“The more I’m in government, the more I realize how corrupt it is.”
Janeese Lewis George is sitting in the lobby of the Kellogg Conference Hotel at Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, telling me about the last three years. It hasn’t been easy for the 35-year-old since she became the only democratic socialist elected to the overwhelmingly Democratic D.C. City Council in 2020. She’s clashed with a mayor she calls a “borderline Republican” and been stifled by the council chairman for not playing ball, and even the US Congress, with a Democratic president’s assent, has stepped in to slap her and her colleagues down.
Yet through it all, the D.C. native has also notched wins in the face of concerted opposition from centrist council members and business lobbyists, often by directing popular pressure toward the council itself. She puts out videos about what happened that day at the council to “control our narrative,” has gathered support from neighboring councils to make opposition to her favored policies untenable, and helped push a major housing bill over the line by mobilizing tenants from each of her colleagues’ wards to urge their councillors to vote the right way.
“Real people power isn’t about everyone becoming a socialist, but about getting working people involved in government,” she concludes.
The broad strokes of Lewis George’s story would not have been unfamiliar to the 50 or so other socialist elected officials she had just been addressing, who had gathered the weekend of June 17 at Gallaudet University for a conference sponsored by The Nation, Jacobin, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Fund. Over two days, socialists elected to the state, county, and local levels in nearly 20 states, together with their staffers, exchanged with one another what they had gone through and learnt over their past few years of holding elected office, in what was conceived as an unprecedented chance for young and often politically lonely officials to build relationships and solidarity.
“We heard about these incredible victories from Pennsylvania, where [state Senator] Nikil Saval had passed a bill that gives money to homeowners and even small landlords to do home repairs,” says Somerville City Council President Ben Ewen-Campen, first elected in 2017. “Hearing how they’d gotten that done in a state with really horrific fossil fuel politics, I was really inspired by that.”
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The gathering offered a unique chance to take the pulse of the US socialist movement, written off over and over again in the past seven years in the midst of very real and disappointing electoral setbacks. Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, now the floor leader in the city council for its newly elected progressive Mayor Brandon Johnson, says that while there were other socialists elected to office when he won his first race in 2015, there was “certainly not the 100-plus there are today, and in the city of Chicago, I was the only one in 100 years.”
But it also served as a window into the nuts and bolts of a still small but growing working-class movement’s attempts to translate its political ideals into practical reality, and the possibilities of enacting socialist politics outside of federal government—as well as their stark limits.
Lewis George’s cynicism about 21st-century politics wasn’t unique. That the workings of American government are even worse behind the scenes than they appeared came up frequently among attendees, the longest-serving of whom had, by and large, only gotten their first taste of the nitty-gritty of legislating six years ago.
“You have a dynamic where policy isn’t a matter of necessity for those we serve, but a matter of winning the next election,” says state Representative Darrin Madison, 26, elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly last November.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘We don’t talk about things as a moral issue,’” says state Representative Ryan Clancy, who alongside Madison comprises the only two socialists in Wisconsin’s lower house.
Speaking to others at the conference, Daniel Carlino—who won his first term to the Missoula City Council in 2022—said many shared his own surprise at how rarely his centrist colleagues introduced policy. “They’re on cruise control,” he says. “It comes down to lived experience. A bunch of people on the city council have never faced eviction or know what it’s like to not be able to afford a security deposit.”
Many of the attendees got their start not in party politics looking to climb the proverbial ladder, but in political activism. That includes the 25-year-old Carlino, who was radicalized by the climate crisis and helped lead the local Sunrise Movement chapter, as well as Kendra Brooks, who was the first candidate to win a Philadelphia City Council seat on the Working Families Party line, after spending years as a public education activist in the city.
For Madison, it was a school assignment that led him to find out about Milwaukee’s socialist mayors that was the first step, followed by the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and his joining a local DSA chapter in 2021. For Somerville, Mass., city councillor Willie Burnley Jr., it was coming across a Jacobin article.
“What stood out from other gatherings of elected officials is that everyone there clearly had a commitment to socialist class politics and to shifting the balance of power from capitalists to the working class,” says Ramirez-Rosa. “This was not just people wearing a label or a sash because it’s trendy and cool. They were there because they believed in the socialist movement.”
Often, their politics aren’t matter of political theory, but are rooted in genuine working-class roots. Lewis George told the assembled crowd about her own family’s struggles with skyrocketing housing costs and the frustration in 2018 of seeing her city council repeal the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which gave tenants the right of first refusal when their property went up for sale, and which she had used to help her family hang on to the home they had lived in for years.
