Taking the mic in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Brooklyn YWCA on Wednesday night, Chris Maisano marveled that even the hosts of ABC’s The View are debating democratic socialism these days.
It’s true that democratic socialism is having a moment. This spring, Maisano’s chapter of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary victory over longtime incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley gave democratic socialism its biggest boost since Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
But now NYC DSA, and the organization more broadly, is faced with a major question: whether, and how, to leverage its newfound political heft and, more existentially, whether avowed socialists should be throwing their support behind Democratic candidates for office at all. The question is pressing in New York City thanks to education activist and actress Cynthia Nixon, who has requested DSA’s first gubernatorial endorsement since the 2016 election fueled the group’s resurgence. Nixon, a long shot candidate, is challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose deference to a Republican-controlled Senate has exacerbated crises in healthcare, public transit, and affordable housing. Jumaane Williams, a tenant advocate and New York City councilman challenging lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul, has also asked DSA for its endorsement.
NYC DSA is by far the country’s largest chapter, constituting about 10% of the organization’s more than 40,000 members. Earlier this month, the NYC steering committee polled members about whether to formally endorse Nixon and Williams and the results were conclusively in favor, roughly 3:1. The Citywide Leadership Council will decide on both endorsements this Sunday following debates at each of the city’s six geographic branches.
Maisano is among the pro-endorsement crowd. “It’s not so much that I support [Nixon and Williams] as individuals, or their campaigns, or even any of their specific policy proposals,” he said Wednesday during the Central Brooklyn debate. “I see this as support for a larger political dynamic that’s putting ideas of socialism and class struggle right at the heart of mainstream political discourse.”
Still, the unaccustomed spotlight on DSA—an anti-capitalist membership group, not a political party—has many New York City members feeling cautious. They wonder how much a socialist organization should entangle itself with the current systems of political power.
“I think it’s really problematic to say that we need some savior like Nixon coming in, even though she might be wonderful,” Ariel Zakarison, co-chair of NYC-DSA’s labor and strike solidarity working group, told another packed gathering of DSA members in Bushwick on Tuesday. “We need to build power by building movements with the working class, not by electing people to represent the working class.”
Others questioned whether DSA is in a position to hold candidates accountable, especially ones like Nixon and Williams, who are not members of DSA. In January, DSA’s National Electoral Committee encouraged local chapters to run their own members for office and develop platforms and field strategies collectively. The campaign to elect Julia Salazar to New York’s state Senate in North Brooklyn’s District 18, which includes parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and other neighborhoods, is more in this vein. Salazar, a 27-year-old community organizer, had been a member of NYC DSA for two years when she decided to run. She is active in DSA’s feminist working group and police accountability efforts. Two of her three paid campaign staff are DSA members.
Williams has told NYC DSA that he’ll run as a socialist, but Nixon has proved more difficult to pin down. In the NYC DSA’s endorsement questionnaire—a more than 20-page document obtained by Splinter which asks candidates to describe their relationship with socialism, provide detailed policy plans on a variety of issues, and explain their stances on issues ranging from healthcare for trans New Yorkers to environmental justice—she was asked that same question explicitly. Nixon didn’t say yes, instead responding, “I am a lifelong democrat who holds democratic socialist values which I think is reflected in the central issues of our campaign.” (She went on to say that she would publicize DSA’s endorsement.)
Nixon has been similarly tentative elsewhere. When Vice asked her if she was a democratic socialist in a recent interview, she replied, “It’s a label I’ve never pinned on myself before, but their values are my values,” adding, “I don’t line up with 100% every single policy.”
Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt told Splinter that Nixon is in fact a democratic socialist and disputed the characterization that the candidate was equivocating in the Vice interview. She also said how people interpret her response is “in the eyes of the beholder.” But for many members of DSA, that’s simply not good enough.
For Holly Wood, a member of Central Brooklyn DSA who opposes the Nixon endorsement, the issue isn’t Nixon’s platform, which includes DSA priorities like universal healthcare and comprehensive public school funding. She said she’ll likely vote for Nixon in September. But she’s wary of NYC DSA moving into the realm of political action groups like Justice Democrats that exist solely to promote candidates. Wood was drawn to DSA because members are also excited about supporting strikes, working with tenants to scrutinize their leases for signs of illegal rent increases, and supporting the rights of sex workers.
“I left the Democratic party because I want to revolutionize how politics work,” she said. “Becoming another unpaid canvassing outfit is not my interest.”
Some DSA members, including Salazar herself, think the internal debate misses the point. Salazar spoke with Splinter on Thursday on her way to a Nixon press conference in her district, arguing that while she’s all for the debate, DSA shouldn’t “underestimate the power of working in coalition like this and actually using our campaigns to amplify each other.”
Other pragmatists argue that as long as Cuomo remains in office, there’s little hope for the organization’s statewide policy priorities. Among them: eliminating landlord-friendly vacancy bonuses from the rent laws and expanding rent stabilization protections across the state. Susan Kang, a member of the Queens DSA branch, warned in a recent post on Medium that, “If we remain silent… we are tacitly endorsing the current power structures, and weakening our own priority campaigns.”
Jamie Tyberg, director of development at New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit that organizes with tenants and other working-class New Yorkers, agreed. Tyberg left NYC DSA last December (she still volunteers for some DSA climate justice projects at the national level) and has since been openly critical of what she sees as a privileged debate about purity politics. Her organization is aligned with the Working Families Party, which endorsed Nixon and Williams earlier this year. Several powerful labor unions split with the WFP after that decision, reportedly at the behest of Cuomo himself, and NYCC and other grassroots groups took a funding hit as a result.
“If DSA really wants to stand in solidarity with poor people and exist to uplift their struggles, then there shouldn’t even be a debate,” Tyberg said.
Outside New York City, members of the Ithaca and Capital Region DSA chapters told Splinter they haven’t had time to seriously discuss these endorsement questions, especially considering their limited resources. Hudson Valley DSA says it’s open to endorsements, but only thinks it’s worthwhile if NYC endorses first. Suffolk County DSA doesn’t consider candidates who don’t seek their support, or who refuse to run openly as socialists. In an open letter published Monday, Suffolk County DSA called for a statewide decision-making body to consider such endorsements and warned against “chasing” high-profile candidates.
“Put bluntly, can we demand that they correct course?” they wrote. “Is our campaign involvement truly significant enough to give us leverage?”
Events this week suggest DSA may have some leverage. While praising Williams’ track record on tenant rights and police accountability, NYC DSA has criticized him for taking corporate donations. On Wednesday night, Williams announced he’s returning three such donations and pledged not to take any more. “We moved him,” said Cea Weaver, a Central Brooklyn DSA member who also works for NYCC, when the news broke.
And New Yorkers aren’t the only ones working through these issues. In May, months before Ocasio-Cortez burst onto the scene, Pittsburgh DSA garnered national attention for backing two candidates who won Pennsylvania House primaries: Democrats Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato. In that same election cycle they declined to endorse John Fetterman, a high-profile Bernie Sanders ally, for lieutenant governor.
Arielle Cohen, co-chair of Pittsburgh DSA, has been following the Nixon and Williams debates closely, but not because she feels strongly either way. But she does think it’s critical that DSA—in her words, a “multi-tendency, multi-strategy, multi-ideological organization”—have these conversations.
“I’m okay with us building the plane as we fly it,” she said. “We have to work through how we are actually going to be in the world.”
Clarification, 12:23 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to more accurately reflect the total membership of DSA.
Emma Whitford is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn.