A few days before May Day, Marcela Mitaynes, a Brooklyn tenant organizer who is running for the New York State Assembly, started getting calls from neighbors she hadn’t heard from in a while. Rent was due, and they were worried about paying. Many were already living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic. Now, Mitaynes told me in a phone conversation, families who had been depending on two or three incomes were scraping by on one or none. Tenants were worried about sinking into debt—even if they could delay paying for a couple of months, thanks to a temporary moratorium on evictions, they would still owe back rent.
Mitaynes is one of five New York City candidates for office to score the endorsement of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—the largest socialist organization in the United States—last week. The local chapter, NYC-DSA, has become known as a “progressive king-maker” in New York City after helping Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez oust Joe Crowley from his House seat in 2018, and backing Tiffany Cabán, who came within 55 votes of winning the Queens district attorney race in 2019. Mitaynes, who is running for state assembly in Brooklyn’s District 51, is part of a five-member slate backed by both the local chapter and the national DSA.
She is running alongside Zohran K. Mamdani, candidate for a Queens state assembly seat in District 36; Jabari Brisport, candidate for a Brooklyn state senate seat in District 25; Phara Souffrant Forrest, candidate for state assembly in Brooklyn’s District 57; and Samelys López, who is running for Congress in New York’s 15th congressional district in the Bronx. (I volunteered for Mitaynes this year and for Brisport when he ran for city council in 2017.) The only other time DSA has endorsed a local chapter’s entire slate was in 2019, when it backed Chicago DSA’s picks for city council. Democratic socialists now control one-10th of the Chicago City Council.
The candidates have earned high-profile endorsements in addition to DSA’s. The four running for state office have the backing of Cynthia Nixon, who won over a third of the vote in her 2018 primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Working Families Party, has endorsed Brisport, Mitaynes, and López. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed López, who hopes to join the Representative and fellow Bronxite in Congress next year.
All five candidates volunteered for Bernie Sanders or cited him as an inspiration. They all stressed the importance of building a multiracial, working-class coalition to demand that government treat things like health care and housing as rights, not commodities. Yet several key characteristics set them apart from Sanders—and defy persistent stereotypes about what and who democratic socialists are. The most obvious are age, race, and gender: All are people of color and immigrants or children of immigrants, and all were born and/or raised in the areas they are seeking to represent. Four of the five are under 41, and three are women.
Skeptics of Sanders-style democratic socialism often caution that the whole world isn’t Ocasio-Cortez’s deep-blue Queens district. City & State New York posited in October that the DSA slate’s races will “test democratic socialists’ appeal to working class voters of color.”
“DSA gets maligned in the press as an organization for gentrifiers, and it’s just not true,” said Brisport in a phone conversation. “We are specifically running candidates that are from our communities.” That said, he added, there is always “room for improvement” when it comes to diversity, and no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with voters. “If you put up a flyer that says, ‘Socialism meeting on the corner at 7 o’clock,’ 50 white people would show up,” he joked. “Not everyone hears the word ‘socialist’ and says, ‘Oh, let me go to that meeting.’”
Mamdani made a similar observation. “For some people the term ‘democratic socialist’ means nothing,” he said in a phone conversation. “I explain it as a belief that the state needs to provide whatever is necessary for a dignified life: housing, health care, education.”
López, whose district is the poorest in the country, told me that she talks to constituents about “bread-and-butter issues.” Having spent part of her own childhood in the city’s shelter system, she encourages them to question why they are struggling to meet basic needs. “We ask people, ‘Do you think this is right that you’re going through this? Do you think it’s your fault that you’re going through this?’” Often, López said, they will realize that “it’s actually not my fault, because I work two to three jobs to survive, and every day I come home tired.”
In March, the pandemic forced all five campaigns to transition from block-by-block canvassing to campaigning online. With the shift in strategy came a shift in focus to the immediate needs the crisis had created. “We begin all of our calls to voters by asking if they need groceries or medicine,” Mamdani said. Like López, he prompts his constituents to consider why the state is “abdicating its responsibility to provide [them] with a dignified life.”
Under the shadow of the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Cuomo has garnered attention and praise for his leadership of his state during the crisis. The self-styled progressive’s popularity has spiked in recent months thanks to his sober and informative daily press briefings. But his initial handling of the crisis, insistence on slashing Medicaid in the midst of it, and refusal to cancel rent have angered many. For those on the left, these moves reinforce the urgency of maintaining and expanding the fragile inroads leftists made in Albany in 2018.
Mayor Bill de Blasio—once a great progressive hope—has come under fire for perceived fecklessness in his management of the crisis. Some believe his delayed decision to close public schools led to the preventable deaths of dozens of NYC Department of Education employees. New York’s management of the crisis has been unfavorably compared to that of California and Washington, where state and city officials coordinated their efforts effectively and scientists rather than politicians took the lead,
Since at least 2015 the two have generated stories about their increasingly acrimonious “public pissing match”—a serious liability in the best of times, let alone in a pandemic. Their wrangling delayed New York City’s shutdown, arguably leading to a higher death toll; now, they can’t even agree on how many have died.