Dylan Parker, who was elected Rock Island, Ill., city councillor in 2017, credits his previous career as a mechanic for his socialist awakening, when he noticed the chasm between what his employer was charging customers and what he was being paid. He also points to his involvement in the 2016 Sanders campaign, which drove him to run for office.
Parker was far from alone in being inspired by Sanders, who in turn told the attendees via video link how “inspiring” and “gratifying” he found it to see so many socialists who had run and won office collected together, a stark contrast to the political landscape when he had first entered Congress three decades earlier. Following a speech from Representative Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who stressed that unconditional love must be the anchor of socialist politics, the Vermont senator assured those assembled that they were firmly in the mainstream.
“You are not the radicals in the room,” he said. “The views that you are expressing about economic justice, social justice, and racial justice, those are the view shared by the majority of the American people. The real radicals out there are those people who believe we need more tax breaks from billionaires, more military spending, and that we should ignore climate change.”
Yet if such principled political commitments have been a source of strength, it’s also meant that attendees are often the lone socialists on their legislative bodies, waging an uphill battle to enact the platforms they were elected on—or even facing down a hostile establishment alone. For five years, Justin Farmer, had to bide his time, using an energetic door-knocking operation and vigorous attendance at community events to maintain public visibility and secure his reelection, which he did twice as the highest vote-getter on the council. It was only in his sixth year and his third term that he was joined by two other socialist allies, which he says was a game changer.
“I’ve probably got more done this year than I have in the last five years,” he says. “Despite being in the minority, we’ve been able to pull our Democratic colleagues to the left.”
Others, like Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer and second-term city councillor in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, plug away on their lonesome. “To get support for anything I want to accomplish, I have to talk to my other elected officials and build a consensus,” they say. Often, they add, that means a policy “falls short of what I’d like to see”—settling for bringing in another broadband provider to provide better Internet service through competition, for instance, instead of getting full-fledged municipal broadband.
Yet even though socialism isn’t coming overnight to Pleasant Hill, Grooters, the sole socialist member of a five-person council in a town that Trump won twice, has notched other important wins, including raising wages for EMTs and fire department workers, and making it easier for individuals to add solar power to homes and businesses.
Without exception, attendees reported that their being self-identified democratic socialists was irrelevant to their constituents. “Most people don’t care I’m a socialist,” says Brooks. “They care that they get their needs met.”
But it was a different story when it came to their colleagues, from whom socialist officeholders have faced varying degrees of pushback—more often than not, from Democrats.
Clancy says that Republicans, who have a supermajority in the Wisconsin state Senate and are a few votes shy of one in the Assembly, treated himself and Madison as novelties for a while, and likens their situation to “being in a zoo.” Within the Democratic caucus, in contrast, “there have been a variety of reactions ranging from grudging respect to outright hostility.” Still he and Madison both say they have colleagues with whom they collaborate, and who look to them and their willingness to take principled positions when they need to know what stance to take on pending legislation.
Likewise, Lewis George has frequently butted heads with her more centrist colleagues on the D.C. council on matters like rent control, and says she’s been punished by the powerful council chair for not voting as he’d like, by being denied a key committee assignment and having her legislation delayed. But her willingness to speak out has also been infectious.
“I’ve pushed some of my progressive colleagues left on policies and given them the confidence to be more bold,” she says.
Attendees relayed a variety of strategies they used to overcome resistance. Often, it’s a combination of mobilizing popular pressure and building coalitions, not just with activists and pressure groups, but forging temporary alliances on some issues with colleagues and interest groups with whom they might split on others—those Brooks calls “frenemies.” Cast by her opponents, as many socialist officials have been, as uncompromising and unreasonable, Brooks, who calls herself a natural coalition-builder, has gone out of her way to make outreach to potential opponents of policies, as she did with the restaurant lobby on the matter of paid sick leave.
“I always say I’m willing to come to the table,” she says. “I’m okay with compromise, but I always enter with a nonnegotiable.”
When Carlino’s proposal to put Missoula’s privately owned ambulance service under the auspices of the city fire department met resistance from the city council, he found an unexpected ally: the fire chief, who saw firsthand the lackluster service the city was getting under the status quo. Soon, the fire department was speaking to the council in favor of the idea, and Carlino says the city is now writing a plan to turn the ambulance service into a public entity once the current contract is up.
Similarly, Rock Island’s Dylan Parker cites as one of his top achievements his work on creating a special service area, a type of tax increment financing (TIF), to revitalize the city’s downtown, by raising taxes on businesses and other property owners to fund beautification projects, city services, marketing, and more. But getting it approved meant persuading local businesses to get behind the proposal.
