From the streets to the ballot box: New York’s political revolution
Alongside a wave of insurgent progressive candidates, New York’s primary elections ushered in a mandate for radical change.
This article is part of ourEconomy’s series on the US election.
On Tuesday evening, progressive candidates outperformed expectations to win key races in Democratic primaries across New York.
In a night that saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cruise to a landslide victory on the road to her reelection, the left also claimed shock wins in the neighboring 16th and 17th congressional districts. In NY-16, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman successfully ousted 31-year incumbent Democrat Eliot Engel; whilst in the district directly to Bowman’s north, Mondaire Jones claimed a decisive victory in an open congressional seat.
These successes were mirrored further down the ballot, as insurgent candidates won in local races across New York City – demonstrating the electoral depth of the progressive movement across the five boroughs.
A growing tide
These electoral wins mark the latest victory for a progressive movement that has grown steadily over the last decade. From Occupy Wall Street in 2011, to the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016, radical critiques of inequality and calls for structural change have been forced once again to the forefront of American politics.
These calls had a clear impact on the Democratic Party in 2018, when democratic socialists Julia Salazar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez triumphed in their respective New York primaries.
Backed by the grassroots organization Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Salazar unseated the conservative State Senator and Independent Democratic Caucus member, Martin Dilan; whilst Ocasio-Cortez shocked the world by beating one of the most powerful establishment Democrats in Congress, Representative Joe Crowley.
2018 also saw left insurgent challenges for governor (Cynthia Nixon), lieutenant governor (Jumaane Williams), and state attorney general (Zephyr Teachout). Each of these candidates lost their statewide races that year, but their close primaries demonstrated that grassroots-funded movements could compete with the resources of corporate-backed establishment Democrats.
In 2019, progressive activist and Occupy veteran Jumaane Williams ran again, this time winning his citywide race for Public Advocate; while Tiffany Cabán, backed by Ocasio-Cortez and DSA, narrowly lost her race for Queen’s District Attorney after a contentious recount.
Where progressives were victorious, they have had a substantial impact on the legislative agenda. In the New York State Senate, Julia Salazar, with the help of other progressive senators such as Alessandra Biaggi and Michael Gianaris, passed significant legislation to meet the material demands of New Yorkers.
The landmark Housing Stability and Protection Act, co-sponsored by these progressive senators, protects tenants by limiting security deposits to one month’s rent, capping rent hikes, and providing protections from unwarranted eviction.
This work, alongside the renewed popularity of the Sanders campaign in 2020, has lent further weight to the progressive agenda.
Recent polling by the think tank Data for Progress reveals that four in five New York voters support higher taxes on those with annual incomes of over $2 million, and an additional tax on investment gains made by billionaires.
Likewise, three-quarters of those polled backed a tax on people with multiple homes, and 80% supported a tax on digital advertising platforms like Google and Facebook.
Importantly, polling from Gallup in February also shows that, whilst the word “socialism” remains unpopular across the electorate as a whole, 76% of Democrats would vote for a presidential candidate who identifies as a socialist.
These findings demonstrate that progressives have been successful not just at grassroots organizing and executing strategic electoral bids, but in winning arguments on key policy issues, and shedding the stigma left over from cold war red-baiting.
The resurgence of the Democratic Socialists of America has been a fundamental part of this shifting discourse. In the first three months after Ocasio-Cortez was elected, DSA membership increased rapidly to around 50,000, and in the first half of this year alone, over 10,000 people have signed on to local organizing groups.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in New York. The NYC local DSA branch is the largest socialist organization in the United States, with over 55,000 members (as of April 2019), and multiple branches in each of the city’s five boroughs.
While the work of DSA has been pivotal to the resurgence of the American left, organizations such as Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, Sunrise, and the Working Families Party have also burgeoned into this space, creating the intellectual and activist ecosystems to give a home to the growing number of progressive voices.
This growing movement has built toward a 2020 election cycle fraught with uncertainty.
As cases of Covid-19 continue to rise across the country, New York remains the worst hit US state. With over 390,000 confirmed cases, and 24,000 deaths, the coronavirus has wrought havoc on local communities and decimated the regional economy.
In a state where over a million people still have no healthcare insurance whatsoever, the public health emergency, combined with the enforced closure of businesses, and an existing housing crisis, has had a devastating impact on the material conditions of working New Yorkers.
This unprecedented context also affected the organizing strategies of insurgent campaigns. With grassroots movements like DSA no longer mobilizing volunteers door-to-door, progressive organizations pivoted to mass phone-banking and targeted social media strategies in an attempt to maintain voter outreach.
Also unique to this cycle, has been the mass mobilizations around the Black Lives Matter protests.
Across the city, from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to Washington Square Park in Manhattan, mass protests have taken place daily since the police-killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.
At the heart of these mobilizations have been many of the Black and Latinx candidates running for office on progressive platforms.
