Can a Socialist Lyft Driver Beat an Incumbent Bankrolled by the Fossil Fuel Industry?

Can a Socialist Lyft Driver Beat an Incumbent Bankrolled by the Fossil Fuel Industry?

Can a Socialist Lyft Driver Beat an Incumbent Bankrolled by the Fossil Fuel Industry?

David Alexis gives The Nation a tour of his Brooklyn state Senate district and explains why he’s running for office.


David Alexis arrived late to our meeting spot, a McDonald’s surrounded by car dealerships at the corner of Church Avenue and King’s Highway. At the last minute he had to find someone to watch his two little girls, ages 6 and 4. Despite the summer heat and complications of his day, Alexis is smiling, focused, and excited to talk.

Alexis, 33, is a Lyft driver, a labor organizer, a husband whose wife suffers from sickle-cell disease, and a democratic socialist campaigning for state senate in a competitive Brooklyn primary. The challenges his family has faced were not an afterthought in our conversation. They’re why he became a worker activist, a socialist, and now a candidate for office.

Alexis grew up in nearby Spring Valley but has lived in Flatbush since 2013. “I got married here, kids here,” he told me. Alexis went to college at SUNY Stony Brook and the University of Bridgeport, but it was in this district that he began what he calls “my adult life working, being a provider.”

We walked along Church Avenue, crossing all of State Senate District 21. We saw the Caribbean neighborhood of Flatbush; the more Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and, further along Church, Orthodox Jewish environs of Kensington; then the Victorian houses and shrubberies of the quieter and whiter Prospect Park West. Alexis began our stroll by explaining where his parents are from in Haiti and the history of slave rebellion in that country. His calm manner distracted me from the honking trucks and cars. I even forgot about the sun bearing down on us on this treeless street during a 90-degree day. Detailing some of his family’s experiences—his grandfather was incarcerated by Papa Doc in a prison cell so low he couldn’t stand up—Alexis mused on the island’s role in the “struggle against the imperialist, capitalist system that dominates the world.”

Alexis said he did not grow up making sense of his family’s life in this way. He began to understand imperialism and capitalism “as a Lyft driver, trying to do the best I could to provide for my family.” His older daughter was born just as Donald Trump was elected. “If I was going to be a serious provider,” Alexis asked, “what was I supposed to do in the country that just selected Donald Trump? I needed to do a better job of understanding how we got here.”

Like many young people at the time, Alexis started listening to socialist podcasts—The Michael Brooks Show, Chapo Trap House, Citations Needed, Revolutions, Marxist political economist Richard Wolff’s Economic Update. He then joined the New York City Democratic Socialists of America in 2019 at the urging of his brother, an active member. Already politicized by “having a partner in a health care system that did not really care for her,” Alexis participated in the fights for Medicare for All and the New York Health Act. He then helped in some of DSA’s other campaigns—Tax the Rich, Green New Deal for Public Schools, and in various elections.

We paused across Church Avenue from a Head Start program. This tiny storefront, sandwiched between a hardware store and a health clinic, bears inviting signs: “Now Enrolling!,” “High Quality Early Education,” “no cost for eligible families.” The site brought Alexis acute memories of how much the family struggled with child care when his daughters were babies. Both he and his wife have family close by, but given her illness and his work, it wasn’t enough. When his oldest daughter was born, in 2016, Alexis started driving for Lyft, which he imagined would allow him to be “more flexible, more available at home.” His own parents, he remembered, “worked a lot, a lot, a lot.” And he told me, “I wanted to make sure that I could be more present. And available.”

Unfortunately, he discovered, “that’s not how that works. I ended up spending a lot more time away because of the nature of how the gig economy is designed.” The “flexibility” is a mirage: Drivers must work constantly, and during peak hours, and still barely make ends meet. For two years, Alexis and his wife tried to find a child care center that would take both children. The publicly subsidized Head Start Center on Church Avenue opened in 2019, just when they’d gotten desperate, and offered fees on a sliding scale. “I can’t talk enough about how much of a blessing it was,” Alexis said.

Parents around the world will remember that this triumph was short-lived, since many child care programs shut down, including the one on Church Street, when the pandemic hit New York City in March 2020. Like millions of other parents, Alexis found that “online learning” is not child care. On top of that, Alexis faced another obstacle to providing for his family: He had been in the process of becoming a firefighter but couldn’t continue because—along with both his daughters—he was diagnosed with asthma right at the beginning of the pandemic. With a medically vulnerable family, he couldn’t risk going to work for much of that time. “It was a really shitty year,” he recalled. “By the end of it, I was just wiped.”

The practical challenges of trying to earn money and care for his sick wife, he said, led him to “the realization that I could not do this alone, because you needed power to change these things. And all power in our society is either organized money or organized people.”

