Debbie Medina has lived her entire life south of Grand Street in the Southside of Williamsburg, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. The office of Southside United HFDC, better known as Los Sures, where Medina has worked as a housing organizer for 30 years, is on South Fifth, eight blocks away. When she walks down Driggs Avenue, Debbie can point at the buildings and recite their histories. “This neighborhood has always had some nasty landlords,” she says.
She speaks with special pride of buildings like 340 South Third and 376 Keap Street, tenant-owned cooperatives that she helped organize, and where you can still find families who have lived in the neighborhood since her parents’ generation moved to North Brooklyn, as she puts it, “straight from the Island.”
But after decades of mobilizing tenants to resist the economic violence of gentrification—through rent strikes, pickets, organizing unions—Medina sees another architecture beyond the brick and sandstone facades, one in which she and her neighbors, primarily working-class Latinos, are systematically constrained, disempowered by design.
“Capitalism is killing our neighborhoods,” she says. “Before you know it, none of us—the non-rich, the nonwhite—are going to be able to afford to live here. This is a tragedy happening before our eyes.”
Debbie Medina, a 52-year-old mother of four and grandmother of six, is running for state senator for the 18th District of New York. Her priority, is “housing, housing, housing,” stronger rent stabilization, and rent control. Like Bernie Sanders, she’s running a grassroots campaign against an established Democrat funded by the same moneyed interests he promises to rein in. Her campaign will depend on convincing the predominantly working class, minority voters of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Cypress Hills, and Greenpoint—as she has thousands of tenants in Los Sures—that together they are strong. “This election is just another rent strike,” Medina says. “The difference is, it’s not just one landlord versus some of the tenants. It’s all of the landlords versus all of the tenants.”
And Debbie Medina shares something else, besides a thick Brooklyn accent, with the junior senator from Vermont: She’s running as a democratic socialist.
“Democratic socialism means that the community controls its own future, politically and economically,” Medina tells The Nation. “It means that the wealthy are not the only people with a voice.” Medina smiles. “We’re bringing the political revolution to Brooklyn.”
Medina’s opponent in the race is a convenient foil. Now serving his seventh term in the Senate, Martin Dilan was a close ally of former Kings County power broker Vito Lopez. Lopez, who died in November, resigned his assembly seat in 2013 after being fined $330,000 for sexually assaulting multiple female staffers. Dilan and his son, Assemblyman Erik Dilan, flourished under the Lopez regime by funneling millions in tax dollars to Lopez’s Bushwick nonprofit. Over the course of his career, Martin Dilan has taken upwards of $190,000 in donations from real estate groups, including $80,000 from anti-tenant lobbyists like the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York. And he’s vulnerable. In 2014, Medina ran against Dilan in a Democratic primary; she won 42 percent of the vote.
This time, Medina’s campaign—anti-plutocratic, unapologetically left, and competing with an establishment Democrat in a heated primary—represents what many movement leftists hope will be the future of electoral politics in the Sanders moment and after.
“Just as earlier campaigns helped prove that something like a Sanders candidacy could have such wide success,” says Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party, “[the Sanders campaign] will pave the way for other populist insurgents to run against the political and financial establishment.”
For groups like Working Families Party (WFP), Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), and Democracy for America (DFA), which have sought to reacquaint the Democratic Party with a left/labor base and replace corporate-captured Democrats with genuine progressives, the Sanders campaign is a very encouraging sign. “The era of the DLC is waning,” says Cantor. “Democrats who want to pivot right to win the support of Wall Street will find it harder and harder to maintain a grip on the base.”
But the Sanders moment raises the specter of an even greater prize for the left: not just electing good Democrats—but putting actual socialists in charge of the levers of government. Socialists like Debbie Medina.
For Medina, the decision to run as a socialist was simple: Capitalism is the problem she sees at the root of displacement and poverty. “We can’t be shy about this anymore. I call myself a socialist because I have spent my life fighting against the domination of this system, and I am proud to wear that label.”
