On Tuesday night, leftist candidates once again appeared on the cusp of notching huge victories in New York. I write, of course, appeared because there are many thousands of absentee ballots that still need to be counted, thanks to COVID-19. Some races are close enough that the margins could end up flipped when all votes are counted. What’s clear to me is that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez effect is quite real: her stunning victory, two years ago, over Joe Crowley has ushered in an era of Democratic primary challenges unlike any we’ve seen.
It’s likely that Jamaal Bowman has unseated Eliot Engel, a centrist Democrat who backed the Iraq War and voted to repeal Glass-Steagall, in the Bronx and Westchester House seat he has held since 1989. Bowman, a former middle school principal who is African-American, campaigned in the diverse district as an unabashed progressive, backing Medicare for All and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Recruited to run by Justice Democrats, the same group that tapped Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, Bowman united what has become, for lack of a better term, New York’s left institutional complex: the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and various affiliates of the WFP, like Make the Road Action, Citizen Action NY, and New York Communities for Change. Bernie Sanders endorsed Bowman too, along with MoveOn and the Daily Kos, two national liberal powerhouses. The arrival of this coalition was in 2018, when WFP and DSA teamed up to elect Julia Salazar to the State Senate. It showed up in 2019, when many of the same actors rallied around Tiffany Cabán’s Queens District Attorney campaign against Melinda Katz, who would go on to narrowly win when absentee ballots were counted. Though Cabán, a political neophyte who had worked as a public defender, came up short, her coalition nearly managed what was once almost impossible in New York City: making a serious dent against the combined might of large labor unions and local Democratic Party organizations.
Mondaire Jones, another candidate who backed Medicare for All, appeared to win overwhelmingly in a crowded field of well-funded, more conservative white candidates. All were competing to replace the retiring Nita Lowy in Westchester and Rockland Counties. Jones and Bowman will go to Congress with a mandate to represent the left vanguard of their party, like Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad. Jones was not a DSA candidate, but WFP, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and many other local progressives coalesced around him. Ritchie Torres, who is on the cusp of replacing Jose Serrano in the Bronx and beating back homophobe Ruben Diaz Sr., is, like Jones, an openly gay person of color, but he won without the left institutional complex. Torres hails from the progressive wing of the New York City Council but did not support Medicare for All in his congressional campaign. Both the WFP and DSA united around local organizer Samelys López, who had the support of Sanders, but Torres raised far more money and attracted significant union support. He was always the front-runner. Torres, a longtime ally of State Senator Jeffrey Klein, the former leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, has had an increasingly uneasy relationship with city progressives. Similarly, Suraj Patel may unseat Carolyn Maloney in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens when absentee ballots are counted—I tend to believe Upper East Side absentees will heavily favor Maloney and add to her margin—but Patel is within striking distance. The WFP and DSA shied away from Patel, who has alienated some progressives. A significant number voted for Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison.
More interesting, perhaps, is what happened on the state level. Three incumbent Assembly members in Queens—Aravella Simotas, Michael DenDekker, and Michael Miller—may all lose. DSA is likely to capture its second State Senate seat in Brooklyn, as longtime member Jabari Brisport leads comfortably in a three-way open race. Though WFP can count far more “wins” on Tuesday because their endorsed slate is much larger, it’s DSA who is quickly emerging as the new power broker in Assembly, State Senate, and City Council races. Brisport and Zohran Mamdani, a DSA-backed leftist who happens to be my old campaign manager, could very well be Albany-bound. (Mamdani challenged Simotas in Astoria. Funnily enough, Brisport and I went to high school together, though I didn’t know him then.) DSA’s other two legislative candidates, Pharah Souffrant and Marcela Mitaynes, trail narrowly against incumbents. Mitaynes would have won without a divided field. Souffrant needed to defeat Walter Mosely, an assemblyman who used to be very close to the Brooklyn Democratic machine and had the support of WFP, who likely backed him because he spoke out against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to eliminate fusion voting.
Though DSA arguably drew more buzz in 2018, when they were one of the relatively few left organizations to support Ocasio-Cortez against Crowley and then helped power to victory, it’s 2020 that has cemented DSA as a player for years to come. As an organization—DSA is not a political party—they’ve been bringing the largest share of volunteers to their endorsed campaigns since 2017. Beyond a few major labor unions, who can deploy canvassers on the ground close to election day at no charge, there is no political organization or party in New York that can easily marshal hundreds of volunteers, on their own, for a political campaign. The WFP cannot. They rely on member groups like Make the Road, an immigrant rights organization, to aid their canvassing efforts, but WFP’s primary function these days is as a de facto campaign consultant and political action committee. WFP can raise and spend a lot of money when it wants to. It employs some smart people. If you’re a WFP candidate, you’ll get nice advice, a paid canvass, and fundraising help. Their brand carries weight. The ballot line is virtually meaningless, though.
DSA has no ballot line to lend. It doesn’t need one. Until this year, I would argue that the gap between WFP and DSA was in political expertise and sophistication. The WFP has existed since 1998 and trained generations of adept political organizers. Before DSA, the WFP was running successful primaries against incumbent Democrats, beginning in the 2000s. Originally, they were a fusion of organized labor and activists, but the labor—thanks to pressure from Cuomo—has mostly fled. Until 2017, there was no such thing as a viable, DSA-backed primary challenge in New York City. Though the DSA has existed since the 1980s, they had no serious role to play in any kind of local political campaigns. After Tuesday, the expertise gap between WFP and DSA has just about closed because DSA has now cultivated their own cadre of effective organizers and managed to use their numbers to fundraise effectively online. The growing fundraising clout of DSA is not entirely their doing—it helps if someone like Bernie Sanders backs a candidate and uses his own list to fundraise for them—but it’s increasingly clear that any chosen candidate will be able to, with DSA’s help, fund a competitive campaign. In state and federal level races, sans matching funds, this is incredibly important.
