New York June Primaries: Electoral Politics Amidst a Historic Capitalist Crisis

  • Socialist Alternative NYC Calls for Registered Democrats to Vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, and Five DSA Newcomers 

  • Candidates Should Run All the Way to November as Independent Socialists If Blocked in Democratic Primary

  • Some Newcomers Face Thornier Path Through Democratic Primary Than Running Independently

  • Incumbents’ Records Highlight the Weaknesses of Running and Serving As Democrats

  • Winning Candidates Should Form Socialist Caucuses in Legislatures

  • New Party of the Working Class, Poor and Oppressed Is Urgently Needed to Advance Transformative Change

No one could have predicted the situation around the world and in the U.S. when young left-wing and socialist candidates decided to run for office in the 2020 New York Democratic primaries.

We’re in the midst of a global health, financial, and social crisis. Covid-19 cases are rising again, especially in areas that decided to reopen their economies without taking the necessary steps towards safety. Even the most pro-capitalist economists now agree that the economy is headed into a historic crisis on the order of the Great Depression, and, on the streets of over 2,000 cities and towns, and in all 50 states, protests against racism and police brutality are marking a new high point of social struggle.

The Trump administration has lost support due to Trump’s dealing with the pandemic and his brutal reaction to the protests. His numbers have taken such a blow that now Joe Biden, an incredibly weak candidate and clear representative of big business, seems to have a higher chance of winning than losing.

In the middle of this historic crisis of capitalism, the Democratic party congressional and state legislative primaries will take place on June 23, headlined by the re-election campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Julia Salazar, and five new Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates: Zohran K. Mamdani for State Assembly in Queens, District 36; Jabari Brisport for State Senate in Brooklyn, District 25; Phara Souffrant Forrest for State Assembly in Brooklyn, District 57; Samelys Lopez for the 15th Congressional District in the Bronx; and Marcela Mitaynes for State Assembly in Brooklyn, District 51.

Despite being overshadowed by enormous protests and the devastation of Covid-19, these primaries are important for working people and the socialist movement in our struggle to defend against corporate attacks, and win new seats filled by self-described democratic socialists and working class representatives.

The Rise of AOC, 2018–Present

The shocking victory of AOC in June 2018 over the Queens Democratic party kingmaker and incumbent, Joe Crowley, and eventual November general election coronation was a lightning bolt across the political landscape in New York and across the nation. AOC, inspired by the 2016 presidential run of Bernie Sanders, ushered in an enthusiastic hope that a new progressive politics would emerge to challenge K Street politics and Democratic party corporate leadership. She was joined by newly elected Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, dubbed “The Squad,” in the most diverse Congress in US history. 

Forseeing the difficulties of being a working class representative in a hostile legislative body, Socialist Alternative Seattle councilmember, Kshama Sawant, warned AOC and The Squad of the dangers and pressures that awaited them in the Democratic party and vultures’ den of Congress. It is our obligation to raise not only the undeniable progressive role that AOC has played, but also the mistakes and weaknesses, as even more serious battles are ahead of us.

AOC’s first term has been an expression of the divisions between a growing class struggle on the one hand and the corporate elite that controls the two parties on the other. For that reason she has come under fire time and time again from corporate and right-wing forces, including sexist, xenophobic, and racist attacks. Although she played a supporting role in the fight against Amazon’s HQ2 in Long Island City, she was portrayed in the corporate media in their attempt to unseat her as the main leader of that fight, and faulted her with New York’s “loss” of tens of thousands of jobs when HQ2 was triumphantly defeated. We absolutely defend AOC and the victory against real estate and Amazon’s interests and against right-wing attacks on her and on our movement.

AOC’s signature Green New Deal legislation is a real threat to corporate America. But it would be a mistake to treat it as just another piece of legislation that could be won by convincing enough Members of Congress to vote for it. It is for that reason that Socialist Alternative have consistently pointed towards the need for a mass movement and the full power of the labor movement to win the Green New Deal. Sparks of this movement were seen with the courageous climate strikes, led by high-school students across the country and the world.

It was impressive to see AOC’s protest alongside the Sunrise Movement, sitting-in at corporate Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018. It anticipated a head-on collision with corporate Democratic party leadership as AOC was shut out of the Bronx/Queens Democratic party caucus after her stunning victory. Unfortunately, despite the protest in Pelosi’s office, AOC has supported Pelosi’s ascendency as House Speaker, rather than using the opportunity to raise demands and criticism over the Democrats’ unfailingly corporate-friendly leadership. Pressuring corporate politicians is not enough. We need to understand that real power lies within the working class.

