The primary defeat Tuesday of Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., who was both a top-ranking House Democrat and the head of one of New York’s last political machines, is an upset that is still sending shockwaves through the Democratic Party.
Crowley was taken down by a 28-year-old political rookie named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won in part by denouncing Crowley’s brand of old-school machine politics. But she had a campaign machine of her own, an outside group known as the Democratic Socialists of America. In the avalanche of coverage of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, the logistical support and manpower she received from the DSA has drawn relatively little notice. But the group is poised to make its presence felt in the midterms.
More than 100 volunteers from the DSA had flooded the streets of the 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, for months.
Ocasio-Cortez will be the first DSA member in Congress since Rep. Ron Dellums left office in 1998, but she isn’t the first candidate to score a dramatic upset with the help of the leftist organization. And if they have their way, she won’t be the last.
“Our recent electoral successes demonstrate that people are sick and tired of being ignored and they’re ready to fight back, and that includes in the political arena,” DSA national director Maria Svart wrote in an email to Yahoo News.
“Democratic socialist ideas will win and we do the hard work of knocking on doors to make it happen,” Svart added.
That’s good news for progressives, but mainstream Democrats are eyeing the group warily. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, dismissed the Ocasio-Cortez upset as “a choice made in one district” that shouldn’t lead anyone to get too “carried away.” For some Republicans, the DSA’s rise is a dream come true, giving them fresh ammunition for their claim that the left has become radicalized.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s race, DSA organizers say their cadre of volunteers knocked on over 13,000 doors to drum up enthusiasm for her bid. That level of support is significant in primaries that traditionally see low turnout. Ocasio-Cortez defeated Crowley with a little over 15,000 votes in a district with a total population of more than 700,000. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and she will almost certainly win the seat in November’s general election, barring completely unforeseen factors.
Vigie Ramos Rios, manager of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, was careful to point out to Yahoo News that other organizations also backed her bid, including Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats. Still, Ramos Rios said the impact of the DSA’s work in the field was clear.
“They were strong supporters,” she said of the DSA. “There were areas they canvassed that came out for us in spades.”
Ocasio-Cortez certainly needed all the muscle she could muster to take down Crowley, who spent just under two decades in Congress and hadn’t faced a primary challenge in 14 years. In addition to his local power, he was a high-ranking member of the Democratic caucus, and multiple sources have confirmed to Yahoo News he was maneuvering to succeed the party’s longtime minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
While Crowley was hardly a household name nationally, his political influence was immense. Along with his seat in Congress, Crowley chaired the Queens Democratic Party for over a decade, and presided over a system that picked the borough’s judges — including the ones in coveted positions that gave them control over funds from residents who died with no heirs. Crowley, whose campaign manager did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, was widely credited with helping to pick the speakers who lead the city council, and hopefuls regularly paid him personal visits. Late last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Crowley had six of the eight most recent speaker candidates literally dance for him on stage as he played guitar at an event. The paper noted “very little gets done in the city without his blessing.” And in Washington D.C., Crowley led the House Democratic Caucus, and multiple sources confirmed to Yahoo News that he was maneuvering to succeed the party’s longtime minority leader, Nancy Pelosi.
This type of backroom power is one-half of what makes a traditional party boss. The other element of old-school political machinery is a robust campaign operation with funds to put on events, mount splashy displays and win over influential allies like unions, political clubs and local officials who lean on their networks to ensure voters come out in droves. Support from the DSA ensured Ocasio-Cortez had her own apparatus in the field.
And the teams of volunteers in the street wasn’t the only way DSA made its mark on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. Ramos Rios is a DSA leader who was recommended to Ocasio-Cortez by another member of the group who previously ran a race with its backing. The campaign’s treasurer was former DSA national director Frank Llewellyn, who came on board after Ramos Rios asked the organization if it knew someone who could help the campaign with its finances. In addition, two DSA members were behind Means of Production, the company that made a video for Ocasio-Cortez that was released last month and, in the words of Business Insider, went “completely viral,” earning over 300,000 views in one day and helping drive nationwide attention to the campaign. According to Naomi Burton, one of the company’s co-founders, they were drawn to Ocasio-Cortez by the organization’s endorsement and because of “her unapologetic socialist platform and articulation of working peoples’ needs that caught our attention.”
In many ways, Ocasio-Cortez’s was the ideal example of a model the DSA is trying to replicate around the country with unabashed socialists from diverse, unconventional backgrounds taking on establishment figures with the logistical support of a robust organization.
The DSA, founded in 1982, has long operated on the political fringes. But the organization experienced a surge in membership around the last presidential election. A national DSA official told Yahoo News they just hit 40,000 members. The most visible manifestation of this growth to outside observers may be the veritable garden that sprang up on Twitter, where many DSA members identify themselves with a rose emoji, a reference to an early 20th-century labor movement rallying cry.
Yahoo News spoke to more than a dozen DSA leaders and candidates for this story and they attributed the group’s growth to the combination of widespread outrage among liberals following the election of Donald Trump and the excitement generated by the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who had the organization’s endorsement. The group isn’t a political party and doesn’t have its own spot on the ballot — like the Libertarians or Greens. Instead, the DSA generally runs candidates as Democrats or Independents.