Two factors explain the explosive growth of DSA. One is the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, which mainstreamed democratic socialism and proved a candidate running under a hard left banner could win millions of votes. Ocasio-Cortez herself was a Sanders organizer. The second was Donald Trump’s Black Swan victory, which radicalized a generation of young people and convinced them that engagement in electoral politics was the way stop the rise of another grotesque president and forestall the worst impacts locally. The insurgency era in New York, therefore, was born in 2017. Independent of DSA, progressive Democrats in the city refocused locally and coordinated an unprecedented grassroots effort, with the WFP’s eventual help, to destroy the Republican-aligned IDC in the State Senate. Most of the volunteer organizers involved in the anti-IDC campaigns were new to politics, their engagement catalyzed by Trump’s upset. The anti-IDC organizers united the Clinton and Sanders wings of the Democratic Party, fusing liberal and left.
What’s fascinating about this insurgency era in New York City is how closely tied to left policy it’s become. Yes, identity does matter—the NYC DSA, outside of Sanders, doesn’t really endorse white candidates—but those running with DSA or even WFP’s backing must adhere to certain policy prescriptions. Bowman was not making the case that Engel should lose because he is white; Bowman was arguing, rather, Engel was an absentee congressman with a horrible record of supporting war and financial deregulation. The DSA asks all its candidates to answer a lengthy questionnaire before an endorsement. I know because I’ve took it. (The WFP circulates a questionnaire as well, but the DSA sends it to all its members and weighs it heavily when deciding which candidates to back. To this day, the WFP’s endorsement process remains opaque and top-down driven.) Similarly, many of the other insurgencies on Tuesday were centered around leftist policy, with identity as a secondary theme. They were campaigning on universal healthcare, defunding the police, a Green New Deal, and a housing guarantee, among others.
Democratic primaries, particularly against incumbents, did not always hinge on policy before 2017. Often, it was ethnic identity or generational change that dominated a campaign. Twice, Adriano Espaillat tried to unseat Charles Rangel, coming close but failing each time. Having covered Espaillat’s second campaign against Rangel, I can’t recall any particular policy battles between the two men. Espaillat, who had vague IDC affiliations, certainly wasn’t running to Rangel’s left. Rather, Espaillat’s explicit argument was that the Harlem and Bronx district deserved Dominican representation because it was majority Latino. Rangel, the old Harlem lion, was no longer a demographic fit, Team Espaillat contended. After Rangel’s retirement, Espaillat ran again, winning in a split field against Rangel’s chosen successor, Keith Wright, who is African-American. Engel’s own political past is also instructive here; he beat back a primary challenge in 2000 from then-State Senator Larry Seabrook, who was not running to Engel’s left either. Seabrook’s argument was like Espaillat’s; a different racial or ethnic group deserved to represent the district.
Millennials and Generation Z, to their credit, don’t fetishize youth like their Baby Boomer predecessors. Bernie Sanders, age 78, is their hero, proof that policy trumps superficial attachment to a particular age cohort. Kennedyesque appeals—youth as an intrinsic positive value—are not enough. The DSA candidates tend to be quite young, in their 20s and 30s, but this is more a function of where the talent pool sits today. If a 60 or 70-year-old with their values ran for a State Senate seat and earnestly sought their endorsement, she or he could win it. Next year, in New York City, will be quite fascinating. A vast majority of city-level elected officials face term limits, including Mayor Bill de Blasio. Another revolution is afoot.
I have a final word on Ocasio-Cortez. Her involvement in New York City politics has been intriguing to watch, both for how she has met and defied expectations. Her endorsement slate, on its face, was radical enough: she backed every DSA candidate outside of my friend Zohran Mamdani, who seemed to ruffle a few establishment feathers by taking on a female incumbent. She backed Bowman too. What’s clear, however, is that Ocasio-Cortez has become a more cautious endorser than her reputation would suggest. Bowman only won her backing in early June, in the final weeks of the primary. Even Tiffany Cabán, who launched her campaign in January 2019, didn’t receive Ocasio-Cortez’s support until May 2019, long after DSA, WFP, and many other organizations had anointed her the left alternative to Melinda Katz. Though DSA and Ocasio-Cortez are often linked in the media, Ocasio-Cortez does not regularly fundraise for DSA or mention them with any frequency. When Ocasio-Cortez rallied for Sanders in Queens last year, DSA was not mentioned in her speech. While Joe Crowley, as chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, played an outsize role in local politics, Ocasio-Cortez has only been selectively involved, save her decision to join the anti-Amazon movement in 2018. Today’s Queens and Bronx Democratic Parties are diminished but mostly function without any real censure from Ocasio-Cortez. The Queens legal system, for example, remains a machine-controlled backwater. Ocasio-Cortez did not lend any consequential public support to the reform effort to depose Queens district leaders. And finally, she has not been a meaningful bulwark against Cuomo, whose power remains mostly unchecked, minus a few progressive state senators and assembly members. For some, this has been a disappointment. We will see what she does next.