Tiffany Cabán and The Building of a Political Alternative in the New York City Council

It’s important for us to focus on developing and supporting organizers…In order to ensure that this [socialists’ success in Astoria] is not a fluke, we have to show up and establish a presence in people’s lives in ways that are remarkable and significant.” Zohran Mamdani


Tiffany Cabán’s win in the Democratic Party Primary for New York City Council’s District 22 is an important moment for the growing socialist movement. It serves as an example of how socialists can learn from past experiences and defeats as well as an indication of the reaction that we can expect to see from political and economic elites. She joins fellow DSA-endorsed candidate, Alexa Avilés, and Kristin Richardson Jordan (DSA member, but not endorsed) in November’s general election. If and when they win, they would be the first self-described socialists to sit in New York City leadership since Benjamin J. Davis member of the Communist Party who was re-elected twice to the New York City Council and was unanimously expelled after being convicted under the Smith Act in 1949.


Cabán is a 33-year-old queer Latina Queens native, who has worked as a public defender and as a national political organizer for the Working Families Party working to “help elect progressive and decarceral prosecutors across the country.” Her time with the Working Families Party followed her incredibly narrow (losing by 60 votes) and contested defeat in the 2019 race for Queens DA against Democratic establishment-supported Melinda Katz. In that race, Cabán campaigned on using a radical shift in prosecutorial discretion as a primary tool to begin reversing the decades of racist policing and mass incarceration.


Cabán’s politics have evolved with the consciousness of poor and working people, social movements, and youth. In the city council primary, she expanded her platform, calling to end the carceral system in New York City by defunding and disbanding the NYPD, permanently close Rikers Island, halt the construction of new jails, and embed restorative practices into all city agencies. Cabán has also called for a citywide “Homes Guarantee campaign” and is promoting the development of “social housing” (Queens Community Board 1 identified affordable housing as district 22’s top issue in an annual statement of need compiled this year). Under that proposal, the government would buy land and sell it to private developers who would consent to certain design mandates and price restrictions, such as tenants paying no more than 25 percent of their income on rent.


These are positive developments. Socialist politicians and activists, however, have to walk a dangerous tightrope of neither accommodating themselves to corporate liberal framing of issues, nor engaging in increasingly radical positions and slogans that could isolate them from working people. In this period of increased political polarization, it becomes even more difficult for working class representatives to maintain this balance. The nomination of Eric Adams for mayor in the same primary election (Adams dominated every borough except Manhattan and was able to appeal to working and middle class voters with overwhelming support from Black and brown communities, including people who voted for both Adams and Cabán) points to just these contradictions, as we will examine below.


Cabán and Eric Adams in City Hall


This  period of political polarization and contradiction is manifested in, but not limited to, the (faltering) Biden honeymoon, the overheated rhetoric around urban crime, and fear of the unhoused — leading to calls to “refund the police.” Those fears have been used to great effect in local New York and broader corporate media and have helped define the terms of the mayoral primary race as well as assist in the Democratic Primary victory of Eric Adams, the ex-NYPD, Brooklyn Borough President. However, in June, the month of the primary, NYPD’s own crime statistics showed that shootings and murders in New York City were down compared year-over-year. Shooting incidents in the city were down nearly 20%. Murder was down over 23%. And the number of shooting victims was down 26%. Although one could argue the exact number in the uptick in murders in the past year, which sits around an increase of 25%, one can in no uncertain terms lay the blame for this on “Defund the Police,” which had little to no concrete success in actually cutting police budgets. One may instead point to the once-in-a-century pandemic, and the economic fallout that followed, as a culprit for the rise in urban violence. The system does not prevent violence, and it surely doesn’t provide public safety. We have witnessed time and again the way that “law enforcement” enforces some of the laws for some of the people some of the time. The lack of economic opportunities and desperation are the major motivators for violent crime and theft. By taking funds from the bloated police budgets, taxing the rich, and then investing into poor and working class communities, we could prevent violence and bring public safety.


