When Socialists Govern

When Socialists Govern

New York State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani is building power in Queens.


Just over five years ago, when Leah McVeigh moved to Astoria, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, one of the first things she noticed about her apartment building was the dangerous intersection next to it. There were so many car crashes, she told me, that she learned to identify the sound of one: “There’s this specific crunch. And then quiet.”

There seemed to be an accident every week, and the constant honking suggested that there were dozens of near misses every day. It was so dangerous that she bought a large first aid kit to keep in the apartment. She also called the city’s 311 help line to request that a traffic light be installed, and when that didn’t work, she attended her community board meeting to see if they could help. Nothing changed, and McVeigh concluded that she’d done what she could. “I had to live my life. I had to go work. I’ve kicked the tires, and I’ve only lived here six months. Surely someone in this neighborhood has been trying to deal with this for years,” she said.

But one rainy night in September 2020, McVeigh heard that familiar, dreadful crunch and quiet. She ran down into the pouring rain in her slippers and found a delivery worker on the ground with a line of blood trickling from his mouth. “You could tell, as soon as you got there, that it was not going to go well for him,” she said.

McVeigh watched him die. She decided then that getting the intersection fixed would be her “raison d’être.” This man was deeply loved, she told me. His friends and family brought a band to play a funeral brass section at the intersection. They put up a poster at the site of his death and lit candles almost every night for the next six months.

McVeigh e-mailed every legislator at the city and state level, telling them, “I need this intersection fixed. I don’t have the emotional capacity to watch another person die in front of my house during Covid-19. This is too hard.” But every elected politician she reached out to either didn’t respond or told her that they couldn’t do anything to help.

That changed last January, when Zohran Mamdani, one of six democratic socialists to win state office in New York, became the assemblymember representing Astoria. He hosted a Covid-19 town hall meeting over Zoom, which McVeigh attended. “He said a lot of good things,” she told me, and he invited participants to volunteer with his office to help deliver constituent services to their neighbors. This work entails assisting hundreds of constituents who reach out to the assemblymember with practical needs: an unmet unemployment claim, a complaint to the city that has not been addressed, or dozens of other unique problems. McVeigh thought, “Maybe this is how I will not only get my traffic light, but I can also ensure that others don’t have the same experience that I did.”

She got involved with Mamdani’s team in March, and with the help of another volunteer, his office made sure a traffic light and pedestrian signals were finally installed at the intersection by the end of that summer. The corner by her apartment building, once raucous with honking, fender benders, and worse, has gone quiet.

This is “sewer socialism” in action, and it highlights how local, socialist governance can be responsive to ordinary people rather than to the corporate and political elite.

Sewer Socialism

Sewer socialists” was the nickname given to the democratic socialist mayors who ran Milwaukee for most of the first half of the 20th century. They built parks, playgrounds, libraries, water treatment plants, and the nation’s first municipal public housing. There were also socialist mayors in Reading, Penn.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Berkeley, Calif.; and dozens of other cities. But Milwaukee’s mayors were the best-known. In fact, Mayor Daniel Webster Hoan was featured on Time magazine’s cover in 1936. The article noted that the “Marxist mayor” was in his sixth term despite the united opposition of the city’s Republicans, Democrats, bankers, and landlords. Hoan, Time wrote, “remains one of the nation’s ablest public servants, and under him Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the U.S.”

Milwaukee was a stronghold of the Socialist Party, particularly the wing that believed the best way to advance working-class power was to run a functional government that delivered basic services. But many from the party’s more radical wing derided this type of incremental reform. “Sewer socialism” was their term of scorn for the incrementalists. Emil Seidel, the city’s first socialist mayor, responded:

Some eastern smarties called ours a Sewer Socialism. Yes, we wanted sewers in the workers’ homes; but we wanted much, oh, so very much more than sewers. We wanted…a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness. And we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music, dance, song and joy for all.

Today’s Eastern smarties include a caucus of democratic socialists in the New York State Legislature who have adopted many of these ideas. “So often,” Mamdani told me, “people like to malign leftists as if we live in the clouds. But we should also live in the sewers.”

A growing number of socialist politicians have organized their offices to deliver constituent services. But what makes their approach distinct is that they’re doing this by activating community members, developing leaders, and building organizations—and thus transforming the political terrain of their districts. While local political machines have often traded constituent services for votes, democratic socialists have turned that model on its head by using the delivery of services to build power outside of their offices. Through contact with constituents, they’ve introduced people to grassroots organizations, trained volunteers, and connected people with resources and information.

