Published: October 21, 2020
Submitted by: The Political Committee of Emerge
In 2019, Emerge delegates to the NYC-DSA city convention put forward a resolution to organize for a socialist city council slate in 2021. This original resolution exposed differences in political analysis around the purpose of electoral organizing for NYC-DSA, by proposing a plan that was not oriented entirely towards state power and legislative reform. Rather, it proposed electoral projects as a tactic for grassroots organizing, lending both visibility and material resources for a larger political project seeking to upend the capitalist status quo. This was an analysis rooted very much in Emerge’s Points of Unity, where we laid out what our vision for class struggle electoral strategy could look like: “Movement politicians, as tribunes of the people, can popularize demands, legislate to increase working class power, and expose the undemocratic and repressive mechanisms of bourgeois democracy from within. In so doing, they have the potential to transform their offices into sites of collective organization.” As this project has evolved and NYC-DSA prepares to formally endorse city council candidates across the city, we present our reflections and considerations for endorsement to the membership.
After a hard won campaign to get our entire state DSA slate elected in the middle of unprecedented pandemic conditions, we are cognizant of the issue of capacity to run our field operations. But our arguments do not rest or end there.
In 2021, we ask:
• What kind of class struggle candidates do we need in city council, during an economic recession and global pandemic?
• How should DSA candidates organize as socialists on this body and in coordination with comrades in Albany, in response to an austerity crisis?
• And what are the conditions and expectations we have for organizing working class power in 2021?
Emerge supports NYC-DSA endorsement of city council candidates who meet the following criteria for building a socialist New York:
1 – Candidates who can build electoral campaigns as referenda on rezoning struggles that challenge real estate power in New York. Candidates who can work closely with our DSA electeds in Albany around this and can create the conditions for building a popular mandate to pave the way for a Green New Deal recovery.
2 – Candidates who can further the movement for police and prison abolition by shifting resources away from carceral apparatuses: the NYPD, DA’s offices, the Department of Corrections; and by stopping the construction of new jails and prisons.
3 – Candidates who can advance and build socialist politics by establishing a record of organizing that breaks the dominance of the Democratic Party machine in New York.
4 – Candidates who are DSA members and are not afraid to identify as socialist candidates and electeds, and understand the importance of having a campaign run by and accountable to DSA members. For these reasons, as a caucus, we have chosen to not support candidates in 2021 who have hired political consultants to run their campaigns or who are not confident about being identified as socialists on the campaign trail.1
Emerge members participated in our electoral endorsement process this summer and fall and advocated for the following recommendations:
Michael Hollingsworth is a DSA member, a member of the Housing Working Group and a tenant organizer who has been organizing in the Crown Heights Tenants Union and is part of the statewide Housing Justice for All Coalition and helped recruit other tenant organizers to the struggle, including Phara Souffrant Forrest. Michael has identified as a Black socialist for much longer than DSA's 2016 post-Bernie existence, and has been a working class organizer in his district fighting gentrification and real estate developers for years. He is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Laurie Cumbo and the rezoning of 960 Franklin Avenue and has spoken powerfully about organizing under the shadow of Cumbo's displacement of Black working class communities with the Barclays Center/Atlantic Yards project and the Bedford-Union Armory deal.
Hollingsworth's base and organizing in both the Crown Heights Tenants Union and DSA can help us build a deeper base within working class communities fighting the eviction crisis with rent strikes and anti-eviction defenses. His close collaboration with his neighbor and fellow DSA comrade Phara in Albany can help with coordinating a citywide and state strategy around fighting for rent cancellation, universal rent control and full funding and expansion of public housing in the city.
His combative stance towards the Brooklyn Democratic party machine can help us solidify a socialist caucus that can develop an anti-dealmaker identity in City Council. DSA’s ability to work closely with Black working class tenant organizers gives the lie to the accusation by Laurie Cumbo and other establishment Democrats that DSA actively supports the gentrification and displacement of Black working class communities, and our vision for a socialist New York depends on the coalitions and working class institutions we help to build and strengthen in both our electoral and non-electoral work.
