New York Takes a Seismic Step to the Left
New York’s June 23 Democratic primary produced some seismic results. The 16-term chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, was defeated by Jamaal Bowman, a principal from the Bronx; and the state is set to send the first two gay Black men to Congress, Ritchie Torres (who is also Latino) and Mondaire Jones.
Bowman, Torres, and Jones all had convincing victories that were apparent, if unofficial, shortly after Election Day. But for weeks, results were delayed for a fascinating slate of progressive and democratic socialist candidates, which denied their victories any real role in the resulting discourse. All five state legislative races targeted by the Democratic Socialists of America—two state Assembly seats and two state Senate seats in Brooklyn (one held by an incumbent democratic socialist, Julia Salazar), and a state Assembly district in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s turf in Queens—resulted in victories.
Jabari Brisport, a math teacher who had run as a Green for City Council in 2017, won the Brooklyn Senate seat. Phara Souffrant Forrest, a Haitian American nurse, won an Assembly seat that mostly overlapped with Brisport’s. Marcela Mitaynes, a Peruvian American tenants’ rights activist, won the other Brooklyn seat, while Zohran Mamdani, a foreclosure counselor, won the Queens seat. Another DSA member not endorsed by the organization, Emily Gallagher, defeated a 24-term incumbent. Several left-wing Assembly candidates backed by the Working Families Party also won: Khaleel Anderson and Jessica González-Rojas defeated machine politicians in Queens, and Anna Kelles picked up an Assembly seat in Ithaca.
The result, which will be confirmed after the general election in November, will establish one of the most left-wing legislatures in New York in decades.
The result, which will be confirmed after the general election in November, will establish one of the most left-wing legislatures in New York in decades. Just a few short years ago, a block of right-leaning Senate Democrats caucused with Republicans, putting the chamber under GOP control. In 2021, not only will Democrats control both chambers, but there will be more self-described socialists in Albany than at any time since 1920, the height of the post-Bolshevik Red Scare, when five members of the Socialist Party of New York were expelled from the chamber for being “unfit for membership.” A century later, those five have now been replaced, and then some.
WHAT CAN EXPLAIN this resurgence of the party’s left wing in the hotbed of New York City? Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York state director of the Working Families Party, argues that the collected victories represent the electoral response to two crises: police brutality and COVID-19. “The victories were a response to the conditions that we were living in, where on the one hand you have a global pandemic causing economic dislocation and killing thousands, and on the other New York being at the epicenter of a crisis; hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were marching in the street in response to the crisis of police brutality,” she said. “So what we saw was a real connection and clarity about the need to connect the protest movements; to take the grief and anger that New Yorkers were feeling and turning it into electoral action.”
Sumathy Kumar, the co-chair of New York City DSA, said that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s success helped to pave the road for the organization, giving them a blueprint for victory. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed four out of the five candidates on DSA’s 2020 slate.
“AOC made winning feel more possible to folks,” said Kumar. “For working-class people of color, her victory made them think, ‘I can run too and I can win.’” She added that the AOC race stressed to NYC DSA the importance of standing up a professional campaign infrastructure, adding organizing muscle to ideas attractive to the city’s young and diverse population. “Now DSA feels like it can be a one-stop shop for people running for office. Which is really exciting that we can fill all of our roles that a campaign needs to win.”
The victories come in advance of 2021 municipal elections in New York City, when all 50 members of the City Council are up, as well as the mayor, the public advocate, the comptroller, and the district attorneys of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The latter is the most powerful DA in the nation, as they often take the lead in prosecuting Wall Street cases. The transformations of city politics at the state and federal level are coming to the city as well.
One of the most concrete policy areas where the victories for the left will have an impact is on housing policy, as one-quarter of renters in New York City have not made payments since March, on top of a pre-existing affordability crisis. The winning candidates have pledged expanded rent control protections and a pied-à-terre tax, which would charge people living outside the city for vacant luxury properties.
The state legislative victories “were about the tenant movement gaining strength,” said Cea Weaver, coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition, which won a transformative expansion of renters’ rights in New York in 2019. “Of the people that were elected, three of them had been arrested protesting for affordable housing in the recent movement.”
Given that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is often hostile to progressive policy, Weaver and her allies are hoping the new members can pressure New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Phara, Jabari, or Marcela alone are not going to be able to take on Gov. Cuomo,” said Weaver. “Their goal is to develop a caucus that will force Carl and Andrea to work together to force Cuomo to make different policies.”
JABARI BRISPORT GREW UP in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, in a union household. His father was a member of the Sheet Metal Workers, and his mother, the Communications Workers of America. As he put it, “Social justice was always accessible in my household.” Brisport, who is 33 and identifies as LGBTQ, got his start in political action advocating for same-sex marriage in New York state in 2009. “That was the first time I got really involved to get friends to call their state senators,” said Brisport. “I was getting people to advocate and lobby. When we lost, it made me feel like a second-class citizen.”
Brisport returned to the phones and the streets in 2011 and helped to secure same-sex marriage rights in the state. “That showed me the power of political action,” he said. The bug caught, Brisport went on to get involved with the Black Lives Matter movement after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
The first electoral campaign that Brisport got involved with was Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, because “if I got someone elected who I agreed with, I would have to protest a lot less,” he said. That summer, he started to study political theory. “I put it together that slavery was an example of capitalism, where Black people were traded on the open market and used as collateral for banks, and seeing how racialized capitalism was holding Black people back, and how the pursuit of money was keeping Black people down.” The next year, Brisport joined DSA, impressed with its campaigning approach. He made the decision to run for office the night of Trump’s election, thinking, “This is a nightmare. I have to do something. Wasn’t even set for City Council. I have to run for local office to defend my community.”