AOC’s role in protesting at the border against family separations should also be highlighted. It points towards the necessary “on-the-ground” leadership of working class representatives and indeed caused a clash with the xenophobic right-wing and their leader in the White House.

She was the only House member to vote against the first Republican-sponsored stimulus bill, which was a bailout to corporations and the billionaire class, with crumbs for the working class and poor, many of whom are ineligible for or cannot access the one-time $1,200 stimulus check.

Her endorsement of Bernie Sanders after his heart attack was a powerful moment for his campaign and puntacted her political star power and overall role. Still, as the campaign went on, the political relationship between Sanders and AOC became icy over strategy and direction.

AOC has made correct statements and challenges to the corporate Democratic leadership around their support for incumbent corporate democrats against progressive candidates, stating that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” She decided not to pay her dues to the Democratic party – but instead created a rival PAC to challenge incumbent corporate Democrats. However, with Sanders dropping out of the race and giving Joe Biden full-throated support, she accepted a role on the Democratic party “national unity” climate change task force, designed to assist the weak presumptive Democratic nominee. While she hasn’t formally endorsed Biden, AOC has stated that she is voting for him and has been very quiet on Biden’s terrible congressional record and rape allegations against him.

AOC’s zig-zagging political approach, seen in the past two years, is due to her lack of roots in a mass movement of the class or an accountable socialist organization. Without ongoing mass meetings and a democratic decision-making organization, the lack of a clear plan forces her to narrowly look at every question by itself, rather than as a struggle connected to a bigger picture. While in certain ways Bernie’s defeat and a lack of active base pushed her to the right, a crisis and mass radicalization and struggle can push her to the left.

But her strong entrance to national politics and brave stand against corporate and reactionary right-wing forces have “earned” her the challenge of 15 candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties combined in the coming elections. It will be quite a shock if AOC didn’t win the primaries, despite a possible low turnout due to the pandemic. With struggles developing around jobs, housing, and racism, there also may be a greater focus on organizing and social struggle rather than relying on elections to produce a radical change in this period of crisis. At the same time, we think that it’s a mistake that DSA (of which AOC is formally a member) has largely demobilized forces for her campaign, instead overwhelmingly focusing on the other six local DSA candidates. 

The overall weakness of AOC is the lack of building a fighting organization made up of social justice, civic, labor activists, immigrant rights organizations, and socialists in her Bronx and Queens district around her ideas and legislative demands. Several meetings, particularly in the beginning of her term, took place around the issues people are concerned with. However, what is needed is an ongoing organization with democratic discussions and decision-making power where AOC’s platform and tactics could be discussed, debated, and agreed on. Particularly in this horrifying period of Covid-19 and the new great economic depression, the lack of this organization in her district stands out even more so.

The underlying reasons for that are not only lack of experience. In reality, it is a conscious adoption of the mistaken idea that political representation and movements should have a certain separation, where a working class representative, rather than provide leadership, should only show solidarity and have the movement’s “back.” This is partially due to the fear of co-optation, meaning hijacking a movement for alternative ends than the movement proposes — something that many activists have experienced from corporations and capitalist politicians. But when it comes to working class representatives, it reduces their role to legislation and social media advocacy. Bold working class and socialist leadership, as we’ve seen in Seattle with SA’s Kshama Sawant, means being the bullhorn for the movement, developing and concretizing its demands, and organizing a bigger fightback with the office’s resources and visibility. Our work developing the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone and banning tear gas and rubber bullets demonstrates this.

AOC is a member of DSA and is affiliated with Justice Democrats, with a specific perspective of reforming the Democratic party, and she rarely describes herself as a democratic socialist or references DSA, which has caused some frustration within the ranks of the organization. We advocate and are supportive of any steps DSA takes to increase democratic accountability of their members who run and get elected into public office.

There is no question about her being one of the most popular political figures today. Still, working people do not judge one’s effectiveness in defending the interest of the working class and poor in the halls of capitalist power by their statements, social media presence, or even good will. Our starting point should be, “are you using your platform and office as a hub for organizing working people, the poor, and most oppressed to fight back against the plans of Wall Street? Are you using it to expose the rotten role of the capitalist institutions and the unreformability and inadequacy of the capitalist ‘democratic’ system?”

Despite our substantial criticisms and differences with AOC’s strategy of reforming the Democratic party, she has without a doubt played a progressive role, and a defeat in the primary would be a significant step backward for the overall socialist and workers’ movement. If AOC is defeated, it will give the political and corporate establishment a triumphant mood and prepare the way for further attacks on left candidates and working people who will find themselves without even less representation within the millionaire’s den that is the U.S. Congress.