Brandon West is a DSA member who is one of the strongest candidates to anchor a socialist slate in city council, and one of the only ones running who is committed to a socialist vision for how to use the tools of City Council to challenge police unions and defund the police. Brandon’s experience as a city budget analyst strengthens his ability to demystify how City Council works in an accessible way, what tools can be used to allow working class people to organize more effectively and how non-abolitionist reforms to the Civilian Complaint Review Board do not get us closer to ending police brutality or disempowering police unions. Brandon has already begun building with the Defund campaign: tabling with CBK, prepping and speaking for the mass march. A candidate already embedded in this priority campaign will give him power during his candidacy and in office, while offering the Defund Campaign a platform for its demands and the reach of electoral resources. This will engage DSA members and working class communities beyond the associated branch and district because it will push other candidates to rise to the occasion and adopt these demands.
Brandon's campaign would also be a vehicle for strengthening opposition to the rezoning of Gowanus when the ULURP process begins in January 2021. This is a plan that is pitched in the language of racial justice and claims to offer working class communities of color the promise of affordable housing on top of polluted waterways and a flood zone. The Gowanus rezoning plan is the last one pursued by Bill DeBlasio and Brad Lander before their terms end, and represents a critical window of opportunity for DSA to be identified as the main political force in New York organizing to defeat developer plans, in two neighboring districts (Gowanus and Sunset Park) and across the city, in favor of building climate resilient working class neighborhoods. It’s important for us to highlight the false choice that City Council land use processes give to public housing residents: support a rezoning for luxury apartments and some affordable housing (that isn’t actually affordable for working class people) in order to ostensibly get investments for NYCHA, or oppose it and get nothing. In this case, there hasn’t even been a promise of investment in the three public housing complexes affected by the development (the Wyckoff Gardens, Warren Street, and Gowanus Houses), and yet the plan moves forward, gaining support. Brandon’s campaign is a socialist repudiation of these false choices, and we can help to polarize the struggle around pro-working class demands.
In his questionnaire, Brandon signalled that his support for immigrant working class communities in New York includes finding ways to help community neighborhood ICE Watch groups fight raids with the support of city funding, if it is legally possible. This represents an important commitment to finding ways to actually make New York a sanctuary city by building the self activity of working class communities terrorized by NYPD and ICE collaboration.
Brandon has also shown his support for the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel, through his own travel on a delegation to witness the effects of Israeli apartheid in solidarity with Palestinians and his opposition to anti-BDS policies in city council while he was still on staff. Brandon was part of a work protest organized by committee staff to defeat an anti-BDS bill that came up for a vote on the City Council Finance Committee. These are the kinds of critical struggles connecting labor and internationalism that we need more of in the coming years.
The victory against Industry City's rezoning plan in September was a pivotal, unexpected high point in 2020 and we celebrated the immense work put into it by Protect Sunset Park, South Brooklyn DSA, UPROSE and other organizations that built up opposition and turned Carlos Menchaca's equivocation and support for the deal into a no vote. The struggle against Industry City's rezoning gave the South Brooklyn branch a firm identity in the struggles of Sunset Park's working class and helped us build alliances through principled positions. Branch members helped elect Marcela Mitaynes and made over 5000 phone calls to community members exposing the lies about Industry City’s job creation, demystifying the role of Jamestown Properties as a landlord that fuels luxury real estate speculation and flips industrial properties to displace the working class. The momentum against Industry City eventually reached SEIU 32BJ workers at Industry City who testified against its layoffs and broken promises. We are proud of the work DSA put in to defeat the deal during a pandemic and its fight to protect the working class and industrial character of Sunset Park with a Green New Deal, as a step towards shifting the balance of power in this district in favor of working class priorities. This is why, as a caucus, we have serious concerns about the endorsement of Alexa Avilés's campaign.