Intimately connected to activist organizations, these insurgent candidates gained momentum from the sustained revolutionary energy directed against a corrupt political establishment, as protesters called for dismantling systemic racism.
It was within the context of these Black Lives Matter protests, and the most deadly coronavirus outbreak in the US, that the New York primary elections took place on June 23rd.
The depth of the movement
Unlike in previous cycles, the New York 2020 primaries saw a whole slate of progressive candidates running on Sanders-esque platforms at every level down the ballot.
To coordinate this extensive process, progressive political action committees, such as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, strategically backed chosen candidates; primarily ensuring their support for central tenants of the progressive agenda, such as Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal and a Homes Guarantee.
This was mirrored across the movement, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders handing out high-profile endorsements in a select group of state and congressional races.
This targeted campaign allowed grassroots movements on the ground to concentrate volunteer efforts in vital districts, thus maximizing the benefit to prospective and incumbent politicians.
DSA, for example, devoted their political capital to just a handful of races in the New York region. Backing just one congressional candidate (Samelys López), local branches instead devoted much of their energy to supporting state senate and assembly races, with the aim of bringing more socialists to join Julia Salazar in Albany.
Likewise, the Working Families Party and the Sunrise Movement limited their endorsements to tightly contested races – and pushed members across the country to phone in to key New York contests such as that of Jamaal Bowman.
Unlike the presidential primary in which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren divided the progressive vote, many of these primary candidates received backing from all corners of the movement – including Sanders and Warren themselves.
This unity, combined with the decision to restrict endorsements to a select number of races clearly paid electoral dividends for the progressive movement; it allowed candidates to take full advantage of available resources – providing depth in pivotal primary seats.
A political earthquake
The story of the night came in New York’s 16th congressional district, where 44 year-old public school educator Jamaal Bowman ousted 16-term incumbent Democrat Eliot Engel.
Unlike Ocasio-Cortez’s upset in 2018, this race had the full attention of the Democratic establishment.
Engel, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, received high-profile endorsements from party leaders – including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Bowman, backed by Justice Democrats, ran an outsider campaign with a bold progressive platform.
Focusing on his time as a middle school principal in the Bronx, Bowman juxtaposed his own experience working in the community with that of Engel, who spends much of his time at his “primary residence” in Maryland.
Bowman also spoke to the moment – connecting his own experience with police brutality as a child, to the systemic racism embedded within America’s political and economic institutions. Several weeks ago he introduced a Reconstruction Agenda which calls for Congress to introduce a Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
Crucially, as Bowman’s campaign gained momentum, fellow progressive candidate Andom Ghebreghiorgis chose to drop out of the race and consolidate progressive support in the hope of ousting Engel.
Following Tuesday’s results, Bowman has declared victory, sitting on 61% of the vote to Engel’s 35%.
The other high-profile victory of the night came in the wealthy NY-17 congressional district, which includes Chappaqua, the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Mondaire Jones, 33, ran a staunchly progressive campaign with the backing of Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez and WFP. Jones closed the night with an overwhelming plurality, and is poised to be a reliable left vote in the House.
Other notable congressional results from New York include the likely victory of Ritchie Torres in the crowded NY-15 primary.
Along with the landslide victory of Ocasio-Cortez, these winning representatives will drastically shift the New York congressional delegation to the left.
DSA had a historic night. With Senator Salazar comfortably winning her re-election race on 84% of the vote, nearly every other DSA-endorsed candidate is leading, or has already declared victory.
Seeking to join forces with Salazar in Albany, Jabari Brisport, a public school teacher from Brooklyn is currently leading his establishment backed rival Tremaine Wright 52% to 41%.
Insurgents candidates competing for state assembly seats also had a good night.
Originally born in Uganda, housing activist Zohran Kwame Mamdani, sought to oust establishment-backed incumbent Aravella Simotas. With a campaign driven by policies to expand affordable housing, and rights for gig economy workers, Mamdani is currently up 54% to 46% in this tight Astoria, Queens race.
Another DSA backed race was that of Phara Souffrant Forrest. A daughter of Haitian immigrants, Forrest is a nurse running for the state assembly seat in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia Nixon, and Sunrise NYC, results thus far show her in a close second with 46% of the vote to the incumbent Walter Mosley’s 50%. This race likely won’t be called until all absentee ballots are counted next week.
The people’s mandate
Tuesday was a historic night for progressives in New York and around the country.
Following the revolutionary fervor in the streets of New York, these insurgent candidates – running on systemic critiques of a broken political and economic system – showed that a coordinated, organized and unified people-powered movement could speak directly to the demands of disenfranchised voters.
With the defeat of Sanders in the presidential primary, many mainstream pundits were quick to rule out the progressive energy within the Democratic Party. The results on Tuesday reveal the opposite. There is serious momentum on the side of substantive change, and a desire to see young diverse candidates enter the halls of power.
As Ocasio-Cortez remarked after her commanding win, “tonight we are proving that the people's movement in New York isn’t an accident. It’s a mandate.”
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