‘It’s Time to Overhaul the System’: Why Socialists Are Taking Aim at City Councils

Members of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America protest Trump's inauguration in January 2017.

Members of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America protest Trump's inauguration in January 2017. Katie Sharing/NYC DSA


Connecting state and local government leaders

Across the country, members of the Democratic Socialists of America have been elected to city councils running on platforms that reject capitalism and promote working class interests.

Khalid Kamau is the only socialist on a city council in the state of Georgia. Elected in 2017 to serve on the council of South Fulton, a recently incorporated city just outside of Atlanta, Kamau said that he didn’t even know about the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, when he was running. “I just ran as someone born and raised here, who cared about improving the lives of people who live here,” he said. “Now I talk about socialism as the answer to how we do that.”

Kamau was recruited to DSA by a local union organizer who told him that his platform, which focused on political education and organizing, was compatible with the DSA’s views. Two years later, he’s been elected head of the metro Atlanta chapter of the DSA, and said that he has spent a lot of time explaining socialism to others in his community, which is 90% black.

“A lot of black people in the South, and in my city, haven’t ever heard of DSA or don’t know what socialism is,” he said. “I do a lot of political education, explaining how government works. Some people are calling their congressmen to get the street paved, and I break down that it’s the city that does that. I do the same thing with socialism. I explain how it works in every context.”

South Fulton Councilmember Khalid Kamau (center) with the newly elected board of the metro-Atlanta DSA board. (Courtesy Khalid Kamau)

Kamau isn’t the only politician explaining democratic socialism in a local context. Across the country, DSA members are getting elected to city councils, bolstered by increased national awareness thanks to prominent politicians associated with the organization like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The city where the DSA arguably had its most resounding success was Chicago, where spring elections saw a dramatic shift to the left in the 50-person city council, which is now over 10% democratic socialist. Chicago is one of many cities that runs nonpartisan elections, meaning party affiliations aren’t shown on ballots or campaign posters. But the six socialists on city council are all members of and were endorsed by DSA. In comparison, there is one Republican and three independents on the council (the rest are Democrats).

Andre Vasquez, a newly elected DSA alderman in Chicago, said that the election represented a “paradigm shift” but also is rooted in the city’s history. “Chicago is known for its union organizing,” he said. “There’s a strong revolutionary mindset here.” Vasquez’s race was unique because he faced another DSA candidate, which he says is proof of how popular the party has become. But similar to Kamau, he said that both he and his opponent prioritized running on a platform that anyone could understand. “People can’t pay their bills anymore, but they don’t know why,” he said. 

Socialism, But Make It Local

The dividing line between DSA candidates and progressive Democrats can be blurry at times. The socialists on city councils interviewed for this piece all framed it as an ideological, if not practical, difference: a rejection of capitalism as a system that must be protected, and a refusal to “tweak the system around the edges.” That echoes the rhetoric of prominent DSA leaders like Ocasio-Cortez, who has called capitalism “irredeemable.” It’s also a direct contrast to Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in 2017 said that “[Democrats are] capitalists, that’s just the way it is.” 

But in the same town hall, Pelosi emphasized that Democrats know capitalism alone won’t solve all problems, pointing to income inequality as an example. The line between the policies embraced by democratic socialists and Democrats can be a thin one, with scores of Democrats on the national stage embracing ideas like free college, wiping out student debt, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. On the opposite side, many DSA members support creating a more robust social safety net, rather than a demolishing capitalism. Vasquez said that just like Democrats, DSA members “fall along a spectrum.”

But major reshaping of health care, like what is envisioned with Medicare for All, can’t exactly be rolled out by a city council, often preoccupied with more nuts-and-bolts issues like contracts, permitting, and budgets. When big ideas are on the table at city councils, those taken up by democratic socialists are also often embraced by liberal Democrats: expanding voting rights, raising the minimum wage, and rent control. Socialists running for city council say they differentiating themselves along some practical lines—like refusing to take corporate campaign donations—and some more fluid ones—like an emphasis on helping build grassroots movements, refusing to acknowledge capitalism as the only option, and, as Vasquez put it, “renouncing incrementalism.”

Candi CdeBaca, a new socialist councilmember in Denver, said that the main difference between her and Democrats on the council is her willingness to involve her community at every step. She recently led the charge to reconsider the city’s contracts with the private prison companies that run residential reentry centers, and is pushing to set the city on a path to completely divest from private prisons. “Of the thousands of contracts that come before city council, not a single one had public hearing in recent years,” she said. “Giving the community the chance to share their expertise was unprecedented.”