Politicians ranging from US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to state assemblymembers like Mamdani in Queens and Phara Souffrant Forrest in Brooklyn have developed significant volunteer bases out of this work, and in so doing, they are building infrastructure that can outlast their time in office. As Mamdani told me: “Our role is to ensure that people have the tools that they need to create the world that they deserve, outside of what we do for them, and long after we leave.”

By building volunteer networks and local organizations, explained Ayat Husseini, the community liaison for Mamdani’s office, they’re showing residents how socialist governance connects to communities and grassroots movements. “We can use constituent services to empower volunteers and constituents,” she said. “They learn about the system, learn to resolve their issues moving forward, but also resolve their neighbors’ issues and develop tight-knit communities that can navigate systems and bureaucracies.”

Building Neighborhood Power

Mamdani and his staff of four (three full-time, one part-time) have spent the past year working with tenants and unemployed people, doing outreach in mosques and churches, and lending support to grassroots campaigns. Like other socialists in office, Mamdani describes himself as having “one hand in legislation, one hand in organizing, and one hand in constituent issues.”

That may sound like one too many hands for a single person, but his staff and volunteers help in each of those categories. When I stopped by the office’s constituent services volunteer meeting this past October, Mamdani sat to the side for most of the evening while his team ran the agenda. Mamdani, who had turned 30 that week, was wearing a dark suit and was uncharacteristically quiet. If he looked tired, I later found out, it was because he had begun a hunger strike earlier that day, in solidarity with New York City taxi workers who were seeking debt relief. The following week, still on hunger strike, Mamdani announced a major organizing victory: The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation had rejected a proposal that he’d worked to defeat, which would have built a fracked gas power plant in Astoria.

But many of the day-to-day functions of Mamdani’s office are not the flashy accomplishments that find their way into headlines. Mamdani and his staff respond to hundreds of constituents every week, answering e-mails, phone calls, and tweets. It’s not unusual for the office to receive 100 e-mails and 30 phone calls in a single day. During the first 10 months of Mamdani’s tenure, more than 480 of these conversations became active cases—an average of 11 cases per week. Some types of cases were all too common: a wave of people not receiving their unemployment checks at the height of the state’s lockdown, for instance. Others were unique: a security guard at risk of losing his job because his license had expired and his attempt to renew it was stuck in a bureaucratic limbo. Many were somewhere in between: tenants complaining about negligent landlords or traffic issues like McVeigh’s intersection.

Mamdani and his staff were quickly overwhelmed by the volume of cases, particularly as the pandemic pummeled New York City and the inquiries became dire. So they set about recruiting and organizing volunteers. The first cohort that spring, which included McVeigh, fluctuated between five and 20 active volunteers. They learned to answer calls and e-mails, log information, and follow up where they could. McVeigh took the lead in helping to organize them. “I’m a bit of a systems thinker,” she said. She worked with the staff to tighten an initial “loosey-goosey” approach with schedules, processes, and clear expectations for volunteers.

She also met Sean Rowden, who had agreed to volunteer after the office helped him with his own unemployment case. He happened to have a background in urban planning and transportation and knew the liaison at the Department of Transportation. He helped resolve McVeigh’s traffic light case.

Mamdani and his staff have tried to use every point of contact with constituents to democratize and build power within the district. During Ramadan, their food distribution activities culminated in an iftar where religious leaders, community members, and local climate activists shared a meal, prayed, and discussed the struggle to stop the proposed fracked gas plant. When a constituent contacts the office to say “I don’t have gas” or “My landlord won’t repair the holes in my walls,” Mamdani’s staff often end up finding out about other issues that they can help resolve.

That’s how they met Adriana Alvarez, who was born and raised in Queens. In 2019 Alvarez, her partner, and her two daughters moved into a rent-stabilized apartment. They quickly found out that there was no working stove, and when they called Con Edison to turn on the gas, they were told it wasn’t possible, because the building’s gas pipes were not installed according to city regulations. The landlord refused to do anything about it, so in March 2020 Alvarez took him to court. There she learned that a standing order to address the issue already existed. To this day, nothing has been done to correct it. In fact, the only thing that came out of the court case was that Con Ed shut off the gas to the rest of the building as well.

Alvarez didn’t know the people in her new building when this began. But her neighbor across the hall, Hacene Layachi, seemed to know everyone. He suggested that she go to a nearby food pantry where he’d met some organizers who might help. As it turned out, the organizers were Mamdani supporters and members of the Astoria Tenants Union. Mamdani’s campaign had been running food distribution during Ramadan and had enlisted the ATU to hand out flyers.

As Alvarez and the ATU identified other neighbors’ issues, Mamdani’s office got involved. Not only had the tenants’ gas been shut off indefinitely, but years of negligence also meant that door locks and security cameras were broken, leaks were left to fester, garbage was everywhere, a mouse infestation hadn’t been addressed, and many tenants—they learned after some digging—were vastly overpaying on their rent.

