A Longtime Political Organizer in AOC’s District Says She’s the Real Deal

A Longtime Political Organizer in AOC’s District Says She’s the Real Deal

A Longtime Political Organizer in AOC’s District Says She’s the Real Deal

She has used her skills to win concrete, historic political victories.

Politics / August 2, 2023

A Longtime Political Organizer in AOC’s District Says She’s the Real Deal

She has used her skills to win concrete, historic political victories.

Charlie Heller
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing. (Drew Angerer / Getty)

Today’s socialist movement is the US’s strongest in generations, thanks mainly to the 81,000 member strong Democratic Socialists of America. The highly engaged of the DSA base has elected over 100 openly declared socialists to local, state, and federal offices.

As a longtime DSA organizer living in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district, I have seen firsthand how the most prominent of these post-Bernie socialists in office has contributed to historic political victories in New York State.

Still, most of us came to socialism to see programs like Medicare For All become reality. The chasm between enacting such policies and our present reality provides an ideal space for new kinds of cynicism to fester, often directed toward these electeds themselves.

This cynicism’s latest stage is epitomized by blogger Freddie DeBoer’s recent New York piece, “AOC Is Just a Regular Old Democrat Now.” To reach its hand-wringing conclusion, it looks at a series of mostly symbolic acts to determine that AOC and her fellow Squad members have hit a political dead end.

Frustratingly, DeBoer makes the exact argument he accuses AOC supporters of: ignoring concrete wins entirely. His failure to do so reveals the flaw inherent in nearly every prominent argument about what socialists in office should or shouldn’t be doing. Namely: that before debating what these electeds should do, we must understand what they can do.

Fortunately, even my own limited experience with AOC’s organizing shows that what they can do is a lot more than symbolic.

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In 2020, DSA discovered that NRG, a multinational fossil fuel company, was close to breaking ground on a new fracked gas plant in Astoria’s “Asthma Alley.” We started the No Astoria NRG Fracked Gas Plant campaign, built a coalition of climate organizations, and after a two-year fight that brought in thousands of residents, won.

This was a historic victory: the first time a fossil fuel project has ever been rejected specifically on climate grounds in the United States. Equally important, it set a long overdue precedent that new gas plants could no longer be built in New York.

AOC elevated this campaign in such a way that it’s unlikely we could have won without her. Exposing the project was key to throwing a wrench in the nearly rubber-stamped process, and as our on-the-ground organizing sparked local attention, AOC used her media profile to blow it up into a major story.

Similarly, she held highly visible events that brought residents into our organizing we never could have otherwise reached. But her less-visible work was equally key. On the constituent side, her campaign worked to deep-canvass constituents and build public opposition (which I learned when I received a call about it myself)—all while working behind the scenes alongside our socialist state legislators to organize other politicians in opposition.

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When the plant was ultimately rejected, we had secured public opposition from every elected official representing the area from the city council all the way up through Chuck Schumer. We won this campaign through organized people power, uniting with the especially fierce efforts of DSA state legislator Zohran Mamdani. But AOC enabled that pressure to reach institutions, people, and levels we could not have ourselves.

This year, DSA won an even bigger climate victory: winning a 4 year campaign to pass the Build Public Renewables Act. Its transformative vision and scale has been hailed as “the biggest Green New Deal win in US history,” which mandates the state to build publicly owned renewable energy, create green union jobs, lower bills, and slash racist pollution.

AOC’s early public support helped legitimize what started as “the socialist climate bill.” As the campaign reached its climax this year, she helped bring it across the finish line.

When The New York Times asked the country’s most well-known representative why Governor Kathy Hochul almost lost, she cited BPRA as the kind of program she needs to pass to win. When the Hochul essentially filibustered the entire state budget to attack bail reform, AOC hosted a joint DSA rally with state and city DSA electeds to keep the pressure for BPRA and other key demands from dissipating. When she signed on to an unprecedented congressional letter publicly demanding that the governor pass the full BPRA and not her “lite” version in order to take full advantage of IRA funding (led by fellow socialist Jamaal Bowman, who himself took a major role in the fight), she was paying off federal pieces that the left helped win federally.

This wasn’t confrontation for its own sake—it directly supported transformative organizing at the exact time it was needed most. Again, the work of thousands of people across the state made this possible. But federal forces like AOC amplified this power, enabling socialists to defeat the fossil fuel industry and win the biggest Green New Deal Victory in US history.

Even from this look limited to campaigns I have personally been involved in, it’s clear that AOC is a major political force on a material level. Symbolic actions do matter. But an organizer concerned with winning material change would not, as DeBoer does, give a tactical endorsement of Joe Biden more political weight than unprecedented climate victories.

Once it becomes clear that socialists in office do have political powerwe can start to better map the left’s capabilities and limits in ways that enable us to ask the kind of strategic questions that helped win campaigns like the above.

After years working on “Inside-Outside” campaigns that unite mass bases with local, state, and federal socialist electeds, I and fellow DSA organizers involved developed a framework based on how we have seen socialist elected power function (and fail) in practice: as force multipliers.

By channeling outside power into places—such as media, legislatures, regulatory bodies, and the general public via direct contact—multiply that movement power in ways that make new opportunities and victories possible.

It’s easiest to see this at work at the state and local levels that DeBoer claims do not exist. In 2017, DSA members had an active base of thousands in New York City. Yet we were not able to truly shape politics until we elected DSA state Senator Julia Salazar, who quickly led the charge on passing the nation’s strongest tenant protections. And when we added five more legislators in 2020, we became strong enough to stop a peak-of-his-powers Cuomo from cutting health care and public-sector jobs in 2021.

Still, this power is frustratingly insufficient to pass the kind of sweeping national transformations like Medicare for All that brought most of us to socialism in the first place. We can get an even more granular look from DSA’s own national campaigns, where we learned we had enough power to put pillars of the PRO Act and Green New Deal for Public Schools into the Build Back Better package.

What we were not powerful enough to do was overcome the right-wing corporate onslaught that prevented Build Back Better from passing at all (no one did). Electeds enable movements to punch far above our weight, but we only have so much weight.

Perhaps this is the root of the anger and cynicism so prevalent in these debates. While socialist electeds will never be without strategic and moral failings, the current limits of their power to transform the country is mostly reflecting our own movement’s limits.

Fortunately, the force multiplier framework highlights how building a base and winning more elected power are not in competition, but complementary—and have been for the last seven years. And not just in major cities either.

Take Mid-Hudson Valley DSA, a small rural chapter which has grown into a political powerhouse. Formerly just a few dozen members, the chapter now regularly draws 50–60 members to events, and was an essential force in passing BPRA.

How? In 2021, MHV-DSA elected Phil Erner as Ulster County legislator, a small election that gained them local influence and credibility. Enough that in 2022, they pulled off a major upset, replacing a 27-year Assembly incumbent with member Sarahana Shrestha. Rather than pit electoral power and mass power against each other, this virtuous cycle models how, for the last seven years, they have been symbiotic.

The online bubble makes it easy to forget, but AOC is both the most well-known and the most popular member of Congress in the country. While less famous, local and state socialist electeds are similarly beloved. Not just for what they say, but what they enable organized movements to do.

The untapped potential for a truly coordinated movement strategy that can take advantage of this is enormous. We know because what has been tapped has led to real, historic accomplishments already. Our task now is to make it the foundation of so many more.

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