Brisport said both men deserved “failing” grades for their handling of the crisis. Mitaynes said it has been “disheartening” to see different levels of government unable to work together effectively. While critical of both, Mamdani pointed out that de Blasio gets “worse press” because Cuomo is “more adept at media.” However, he added, “Cuomo gets an F.… If you’re busy trying to survive and you’re not paying much attention, what you see is a competent executive…given the facts, you would begin to question more deeply why we have had such a horrific outbreak and high death toll.” The crisis, he added, has been thoroughly mismanaged at the executive level, “from Trump to Cuomo to de Blasio.”
“I never heard of these candidates before, but there’s facts and there’s bumper stickers and you can’t run a government on bumper stickers,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi responded to these criticisms in an e-mail. “You also shouldn’t be running for office on a platform of misinformation and purity tests. We tell people the facts, good and bad, they made their own judgments and, last I saw, more than 80 percent of New Yorkers approved of our handling of this crisis. Maybe I shouldn’t give campaign advice, but no one is going to fall for this garbage.” As for the Medicaid cuts, Azzopardi added, “The numbers need to add up. We had a $6 billion hole and the moment we solved that a $14 billion one opened up because of Covid-19.… This is a pandemic and Washington needs to do its job and provide states and localities with relief.”
The mayor, for his part, has “dedicated his entire career to fighting for working people, and has had a clear record of success: universal pre-K, historic low crime rate and enforcement, and the most aggressive affordable housing program in the city’s history,” his press secretary Freddi Goldstein said in an e-mail. “New Yorkers care about results, not punditry and we remain laser focused on making the city fairer.” She added that de Blasio “has led from the front, calling for a shelter in place, the use of face coverings in public and keeping schools closed. His leadership has helped us flatten the curve and his focus remains on helping the nearly 9 million New Yorkers he is responsible for.”
Given the failures of New York leadership, the candidates’ strategy of asking what people need—and delivering—has proven both necessary and effective. Asked what drew him to Mamdani’s campaign, Omar Abouhamama, a 16-year-old volunteer from Astoria, described helping the campaign pack groceries and prepare meals to deliver to neighbors in need. “I like politics,” he said, “but I like helping people, also.” Of Mamdani, he said admiringly, “I don’t [usually] see politicians in the street helping people out themselves.”
While Mamdani and his fellow candidates hold Sanders in high esteem, they have also learned from his mistakes and are carving out a new approach based on their own lives and experiences. As Brisport told The Intercept in 2017, “I love Bernie. I would vote for him 10 times,” but Sanders’s “blinder” was “seeing so much from an economic lens, when you do need a mixture of an economic approach and an approach toward marginalized groups.”
Forrest made a similar point. “What [Sanders] did right was really speak to the issues that the working people most cared about,” she said, citing employment and health care that was “free” and “not tied to your job.” These are “some policies that had we had a president like that right now, we would be in a lot better shape to deal with Covid-19.”
That said, she added, “If you are still having people of color, women, still question if your new system has them in mind, then you really need to go back and build your coalition a little tighter. The platform was great, but the coalition still needed to be worked on.”
Forrest sees the need to expand Sanders’s coalition as an argument for her candidacy. “That’s why we need people like me on the local level to say, ‘Bernie Sanders was not crazy—he was saying something that we need and we need to be all on the same page’…. Until we have all these assemblymen, state senators saying the same thing, all these housing groups saying the same thing, it will be hard to get a Bernie Sanders in office.”
Bringing forth Sanders’s vision, Mamdani said, means “not only fighting for a political revolution but making sure the electorate is fundamentally transformed,” adding that his campaign has knocked on the doors of voters about which “a consultant would say, ‘Don’t waste your time, they haven’t voted since 2010.’”
López told MTV News in March that she encourages even those who can’t vote because of their citizenship status to get involved. This called to mind a story Ocasio-Cortez told me in a 2018 interview about meeting an older Bengali couple while canvassing. “We spent a long time sitting down with them,” she said, “and probably only one of them was a registered, eligible Democrat.”
In addition to bringing in new constituencies and expanding their coalition, these candidates want to bring permanent change to Congress—and Albany. Mamdani said there are two types of politicians: ideological hard-liners and those who change with the wind. “Our job is to elect more people in the first category,” he said, offering DSA’s slate as an example, and, for the rest, “change the direction of the wind.”
“There’s a lot of folks that are hurting and need assistance,” Mitaynes said. “The grassroots power that we’re trying to build is to go beyond this one campaign, this one election, this one candidate, and to be able to cultivate that power and have the people be able to decide their futures.”