How New York City’s Left Found Their Footing And Started Winning

What Started As Disorganized Movement Of White Transplants Is Now A Growing Socialist Machine

Few people have been a bigger critic of the “left” than me. For over a decade, I dismissed the leftist movement, specifically in New York City, as a ragtag band of unfocused dreamers who throw around words like “socialism” and “revolution,” with no real plan to achieve anything except to march around with signs and go home feeling good about themselves.

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For years candidates ran for office under the banner of leftism and most lost. Some made it through on the hyper local level, some -like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio – won, but quickly found himself the target of the “movement.” They seemed to be no real threat and have no real organization.

This week, New York City will (hopefully) release its official results from the June 23 primary after a long absentee ballot-counting process, but we already know who the winners are – and it’s the artists formerly known as ragtag band of unfocused dreamers. In fact, of all the races the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America endorsed in, their candidates won all but one – the New York 15th Congressional District in the South Bronx, where their candidate, a relatively unknown upstart, finished a surprising second in the race, ahead of Assemblyman Michael Blake, an establishment favorite and a high ranking member of the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders may have lost the New York presidential primary twice and Andrew Cuomo might have beaten back two leftists challengers, but the 2018 Democratic primaries saw some noticeable successes on the left and made them a force to be reckoned with. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) ousted longtime incumbent, and Queens Democratic Party Chairman Joe Crowley, followed by the defeats of six of the eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference – a bloc of State Senate Democrats who aligned with Republicans to keep them in the majority even when numbers favored the Democrats after 2016.

Progressives saw several notable election results since; the 2019 special election for New York City Public Advocate, where Jumaane Williams won the citywide office being vacated by New York Attorney General Letitia James, and the district attorney’s race in Queens, nearly won by criminal justice reform advocate Tiffany Caban. Queens is a borough with a longstanding tradition of electing law and order Democrats to office (the previous long-serving district attorney Richard Brown, who died in 2019, was known for being “tough on crime”), so Caban’s near win was huge news.

So what happened? How did progressives, once mocked or their lack of political skills, become winners? There are several things I think they did right, which, along with a little luck in the version of an orange-hued menace, gave them the keys to success.

Engaging Communities of Color

After the 2016 election, I joined a now-defunct progressive group in Bushwick that was led by a handful of former Bernie Sanders supporters. I quickly left the group after a few meetings because I felt the leaders of the movement were not listening to some of its members – specifically black, brown and LGBTQ members. In one case, during a discussion about outreach to Black Lives Matter, the only black female in the group was told she could not be the point person for outreach because she was “too close to the issue to see it objectively.” She left the group.

Eventually the group disbanded, but many members have gone out to do their own outreach and connect to groups like Make The Road New York who had similar policy goals. It was these activists, mostly from communities of color, who bridged the gap between the white-led anti-establishment democratic socialist movement and communities of color who felt left behind by such a movement – or feared it was a trojan horse from gentrifiers. They established organizations like Democratic Socialist of America, who put people of color in key roles and branched out into black and brown communities across New York City, doing the work the Working Families Party had been accused of not doing earlier.

Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 primary victory in minority-majority House district in Queens and The Bronx was the first of many wins by democratic socialists and progressives in NYC that continued this year.

Further, the lesson of the victories – or near victories – of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Jumaane Williams and Tiffany Caban – was candidates matter.

They matter because if communities of color were going to trust a revolutionary message that is being promulgated by what appears to be a mostly white, young crowd, they will want confirmation that members of their own community are aligned and trust this movement. This isn’t me speaking FOR them, it is what I often heared from black leaders and activists back when I was editor-in-chief of The Press of Southeast Queens, a now defunct newspaper that focused on Southeast Queens’ black community (which we later branched out to black Queensites all across the borough). It’s also what I heard at the time from many in the queer community as well.

It’s no surprise that leftists have had more success when running people of color in these districts. Who better to sell a message that a community is skeptical of than a member of that community?

Some may dismiss this as “identity politics,” but this ignores the message. If “identity” was all voters care about, black Republicans would beat white Democrats in black communities. They don’t. The message works, so long as it is delivered by someone the community trusts. It doesn’t always have to be a non-white person, but it certainly helps in a city like New York.

Some of the victorious candidates from 2018 and 2020 are names known in the community, from former elected officials like State Sens. John Liu of Flushing and Robert Jackson of Manhattan, both former council members; local activists like State Sen. Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, formerly a lawyer who worked pro bono for victims of police brutality; Marcela Mitaynes, the soon-to-be Assemblywoman from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a longtime advocate or tenants and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, a former executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and a well-known local activist on issues like immigrant rights and healthcare, who won a Jackson Heights-based Assembly primary.

