Why DSA's Victories Make A lot of People Angry

The Laurie Cumbo Facebook post shows where we are headed.

One of the more despairing eras for the political left in New York was probably the late 1990s. From today’s vantage point, the decade seems almost unimaginable. A Republican, George Pataki, governed New York State. A Republican, Rudy Giuliani, governed New York City. Republicans had an ironclad grip on the State Senate, after years of Democratic sabotage. In 1997, Giuliani breezed to re-election, swatting away Democrat Ruth Messinger, who was the Manhattan Borough President and a DSA member. Messinger, though, was more closely associated with a reform Democratic movement that came into its own in the 1970s, encouraging a progressive, vibrant club culture that, 20 years on, had begun to wither. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Messinger struggled to win the support of power brokers in her own party, losing out on labor union and City Council endorsements to Giuliani. Giuliani’s victory was overwhelming: he won four out of five boroughs, including Brooklyn and Queens, and pundits at the time talked of a permanent political realignment and the death, generally, of traditional liberalism. With Bill Clinton, a Democrat, repudiating the New Deal legacy in the White House, the consensus of most in politics was that the left, to ever win again, would have to dispose of old ideas—combating income inequality, standing up for the poor—and embrace a neoliberal future.

To their credit, the Working Families Party, founded a year after Giuliani’s re-election, helped to rebuild the left in New York. Joining forces with liberal labor unions to revive the legacy of prominent left third parties like the American Labor Party, the WFP reintroduced a culture of waging Democratic primaries to force policy change. The WFP has always been a funny creature, and today it is no longer at the vanguard of left politics in New York, though it continues to endorse successfully in local and federal races. Shed of much of its organized labor and dependent on activists associated with member nonprofits, the WFP functions as a worthwhile liberal think tank and political action committee. It is not a political party in the true sense and, more importantly, it can’t throw hundreds of volunteers into the streets for a given cause.

DSA can. This week, their entire Albany slate officially won, a remarkable achievement for a political organization that only began becoming a significant player in New York politics three years ago. Non-DSA insurgent campaigns won too. Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and the election of Donald Trump, which awakened a whole new generation of liberals to the importance of local politics, we are now living in a golden era for progressive change in New York. It’s not just DSA. True Blue New York, No-IDC NY, and the Indivisible groups offer an activist infrastructure of the likes we’ve rarely ever seen. In a few short years, Albany has changed more radically than it ever has in anyone’s living memory. Ethnic and identity politics still play a role—this has been true of campaigns in New York for 100 years—but all of the winning campaigns, first and foremost, were driven by left policy demands. Pass the New York Health Act. Guarantee a universal right to housing. Raise taxes on the wealthy and upper middle class. Stand up for sex workers. Today’s primary challenges are waged more on policy and ideology than they once were.

But identity politics still pulses through it all. This was seen in a recent Facebook post from Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, a Brooklyn Democrat who has become the most outspoken opponent of DSA’s campaign operations in Central Brooklyn. Cumbo, who particularly resents Jabari Brisport, the socialist who won an open primary for Velmanette Montgomery’s Senate seat last month, declared that DSA’s ability to “elect unknown candidates of color with the backing of a super majority of white organizational support, with no proven leadership in the community, with over 75 percent of their campaign contributions coming from out of state (mostly Seattle), with very sophisticated social media strategies signifies the end of an era in Brooklyn.” Cumbo’s donation claim, as City and State’s Jeff Coltin reported, is patently false; a large majority of the donors to Phara Souffrant Forrest, a DSA Assembly candidate who unseated Assemblyman Walter Mosley, a protégé of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, were from New York. Brisport was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, increasing his national haul, but even then, a scan of his campaign finance records shows a majority of his donations came from New York. Cumbo believes that a “movement of gentrification was strategizing on how to best unseat Black leadership” and called on the Brooklyn Democratic Party to see this as a “wake up call” and protect the gains of prominent Black politicians of the 20th century, like Shirley Chisolm, Mary Pinkett, and Una Clarke.

While Cumbo was roundly criticized on social media for espousing these views, she had one very prominent defender: Errol Louis, who hosts NY1’s Inside City Hall. Louis, one of the city’s leading journalists and pundits, is Black, and lives in Central Brooklyn, the longtime bastion of African-American and Afro-Caribbean political power in New York City. Louis and I clashed on Twitter over Cumbo’s post, with Louis tweeting that “Political power in Central Brooklyn and other communities of color was seized/built over decades at great personal, political and legal cost by civil rights leaders and other progressives. Today’s attacks on them can be galling, esp. from people with little history of service.” Before I articulate why I disagree with Louis and Cumbo, I want to first acknowledge there is merit to what they say. Chisholm and Clarke in particular were trailblazers; for reasons unclear, Cumbo neglected another major figure of the era, the late Congressman Major Owens. At a time of overt racism and ethnic tension of the like that still outstrips what we see today, Black Democratic elected officials, organizers, and activists helped empower their communities, win crucial resources for the working class and poor, and elect New York City’s first and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins. In the second half of the 20th century, the city’s Black residents achieved representation they were sorely lacking in the first half, when the city’s Irish and Italian-dominated political machines shut them out.