Seattle’s Kshama Sawant, one of the longest-serving socialists on a city council and part of a smaller socialist group known as Socialist Alternative, said that she is more willing to anger big businesses than her Democratic colleagues, calling it a “pipe dream to think we can win progressive victories” by building consensus with a company like Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle. She is currently pushing for major rent control measures that mirror those proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the national level. “Local issues are tied to national issues,” she said. “Whether Seattle achieves rent control, or a higher minimum wage, what we do here can let loose a contagion of working class confidence. Cities can say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’”

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant (right) speaks at a campaign rally. (Courtesy Kshama Sawant)

In South Fulton, Kamau worked to hike the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour, restrained from trying a more ambitious proposal by a Georgia law that preempts cities from raising the local wage floor. “People are becoming more comfortable with the idea when they see the economy isn’t crashing,” he said. “The greatest thing about doing this at the local level is that we’re able to do these things at scale. Before we invest our entire government in some system, take a city like mine, with a $100 million budget, and test these policies out with lower risk.”

Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College who has studied socialism and the history of left-wing politics, said that the DSA is likely gaining popularity at the local and national levels for the same reasons. “There’s a growing sense that the economic order is not working, that people are getting left behind because inequality is so high and social mobility is so low,” she said. “The interest in alternatives arises out of a dissatisfaction with the status quo.”

CdeBaca noted that in Denver, like in many cities, Democrats dominate local politics, even if the party isn’t actually listed on the ballot because a city runs nonpartisan elections. But running as a democratic socialist is a differentiator, she said. “Socialism was a signal to people that it was time to overhaul the system, and I was ready to do it,” she said.

Denver Councilmember Candi CdeBaca said she used socialism as a differentiator from Democrats on the ballot. (Courtesy Dave Russell of Buffalo Heart Images/Candi CdeBaca campaign)

The socialist councilmembers interviewed for this article had little in the way of traditional political backgrounds. Sawant was an economics professor. Kamau was a bus driver, a law school drop-out, and a Black Lives Matter activist. Vasquez joked that five years ago, he couldn’t have named his alderman and didn’t know what the city council did. CdeBaca said that “politics were out of the question” for her growing up in a household that didn’t participate in government, and when she decided to run for office, she “jumped in without a plan or experience.”

Kamau sees his outsider status a bonus. “A lot of politicians say ‘I have the solution, vote for me and I’ll fix this.’ That leads to a lot of disappointment,” he said. “The master’s tools can’t dismantle the master’s house. A lot of politicians are career, which means they can’t come up with solutions that take down their own privilege.”

What to Do When You’re the Only Socialist on City Council

DSA has seen a real resurgence in the past four years, expanding from sparsely populated book clubs to massive metro chapters. National DSA membership was around 6,000 people from 2011 to 2015. That number passed 10,000 in November 2016, and reached 40,000 in June 2018 when news of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory hit national channels. The group now claims 56,000 members. 
But despite these gains, the clearest thing that socialists on city councils have in common is their singularity.

Apart from Vasquez, all the councilmembers are the only socialists on their city councils. Kamau said that hasn’t been a challenge for him in a progressive city, which has already eliminated Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day, moved to make election day a holiday, sponsored a resolution opposing ICE, and regulated single use plastics. 

Sawant said that she doesn’t feel alone because she has the support of her constituents, most of whom aren’t socialists. “When 95,000 people voted for me in 2013, I was under no illusion that most of them were socialists,” she said. “Our values just spoke to the core of what they wanted.”

Vasquez said he looks forward to working with people across the political spectrum. “If I were a Republican, I’d also have concerns about how the city uses our money,” he said. “Ideological divisions can see good strategy regardless.”

Chicago Councilmember Andre Vasquez says he looks forward to working with people across the political spectrum. (Courtesy Andre Vasquez)

Berman said that even though socialists may be alone on their respective councils, they likely will share a lot of common ground with Democrats. “On a practical level, we’re not getting rid of capitalism anytime soon, so even while progressives argue that the current system should be reformed and socialists argue that it should be overthrown, they’ll probably advocate for many of the same policies,” she said.

Kellen Zale, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who studies city councils, said DSA councilmembers might even be in a better position to accomplish their policy objectives than those elected at a national level. "City council elections are typically non-partisan, which tends to make them less inherently political than other legislative bodies and more likely to engage in cross-party collaboration,” she said. 

Building Momentum?

In cities where socialism hasn’t taken root in local government yet, the success of candidates across the country hasn’t gone unnoticed. Megan Magray, of the New York City DSA, said that she sees a huge opportunity for her organization in 2021, when 35 out of 51 city council members will be term-limited. "Given the success of DSA-endorsed city council candidates in Chicago coupled with the momentum around movement candidates here in the city, we're very optimistic,” she said. 

But Sawant said people should look outside liberal megacities, too. She pointed to the 2018 West Virginia teacher’s strike—which she called “the most inspiring thing to happen in the past two years”—as proof that organizing is still alive in states that might be otherwise written off as Republican bastions. “The growth of DSA across the country is another bellwether for what ordinary people want out of politics,” she said. “We’re seeing an opening on more and more fronts. The biggest mistake now would be reticence about socialist politics.”

Kamau agreed and said he hopes more candidates and voters will be willing to adopt the label of socialist. “Our system isn’t working for working people,” he said. “This isn’t something you fix by tweaking around the edges. When you design policies with that in mind, you eventually end up at socialism, even if you don’t call it that.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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