The developing historic crisis, as well as the major struggle against it, will have a significant effect on AOC’s political consciousness; she will be forced by social struggle and working class rage to either change her approach and strategy or be left behind. In order to continue the struggle and defend the seat against corporate power, Socialist Alternative calls on registered Democrats in the 14th district to vote to re-elect Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Julia Salazar and Newcomer DSA Candidates Running for Office

Julia Salazar, elected as the New York State Senator for the 18th District in north Brooklyn in 2018, is seeking re-election and is likely to win her primary race. 

Similarly to AOC, Julia spoke out against Amazon HQ2 and raised her voice in support of the victorious pro-tenant rent laws last year, including sponsoring the “good cause eviction” bill that was unfortunately defeated by her fellow Democrats.

Julia’s two years in office have had some successes. However, she has room to improve in skillfully using her office and platform as an organizing bullhorn for social struggle and campaigns. She has often fallen into the trap of Democratic party pressure and pragmatism.

While clearly standing on the left of the political process, a much more combative approach is needed against the Democratic party establishment leadership of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins,Carl Heastie, and Governor Andrew Cuomo in Albany, particularly after the passage of the state’s austerity budget in April 2020. The New York political and corporate elite will put their crisis on the backs and lives of the New York working class, poor, and most oppressed. The need for a mass movement and radical leadership is urgently needed in this period. We must tax the rich and Wall Street to save what is left of our frayed social services — but Julia’s “colleagues” in the Democratic party are determined to do just the opposite. It is a mistake to not openly and consistently call those leaders out. Our strategy must be honest with the working class about the roadblocks standing in the way of transformative change, which includes the Democratic Party establishment. This is one reason why running as Democrats fails to educate voters about how we can win transformative socialist change. 

Four out of the five other candidates — Zohran, Phara, Samelys, and Marcela — are newcomers on the electoral scene. But Jabari ran as a Socialist and Green Party member back in 2017 for New York City Council against Laurie Cumbo, and although losing, gained nearly 30% of the vote. Unfortunately, that fantastic vote for an independent socialist candidate against a Democratic party incumbent did not translate into sustained organizing and movement-building in the district, despite Jabari being a dedicated activist and fighter. With such a high vote total in 2017, it would’ve been better to build a base and organize the thousands of supporters around a fighting platform and ongoing struggle. This time, Jabari has joined the other DSA members in deciding to run as Democrats.

In this moment of open revolt against law enforcement and vigilante violence against unarmed black people, coupled with Covid-19 and the economic depression, these campaigns can play a role in highlighting the crisis and advancing a working class agenda.

Common to the five DSA candidates are demands such as single-payer health care (including the New York Health Act), social housing and tenant protections, immigration reform, funding the MTA, public power over ConEd, a Green New Deal, and much more. It is also positive that the five candidates and Julia Salazar (but not AOC) have joined together as an electoral slate, running on a similar platform and, as is the case with “Good Cause Eviction,” putting together a joint campaign. As Marcela noted, “the group identity and teamwork yields a broader reach and higher campaign impact than individual candidates would likely achieve on their own.”

We enthusiastically welcome this development and agree with this quote from the same article by Jacobin’s Meagan Day: “Running groups of DSA-aligned socialists together on slates is a recent development for the organization, a sign of its political maturation and rising ambitions.” 

DSAers should continue that progress in the form of a Socialist Caucus in the legislatures to which they are elected. We also think that this points towards the need for an independent socialist party with candidates running all the way to the general election. With 6,000 DSA members in the city, and other supporters, including SA, an independent socialist slate in New York could have a major impact on future races, and help demonstrate the need for a new broad workers’ party to unite our movements and electoral work.

Since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign raised the question of the working class, many of his supporters, now running in elections, have correctly identified the working class as who they represent, particularly black and Latinx workers. The socialist slate is also comprised of people who, unlike their opponents, take an active role in the struggles around the pandemic and police brutality. But when it comes to the question of how to change society, a far bigger emphasis needs to be put on the power of the working class. This doesn’t only include the need for democratic structures, as we’ve mentioned earlier. We must also point towards the potential of organized labor to shut down the system and transform it, and fight for unions that are combative, democratic, and engage their rank-and-file members. 

Most current labor leaderships, which, with rare exceptions, have shown their complete impotence in the fight against the pandemic, racism, and economic crisis, have also shown poor choices in the coming primaries. Shamefully, the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), of which Phara Souffrant is a member, has endorsed her incumbent opponent. SEIU 32BJ has not endorsed any of the new candidates. Instead, a majority of union leadership are backing corporate politicians, mostly incumbents. We need a fight within the unions to throw out those who sell their members for cheap promises, and fight for genuine fighting and democratic leadership.