The child tax credit of 2020 and other pandemic aid allowed Alexis to spend more time organizing the Drivers Collective, which included a mutual aid network that at its peak fed 1,600 families a month. Working alongside his fellow drivers, Alexis saw the devastation that the city’s deregulation of the industry brought to men like himself. “Many of them just committed suicide, because they saw it as their failure. In Haiti culture, Caribbean culture, African culture, many other cultures: The provider must provide, right? His worth as a human being is tied up with his ability to provide. The moment you can no longer provide you are useless.”

He explained that trying to make money for your family as a driver pushes you toward an absurd mindset. One day Alexis noticed that instead of being horrified that some drivers sleep at the airport so they’re ready when the gates open, he found himself thinking, “That makes sense, I should try that.”

Alexis talked about how some of the drivers he organizes don’t agree with him about much—but that they can organize together against the rideshare companies. He told me about a Jamaican driver who loves Ben Shapiro, for instance. “That guy is part of our movement, too,” he said. “And that’s how we win.”

We stopped at the African burial ground at Church and Bedford, which the community won, through concerted organizing, against the developers who wanted to bulldoze the remains of human beings whose liberties and lives were lost to other people’s profits. It looked like an abandoned lot, but there were signs on the fence. One of these memorializes an enslaved woman named Phyllis Jacobs who died in 1800 and was owned by a series of men whose family names festoon so many Brooklyn locations that we have ceased to wonder who they are. The names of this woman’s masters are a bracing reminder that slaveowners still dominate our streetscapes: Lefferts, Ditmas, Voorhes. But at this spot, Phyllis Jacobs herself is remembered, too: “A woman of strong intellectual capacity.”

A block further, we turned onto Flatbush Avenue. Alexis pointed out the ubiquitous dollar vans, which emerged during the transit strike of 1980, and which have continued to provide cheap transportation in neighborhoods unevenly served by public transit, especially immigrant communities like this one. (Many of them have “David Alexis for State Senate” signs in the windows.) I got a sorrel soda that David recommended. It was a hot day, and I was thirsty—but it was probably the most refreshing beverage I’d ever had. Alexis, whose daughters now attend PS 268, was eager to show me the Erasmus High School building. It was the first high school chartered in New York State, in 1786, and was once one of the crown jewels of the system. Now the building is home to several of the city’s worst-performing schools, because of austerity and disinvestment. “It’s not what it once was,” Alexis said.

When Alexis was asked by his DSA comrades to run for office, the sickle-cell program at Brookdale hospital had just closed, after a Russian billionaire bought the hospital and “consolidated” it. “My adult life as a provider has been marked by a lot of instability. As a result of the economy, of all these things.” But he said, he’s grateful to “the amazing people I’ve met along the way, who I’ve always been able to organize and connect with and build. So we took this jump to run for state Senate.”

He joined a talented slate of DSA activists campaigning in New York this year. All the incumbent socialist state Assembly members—Zohran Mamdani, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, and Emily Gallagher—were reelected, and Hudson Valley newcomer Sarahana Shrestha (whom I interviewed in June) won her primary. Socialist state Senators Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar are running for reelection, and in addition to Alexis, Kristen Gonzalez of Queens is hoping to join them in Albany. Housing affordability and climate have been at the center of this year’s campaigns. (Full disclosure: I have volunteered and raised money for several of these candidates, including Alexis, and am a proud member of the CAP Council of UAW Region 9A that endorsed Alexis’s campaign.)

Back on Church Avenue, we walked through a leafy, suburban-feeling area. As we reached the edge of the district and looped back on Church toward the campaign’s headquarters, Alexis talked about climate change and pollution, which is personal to him, especially since learning that he and his daughters have asthma (as do nearly 3 percent of children in his neighborhood). The current state senator, Kevin Parker, is bankrolled by the fossil fuel and real estate industries and has done little to address the environmental and housing problems that the neighborhood faces. Parker is also notorious in Albany for violent rages. But Alexis never mentioned Parker’s famously awful personality. What concerned Alexis was Parker’s role in stonewalling legislation on climate and other urgent priorities. Alexis and his DSA comrades have been fighting to get Albany lawmakers to publicly fund renewable energy.

Building grassroots power is labor-intensive: Alexis’s campaign has knocked on over 60,000 doors and raised over $240,000, which is, he said, “insane.” But the campaign is fueled by a key insight: Not only did Alexis need to organize at work to ensure that his compensation and working conditions would allow his family’s survival, but he told me that it was through the organizations he was building, like the Drivers Cooperative and DSA, that “we could develop the power to actually change our circumstances, so we wouldn’t just be surviving but could truly thrive.”

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