Socialists Were Once Serious Contenders for Mayor of New York, and They Will Be Again

Socialists Were Once Serious Contenders for Mayor of New York, and They Will Be Again

Socialists Were Once Serious Contenders for Mayor of New York, and They Will Be Again

Tuesday’s mayoral primary lacks a prominent democratic socialist contender. But the next mayoral race will almost certainly feature one.


New York Mayor David Dinkins, just months after taking office in 1990, welcomed members of the Socialist International to Manhattan with a robust reflection:

Socialist ideals have played a powerful role in this city and this country—which have served as gateways for millions of immigrants, many of whom were socialist activists. Public education, a strong and vibrant trade union movement, and many great cultural institutions are products of the socialist movement. As Eugene Debs said, socialists believed in an America of “great possibilities, of great opportunities and of no less great probabilities.”

Dinkins knew the history from personal experience. He was a longtime comrade of Michael Harrington, and had joined the American author and activist in the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee of the 1970s and then in Democratic Socialists of America. Tracing his association with Harrington back to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, “when the Socialist Party garnered its forces in the struggle for equality and justice led by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.,” Dinkins recalled the author’s groundbreaking work to end poverty in America and told the Socialist International Council gathering, “Today, we must rededicate ourselves to Michael’s mission—to close the yawning gap that exists between the rich and the poor in so many nations of the world.”

Dinkins passed away last year, at age 93, and a lot of New York history went with him. But not the connection to democratic socialism. If anything, the movement is more potent now than at any time in many years. So it is a bit strange that the city does not have a prominent socialist, or at least a close ally of the movement, in serious contention for the mayoralty this year.

The race for the top job in the nation’s largest municipality is almost certain to be decided June 22, or whenever the ranked-choice votes from the Democratic primary are finally counted. None of the leading Democratic candidates has positioned themselves as a champion of socialist ideals—even if many of them borrow from the tool kit of ideas that socialists have been carrying into our politics since the days when Debs campaigned for president as an advocate for labor rights and what would come to be known as Social Security, and when Harrington prodded Senator Edward Kennedy to embrace national health care. The increasingly influential New York chapter of DSA, which has played a vital role in a number of Democratic contests for local, state, and federal posts, has not endorsed anyone in the mayoral race. And it isn’t looking like a socialist running on an independent or minor-party ballot line will gain much traction in November.

That’s a far cry from the past when the independent Socialist Party was a major player in New York politics. A little over 100 years ago, in 1917, Morris Hillquit, an immigrant from Riga in what is now Latvia, who became a prominent union activist and lawyer, won almost 22 percent of the citywide vote. Hillquit finished ahead of the Republican nominee and took almost a third of the vote in the Bronx. Among the more than 145,000 voters who cast ballots for Hillquit were many opponents of the US entry into World War I and civil libertarians who were aghast at moves by the administration of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson to charge war foes with sedition. “If I had the right to vote, I would vote for you, Mr. Hillquit, because a vote for you would be a blow at the militarism that is one of the chief bulwarks of capitalism, and the day that militarism is undermined, capitalism will fall,” wrote Helen Keller, one of the most prominent authors of the era.

Though she understood that Hillquit was unlikely to win, Keller underscored the importance of a large Socialist vote in a letter to the New York Call, a socialist daily, that declared:

It would be an unequivocal denial that New York City stands for the kind of democracy that prevails here just now, a democracy where freedom of assemblage is denied the people, a democracy where armed officials behave like thugs, forcibly dispersing meetings, burning literature and clubbing the people; a democracy where workingmen are arrested and imprisoned for exercising their right to strike, a democracy where the miners of Bisbee were torn from their homes, huddled in freight cars like cattle, flung upon a desert without food or water and left to die; a democracy where Negroes may be massacred and their property burned, as was done in East St. Louis; a democracy where lynching and child labor are tolerated, a democracy where a minister who follows the feet of the Messenger of Peace beautiful upon the earth was flogged almost to death…

When Hillquit ran again for mayor in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, he won more than 250,000 votes on the Socialist Party line and finished ahead of Acting Mayor Joseph McKee—though behind Democrat John O’Brien. Norman Thomas, the party’s frequent presidential nominee, won 175,000 votes as the Socialist candidate for mayor in 1929; and throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the party regularly won elections for New York City Council seats and other posts—including the Lower East Side congressional seat that Meyer London, a Lithuanian immigrant who was one of the city’s most prominent champions of labor rights, began winning in 1914.

Today, democratic socialists and their allies are again winning congressional seats representing New York, as well as legislative seats. This year, DSA is focusing attention on a half-dozen City Council contests, and candidates the group has endorsed are considered to be top contenders for a number of offices. The mayoral race was tantalizing for DSA activists, but the group chose to steer its energy toward building a base in municipal politics. “If we had a mayoral candidate who came from DSA, I think that would have been one thing,” Susan Kang, a DSA member who is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The New York Times last winter. “We’re trying to be very strategic in how we use our labor.”

That’s smart. If DSA-backed candidates such as Tiffany Cabán—a 33-year-old public defender who came within a few votes of being elected as Queens district attorney in 2019—win council seats, they will be positioned for future bids for high-level city posts. Cabán recognizes that a lot of New Yorkers want “a mayor that is going to say that this is not about safe, small, incremental change that tinkers around the edges.” They may not get what they want this year. But it’s a good bet that 2021 will be the last year when New Yorkers lack the option of backing a democratic socialist who is a serious contender for mayor.

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