However, rather than basing their campaigns on the class struggle, there is a notion that it is enough to elect enough “good representatives” in order to change things. No doubt, enough strong working class representatives can potentially give a real fight and pass progressive legislation. However, if the power of Corporate America is threatened, they’ll use any tool in their arsenal to make sure that our movement is defeated. And when it comes to legislative bodies, which often function as the political arm of big business, the struggle cannot be fought without a strong, dynamic, and determined working class movement. 

New York allows a fusion ballot line, meaning that candidates can run on two ballots. This has been used by the Working Families Party for many years to run candidates as both WFP and Democrats. DSA members running on a socialist ballot line could assess the potential for building and running independent campaigns while securing a ballot line in November. At the very least, socialists running in this month’s primaries should also be running as socialists in November to gauge support.

However, part of the maturation of DSA should be taking the next step to break with the Democratic party altogether. Like many others, New York is effectively a one-party city, which leads many genuine candidates to run as a Democrat as a “pragmatic” choice. While it’s understandable that an individual candidate will see the political process as easier if you go where “elections really matter,” we strongly disagree with the idea, promoted by some candidates, that winning substantial reforms, let alone a structural change, is easier through the Democratic party. It is Democratic mayors and governors who are cracking down brutally on current protests, passing severe budget cuts, and providing no safety and stability for workers under the Covid-19. While some would answer that we need to replace these reactionaries with progressives, this ignores the role of the Democratic party apparatus as a whole — as a corporate party, funded by and run for the interests of big business. The real question is not of procedural difficulties, but of political and economic alliance.

Undoubtedly, the five DSA candidates have an uphill battle to climb, and are unfortunately likely to lose their primary races due to lack of resources, the complicated political situation, political approach, and strategy. Jabari may actually stand the best chance, given his name recognition, fundraising success, and the three-way race for an open seat. Samelys Lopez, running for Congress, polled this month at only 2%. She is running in a stronghold of the corrupt Bronx Democratic machine against conservative Rubén Díaz Sr, phony progressive LGBTQ up-and-comer Councilman Ritchie Torres, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (who added thousands of NYPD cops during her tenure), and Inwood gentrifier Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez, whose office Socialist Alternative and others occupied in 2018. This swamp of corporate-backed personalities alone should be enough to persuade any socialist to run independently and face whichever of them goes through to the general election. Moreover, two other candidates in the race consider themselves revolutionaries, including Chivona Newsome, who went to Minneapolis to participate in the protests. There is no reason for three working class and left candidates to fight with each other and with corporate candidates all in the same party primary. If a working class party chooses its own candidate, it would be much easier then to stand out from the corporate candidate and win the best voters to a working class platform.

New York has no “sore-loser” laws. We therefore call on all left and democratic socialist candidates and incumbents who lose their primary challenge to continue running all the way to the general elections as independent socialists. Without building for it beforehand, it will undoubtedly be a difficult task. But all efforts should be made to immediately mobilize signatures to get on the November ballot. The only other option is to accept defeat.

Importantly, Julia Salazar is already on the November ballot as a Working Families Party candidate (their primary was cancelled) and should remain on that ballot and fight to win even in the unlikely situation she loses the Democratic Primary.

We could see a low voter turnout due to the pandemic (early voting rates have been abysmal), as well as many prioritizing social struggle over voting. The quarantine only benefits the establishment, which can more easily avoid debates and engagement with the constituents, while relying on corporate money to overcome legal obstacles and outreach. No doubt, the current health crisis has hurt the efforts of left candidates in mobilizing volunteers and securing votes, efforts DSA has shown real strength at doing.

Left and working class candidates will test different ways to get elected and have an impact on events. While we raise our disagreements with some of their programmatic and strategic decisions, we urge registered Democrats to vote for Julia, Zohran, Jabari, Phara, Samelys, and Marcela where they are on the ballot. 

With more and more working people adopting the ideas of a radical transformation of society, many questions and debates are and will take place in the socialist and workers’ movement, including how to run for elections. We do not support our genuine activists and social movements putting themselves in the straitjacket of supporting or running inside the Democratic party. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 provide valuable lessons for us, as once again, the Democratic party is the mortician, gravedigger, and graveyard of all social movements — movements which spring up often directly in response to the failures of Democratic politicians. 

In the next period, as social struggles increase against capitalism’s inability to secure basic living conditions for millions of people in the richest country in the world, the question of a new political party will emerge. We raise the call for the construction of a party of the working class, youth, poor, and oppressed that is not only electoral but, more importantly, a grassroots fighting organization on a day-to-day basis to organize and defeat the agenda of Wall Street, racism, and capitalism.