In response to the largest mass protest in American history against racism and police brutality and militarization last year, Adams ran on and plans to bring back both a “modified version” of the racist “stop-and-frisk” tactic, and the secretive, violent Anti-Crime unit that the NYPD was forced to disband in direct response to the George Floyd uprisings. After first backtracking to only $322 million from the initially promised $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s budget in 2021, the 2022 city budget now plans to use new federal funding to increase spending by $465 million.


In a fundraiser after the primary, co-hosted by a Republican City Councilmember in Douglaston, Queens, Eric Adams made abundantly clear who he is running against in November: “I’m no longer running against candidates. I’m running against a movement. All across the country, the DSA socialists are mobilizing to stop Eric Adams,” he said. “They realize that if I’m successful, we’re going to start the process of regaining control of our cities.”


What we’re beginning to see in New York City is that the establishment is working to create a division between Black and Brown working class communities and activists, primarily DSA. 


To her credit, Cabán makes concrete demands in her platform of what Defund the Police would look like. Among them are calls for removing police from situations of traffic, transportation, and mental health emergency response. Instead, a focus on community-based crime prevention including specialized responder teams would be created; funding for social services would be expanded and would include new community safety centers, enhanced counseling and health services, wraparound services, and restorative programming at every school.


At the same time, it is concerning to compare Adams’ quote with these recent ones from Cabán: “There is no doubt about the fact that Eric Adams cares for Black and brown and low-income New Yorkers. We may disagree on strategies for how to better care for our neighbors, right, for our constituents. But I think it’s pretty clear that the desire is there.” Consider too this paraphrase of Cabán a few paragraphs later: “The characterization that she is some kind of political bomb-thrower, Cabán said, couldn’t be further from the truth, and she is always ready to listen to people, meet them where they are at, and try to find common ground.” While this sounds reasonable, the real question is which people should socialists “meet where they are at” and “find common ground with”: working people or Adams and the conservative Democrats she’ll be working with? In the context of the article, it’s clear that Cabán unfortunately means the latter. What the comparison of the Adams and Cabán comments points to is the myriad pressures socialist politicians find on themselves to be “civil” or “realistic” or “not divisive,” which are never qualities expected of corporate politicians. While it may feel entirely necessary and logical to pick your battles and play nice for now, these strategies fail because they fundamentally mischaracterize the fight socialists are in. Adams can prove how much he cares for Black, brown, and low-income New Yorkers by passing real, long-term reforms that materially benefit their lives, and until then we don’t have to ascribe moral benevolence to him.


Under the continuing crisis of capitalism — which cannot permanently solve issues of and surrounding COVID-19; nor secure truly affordable housing for all, healthcare for all, and quality education for all; nor prevent the next eviction crisis; nor return millions of jobs that were unjustly lost in the pandemic; nor guarantee real safety, and more — all it will take is one event to reignite protest. And the establishment is preparing for just that eventuality. 


Working people need a fighting voice in office, one who will use their seat to unequivocally advocate and agitate for policies that will benefit workers, while at the same time building consciousness in working people of their power to create change. New York City is the financial capital of the United States, and the New York City Council is one of the most powerful in the country. There are intense vested interests at play, and basing political strategy around personal amenability is doing oneself and working people a terrible disservice. The pressure to capitulate to elite interests increases when socialist officials are isolated from their bases. These capitulations are then rationalized to themselves or working people as “pragmatism” or “working well with others.” The fight is coming for Cabán and other socialist electeds; their ability to win lies in mobilizing working people and the youth into struggle, and not at all in meeting Adams and other conservative Democrats “where they’re at.”


Perhaps the most exciting and positive development in Cabán’s platform is her proposal to “Reimagine local government by bringing a proactive, relational organizing framework to constituent services, creating a socialist and leftist bloc to remake the City Council… [wherein] district offices are hubs for organizing so that constituents can access the tools, skills, and training needed to find solutions to local problems.”


What can we learn from Kshama Sawant ?


Cabán’s desire to use her office as a hub for organizing could take as a concrete example that of independent socialist, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Sawant, elected three times, has been in office for seven years and is currently facing a right-wing, anti-democratic recall. Upon being elected in 2013, she spearheaded the successful fight, alongside a united movement of labor, workers, and socialists to make Seattle the first major city in America to win the $15 minimum wage.