Let’s state some other facts plainly. For the most part, DSA’s success in local races in New York City has been predicated on achieving gains in areas that have welcomed an influx of new residents. This isn’t always the case—DSA nearly won a City Council Democratic primary in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights three years ago, working with the local Arab-American community to try to elect a Palestinian reverend. DSA often gets criticized for having a membership that is too white for a majority minority city, but anyone who shows up at a few meetings knows the organization is fairly diverse and its leadership, across the board, isn’t white. DSA self-flagellates itself for its “whiteness” as well, too often internalizing the gripes of critics who don’t know it to a great degree. DSA has multiracial leadership. Louis and Cumbo, having never made a study of DSA or joined up themselves, likely don’t know this. Where DSA, and the left writ large, has fallen short generally is in organizing and winning over the working class and poor in America. DSA is still a culturally middle and upper middle class organization; almost all of its significant players have college degrees, many from elite universities. Brisport, who I regard very highly, attended the same Brooklyn prep school I did before graduating on to NYU and Yale. There is nothing wrong with this—Marxists of the 19th and 20th centuries were products of educated backgrounds too—but for DSA to broaden its reach and become the most influential political player and remake New York as a socialist city, it will have to better mobilize the African-American and Afro-Caribbean working classes, as well as other racial and ethnic groups with high poverty rates, like the Asian-American community. DSA has erected a multiracial coalition, but it has not yet achieved the same with class. You are unlikely to find many high school and college dropouts, NYCHA residents, janitors, or construction workers at DSA meetings. Nationally, this has become a struggle for the Democratic Party, which has been very publicly shedding the support of the white working class and much more quietly losing enthusiastic backing from the Black and Latino working classes. At the same time, DSA should be commended for its efforts in trying to elect Samelys López to Congress in the South Bronx. Though Democratic Party-linked pundits have deemed this race a failure, in fact it was the opposite; López had little hope of overcoming a sitting city councilman, Ritchie Torres, who raised more than $1 million for his race. But she significantly outpolled Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. and other elected officials in the absentee count. In a race sans Torres, it’s possible López is heading to Congress. Either way, DSA should support her again for another race very soon. She can pick a nearby City Council seat and run for it next year.

But something tells me this isn’t Cumbo’s primary concern. Rather, she seems offended by the very notion of primary politics. Brisport first ran against her in 2017 on the Green Party line and it seems she hasn’t forgotten. While it is true white organizers helped Brisport and Souffrant Forrest, who are Black, win, so did nonwhite organizers. Black voters certainly powered their victories, because it would be statistically impossible to win either district without them. So what’s really going on here? My argument with Louis hinged on the idea of selective memory. It seems some primaries are perfectly permissible while others are not, and establishment candidates can wield the past struggles of civil rights leaders as a way to safeguard their power. Cumbo herself is not a direct disciple of any of the Black power brokers she invokes. She was elected to the City Council in 2013, with strong support from Jeffries, the aforementioned congressman who is a top candidate to replace Nancy Pelosi as House speaker; the Working Families Party; and a hefty outside expenditure by the Real Estate Board of New York, the real estate industry's chief lobbying group.

Jeffries, as I pointed out to Louis on Twitter, rose to power by challenging longtime, well-respected incumbents. As a 29-year-old corporate lawyer, he ran unsuccessfully against a venerable assemblyman, Roger Green, and lost. Jeffries’ coalition was of the likes that Cumbo and Louis deride today. As a young professional, his primary aim was to engage newer, upwardly mobile residents of the Prospect Heights-based district. Green himself had come to power defeating a 20-year incumbent backed by the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Jeffries twice failed to unseat Green before winning the open seat in 2006. Later on, Jeffries drove another veteran elected official, Congressman Ed Towns, into retirement, mounting a significant primary challenge that eventually led to an overwhelming victory for the open House seat he holds to this day.

Errol Louis and I actually have something significant in common: we both ran for office as insurgents. There was some irony to Cumbo invoking Mary Pinkett, the late Brooklyn city councilwoman, on Facebook as Louis defended the same post. Pinkett was the councilwoman Louis tried to unseat in 1997, competing in a three-way primary with Pinkett’s eventual successor, James Davis. Pinkett was quite the target: she was the first Black woman ever elected to the New York City Council.

Louis, though, was an impressive candidate. Then 34, with two Ivy League degrees, Louis was the co-founder and manager of the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union. He derided Pinkett as an absentee councilwoman. “She doesn't come to community meetings at all,” Louis told the New York Times. “I'm running because this office is incredibly unresponsive and people are forced to go elsewhere to get their needs met. Most people I encounter in the district don't even know who she is.”

