Web Only / Features » November 25, 2017
How Democratic Socialists Took On Centrists and the Right Wing at the Ballot Box
David Duhalde, deputy director of the Democratic Socialists of America, discusses the group’s recent electoral success—and what they have planned for 2018.
We want to increase the standards to get endorsed, and also, look at now we helped people win. We also want to make sure we hold them accountable—we don’t want people coming to us to get volunteers and leaving.
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.
David Duhalde: I am David Duhalde, deputy director of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Sarah Jaffe: You had a pretty successful election night. Tell us what you were thinking when you started hearing the results come in?
David: It was very funny for me. I will be quite honest that a lot of us were maybe deeply affected by 2016 were, [Laughs] maybe not as optimistic as we should have been. I was speaking at a conference for the European Left. It was in Belgium, and I was many hours ahead. I thought, “I am just going to go to bed and I will wake up and I will see how we did.” I didn’t want to stay up and lose sleep. Then, I awake to a flurry of text messages and Facebook messages like, “Oh my god! Lee did it!” Referring to Lee Carter in Virginia. And, “Oh my God! J.T. Scott won in Massachusetts!” It was truly like…I didn’t burst into tears, but I was fighting back tears in a hotel room alone because I had almost no one to share it with. But I did at least have Facebook and was messaging people. It was truly one of the best experiences of my life. It was just such a pleasant surprise. It really had exceeded my and a lot of other people’s expectations who wanted it badly, but just weren’t sure it was going to happen.
Sarah: Was there a particular one that you were really surprised and excited by?
David: I am going to be uncreative and say the Lee Carter race in Virginia, partly because I work out of the Washington, D.C. office of DSA. So I was able to meet Lee for the first time at a major meeting we had after the election, where about 140 people came. He came and spoke and he impressed me deeply. He had come to a couple of things, including my Labor Day barbeque, to pitch his campaign.
Then I went down to volunteer. But when you volunteer it is hard to get a read sometimes on the crowd. So, I was very hopeful of course, but he had hired some great DSA members who were all under 23 and he was taking on this huge incumbent with a war chest who then dropped this anti-Communist mailer on us. I was just very worried.
Even though I knew we were doing everything right [the worry is] you can do everything right and it doesn’t matter. That was just a huge surprise. But the J.T. Scott race, too. I had actually lived in Somerville, Mass. where J.T. is now an alderman. It was impressive to me because I knew the machine. I remember how difficult it was to beat them and how recalcitrant some of the residents could be towards new people and change. So, even though it is a Democratic stronghold, there were definitely a new verses old residents [situation]. And to see him take on this incumbent—who I know definitely had a base and had been there for 15 years—but he just did it through blood, sweat and tears. It was just truly overwhelming.
It was just truly great to see all those grass-roots campaigns led by DSA, but also working with Our Revolution to really sweep these elections. But, [we had] lots of other allies, especially in the Carter race, such as Planned Parenthood.
Sarah: That is interesting you mention those two in particular, because one of these was against, of course, a Republican incumbent. The other one was against the Democratic Party machine. I would love to hear you talk about that aspect of this; that in some places you were going up against these Right-wing people and in other cases you are taking on centrist Democrats.
David: It was an interesting, fascinating scope of races that we took in. We ultimately endorsed six candidates nationally. Some of whom were running against Democrats, like Ginger Jentzen, who was in Socialist Alternative. She ran against two Democrats, actually, in a ranked-choice voting race. Others, like Jabari Brisport who is a Green [Party member], ran against the machine Democrats. Most of them were Democrats themselves and were running either in primaries like Khader Al-Yateem in Brooklyn and Tristan Rader, who won as well in Lakewood, Ohio.
It really shows a couple of things. It shows, to me, that what I appreciate about the new DSA, the one post-Trump election, is how committed it is to being flexible. Being willing to work around local conditions. I think that is what is going to make a modern DSA thrive. It is not necessarily having a one-size-fits-all model, but really allowing these grass-roots chapters, who are autonomous, to work with national to do what fits them.
Sometimes that meant, “We are going to take on the Democratic machine, like in Somerville and in Lakewood.” Both of those actually succeeded, but sometimes it is just winning the Democratic ballot line that no one wants, like the Lee Carter race or Karen Lowe, who won the school board. What is really exciting for me too is khalid kamau—who won and was one of our first nationally endorsed candidates after Bernie—is that we are really focusing on lots of these local races. Learning the good lessons of bad people, seeing how the Right wing has built such a great pipeline of local candidates who are now part of the ruling class and part of the congressional Republicans.