Alexa was a member of Brooklyn Community Board 7 during the struggle against Industry City and her support for Industry City’s Community Benefits Agreement deal which was opposed by organizers in Protect Sunset Park and DSA raises questions about her capacity to withstand similar or even greater pressures to support concessions and austerity measures if elected as city councilmember, and whether she would be accountable to a socialist caucus or her working class constituents while in office. Alexa also stated in her candidate questionnaire that she is not actually opposed to the building of new jails, something that we are explicitly against in our policy platform. We echo other concerns from fellow DSA members that her platform continues to not have anything addressing decriminalization, ending mass incarceration or defunding the police in a year when we have seen some of the largest protests in the country for Black lives and for defunding the police.
Supporters of her candidacy have argued that DSA should support Alexa because she is on a journey to embracing socialist politics. That might be the case, but we would argue that, perhaps, Alexa should spend more time organizing with socialists and developing her politics before she runs as a socialist candidate while holding positions that equivocate or contradict DSA’s stated politics and priorities. We believe that she has not yet provided a sufficient basis for distinguishing herself as a socialist candidate, given her history of work in DeBlasio’s administration, without clear forthcoming answers explaining whether or not she supports public-private partnerships and what role she assigns to the private sector in city politics. We regret that we do not have a viable candidate this year in a vibrant working class district like District 38, but our very recent history has shown us that we have been able to win victories for working class communities in Sunset Park and that we can seize on that momentum to build our base whether or not we have a DSA candidate in city council in 2021. But we do not think it is wise to risk throwing ourselves into a campaign with a shaky candidate who has not shown herself to be fully prepared to defend socialist policies while in office and may weaken the cohesion of what will be a still fairly small socialist caucus in City Council. Emerge supports no endorsement in District 38 for 2021 and votes no on Alexa Avilés to maintain the clarity of DSA’s anti-austerity vision for New York.
“One of the differences between this situation today and the 70s is that, in the seventies, the nature of the [fiscal] crisis was more protracted, whereas this is a much more sudden turnaround. And I think that actually opens up-there's a certain kind of political leverage that might exist now.”
-- Kim Phillips-Fein, NYC-DSA Debt and Finance Working Group meeting, July 9, 2020.
In Fear City, Kim Phillips-Fein describes the deep fear that took hold of NYC municipal unions that the city was going to go bankrupt and they would be blamed for it and would lose their collective bargaining rights, as a result. This fear stymied and prevented them from playing a role that could have provided a radically different vision for the city. She notes that by the end of 1977, unions were on board to manage austerity, including DC 37, the UFT and several private sector unions. Our unions have never recovered from this failure, choosing concession after concession over bargaining for the common good, acceding to their role as junior partners to the Mayor’s office, the Democratic Party machine and real estate developers. Reversing this state of affairs would require a seismic generational shift in city politics and priorities, similar to and also radically different from the generational shift Phillips-Fein describes that overtook positions of power and decision making in the city during the 1970s fiscal crisis. She notes that during the multiple crises we face today, socialists can help reverse the neoliberal logic of cuts and austerity by making the city budget "a living expression of political priorities," just as over the summer the Black Lives Matter movement made defunding the police to make our communities safer and healthier seem suddenly possible and realizable in cities and towns across the country. We must urgently redefine our society’s collective political priorities by fighting to win a popular mandate for higher taxes on the rich to pay for housing, health care and green jobs. Even if our class is currently gripped with fear and instability and being actively disorganized, our demands for budget justice must not be pushed back by a Trump or Biden administration. Although the City Council as a body may have limited legislative powers, New York City politics have always shaped the national political landscape, from broken windows policing to the AFT to AOC. We have to consider what political leverage might exist now, in this crisis, for us to shift the terrain in our favor, and we need candidates who can rise to the challenge with us.
Clarification: An earlier version of this piece made reference to a specific political consultancy. Our issue is not so much with this consultancy as it is with political consultancies in general in relation to socialist campaigns for office.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated a relationship between the Mitaynes campaign and SEIU 32BJ workers at Industry City.
For this reason, Emerge is not offering any caucus recommendation to endorse Tiffany Cabán in District 22, Jaslin Kaur in District 23 or Sandy Nurse in District 37.
We are not weighing in on any district endorsements in Bronx/Upper Manhattan at this time as the branch electoral working group meets tonight to make its recommendations.↩