Working people and Sawant achieved victories many previously thought unwinnable in Seattle. The Amazon Tax, landmark renters’ rights laws, the establishment of Indigenous People’s Day, blocking the building of a monumental police bunker, and a first in the nation ban on the use of chemical weapons by the police — these are only a handful of examples.


Seattle is a Democratic Party stronghold, and there are countless instances of Sawant having to fight against corporate interests being advocated, publicly or in backroom deals, by progressives. To take just one example, the successful ban on chemical weapons, which Sawant spearheaded during the George Floyd uprising, was only a year later filled with loopholes by Seattle’s allegedly progressive Democrats on city council.  


Building A Grassroots Movement 


As we have seen in the past few years, the pressures on elected socialists (most clearly visible in the experiences of the Squad) are immense. The political establishment uses myriad tactics to divide and isolate these politicians not just from one another, but most especially from their constituents. 


The greatest pitfall officials can find themselves facing is isolation. When Rep. Cori Bush was asked in an April interview on CNN about the vote on qualified immunity for police, she responded: “[As] my sister Ayanna Pressley always says ‘You vote alone, and you’re voting for your districts…’” This framing of political strategy is a truly disheartening thing to hear. In close vote after close vote, when the Squad could act as a bloc (a…squad?) to make demands of Democratic leadership that would benefit working people — Medicare for All, $15 hour minimum wage, etc. they instead “voted alone.”


Elected socialists’ power comes from the working class. Under the system of capitalism, workers create all value in society. Without them, the system quickly begins to fall into crisis. We continue to live through a concrete example of what labor “shortages’” impact on markets looks like. Healthcare, grocery, public transit, logistics workers learned of the power they hold in 2020 when they were deemed “essential.” The strikes and walkouts they engaged in for protective gear, safer work conditions, and better pay were successful because of their power and leverage in the economy.  


Elected socialists’ goal, therefore, must be to build the widest, most class-conscious, organized and active movement of working people possible. A movement that can be mobilized at a moment’s notice; that can fund campaigns independent of corporate influence; one that educates, listens and learns from, and excites other workers to engage in the struggle to make a better world.


When Rep. Bush and other members of the Squad led protests on the steps of the Capitol alongside the energy and participation of a movement of working people, organizers, and activists, they were able to win a 60-day extension on a new eviction moratorium. This was a protest in direct opposition to the Biden administration and corporate Democratic leadership. The protests captured headlines and spent days trending on social media. It’s an incredible testament to the power the Squad possesses and could wield regularly, especially if they consistently voted as a bloc and followed a movement building approach.


Cabán and the other socialist city councilors have a unique opportunity that the other elected socialists don’t: they live and work in their districts! They can build power bases. They can hold monthly district town halls to discuss and organize grassroots campaigns that involve working people in the district. They can work with each other in building a bloc in the council. And they can strategize and mobilize this organized multi-racial, multi-gendered, and multi-generational movement to win time and again against ostensibly insurmountable odds.


Socialist Alternative strongly believes in the need for socialists, progressives, and working people to engage seriously in united work. For us, that means building relationships, exploring new opportunities and strategies, and most importantly coming together to empower the working class to achieve lasting change. We in Queens want to play a part in the struggle to build the most effective, militant campaign, and we see Tiffany Cabán’s potential city council seat, along with State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani’s office, as exciting and vital focal points. With that in mind, the Queens branch of Socialist Alternative took part in canvassing for Cabán’s primary campaign and have joined the coalition of organizations, including NYC-DSA’s Ecosocialists, fighting to stop the building of the NRG plant and to pass the two Public Power bills in Albany. As we continue in this time of compounding crisis, new opportunities for the working class to enter into the struggle for a new and just society will present themselves. It’s up to us in the workers’ and socialist movement to know when and how to seize these opportunities and then employ the correct analysis, program, and strategies to win. We can do it. Astoria won’t be a fluke; it can be the beginning.