The Rise of DSA-Lite

A new bloc in the City Council takes shape

Recently, an editor at a real estate publication remarked to me, in a somewhat fanciful discussion I initiated about the possibility of a primary challenge against Eric Adams, that the Democratic Socialists of America had relatively little to brag about in New York City. “Adams would have to be a total disaster to even be primaried in 2024. As for DSA, it won 2 of 51 City Council seats,” he tweeted. “I don’t see Buffalo happening here.”

Buffalo, of course, was a reference to the campaign of India Walton, the DSA-backed activist who defeated Byron Brown, the city’s mayor, in the June primary. With the help of Republicans and an enormous amount of cash, Brown turned around and ran a successful write-in campaign against Walton, beating her decisively on Tuesday. The loss, for the Left, was quite dispiriting but it did demonstrate, at the very minimum, socialists in Buffalo could run competitive candidates in a citywide race. The same is not true in the far more enormous New York City—more than 900,000 Democrats voted in the June mayoral primary, easily tripling Buffalo’s entire population. DSA wisely sat out the mayoral race, understanding their organization was not yet ready to compete on such a mass scale. Instead, three flawed candidates vied for the support of progressive and leftist voters, with Maya Wiley emerging as a standard bearer after both Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales collapsed. Wiley would finish behind two Democrats who ran to her right, Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia.

Adams will be mayor, which gives the anti-Left flank of the Democratic Party plenty of juice. The outgoing Brooklyn borough president is prepared to war with DSA or anyone else who stands in the way of whatever real estate and police-friendly agenda he attempts to implement. His alliance with the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city and his durable popularity with working-class Black voters make him formidable. The election season may have been listless, but he still won, and with victory will come at least a few spoils.

Below Adams, there is the City Council. It is set to be the most fascinating, strange, and divided municipal legislative body in decades. The City Council under Bill de Blasio was defined by left-of-center comity, a realization that the Bloomberg years had tilted the city too far to the right, blocking all kinds of bills that needed to pass years earlier, like a paid sick days guarantee. The City Council of 2014-2021 saw tussles between moderate and progressive lawmakers, but legislation would not move to de Blasio’s desk without his buy-in. Bills were not vetoed and vetoes were not overridden. The most conservative lawmakers, with few exceptions, weren’t especially incendiary or charismatic. And the progressives were not avowed socialists.

The real estate editor is right: only two of 51 Democrats entering the 2022 City Council were endorsed by DSA. But that’s because DSA only backed six candidates in total and did the near-opposite of what every other advocacy organization, union, political party, and NGO does. They decided to keep the slate small and take on tough fights.

DSA attempted to win races in eastern Queens and the northern Bronx. The socialist organization waged a pitched battle against Hakeem Jeffries’ Central Brooklyn machine. Some of the chosen races were, in retrospect, not the wisest, but the young socialists can’t be faulted for their lack of ambition. It would have been easier to run an enormous slate, rack up paper endorsements, and declare victory everywhere. But that’s not DSA’s way. It is a genuine socialist organization attempting to build party discipline among its elected members. It wants a hard voting bloc accountable to the local chapters.

If DSA isn’t getting many endorsed candidates into the new City Council, it is getting many Democrats who will talk and vote like they do. This might not be ideal, in the sense that you’d rather have many card-carrying members, but it is a state of affairs that should make Adams, the police, and the Real Estate Board of New York nervous. Yes, the DSA caucus is, right now, two members deep. But the DSA-lite caucus is quite large. There are enough socialist-adjacent members to sway the City Council speaker’s race and take decisive action on future legislation. There are enough of them to make the life of a new mayor frustrating.

As of now, this is an informal group. Some are close allies, some aren’t. Their politics vary in the sense that some are more left-liberal, others socialist, and their conceptions of politics may favor identity over class, class over identity, or meld the two. They are a mix of outsider activists and government insiders. There are, at my count, more than 10, perhaps 15. Two are the DSA-backed Democrats, Tiffany Cabán and Alexa Avilés. The rest are either DSA members who did not receive the endorsement or progressives who would co-sign much of the DSA agenda, whether it’s curtailing police power, weakening the hand of landlords, or fighting for far-reaching and controversial initiatives like non-citizen voting. This informal group, by my count, includes Lincoln Restler of Brooklyn, a former de Blasio administration official who will probably operate to the left of his predecessor—thanks to the socialist shift of Greenpoint—and Christopher Marte of Manhattan, an anti-REBNY Democrat who nearly defeated the outgoing councilwoman, Margaret Chin, four years ago. Jen Gutierrez, Antonio Reynoso’s chief of staff, will replace her old boss in a northern Brooklyn district that is fertile ground for socialist organizing.