Running candidates from the community who are familiar to each districts’ specific issues also made it easier to sell more broader agendas. Candidates were able to tailor a leftist agenda to fit their communities; Medicare For All and how it would stop hospital closures, a housing guarantee and how it would help keep people in their homes who are at risk of being priced out due to gentrification; better public transit in neighborhoods where options are lacking and traffic snarls the streets and parking is a battle. This type of hyperlocal focus was missing from earlier leftist campaigns.

Bill de Blasio

It may irritate some on the left, who have been left with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths by the mayor who ran as a progressive and governed as anything but, but in many ways, de Blasio’s 2013 campaign was the foundation for future progressive successes in New York City. In tying both the economic resentment against the Bloomberg years in with social causes, like policing, he build the road map to connect both economic and social justice in a way other progressives, like Bernie Sanders, struggled with. Though de Blasio became a pariah outside the city for much of his first term, he helped build progressive support in the five boroughs and his win helped weaken the already tenuous hold the Democratic establishment had on city politics. Indeed, former Queens Democratic boss Joe Crowley backed Christine Quinn in 2013, only to see de Blasio win his borough and his district – a foreshadowing to his own downfall five years later.

Some worked for de Blasio, like State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens, and Emilia Decaudin, whose election as a Queens Democratic district leader will be certified this week (she is one of two openly transgender candidates to win this cycle). Decaudin was among 400 former and current de Blasio staffer to sign a letter blasting the mayor for his lack of action on police reform.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, after he won the Democratic primary for mayor, with former U.S. Rep. and Queens Democratic boss Joe Crowley outside Queens Borough Hall in 2013. Crowley had endorsed de Blasio’s opponent, former Council Speaker Christine Quinn for mayor, but de Blasio carried the borough in the primary, exposing cracks in the machine’s grip on voters and laying the groundwork for progressives to take on the machine.

Much like those who came from failed progressive movements and organizations early in the decade, those who came from de Blasio’s campaign and administration learned a lot about how and where to sell progressive ideas.

Donald Trump

It almost hurts to give him credit, but you cannot escape the fact the election of Donald Trump ignited a fire and leftist ideas were kindling.

Until Donald Trump, there was little appetite for revolutionary ideas among the more mainstream left and progressives were an afterthought to moderates and centrists, who believed compromise and cooperation were still key to progress. Obama was president, there was progress being made on social issues and on issues like healthcare – albeit not to the extent many had hoped for – but there was a sense that the Overton Window was being moved ever so slowly to the left, and we were on the “right track” to a fairer world.

Then Trump won. Suddenly, cooperation and bipartisanship were out the door. Many who felt aligned with moderate thinking – that cooperation was better than partisanship – began rethinking their positions, realizing it was unlikely such a thing would happen to their benefit under Trump. His presidency also meant a lot of the progress that kept revolutionary ideas at bay were at risk of being rolled back, and many were.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trump’s election radicalized a lot of center left voters who normally stayed away from revolutionary movements, especially in black and brown communities. Cooperation, compromise and incrementalism seemed to not only have failed, but also be dead in the short term. That is what movements like Democratic Socialists for America picked up on, selling their ideas to skeptical moderates by focusing on the failures of incrementalism and bipartisanship through the bad faith actions of Republicans, and the need for more radical ideas to quell the economic problems that Trump took advantage of.

It also helps that for many black and brown communities, Trump was a reminder o the Giuliani-Bloomberg years in New York City, where poor minorities communities were treated as an afterthought and too often overpolicied in the name of “law and order” and “quality of life.” It gave progressives a huge opening.

Working Within The System

In 2012, several activists I met at Occupy Wall Street the year before decided to run for local office, utilizing the contacts they made at the protests. Within weeks, they were out of their respective races, including one candidate who actually raised a ton of money.

“The people I met at Occupy thought it made me a sellout to run and serve in a broken system,” one candidate told me.

Early activists were less interested in changing the system – they thought they had already done that with Barack Obama and it didn’t take – instead they believed the entire system of government was illegitimate and voting and running for office is “selling out to the system.” For years, smart activists who could have made a difference could not get the support they needed to mount campaigns.

About mid-decade though, the creation of groups like DSA shifted the message, making it clear that voting and running for office and rejecting the system as broken or illegitimate are not mutually exclusive, and overhaul can come, and perhaps must come, from the inside.

