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NYC socialists set their sights on City Council seats

2019-09-14

Congress, Albany… is City Hall next?

NYC’s democratic socialists are planning to field candidates for City Council races in 2021, hoping to ride the momentum from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset 2018 victory and local races like the one that swept state Sen. Julia Salazar into office.

With plenty of seats up for grabs — 35 out of 51 Council members will be term-limited out of office — democratic socialists could win at least a few districts.

The real question is how much power the upstarts will be able to acquire in a city where big money, famous names and a plethora of special interests still reign.

The goal is “not to just try and win an election, but to build something that lasts beyond the election,” said Justin Charles, an organizer for the NYC chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

“We have a movement of people who are going to make it so the rest of the Council has to do what we want,” he added.

The decision to field City Council candidates came at a June 1 convention at Judson Memorial Church overlooking Washington Square Park. About 200 delegates and alternates for NYC-DSA, which counts roughly 55,000 card-carrying members, attended.

“We’ve grown up a bit. We’ve had some big successes in the past year and failures, too, but we’re very serious about the tasks in front of us,” said Charles, who’s on the steering committee of NYC-DSA’s North Brooklyn branch. “You can kind of feel that in the room.”

The new initiative comes after socialist Tiffany Cabán nearly defeated establishment-favorite Melinda Katz in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney in the summer — and after democratic socialists in Chicago won six seats on the City Council there.

“Granted it’s only a handful of them ... who are openly socialist in the council in Chicago working together,” said Charles. “We want to see something like that here in New York, but hopefully even more.”

While there are no democratic socialists on NYC’s City Council, the group’s recent victories have had the effect of “normalizing and destigmatizing being a democratic socialist,” said Salazar.

“If you want to capture part of the base and the energy and the momentum DSA is bringing, you have to take anybody who’s running as a democratic socialist more seriously,” she added.

NYC-DSA, which has chapters in all five boroughs, is perhaps strongest in North Brooklyn, where Salazar won. Sam Lewis, another organizer, said the group is trying to make inroads in new “working-class” neighborhoods, too.

He and Charles said it was too soon to say which districts DSA will target, but in general, they’ll go after battlegrounds for their main concerns — criminal justice reform, labor rights and rezoning.

Council members in districts that Mayor de Blasio rezoned to encourage affordable housing have come under criticism from local activists who say the plans exacerbate gentrification. Rezoning has taken place in East Harlem, Inwood, East New York, the central Bronx and Far Rockaway.

“We haven’t spoken with [prospective candidates] specifically in places where there’s heavy rezoning — not yet, at least. We hope to,” Charles said.

Councilman Steve Levin of Brooklyn is in his last term. Several candidates looking to succeed him have been seeking NYC-DSA’s endorsement, according to Salazar, whose district overlaps with his.

She plans to campaign for whoever gets the endorsement, adding that NYC-DSA has high hopes for the Council.

“We want to have the power for our legislative priorities to get through and what better way than to have a democratic socialist speaker or in leadership in the Council at any level?” she said.

AOC, Cabán and other socialists attacked mainstream Dems as traitors to the progressive cause. DSA-backed candidates could take a similar approach to upcoming City Council races involving incumbents.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who is term-limited, is running for Queens borough president. He got a taste of potential things to come for other mainstream Dems in a recent op-ed.

“You sold out Queens when you welcomed Amazon’s gentrification as a kickback for your real estate donors,” wrote Jonathan Bailey, co-chair of DSA’s Queens branch. “You sold out workers when you failed to support union labor.”

Earlier this month, NYC-DSA unveiled a new platform with far-left planks and rhetoric like, “Our goal is not to reform the U.S. capitalist economy, but to dismantle and move beyond it.”

Political scientist Doug Muzzio of Baruch College said the group has some growing pains ahead.

“They do not yet have sufficient reach in all the districts or even many of the districts,” he said. “They are still, I would say, a splinter within the [Democratic] party.”

But he suggested it would be foolish to dismiss the forthcoming slate of City Council candidates.

“The announcement alone sends reverberations through the system, particularly among the incumbent class,” Muzzio said. The democratic socialists are “very committed, very hardworking, very intense, organized.”