DSAers in Office

Are socialist candidates and office holders part of the new normal? Well, maybe not just yet, but the experiences of five successful DSA candidates suggest that point may not be too far off.
Seema Singh Perez, born in Varanasi, India, became a naturalized U.S. citizen at age 13. Knoxville, Tennessee, has been home off and on for 40 years, for the last 20 of which she has worked to improve healthcare access for women, people with HIV/AIDS, and those experiencing homelessness. She runs a jail alternative program for domestic violence offenders. Although a long-time progressive, Singh Perez did not consider herself a socialist before the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. “He spoke the truth in ways that I just hadn’t heard…honestly… I cried,” she says. “It suddenly struck me, I could/should be [in] government.” So she ran for city council and became one of its first two women of color. Just four months into a four-year term, she counts among her early priorities housing and income inequality and increased training in the trades, particularly for women.

First-term Maine State Representative Mike Sylvester, a DSA member since 2014, who has been involved with several socialist groups over the years, also says he was “excited by Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Bernie said everyone should run,” and with his district representative term-limited out, he decided to do just that. Leaving little doubt as to where he stood, his campaign signs proclaimed, “Elect a democratic socialist.” Involved in union organizing for 20 years, with SEIU, UFCW, CWA, AFT, and Justice for Janitors, Sylvester explains, “I came out of an organizing culture where you say what you think.” Few would argue with the results: his 83% final election vote was the highest in the state. He acknowledges that he did get hissed during his first House speech, but what actually raised hackles among a few of his colleagues was the fact that he mentioned unions.

khalid kamau grabs your attention from the first letter of his name, written in lower case, in keeping with Yoruban African tradition. Now an attorney, kamau has driven a bus for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and was drawn into labor and political organizing in opposition to the agency’s outsourcing of public employee jobs. He believes he is the first Black Lives Matter organizer elected to public office. A Sanders national convention delegate, he also cites the central importance of that campaign, telling the Progressive.org, “I don’t think any of us yet recognize how monumental [Bernie’s] campaign was….Every presidential race brings into the political process a new generation of volunteers, but Bernie galvanized a group of highly educated, highly skilled activists, folks pretty much already politically involved. Then, he charged us to run for local office, specifically, as a way of both infiltrating and transforming the Democratic Party, and working our way up the political ladder.”

In kamau’s case that ladder started with his election to the city council of South Fulton, Georgia, a brand new municipality of 100,000, nearly 90% of whose population is African American. His immediate priorities include developing the new city’s infrastructure; a $15-per-hour minimum wage for city employees, with paid family leave and health benefits; and political education. He’d like some of that political education to occur on the election day holiday he has proposed for the city. Of DSA, he says, “I received more support financially and time support from the DSA than from the Democratic Party of Georgia. I will work for them forever because their principles are my principles.”

As Lee J. Carter told American University’s WAMU, he met with deep skepticism when he announced his challenge to the Republican majority whip of the Virginia House of Delegates: “The conventional wisdom was he can’t be beat. That was sort of unanimous. Everyone said that the entire 21 months I was running.” Carter won by nine points, one of fifteen General Assembly seats Democrats took from Republicans that day. The difficulty the five-year Marine veteran experienced in securing workers’ compensation benefits following an on-the-job injury was what moved him to action.

As he said, “I’ve always been interested in politics. I’ve followed it as a spectator sport, mostly yelling at people on Facebook. I never saw myself as being a candidate for office. I always thought that was something for doctors and lawyers and retirees. But I saw firsthand how leaving working-class issues up to entirely doctors, lawyers and retirees meant that the working class of America was being left behind, so I decided to step forward and fix some things.”

Ultimately, he would be the target of a classic, old-fashioned red-scare mailer featuring caricatures of him and “Comrade Joseph Stalin,” among others, and he realized that “if you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, Republicans are going to call you a socialist regardless of whether or not you actually are, so you may as well draw some knowledge from that political tradition.” It’s a tradition he did not come to until Sanders, of whom he says, “He went out there and said, ‘I’m a democratic socialist. Here’s what that means: It means I believe in strong unions, healthcare for everybody, and an end to discrimination.’ Well, that’s what I believe in, too. I dug a little more into it, and I realized a lot of the problems we have in today’s society reflected in electoral politics are symptoms of economic problems.”

He’s now trying to use that knowledge to reform workers’ compensation, limit campaign contributions from corporations, and create a state-level single-payer healthcare plan.

Although also a Sanders delegate, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa got his start earlier, in 2015, when he defeated a three-term incumbent backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, becoming the youngest alderman on the 50-member city council and the first openly gay Latino ever elected to office in Chicago. Seeing himself as “a movement-elected official,” Ramirez-Rosa’s broad agenda includes reinstating a corporate “head tax” on firms with more than 50 employees—abolished by Emanuel—the proceeds of which would go to Chicago schools; creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council; public election financing; and divesting city funds from companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I was very explicit that I would be an organizing alderman,” Ramirez-Rosa told the Nation magazine, “that I would work to build a base of people in my community who will hold me accountable and fight for progressive change—and who, when I pick fights with Rahm Emanuel, will have my back.”

Ramirez-Rosa, who was reading Noam Chomsky in high school, told Jacobin magazine that “Democratic socialism means that the people govern every facet of their lives, whether it be the economic structure or the government that’s determining the policies that impact their lives.”

Sylvester of Maine had concluded simply, “Socialism makes common sense. You’ve just got to talk about specifics and when you’re in office you have to have the facts and do the things you say you’re going to do.” He believes that a person wants to feel that “my government is actually doing something; it makes my life better; and I have a say in that.”

For now, Singh Perez, who cites Seattle socialist city councilor Kshama Sawant as an additional influence (“She and Bernie made me think this can be done—I can do it.”) finds her greatest challenge may be that she is by nature a quiet person in a “job that seems to be for extroverts.” ϖ