Now Alvarez, Layachi, and their neighbors have begun to organize, and they’re bringing a building-wide legal case against the landlord. In the past, tenants occasionally passed each other in the hallway but had barely known one another. Now, Layachi told me, “we’re like a family. We help each other out, we talk outside, we know about each other’s kids.”

Layachi is a natural organizer, who recently helped unionize his workplace. But Alvarez said she’s never done anything like this before. When I asked her how it felt, she said, “It’s like a breath of fresh air. I didn’t know how many people in my building didn’t want to speak out because of their status. It sounds ignorant, but as a citizen, I never really thought about it. It feels good to know that we’re working together now. That they know that their neighbors have their back.”

Neither Layachi nor Alvarez consider themselves “political” or have an opinion about democratic socialism. “It’s just really good to work with people that have your best interest at heart,” Alvarez said.

It’s exactly this principle—that socialist governance is just good governance—that appeals to volunteers like McVeigh and Rowden. Both told me that they have socialist leanings, but they appreciate the seemingly apolitical nature of providing constituent services. “There’s something powerful about neighbors helping neighbors,” McVeigh said.

Rowden has been skeptical of the Democratic Socialists of America and of political activism in general in an age of Twitter wars. “Everything’s online; everything’s national scale. And it feels insubstantial,” he said. But with constituent services, “because you’re dealing with real people in real circumstances—your actual neighbors—you don’t have the luxury of retreating into bubbles and hive minds.”

The more that Mamdani’s office can develop leaders, whether as volunteers or as tenants organizing their buildings, the more institutional knowledge can be built to outlast the tenure of individual politicians. “We care very deeply about democratizing information,” Mamdani said. “I think that stems from the fact that we are socialists, and socialism is in many ways the extension of democracy beyond the ballot box.” It is in this sense that socialist governance is not only good governance; it has a broader goal of transforming the way people understand and relate to the government. “The reason that I ran for office,” Mamdani continued, “is to change the relationship between people and the state, to shift what people believe they deserve from the state, and to help them understand the structural problems and the role that they can play in challenging those structures.”

As Kaarthika Thakker, Mamdani’s communications coordinator and constituent services liaison, explained: “The ultimate goal is to identify and develop leaders and to give people the tools and knowledge to be able to have tenant association meetings, regardless of who is in office, to understand what your rights are and what you can demand from your landlord, your candidate, your government. The ultimate goal is to have that sustain itself and live within the neighborhood and not within our office.”

A Gospel of Abundance

Democratic socialist politicians like Mamdani don’t have it easy. Not only are they opposed on the ballot (often by candidates with nearly bottomless resources), but once they’re in office, they’re stymied by limited resources and the enormous scale of the challenges their constituents face.

“We are preaching a gospel of abundance within conditions of austerity,” Mamdani said. Constituent service work exists only “because the system is not working efficiently. If people were able to resolve their issues with government agencies directly, they would have no need to call us.”

To get constituents engaged, Mamdani and his staff must convince them that it is possible to make change—in their own lives and in their communities. When they organized thousands of residents to write postcards against the fracked gas plant, they made it clear: “You can do this. You have the power to stop this plan.”

But “when you light the fire of possibility in someone,” Mamdani cautioned, you have to do so responsibly and “not give them a sense of hope when actually there’s no way to help them in this situation.” For every constituent that Mamdani’s team helps, there are many more who don’t know to reach out to his office or whose problems are beyond the ability of a single office to solve. Behind each negligent landlord, for instance, is an entire system of real estate development, predatory lending, and gentrification—which requires legislation and class-based struggles to effectively overcome. Delivering constituent services not only gives Mamdani opportunities to empower residents; it also informs his legislative priorities, such as a “good cause” eviction law to protect renters, a bill to ban all new power plants, and legislation that democratizes the processes in the most engaged state agencies.

Political education is also important in the long run, Mamdani said. “When we talk to our constituents, we try to be honest with them” about the political and systemic challenges. “There are many obstacles that are unseen, and you need to know them. Because if you don’t connect the dots in politics, it seems like you can never achieve change. And that’s what they want you to think.”

Sewer socialism in New York is in its beginning stages. How far it will go and how much it can achieve remains to be seen. For Rowden, despite his skepticism about political activity, the work that’s happening in Mamdani’s district is a “North Star” for the movement. “If you’re a socialist, part of the project of getting people on board is showing people the goods,” he said. “That’s the benefit of getting your fingers in the dirt. What we’re doing here is where the hope lies for socialism to grow.”

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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