The next year, Brisport took 29 percent of the vote as a Green, an impressive tally for a third-party candidate in a city dominated by the Democratic Party. With the victories of AOC and Julia Salazar in 2018, Brisport felt that he could win in a contested Democratic primary.
The following year, in Brisport’s meetings with the electoral branch of DSA, “I brought up a deep desire to not run alone this time, because running for office is a really lonely thing,” he said. Eventually, DSA recruited a slate of candidates.
The slate created a community, Brisport explained. “We had a group text—‘Are you stressed?’ ‘I’m stressed too,’” he said. “It was really nice. It was great too from an organizing standpoint to amplify each other’s voices together. We released joint policy platforms. Phara and my campaigns were intricately connected.”
Brisport bristles at the notion that democratic socialism is restricted to white millennials. Issues like charter schools pulling funds from public education and the crisis of private-sector health care are universal, he said. “It’s funny, when I was running my sister was saying, ‘Stop saying you’re a socialist, people may not want to vote for you.’ But older Black voters agree with basically everything that socialists say.”
Phara Souffrant Forrest’s impetus to run came from a realization that politics was dominated by the well-off. Forrest attended public schools both in K-12 and in college and graduate school, and started working at age 16, eventually becoming a nurse. “I just felt that there weren’t enough working-class people in office,” Forrest said. “That’s why we’re getting a lot of inappropriate policies passed without the input of regular people.”
Forrest, who was born and raised in Crown Heights, is the progeny of Haitian immigrants. Her mom is a union health care worker, and her late father was a union baker. Her stepfather worked as a taxi driver. She is still living in the apartment that she has lived in since she was two, and she formally decided to run after she was arrested at a tenants’ rights protest in Albany in June 2019, and the police became violent. “We had planned this, we’re ready for this, but we weren’t ready for violence,” she said. “I just want to pay the rent with a little dignity and you’re beating me up for this.”
Forrest’s father was part of the Haitian diaspora that was active in supporting Fanmi Lavalas, the political party of former liberation theologian priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in U.S.-backed coups in 1991 and 2004. She grew up in that political culture, joining her father at protests over Haiti and police brutality.
As a leader in the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Forrest was seen as a natural political leader. “People had approached me to run, before the protest, and my response was, ‘Hell no! I’m a nurse,’” she said. “After the protest, I said, ‘OK fine, I’ll run.’”
Forrest’s campaign prioritized relationship-building and organizing over winning support from existing power brokers. Once the slate had developed a common platform, the organizing came naturally. “People had way bigger buy-in than just supporting me as an individual,” said Forrest. “We got buy-in through the issues.”
THE WORKING FAMILIES PARTY has been winning campaigns in New York since the late 1990s, and is a more sophisticated operation, with a significant number of highly qualified paid staff. This storehouse of talent and knowledge was critical to many of the victories, especially Bowman’s, who faced an avalanche of outside spending. The DSA’s organizing operation, on the other hand, thrived due to motivated volunteers drawn to the agenda of its endorsed candidates.
“As socialists, we know that the only way we’re going to win is through people power,” said DSA’s Kumar. “That’s why we concentrate on base-building and training our members to become organizers who can work really hard. The ideology undergirds the whole project.”
That played out dramatically for Brisport’s and Forrest’s campaigns, the candidates said. In the month of the election, Forrest’s campaign was able to set up a new volunteer shift of at least 15 people every three hours. They would engage in phone and text banking, and relational organizing, with get-out-the-vote volunteers reaching out to their own networks within the district. “We had at least 2,000 postcards—people handwriting postcards,” said Forrest. “It all started in October, but to see what we had built by the end of June was phenomenal.”
Despite the inability to knock doors because of the pandemic, organizers stressed to volunteers to engage voters in meaningful conversations about the issues. “We were talking to people about a vision for politics and connecting it to their personal narratives,” said Fainan Lakha, Brisport’s campaign manager.
The victories have already had a concrete impact on the 2021 elections in New York City, and have given energy to the national DSA’s other targeted campaigns this election cycle, mainly Jackie Fielder’s insurgent campaign for state Senate in San Francisco. Soon after their victories were announced, the winning New York candidates co-hosted a national online fundraiser for Fielder, who did well in the March primaries and has a shot after her opponent, incumbent Scott Wiener, needlessly enraged the building trades unions (typically a pillar of the right of the Democratic Party in California), leading most of them to withdraw their endorsements.
Kumar is hopeful about collaborating with the Working Families Party in their joint efforts to transform politics in the city and state. Tiffany Cabán, the insurgent socialist who lost a campaign for district attorney of Queens by 60 votes in 2019, has indicated that she will run for City Council in a district overlapping DSA Assemblyman-elect Zohran Mamdani’s. She is a strong favorite to win. Brisport has discussed the goal of electing a majority-socialist City Council in 2021.
Brisport emphasized the human connection of their people-powered campaigns. In the midst of the pandemic, “I would let volunteers know that you might be the first person they talk to all day,” said Brisport. “Be aware of that and be aware of the beauty you are spreading right now.”