterparts, DSA members on the Council would still be part of the Democratic caucus. Nonetheless, they are closely aligned with the larger organization, and because the group doesn’t work only in electoral politics, the candidates are to an extent avatars of the larger political movement.
The candidates agree that they, to some degree, are representing DSA and “democratic socialism” as a concept in their roles as candidates and potentially as elected officials, and they plan on forming a “socialist caucus” on the council similar to the partnership between socialist electeds in Albany. They also plan on remaining involved in DSA’s other organizing venues, like movement politics, with several of those who spoke to Bklyner highlighting the Invest in Our New York campaign, where DSA is a coalition member; that campaign is calling on Albany to increase taxes on the rich.
“Being in DSA and being a socialist, everywhere I go I bring that identity with me, along with being a Latina and being a mom,” said Avilés, who is one of the six candidates DSA is running citywide for Council this year. “We are all on this slate because we share values, we share a vision of a socialist future. We all bring different strengths and different backgrounds, but I think there’s a lot of shared values and beliefs, a lot of collaboration with each other.”
Which Brooklyn Neighborhoods Are DSA Strongholds?
In Brooklyn, the DSA candidates are running to represent Council District 35 [Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights], District 38 [Sunset Park, Red Hook, Windsor Terrace] and District 39 [Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Windsor Terrace, Kensington].
Hollingsworth (CD35) and Avilés’ (CD38) districts, centered in Brownstone Brooklyn and Sunset Park respectively, are somewhat coterminous with those of Souffrant Forrest (AD57) and Mitaynes (AD51), respectively. West’s (CD39) district somewhat overlaps with Brisport’s (SD25), but the Park Slope section, where the district is centered, is largely new territory for the group.
What explains the rapid rise in popularity of DSA?
Average rents in Brooklyn have risen substantially over the last decade, from $2,322 in 2011 to a peak of $2,948 in March of 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic. While rents have gone since the pandemic, the economic uncertainty of the pandemic era keeps the cost of housing near the top of candidates’ and voters’ lists of concerns. Housing and land use are some of the areas where City Council members have the greatest amount of sway.
At the same time, many neighborhoods DSA has competed in and are competing in have seen an influx of young, white professionals of a left-wing persuasion, as many long-term residents are displaced by the high cost of living.
“I think it’s kind of a combination of forces coming together,” Mausser said. “I think there are some, I’d characterize, downwardly mobile millennials, who saw the success of their parents’ generation, or felt that what they expected from our economic system is not happening, and have become angry about it and politically active about it. And I think that pairs very well with working-class people of color who live in these areas who have long been left behind by our economic system, through racist and classist policies. I think those two forces coming together is really potent and visible, in Brooklyn and Queens and other parts of the city.”
Hollingsworth, Avilés, and West are all first-time candidates who joined DSA in recent years after working in organizing. All of them told Bklyner that they got more involved after seeing the apparatus of city government being used to keep people down.
Hollingsworth told Bklyner that he became involved in housing politics after his landlord began converting vacant units in his rent-stabilized building to condos.
“I was just a regular person so I had no idea how to combat something like that,” he said; this precipitated his joining DSA and other advocacy groups to work on the issue.
He’s been involved in legal and advocacy efforts to halt controversial developments like the Bedford Union Armory, 960 Franklin Avenue, and a city effort to rezone part of Franklin Avenue. He says that housing issues are his primary focus as a candidate, calling for a comprehensive citywide plan crafted by local communities, and for an end to neighborhood rezonings long thought to spur gentrification.
West arguably has the most “political” background of the Brooklyn slate: he served as president of New Kings Democrats, a reform-minded Democratic club, and has unsuccessfully run for county committee and for county party chair. He described his background as that of a voting rights organizer before working for the city, specifically for the Office of Management and Budget, and that seeing how the city budget gets made was a “radicalizing moment” for him.
Avilés, a 20-year resident of Sunset Park, has worked in various roles in the nonprofit sphere. She is on leave from her role as the Program Director at the Scherman Foundation, which describes itself as a funder of organizations devoted to “community building, environment, reproductive justice, human rights, the arts, and governmental accountability.”
“What we’re seeing now is people who actually have the lived experience, people who understand what that struggle is like,” Avilés said. “What it is to be evicted from your home, what it is to be hungry.”
The candidates have all qualified for public matching funds, and have each received about $160,000 in matching funds thus far, according to the NYC Campaign Finance Board. Hollingsworth has the most cash on hand in the District 35 race, with $183,000, but has raised fewer private funds than another top contender, Crystal Hudson, a former aide to incumbent Council Member Laurie Cumbo; Hudson has also outspent him. In District 38, Avilés is also about even with the other top contender, Sunset Park activist Rodrigo Camarena; there, Avilés has raised more than Camarena but has also outspent him.
The District 39 race is wide open: five candidates besides West have received matching funds, and West trails four of them in cash on hand. West has also outspent all other candidates in the race, including Shahana Hanif, a former aide to incumbent Council Member Brad Lander; Mamnum Haq, a cab driver and co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance; organizer and writer Justin Krebs; and civil rights attorney Doug Schneider. West has raised about $66,000, spent $86,000, and has about $140,000 cash on hand.