We feel that it is very critical for groups like DSA to be flexible, but also see our folks train them on races where they can learn, because it is very hard to win a race. What I think is beautiful about Bernie Sanders is how he energized people. But what is also kind of worrisome for an old man like me is that he made it seem too easy, I think, for people. Some people didn’t appreciate how much work he had put in throughout his career to win those races and to get to that place where he could do that. We’re working with our folks and getting them to be flexible and know that, “What works in Peoria, doesn’t necessarily work in Syracuse,” or vice versa. It has been a really great experience to see how DSAers and other Socialists that we have worked with have learned that.
Sarah: Take us back a little bit to the thinking and the planning around electoral strategy this year. You had the conference, but talk about how the strategy came together and how people within DSA now are thinking about electoral politics.
David: It is a very fascinating process for us and really one that evolved over the course of the year after Bernie Sanders first declared his intention for the presidential primary. DSA has come out of a movement that had really wanted to make the Democratic Party a Social Democratic party, and a really genuine progressive party. With the rise and success of neoliberalism in the 1990s and Clinton, both Bill and Hillary, and so many times Barack Obama, it was very clear that the idea of changing the Democratic Party was not really in the cards.
So DSA shifted away from electoral politics and its bread and butter mission and focused on social movement work and other forms of sophistication. But, Bernie Sanders really energized people and especially us. So DSA put a tremendous amount of energy and support into his candidacy, doing independent expenditures. Then people started coming to us for endorsements. He really re-energized the idea of people wanting to run as Democratic Socialists. We had to step to the plate.
We started pretty small. We just did a handful of endorsements without much work behind them, such as Mike Sylvester, who is now a state representative in Maine, and Ian Schlakman, who ran as a Green for the Baltimore City Council and ended up staying involved in our national electoral committee. That was pretty good. Then, khalid kamau came out of nowhere and “Let’s work with you.” That is when we started realizing we could build a national program, using khalid’s campaign as a model where we called dozens of chapters and got them to phone bank for him. People were just so excited to work for this amazing member and fellow Socialist. That made us realize we could really start building Socialist electoral power.
Then, we had a handful of more people come to us for endorsements. Then by the spring of 2017, we kind of had to say, “Stop.” What was happening was people were coming to us ad hoc, especially with our convention coming up. We just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on people as needed. So, what we did was—and I think it shows to how strong DSA has gotten—we created a national electoral committee. It included Ian Schlakman who had run and nine other great DSA members who applied and were accepted. They ranged from people who were with Democratic politics, to people who had done voters rights legal work, to people running campaigns on their own, and allowed candidates to apply to be endorsed.
What we did to rejigger and make it easier for us to institute our electoral mission, is we created a three-point criteria to receive a DSA endorsement. You had to be running as a Socialist. You didn’t have to be a DSA member, Ginger Jentzen is not. But you had to be a Socialist and be okay with talking about it, even if it wasn’t in the forefront of your campaign. It was very important to us that you had to have the support of a local DSA chapter. That is really important for us because we don’t want to be that kind of D.C. or national group, that kind of parachutes in and tells people who they are going to be supporting. We really want endorsements to come from the grass roots. For example, unfortunately Chokwe Lumumba, we couldn’t support him because we didn’t at that time have a Mississippi DSA. Hopefully, that will be different now, but we were very strict about that. Even if we really love Lumumba, but it wasn’t possible.
The third thing was we really wanted people to show us that they had a pathway to victory. We didn’t need somebody to say, “I am 100 percent a shoo-in to win,” but we wanted people to really show us they have been thinking about, what were the steps to win their races? We wanted people who really were going to be out there hitting the pavement and talking to voters. From this, we were able to select six candidates. Then, we really built a national infrastructure to support them through our base. Social media is a huge asset, especially for local races trying to draw national and potentially international attention and donations. But also, using our network of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of members to do phone banking and to do door knocking. For example, in Seattle Jon Grant, who ran as a great housing advocate, unfortunately ran against a very good liberal Democrat. So it made it a hard race. The DSA knocked on 22,000 doors and we made sure to send out emails for them to reach other members in the State of Washington they might not have reached.