Medina resents the idea, implied by the tiresome trope of the “Bernie Bro,” that socialist ideas only appeal to white male voters. The 18th District is 50 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black. “But you’ll notice,” she says, “that people of color are not the ones who live in the luxury condos on the waterfront. We are being chased out of Brooklyn.”
And Medina can barely conceal her annoyance when I ask her why women would support socialism. “Think about it. Who does capitalism neglect and ignore? Women. Capitalism has no use for a woman who wants decent housing at a decent rent.” In Medina’s district, the child poverty rate is twice the national average, and 64.8 percent of poor children live in female-headed households. “How is rent control not a women’s issue?” Medina demands. “How is the fight for $15 not a women’s issue?”
What’s more, Medina insists, socialism runs in the veins of the Latinos of Brooklyn. “Look at the Young Lords. Look at the Puerto Rican Socialist Party,” she says, referring to militant Puerto Rican liberationist groups of the late ’60s and ’70s. “These organizations were active in Brooklyn…. That is a part of our heritage, even if you don’t see it in the history books.”
Luis Acosta, who grew up on the Southside and joined the Young Lords in 1969, agrees. “We wanted a socialist society. That was in our genes,” he says of the Lords. “We understood what it was to work together cooperatively and to share the rewards of that work. That’s the way we were brought up in our homes, in our communities.”
Acosta, now the president and founder of El Puente, a community human-rights organization in North Brooklyn, also disagrees that socialism is a foreign import. “Yes, we are a conservative community. We are a religious community. And, at the same time, we have always worked collectively; we have always been about sharing with our neighbors. We practice democratic socialism every day.”
Acosta has known and worked with Medina and Los Sures for years. He’s not at all surprised she has chosen to run as a socialist. “Debbie grew up here. And I don’t see her changing. She’s a born and bred activist for socialist democracy,” he says with a laugh.
Asked if she is worried about her opponent using her embrace of “socialism” against her, Medina scoffs. “If that’s the best he can do, we have nothing to worry about. People are afraid of losing their homes, their jobs, their communities. They are not afraid of socialism.”
Neither, apparently, is the Working Families Party. Cantor says WFP would happily support more socialist candidates (in addition to Bernie). “If they have a real base and are viable, yes. The ‘S’ word doesn’t scare us in the slightest.”
If the Sanders revolution is going to succeed in taking back our legislative bodies from Republicans and corporate Democrats, he could use a few thousand Debbie Medinas.
If anyone has reason to believe this vision is possible, it’s Kshama Sawant, the former economics professor and current socialist city councilwoman of Seattle. “We can’t simply talk about Bernie’s campaign,” Sawant tells The Nation. “We have to talk about how we use this momentum to build.” Sawant, who won reelection in November, believes that if labor and the left do not harness the energy and capacity generated by the Sanders campaign to elect “independent working-class candidates” to city council, state government, and even Congress, “we will have squandered this moment.”
“The Sanders campaign demonstrates on the national level what we had already proven in Seattle,” says Sawant, “that there is an overwhelming feeling, especially among young people, that this system—the capitalist system—has failed them.” Indeed, recent polls suggest voters under 30 have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. As Sawant is fond of saying, “The hated word is the ‘C’ word—capitalism—not the ‘S’ word.” Young people and many others, she insists, are looking for alternative.
For Sawant, a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Alternative Party, the urgent task is to build an “independent party of the left,” separate from and in opposition to the existing options. Unlike more doctrinaire Trotskyist groups, which rejected Sanders outright for running with a D next to his name, Sawant and Socialist Alternative have opted for a dual strategy: organizing for Sanders while simultaneously seeking to demonstrate to his supporters “the lengths the Democratic Party establishment will go to push down and marginalize a candidate who fights for working people.” Their hope is that these disaffected Sanders voters can be convinced to abandon a party that marshals millions in corporate dollars to undermine their candidate.