While Hollingsworth and Avilés are running in neighborhoods where DSA won in 2020, most of West’s district is untested ground for the group, and it remains unclear whether Park Slope liberals will be as amenable to democratic socialism as the hybrid of gentrifiers and long-term residents of color where the group has seen success, and where Hollingsworth and Avilés are hoping to be successful.
Despite running on the “DSA” slate, they say that they are faithful not to the organization necessarily, but to the ideas that power it.
“What they aren’t realizing yet is it’s not about the name DSA, it’s about what we stand for,” Hollingsworth said. “People are out there articulating what we stand for, and that’s resonating with people.”
“You can talk about big words you learned in college, but if you literally explain to people, should housing be available to people regardless [of affordability], yes or no. Should we be over-policing,” West said. “These really basic things and they resonate with people.”
Issues DSA Cares About
The group’s number one policy priority at the city level is to defund the police by $3 billion, which they say would dovetail into increased funding for social services that have been on the chopping block throughout the pandemic. Other priorities include reforming the city’s land-use process and desegregating the city’s public schools.
Many of the group’s policy priorities listed on its website are state-level policies, and the organization plans to release a more detailed city council platform before the election, Kumar said. Nonetheless, the group does have a large number of policy priorities that can be acted upon at the city level, on topics like housing, education, and criminal justice, and its candidates are expected to both embrace DSA positions and actively work to implement them.
Titled “Housing is a Human Right,” DSA housing platform opposes attempts to “privatize” NYCHA such as through the Rental Assistance Demonstration program or through infill development; supports seizing property from “negligent landlords” through existing city programs to develop affordable, resident-owned housing; supports taking “immediate actions” to house all homeless New Yorkers and ending the policy of neighborhood rezonings, which have often been criticized as bringing about gentrification.
We need to fund excluded workers, cancel rent, and provide our people real relief. Our communities are in crisis.
— Alexa Avilés 🌹 (@alexaforcouncil) March 31, 2021
“We’re in a situation where neighborhoods of color are always on the defensive,” Hollingsworth said, noting he is in favor of a comprehensive citywide plan. With that in place, Hollingsworth says, Brooklyn communities, particularly communities of color, would be less likely to get “sidestepped” by developers in the land use process.
Asked for further detail on their land use platform, Bklyner was directed to DSA member Andrew Hiller, who helped draft the group’s land use platform. Hiller said that comprehensive planning would not only limit the influence of developers, but also of community boards in predominantly white, upper-income areas which often stop affordable housing projects in their tracks.
“In order to really address that, it’s crucial that we put a serious citywide equity framework in place that sets requirements for social housing at each community level, and secure the resources needed to implement it in a way that’s just,” Hiller said in an email.
On education, the group wants to kick police officers out of public schools, mostly end the use of out-of-school suspensions, guarantee access to counselors and nurses in schools, and establish a maximum class size of 20. At the state level, the group wants to see the end of mayoral control of schools and return decision-making power back to elected school boards.
And on criminal justice, the group advocates the decriminalization of drugs, sex work, and “quality-of-life” crimes like turnstile jumping, switching to an elected Civilian Complaint Review Board with prosecutorial power, and abolishing arrest quotas and qualified immunity.
Will Ranked Choice Help DSA?
The Democratic primary, which will occur on June 22, will be the city’s first using its newly implemented ranked-choice voting system. Whether this will be good or bad for DSA remains to be seen, but the group does see a reason to suspect its performances in Brooklyn have not been flukes.
The political revolution continues in Bushwick. ✨✊🏼✊🏾
Join @DemSocialists to fight for:
– A Homes Guarantee
– A Green New Deal
– Medicare for All
– A reallocation of NYPD $$ to public services
— NYC-DSA 🌹 #JoinDSA (@nycDSA) November 3, 2020
DSA is often portrayed as being made up of gentrifiers, and some of its top performances have been in gentrifying neighborhoods across the city.
Conversely, electoral maps for Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman’s primary victories over long-established incumbents show strong support in their districts coming from non-white areas. Bowman, in particular, trounced his primary opponent, Eliot Engel, in the non-white areas of his district but lost in whiter Riverdale.
DSA group touts stemming gentrification as a policy goal. Still, at the same time, they see gentrifiers as victims of the same system pushing down low-income communities and communities of color.
“I think we have stronger showings in certain neighborhoods because of the real estate and economic forces that have caused gentrification,” Mausser said. “People are angry about being displaced, and the ”gentrifiers” are living in those areas because that’s where they can afford the rent. It’s not really a good or fair system for anyone.”
Their political strategy, she said, “points out the real villain. It’s not your neighbor. The villain is the policy and the forces that are making it happen.”
The candidates say they have every intention of keeping their word on what they campaign on. While that in itself might not sound remarkable, as no politician would say they don’t intend to keep their promises, the DSA slate says that their affiliation with the organization helps keep them accountable to those who vote for them.
“People are only going to vote for things that they support and want,” West said. “De Blasio ran his campaign, running after Bloomberg, picking up those talking points and doing nothing. Now we have a completely different infrastructure, we’re running a grassroots campaign and we’re only accountable to the people who put us in office.”
This story was possible thanks to the funding by the Center for Community Media’s 2021 City Elections Initiative.
[4/2/21 – This story was updated to correct Alexa Avilés role at the Scherman Foundation.]