“It was initially an uphill battle,” he says. “When you open the door and say ‘I’m gonna raise your taxes,’ there’s very much a sentiment of ‘No way.’ But when you have one on one conversations with business owners and stakeholders, you can cut through the noise and the political nonsense.”
As a result, says Parker, the revenue-starved Illinois city will now be pulling in an expected $315,000 a year, with some of that money going toward not only policies benefiting local businesses but also a community navigator program for the city’s homeless that would be an alternative to the use of police power.
Sometimes the quirks of particular local bodies offer points of leverage. The crucial role of city councillors in zoning approvals in Nashville has sometimes served as an opportunity for patronage and graft. But for Sean Parker, also the lone socialist on his city council after first winning a seat in 2019, it’s been a way to extract concessions vital to local communities.
“I tell developers, ‘You’ll have to do X, Y and Z,’” to get approval, he says.
“One of the things that many of us have been able to do is to ensure that TIFs aren’t just writing checks for developers, but actually go to public good,” Grooters says, noting that he had heard this same sentiment from other attendees. “That’s something anyone who’s a socialist elected official can do, especially at the municipal level.”
In spite of the obstacles, socialists have racked up a formidable list of wins at the state and local levels, often in the realm of housing—a common terrain of battle for those at the gathering, no matter where they hailed from.
Nashville’s Parker successfully shepherded through an amendment to the city’s Metro Code this year, expanding the number of unrelated people allowed to live in a “dwelling unit” from three to seven. Brooks, up for reelection this year, saw several bills upping protections for renters pass with overwhelming support on the Philadelphia City Council—including a host of pandemic-era protections for tenants and strict limits on landlords’ ability to deny housing based on previous evictions—and has been waging a campaign for the city to buy back unused land sold to US Bank in the 1990s and reallocate it to local communities.
The newly minted socialist caucus on the city council in Hamden, Conn., played a critical role in both passing a Fair Rent Ordinance that strengthens’ tenants’ voices at the city’s Fair Rent Commission, and in the original formation of the Hamden Tenants’ Union that is the major beneficiary of the law. In D.C., Lewis George worked to successfully cap rent hikes on rent-stabilized apartments at 6 percent, and spearheaded the successful Homes and Hearts Amendment, which raised taxes on the rich to raise wages for early childhood educators, fund housing for the homeless, and create a monthly basic income for lower-income families.
Meanwhile, Somerville, Mass.—where four socialists sit on a progressive city council, including Ewen-Campen—has seen a spate of tenant protections and affordable housing measures become law over the past five years. But this real-world experiment in progressive governance has also laid bare the limits of power at the local level, as when former governor Charlie Baker vetoed the Somerville council’s own TOPA legislation, a measure that needed state approval, and which the state legislature has not taken up since.
All the while, housing costs in the city remain at dystopian high levels.
“The forces driving the housing market are global, macroeconomic trends,” says Ewen-Campen. “Policies at the local level are very important and do make a difference, but we can’t pretend they’ll make housing affordable.”
Rock Island’s Parker likewise hit a brick wall trying to make good on his campaign plank of municipally owned broadband. Despite having political support for it on the council, he says, it turned out the project would cost tens of millions of dollars the city didn’t have, particularly after a previous council and mayor had blown $15 million on a Walmart Supercenter project that the retail giant had abruptly pulled out of after five years.
“Absent support from the state and federal governments, initiatives like that are just not going to happen,” he says. “As socialists, we can get elected to city councils and so on, but until we can influence state and federal government and broader infrastructure projects, we’re spinning our own wheels at the local level.”
These realities may point to the next task for elected socialists, who over the past eight years have bit by bit won elections and built power at the local level, made occasional inroads at the state level, and established a small but prominent presence at the federal level. As Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) himself told attendees at the event, there was “nothing like it” when he was first elected to Congress in a bruising campaign in 1991—or, for that matter, for nearly 30 years afterwards.
But as these same socialists’ struggles to enact their political vision or even simply progressive policies shows, it may not be enough. The socialist movement has a long way to go in reshaping US political institutions in its own image, even as its success at the state and local levels has served as a springboard for building power in higher office. As Ewen-Campen put it, now is “the best of times and the worst of times.”
“We spent many hours in the hotel lobby talking about how we confront neoliberal mayors and colleagues,” says Ramirez-Rosa. “There was a definitely a sense of camaraderie and shared struggles in those conversations, but also strategies.”
Though socialist officeholders acknowledge the long way still to go and the daunting, even alarming challenges ahead, it was an air of cheer and optimism—not trepidation—that suffused the gathering. For a moment, they could leave behind the squabbling, rancor, and corruption of government, and be among those who spoke the same political language and share the same vision of a radically kinder world. After that, the struggle begins again.