The same thing with Carter. We worked hard to talk to the media and raise awareness, especially in the D.C. Beltway about his race which helped generate attention he might not have gotten. So, strategically, we shifted and we are trying to look to 2018 about how we are going to expand this program, because 2017 was kind of the test run. We will see what happens, but we definitely want to be more sophisticated. We want to increase the standards to get endorsed, and also, look at now we helped people win. We also want to make sure we hold them accountable—we don’t want people coming to us to get volunteers and leaving. There are a lot of questions that are going to come up that the national political committee, which is DSA’s leadership, are working on to really make sure we are still a very relevant and democratic organization that is electing Socialists who will be held accountable by their constituents.
Sarah: How does the broader post-Bernie spectrum of groups and organizations fit together in this moment? There were a bunch of Our Revolution endorsed candidates, there were some DSA endorsed candidates, there were other local people who come out of that movement all over the country. I am wondering how you think this movement, such as it is, fits together. Or, where are some of the tensions?
David: That is a really great question. Actually, similar to how my expectations were exceeded about how well DSA did on election night in November 2017, I have been rather pleasantly surprised about how well the different post-Bernie formations have been doing and working together to keep this political revolution going. I want to give one great example, which is Our Revolution either locally or nationally endorsed all of our candidates that we endorsed nationally, as well. Not to mention tons of local races. We have a very good working relationship with Our Revolution. We often share information and talk about candidates. We also have this affiliation program where DSA chapters can be the local Our Revolution chapter as well. That is to avoid unnecessary conflicts and duplication of efforts. So, our Knoxville chapter—which helped elect two DSA members— is also the Our Revolution chapter. That is a really great example of keeping this collaboration going.
But also, Socialist Alternative, which is one of the other major socialist groups that endorsed Bernie Sanders, worked with us not only on Ginger Jentzen’s campaign, but they were big supporters of Jabari Brisport running on the Green Party ticket. So, there was lots of good energy coming out of teaming up and keeping this work going. That was something you just didn’t know going in after 2016, if that is going to be kept alive.
We are definitely going to see what happens in 2018. I do have Brand New Congress looking at some of the people we are looking at for congressional races. And Justice Democrats, of course, too. There is definitely a lot of potential out there, and it has been really exciting to see different groups who bring different things are able to still keep this going, and also, “You help me and I will help you.” I especially saw that with Our Revolution and Socialist Alternative. That makes me incredibly optimistic for 2018 that this post-Bernie energy will keep going. I think Sanders has definitely said all the right tunes to encourage that. He posted about Lee Carter’s victory. He is clearly still promoting Democratic Socialist candidates and it gets him very excited. That is only going to keep our base energized, too.
Sarah: I want to wrap up by talking about 2018 and what is coming down the pike. This is going to be the congressional elections. What are you guys working on so far?
David: Well, we have not made any endorsements yet. Definitely, people have approached us on the congressional level for endorsements. We also have lots of locals who are already getting excited. I was at our general membership meeting in D.C. and three county councillors from Montgomery County, which is the county north of the District of Columbia, came to speak. Two of whom are DSA members, including one who is running for county executive. If he won, he would be the Socialist with the largest constituency in America. There are twice as many people in Montgomery County as there are in Vermont.
So, we are definitely seeing people already coming right now. I think what we are looking for in 2018 is to expand our network of national volunteers who can then really work with local volunteers. Because the key still will be the influence we are going to have will be much more locally, raising profiles nationally and working to create new systems to make sure that candidates will come to us with a clearer understanding of what they want from us and what we want from them. And looking at maybe different tiers of endorsements.
Very importantly, we are also looking at how we can support and hold candidates accountable after the election. We understand that, of course, you first have to help get people elected. Where you help them get elected, that increases the interest they will have in you, and we want to make sure that we are going to be educating DSA chapters to hold people accountable. That means we are going to have to contribute a lot to their campaigns, but then also have clear expectations. For example, it was very exciting coming out of our convention, we have a strict policy that we only endorse pro-choice candidates and helping DSA chapters think about how they set their own standards for endorsements, I think, will be really key.
Just getting people to think strategically, be sophisticated, but also keep politicians honest, ultimately, is a huge role DSA will play. And, of course, prioritizing electing Socialists will be our niche compared to great post-Bernie groups and definitely our focus will still be advancing the Democratic Socialist agenda more explicitly.
Sarah: How can people keep up with you and also with DSA’s electoral efforts?
David: You can follow DSA at @DemSocialists on Twitter. But, if people have any questions or comments or just want to get endorsements, learn how the process works, I can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and that will go straight to me. We are also going to be putting out a website pretty shortly about our electoral work. People should be on the lookout for that website at www.DSAUSA.org.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.