“The first step,” says Sawant, “is for us to have the clarity and the courage to state the truth: that the Democratic Party has betrayed us, just as the Republican Party has betrayed us. It is time for a new party.”
Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential nominee, put it more bluntly: “Political revolutions that start in the Democratic Party, unfortunately, they die in the Democratic Party.”
Other socialists are slightly less sanguine about the prospects for winning elections on an independent socialist line in the immediate future. Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor and publisher of Marxist Jacobin magazine, cautions pessimism of the intellect. “As far as the broader socialist movement is concerned, we don’t have the capabilities, the preexisting infrastructure, to take full advantage of the Sanders moment,” he tells The Nation.
The Sanders campaign has indeed created unprecedented interest in socialist ideas. Jacobin’s traffic and subscriptions have skyrocketed. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who have endorsed Sanders and established an independent expenditure to support his run, has seen its new membership rates double. But, says Sunkara, “we should acknowledge that Sanders isn’t riding a wave of socialism, he’s sort of generating the wave himself.”
Elections, as Sunkara sees it, should not be thought of as the culmination or highest stage of a movement. Rather, he says, “we should think of elections as litmus tests to show the relative strength of organizing that has long been under way.” The important thing is not just to go around running socialists in every election. “We want socialist campaigns to emerge and reflect the roots of particular struggles in that community,” says Sunkara, “as opposed to people just swooping in, not knowing the context, and saying, ‘I’m the most left-wing candidate here. Vote for me.’”
David Duhalde, deputy director of DSA, says he doesn’t much care whether candidates inspired by the Sanders campaign run as Democrats, independents, Socialist Alternative, or something else. “The important thing is that there are people in office—and in the streets—who’ll help defend progressive gains and push a left agenda.”
In other words, fetishizing third-party politics for its own sake isn’t always the best way to win victories for working people. “Does anyone think that Sanders running a third-party candidacy for the last year would have gotten crowds of tens of thousands of young people?” asks Cantor of WFP. “Of course not.”
Despite their strategic differences, movement leftists tend to agree that the best candidates emerge from and remain accountable to an organized social base in their district.
Sawant fits this model. She won by embracing the nationwide wave of protest for a $15 minimum wage. Since then, she has made it a priority to maintain an intimate connection to the movement organizations in her community. “We should reject this idea that running candidates for office is somehow dichotomous with building mass movements. Those two tasks are very much interlinked.”
Debbie Medina feels similarly. “Our legislators need to be organizers if they’re going to be any use at all,” she says.
Besides his less than stellar record on tenant’s issues, Medina’s major complaint with Dilan is that he turned his back on the district. “I actually helped get him in there 14 years ago,” she says. “I knocked on doors, told people to vote for him. Now you never see him in the district. When it’s time for reelection, he comes to the parades in July and passes out pens. He doesn’t listen to people.”
If she wins, she envisions busloads of constituents from the district driving up to Albany to fill the hearing rooms where their fates are decided. “I want people inside my office every day. I want my community to make the decisions.”
When Medina talks about bringing people into the political process, winning victories through collective organizing, she sounds a bit like the guy at the top of the democratic socialist ticket: “We will win this election the way we win a rent strike: relying on ordinary people to take leadership and organize their neighbors. When we go to Albany, we’ll do so in strength, in unity. The impossible is possible when people stand together.”
For Medina, this isn’t starry-eyed idealism—just the opposite. In her experience, the only way working people have ever won anything is by standing together. She explains with an example: “Years ago, I knew this tenant who was living in his room illegally,” she says. “He didn’t have a lease, and he was worried he’d be evicted. But there was a tenants’ association in the building, and they had a rent strike. His neighbors stood together and demanded that the landlord write him a rent-stabilized lease. And he did! They watched him do it.”
“That is amazing,” Medina says, “that’s what is possible when people believe, when they stand together and they say ‘no.’”
For a lifelong organizer like Debbie Medina, the idea of “political revolution” to take back control of our democracy from the rich doesn’t sound like a copout or a fairytale; it sounds like pragmatism.