Socialism Goes Local: DSA Candidates Are Winning in Big Cities

Democratic socialist candidates have won seats this year in Chicago, Denver and Philadelphia. More are likely to join them.
by | July 24, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant is one of a growing number of democratic socialists winning local elections across the country. (AP/Elaine Thompson)

Philadelphia reserves two of its city council seats for members of a minority party. For more than 60 years, that has meant Republicans. This year, the seats could go instead to candidates to the left of Democrats.

The set-aside seats are being pursued not only by Republicans, but also by people running under the Democratic Socialist, Working Families and Green party banners. In Philadelphia, independents and minor party voters have outnumbered registered Republicans since 2017.

“For the better part of forever, we sort of assumed those would be Republican seats,” says David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy, a civic leadership group in Philadelphia. “It’s an indication of how weak the Republican Party is locally, and also the surge in interest among hyperprogressive voters.”

Around the country this year, democratic socialists and other ultra-left candidates have met with success in city council races. Several such candidates have already won seats in Chicago and Denver, while others are running this fall in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, which is a democratic socialist party (DSA), is seeking reelection to the city council against concerted opposition from business groups. Other DSA candidates are trying to join her.

These candidates don’t all hold the same positions, but they generally share an opposition to mass incarceration; they describe housing as a human right; and they have variously depicted capitalism as a failed or immoral system.

In short, they’re at the leading edge of a trend. As in national politics, local candidates on the left --including many mainstream Democrats -- are moving further left. “All politics seems national,” Thornburgh says. “Every city’s going to have a local elected official who captures that energy and is the local champion of those causes.”

 

Socialism With a Local Face

Electing socialists to local office is not new, but it’s rather rare. Milwaukee elected a trio of socialist mayors during the 20th century. Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders started his political career as mayor of Burlington, Vt., during the 1980s.

Last year, several candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America won state legislative races, echoing the high-profile success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan at the congressional level.

A few DSA-backed candidates have won city council seats over the past couple of years, but now they’re coming in bunches. At least that's true in Chicago, where a half-dozen won seats on the board of aldermen this spring. “The DSA candidates are able to ride under the reform label, and the reform label is clearly popular at the moment,” says Dick Simpson, a former alderman who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The Lightfoot voters" -- residents who supported Lori Lightfoot's bid for mayor this spring -- "voted against incumbent aldermen who were part of the old politics.”

They new council members have supported Lightfoot’s initial agenda, but the days of the “rubber-stamp councils” that prevailed under Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley appear to be over. Big fights are expected this fall, as the council grapples with a budget shortfall topping $700 million. “Whether they can get their own programs through remains to be seen, with only six votes,” Simpson says.

 

Different Labels, Similar Flavors

In Chicago, the DSA members are part of a group of roughly 15 aldermen who make up the board’s “progressive bloc” or “progressive reform caucus,” out of a total of 50.

In a sense, that mirrors the dynamic in other cities. Traditional Democrats are still dominant. However, whether council members embrace the socialist or democratic socialist labels or not, many are clearly more progressive than their predecessors were a decade ago on issues such as rent control and minimum-wage increases.

“To me, it’s different flavors of the same ice cream,” says Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Denver. “In a lot of places, if you go to Aspen or Boulder [for example], you’re going to find city councilmen who are not socialist, but they are elitist progressives. They’re still command-and-control junkies who [believe they] know what’s best for other people. From plastic straws to whether you can develop property you own, they want to make decisions for you.”

Candi CdeBaca is a democratic socialist who won a seat on the Denver City Council last month -- one of three new members who beat incumbents. At a campaign forum in April, she said, “I believe in community ownership of land, labor, resources and distribution of those resources.”

That led some on the right, including the Independence Institute, to call her a communist. She rejected that characterization, saying that although she doesn’t support capitalism, the term "communist" has been misapplied. “You could call me an anarchist,” she told the Colorado Independent. “That would fit better than any other label.”

 

Working Within the System

Part of the difference between DSA candidates and garden-variety liberals is stylistic. As seen this year in Congress, progressives further to the left are sometimes more willing to present themselves as outsiders or activists, even after they’ve won elective office. Some of them come directly out of community organizing, such as CdeBaca, who said last month that she sees her role partly as pushing Mayor Michael Hancock “in a more leftward direction.”

In Philadelphia, Helen Gym has worked more of an insider’s game. Gym (whose name is pronounced "gimm," with a hard "g") sought reelection to the city council this year with support from both the DSA and the Democratic Party.

“Gym has a Twitter following, but she also knows how to get votes,” says Randall Miller, a historian at St. Joseph’s University. “She’s very smart about knowing if you want to get things done, you’ve got to figure out where the power is, and work with them.”

Gym has scored some high-profile successes. She helped push for return of local control of schools to Philadelphia, which had been under state oversight for nearly 20 years, and sponsored an ordinance known as the Fair Workweek bill that requires large employers in retail, hospitality and food service to provide workers with more certainty in their schedules. She didn’t work alone on either idea, by any stretch, but she became identified with those causes and got credit as a driving force.

“A lot of people admire her,” Miller says. “Look at what she’s done, she’s gone against the odds. They say, ‘I want to be like Helen Gym.’”

She may get like-minded company on the council this year, if one or two candidates running as independents or members of left-wing parties end up winning.

In Philadelphia, each party is only allowed to nominate five candidates for the seven at-large city council seats. Voters also can only select five out of the seven. This system guarantees two seats go to minority parties.

For any of the most progressive candidates to win would still be a stretch. They’d likely have to convince Democratic voters to forego selecting one of the Democratic Party candidates.

But given the low number of votes needed to win one of the seats -- likely less than 35,000 -- no one is dismissing the possibility. Especially since Gym received the most votes in the May primary -- the most votes, in fact, of any council candidate in a Philadelphia primary since 1987.

“It’s one of those moments when people are angry with the establishment,” Miller says. “That invites consideration for third parties. [Voters think] we’re disgusted with Democrats, disgusted with Republicans and ready to vote for somebody else.”

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