Louis had every right to run. So, too, did Jeffries, as well as his ally Mosley, the assemblyman the DSA-backed Souffrant Forrest defeated. Cumbo and Louis believe these victories are suspect because they have white or “outsider” support and seek to unseat traditional Black leadership. But Mosley was a product of a politician who had no problem shoving two established politicians into retirement. Louis, similarly, sought to cut short the career of Pinkett. I imagine Louis would argue his campaign was justified because he put more service into his community than Brisport or Souffrant Forrest—an insult to public school teachers and registered nurses everywhere—or his support was more community-based than DSA’s, though the Times noted the 34-year-old Harvard grad was attracting the backing of “professionals.” Of course, Jeffries and Louis were running in districts that were less white than they are today. But can any of DSA’s critics, Cumbo especially, separate the support of upwardly mobile whites and nonwhites in the district for Brisport and Souffrant Forrest? Is one more valid than the other? Why was the community service of Hakeem Jeffries, an NYU and Georgetown-educated attorney with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, more worthwhile to Cumbo or Louis than what DSA’s candidates brought to the table? Is the problem, more simply, that these DSA-backed candidates are too left for their liking?

The trouble with invoking the great civil rights leaders and Black activists of Brooklyn’s past is that any politician, no matter their caliber, can exploit memory to protect incumbency. In Cumbo’s formulation, what primaries can be sanctioned? Is it better to allow Walter Mosley, a one-time candidate to lead the ailing Brooklyn Democratic machine, a free pass because he may invoke Chisolm’s legacy while others cannot, even if he has no discernible tie to such an icon? And what if he did? Descendants of civil rights heroes must participate in democracy too. Cumbo, of all people, is a strange avatar of the tradition she invokes. While Chisholm and Owens, for example, were known for forging close ties between the area’s Black and Orthodox Jewish residents, Cumbo warned of “Jewish landlords” and mused about an alleged influx of Asian residents into public housing. But I’m not interested in the ad hominem here. Cumbo’s claims, after all, should be assessed on their merits or lack thereof.

There is a tradition of politics I will term, for lack of a better phrase, wait-your-turnism. Wait-your-turnism posits that only those who have achieved a certain threshold of sanctioned community service should seek office. They must be “known” in the community, become familiar fixtures of whatever civic infrastructure exists: the community board, the civic associations, precinct community councils, and assorted nonprofits, usually linked to a particular elected official. When I ran for State Senate as a 28-year-old in an area known for its civic infrastructure, wait-your-turnism dogged my campaign from start to finish. Let me concede there is some validity to this kind of approach to local politics. Community service does matter. It’s good to have a track record. One should understand the residents of a community before seeking office. But the problem with wait-your-turnism is that it often self-selects for a certain type of candidate—the unimaginative political insider less willing to buck the status quo—and operates from the fallacy that those who sit on the community board or show up at the civic association meetings are the entire community. An Assembly District alone can have 125,000 people, many of whom don’t participate in civic life. Community activists are wonderful, but they are also outliers. Most people are too busy with work, school, or their own personal challenges to engage with the types of organizations politicians deem valid. Community boards, which lacked term limits until recently, usually lag demographically behind the neighborhoods they represent because longtime residents don’t give up their seats. Their views, in turn, are overrepresented in the political arena.

As we seek to create a stronger body politic, we should be encouraging more candidates from nontraditional backgrounds to run for office. Brisport is both a public school teacher and a trained actor. Souffrant Forrest will be one of the only nurses in any elected body. Zohran Mamdani, my old campaign manager, is a housing counselor and a rapper. Mamdani, like Julia Salazar in Brooklyn, will represent his district effectively despite the fact that he didn’t grow up there. Longtime residency should not be a prerequisite to seeking office. Registering to vote in a certain locality doesn’t automatically imbue a candidate with particular lawmaking wisdom or an ability to lead. If the mass of voters subscribed to wait-your-turnism, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would never have been elected, or even permitted to run. The same would be true for Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, and the many progressive Democrats in the State Senate who destroyed the Independent Democratic Conference in 2018. Wait-your-turnism would have cursed us with Senate Majority Leader Jeff Klein in perpetuity.

Though derided as the tribunes of the gentrifiers, the socialist politicians will all battle for policies in Albany to reverse the tide of displacement. It’s an important lesson for the likes of Cumbo, who make the simplistic assertion that it’s individuals alone seeking rents who determine the fates of working class tenants. Decades of destructive policy decisions, with laws that incentivized predatory landlord behavior and the commodification of housing through private equity investment, have fueled long-lasting displacement in the five boroughs. It’s convenient to blame the urban professional or the upscale coffee shop for rising rents; these are symptoms, not causes. Demand from the affluent only tells part of the story. Luckily, there will be an increasing number of lawmakers willing to confront the pernicious intersection of capitalism and housing. Saving New York for the working class and poor will be the greatest of challenges this decade, as coronavirus-induced fiscal calamity awaits us. Unlike the 1970s, socialists will have a seat at the table. We’re all better off for it.