AOC’s victory, and the victories of progressive Democrats in the State Senate, were a boon to the idea that change can happen within the system. In just the first year, State Senate Democrats got longtime adversary Gov. Andrew Cuomo to agree to a wide variety of reforms, including eliminating bail for minor crimes, expanding voting rights and expanding access to social services for undocumented immigrants. The New York State Senate may be the most obvious example of where progressive change succeeded by working within the system, and it is probably is a big part of what influenced voters to go in even harder this year. As a result, even more DSA-endorsed and progressive candidates are headed for Albany, leading some to wonder if New York now has the most left-leaning legislature in the country – a far cry from only a few years ago when Republicans still controlled the State Senate.

The New York State Senate may be the most obvious example of where progressive change succeeded by working within the system

Low-Hanging Fruit

When new Congressional district lines were drawn in 2012, I looked at the new maps and told a colleague of mine what I thought they meant:

“Before the decade is out, Crowley could lose to a Latina,” I said, noting how his district was minority-majority and his white working class Maspeth base in Central Queens was largely moved into the 6th Congressional District. I also predicted Eliot Engel could fall to a black challenger because the district had lost its spur to Rockland County and became more focused on the North Bronx and black-populated suburbs like Yonkers and Mount Vernon. Enter Jamaal Bowman, who took down Engel with the support of progressive activists this year. I also suggested Charles Rangel could lose to a Dominican challenger. While that almost happened in 2014, Rangel later retired freeing up space for his challenger and successor, Rep. Adriano Espaillat of Manhattan.

Targeting incumbents who are not accustomed to running hard races has been another key to success for leftist challengers. Crowley had never faced a tough race in his career before his 2018 primary; Engel hadn’t faced one in 20 years. Assemblyman Joe Lentol of Brooklyn, who was defeated by a leftist challenger, Emily Gallagher, in his Greenpoint and Williamsburg-based district, had been in office since 1972, rarely facing a challenge, and before losing to Mitaynes, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz hadn’t faced a tough primary challenge for his seat since himself beating an incumbent 26 years ago. Ortiz was also considered vulnerable after his loss in the 2017 City Council primary.

Geography also helped. Progressives figured out what parts of the city were ripe for a leftist candidate using previous election results as a guide. As mentioned before, Ortiz had previously lost a City Council primary against Councilman Carlos Menchaca of Sunset Park, a favorite of DSA. Menchaca’s 2013 victory and 2017 reelection signaled that Sunset Park and Red Hook were ripe for a DSA-endorsed challenger upballot (Indeed, Sen. Myrie represents part of this area and won it big in 2018). Similarly, State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx, an ally of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, defeated former IDC head Jeff Klein in 2018 by running up huge margins in portions of the Senate district that also overlap with Engel’s Congressional district, and DSA-endorsed challenger Zohran Kwame Mamdani defeated Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas in Astoria, Queens, in a district where AOC turned out more than 60 percent of the vote in her 2018 primary and Tiffany Caban won a landslide in her unsuccessful district attorney campaign in 2019.

I will cover more on the geographic aspect of these races when results are released, so expect a post on that.

The New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America swept nearly every primary it endorsed in last month, proving that they may be the most powerful force in city politics right now.

What happens going forward now that progressives are winning? A lot depends on what happens in the next year or two; does Trump win reelection or does Biden win and tamp down, or perhaps ramp up, the desire for radical change? How does the pandemic and the ensuing economic calamity play into how people vote and view progressives?

Despite fears of rising crime and backsliding into “the bad old days,” increasingly more radically leftist candidates are winning office, and will continue to I think at least through the 2021 citywide elections. How they govern and how their agenda plays out will depend on the movement’s endurance.

Some moderates, conservatives and critics in communities of color warn that the “gentrifiers” as they call the leaders of the progressive movement, will eventually leave the city and move away when the “damage” from their policies come to light; high crime, lower real estate values, strained city finances that will force cuts to social services. This argument basically looks at what happened in the 1960s and 1970s under the John Lindsay and Abe Beame administrations, where the city was seem to be in “decline” and a financial crisis forced cuts to some of progressives’ favorite programs, like free CUNY and housing assistance.

Others, like Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo of Brooklyn, whose council district overlaps a State Senate and State Assembly district won by DSA-endorsed candidates last month, still see the progressive left as trojan horses led by white gentrifiers aiming to take down the longtime black and brown political establishment. My former colleague Ross Barkan has a good piece on that here. Check it out for further reading.

There is no doubt, however, that the progressive left have made inroads into communities of color, and in doing so, have begun winning real power in New York. How they yield it and keep it for years to come, and whether it continues to grow all the way to perhaps the Governor’s Mansion, will be interesting to watch.

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