Kristin Richardson Jordan, a Harlem Democrat, is an open socialist who did not win DSA backing but has called for the long-term abolition of police and prisons. Sandy Nurse of Brooklyn sought a DSA endorsement in the past and is a veteran of Occupy Wall Street. Chi Ossé, a Black Lives Matter activist who also applied for DSA endorsement, is an outspoken leftist. Shahana Hanif, a former Brad Lander staffer, might have defeated a DSA candidate in Kensington, Park Slope, and Gowanus, but that was in part because her leftist platform was mostly indistinguishable from the socialist side. Julie Won and Shekar Krishnan, representing bastions of left activism in Queens, could have easily been DSA candidates. DSA waged a fierce battle against Crystal Hudson, the Jeffries-backed candidate, in Central Brooklyn, but Hudson herself prevailed, in part, because she was able to campaign to the left of her predecessor, Laurie Cumbo. When it comes time to vote on bills, Hudson will not be a moderate.

The Bronx, for the first time, will feature as many as three lawmakers who could back much of the DSA agenda in New York City. The Working Families Party-supported Amanda Farías is replacing the right-wing Ruben Diaz Sr. Pierina Sanchez, like Hanif and Hudson, beat back a DSA candidate and she did it with assistance from the Bronx Democratic and Espaillat machines. But she is a former urban planner at the Regional Plan Association who campaigned on issues like canceling rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanchez’s predecessor, Fernando Cabrera, was a very conservative Democrat. It can also be argued Marjorie Velázquez, a WFP-endorsed Democrat, is another Bronx member who belongs with DSA-lite. (Though Velázquez, after this piece was published, rejected such an association.)

And you might have heard that Charles Barron, Black Panther, is returning to the City Council.

Together—if they choose to align—these Democrats can impose their will on the fluid City Council speaker’s race. Some might choose to stick with their borough Democratic organization or form different alliances. There is no evidence yet that they will function as a cohesive bloc like the progressives of old, though they have every incentive to. There is no obvious front-runner for Council speaker. Adams will not be able to singularly determine the course of the race the way de Blasio did eight years ago.

What will DSA-lite want? One challenge, traditionally, was that the greatest ambitions of the Left—greater rent protections, higher taxes on the rich, criminal justice reforms—needed the sign-off of Albany. This is still the case, as it always will be, but the state legislature is Democrat-run and Kathy Hochul, far more genial than Andrew Cuomo, is running for re-election next year. The smart leftists will seek partners in the state legislature and attempt end-runs around both Adams and Hochul, or pressure Hochul to rubberstamp their priorities. On the city level, Adams does have more leverage over the municipal budget, so it is unlikely the Cabán faction will get the deep police cuts they desire. Assuming the next speaker has less power than his or her predecessor—this is the long-running pattern with four-year speakers—ranks-and-file lawmakers will have greater clout. Cabán herself has a large social media following and will be adept at whipping opposition against Adams. We don’t know yet what City Council bills DSA, WFP, and their allies will prioritize, but it’s apparent they’ll have muscle behind them.

It might behoove these progressives and leftists to band together because the moderates and conservatives certainly will. Not only will this be the most left-wing City Council ever elected, but it will feature the bombastic hard right faction ever seen in modern times. With the addition of conservative Democrats who campaigned on Republican lines, Bob Holden and Kalman Yeger, the de facto GOP caucus will number at least seven in January. Inna Vernikov, a proud Trump supporter who was known for filming Facebook videos from her luxury vehicle, will probably enter the City Council with two other strong Trump backers: Vickie Paladino, a Queens Republican who held an indoor party last year in violation of pandemic guidelines, and Joann Ariola, the chairwoman of the Queens Republican Party. Together, all of these lawmakers will have leverage in the new body, either as Adams allies or as a rogue entity. The old class of Republicans—Eric Ulrich and Steve Matteo, in particular—were not especially confrontational or conservative. Ulrich refused to endorse Trump and once backed the progressive Melissa Mark-Viverito for speaker. Matteo became an ally of the next speaker, Corey Johnson. Those days are long gone. National polarization has come to New York City.

If leftists and right-wing lawmakers account for roughly half of the body, that means the other half is in play. Will they form their own bloc? Find common cause with DSA-lite? The Republican faction may prove too conservative for center-left Democrats like Gale Brewer, Julie Menin, or Lynn Schulman to stomach. If they aren’t home with the socialists, they’re not going to be teaming up on legislation with Vernikov or Paladino either. All of it has the makings of the most unpredictable City Council we’ve ever seen. Adams, with his own peculiar political history, is unlikely to make it any smoother. Expect more combat and the nationalization of the local. None of us quite know what’s coming next.