Many of the new DSA members, like Ocasio-Cortez herself, cut their political teeth working for the Sanders campaign. As they joined, they drove the organization toward getting more involved in campaigns. In January 2018, the group launched a “national electoral strategy” formally committing it “to develop and run viable openly socialist candidates for office (either in Democratic primaries or as independents.)” It is one of the group’s primary focuses, along with a nationwide push for a Medicare for All health care program and for support of labor movements.
The strategy document made clear the full scope of the DSA’s ultimate ambitions.
“This work will be critical to the development of a genuine alternative to the neoliberal third-way politics of the corporate establishment within the Democratic Party,” the document reads.
And this is all taking place in a group where some members are so far to the left they don’t even agree with the idea of electoral politics.
Federal candidates that seek the organization’s endorsement must go through an extensive process that includes multiple meetings with DSA leaders and a questionnaire where they must clarify their positions on the core components of the group’s platform, including “a single-payer, universal health care plan,” minimum wage increases, protecting “immigrants and their families from deportation,” enacting tax increases for the wealthy, “legislation making public colleges and universities tuition-free,” and marijuana legalization. Support for a candidate only comes at the end of this process, and requires votes at multiple levels of the organization.
Aaron Taube, who coordinated the DSA’s field operation for Ocasio-Cortez, said the group’s volunteers went to work for her the day after she received its endorsement in April.
“A DSA endorsement is not just a rubber stamp. We’re not just saying you should vote for these people,” Taube told Yahoo News. “When DSA endorses you, it’s like, yeah, we’re going to knock 13,000 doors. … We’re going to mobilize.”
Taube is representative of the supporters who come on board once a candidate has the group’s approval. He’s 29 years old and, like Ocasio-Cortez, who was a bartender before running for office, was a relative political novice, who was a journalist turned freelance marketer (he previously worked with one of the authors of this story in 2014). He’s also a pro wrestling fan who said he discovered the DSA in the more liberal quarters of the sport’s Twitter community after being “radicalized” by Trump.
“That was the only way at the time that was apparent to me to build power,” Taube explained. “It was like, well, you can have a revolution or an election and I’m not ready to learn how to shoot a gun yet.”
Taube officially joined the day after Trump’s victory and ended up volunteering for a DSA-backed city council candidate in Brooklyn, Khader El-Yateem. During that campaign, he was schooled in political organizing skills.
While El-Yateem didn’t win, he surprised observers with a close finish. Taube’s political mentor, Tascha Van Auken, said that race and another ultimately unsuccessful Brooklyn City Council bid mounted by Jabari Brisport helped the DSA develop a bench of trained political operatives in New York.
“What those two races were — and I don’t want to suggest that we don’t care about winning, our goal is to win these races 100 percent — but what they also served as last year were amazing laboratories for building independent field operations … comms operations, and data operations. … We had to form a PAC,” said Van Auken.
Along with Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City DSA is backing a state senate candidate, Julia Salazar. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, who only became a dues-paying DSA member after seeking the group’s endorsement, Salazar was part of the organization prior to launching her bid. Van Auken is managing Salazar’s campaign, which she says includes multiple DSA members in its leadership and has “hundreds” of volunteers, a number that had surged in the aftermath of Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking win.
The phenomenon goes far beyond New York. Overall, the DSA reported explosive membership growth following Ocasio-Cortez’s upset over Crowley. The organization is currently backing dozens of candidates across the country and many of them have operations that similarly draw from the group and its experience mounting campaigns in the past year or so. These efforts began yielding results before Ocasio-Cortez’s race brought national notice.
Last year, 30-year-old Marine veteran Lee Carter upset the Republican majority whip in the Virginia House of Delegates. Carter had been injured on his job installing lighting controls and the exposure to the failings of workmen’s compensation and his medical bills inspired him to run. He joined the DSA during his campaign, earned their endorsement and eventually hired Jacquelyn Smith, a recent graduate of American University and member of the DSA’s Washington, D.C., area chapter, to run his campaign.
Carter’s success was followed by more victories for the Metro D.C. DSA chapter this year. Two of its members won Democratic primaries for the Maryland state house, another is leading a tight vote count for Montgomery County executive, and three more lost in a crowded county council race. It’s an especially surprising run of success for a local organization that didn’t even have a process for issuing endorsements prior to Carter. According to Smith, the Metro D.C. DSA chapter was largely moribund and more reminiscent of a book club than a potent political organization prior to the 2016 election.
DSA’s Metro D.C. chapter isn’t alone in going from barely having a pulse to endorsing and supporting winners. The DSA in Pittsburgh was similarly anemic until a November 2016 meeting that attracted 100 attendees, according to Dave Greve, a member of the group’s steering committee who joined at that time. The group found electoral success within their first year, going two for two on their 2017 endorsements and winning district judge and county council seats. Their sights were set higher in this year’s Democratic primary with three campaigns for seats in the state house.
One of the Pittsburgh DSA’s candidates lost their primary, but two DSA members, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, won comfortably with the help of the organization’s endorsement and field operation. These victories were even more notable since they took two seats in the legislature that were held by one of the most powerful political dynasties in Pittsburgh’s Democratic political scene. Now, Lee is set to become the first black woman to represent southwestern Pennsylvania in the state house.
Across the state, the Philadelphia chapter also had success, as first-time candidate Elizabeth Fiedler won a competitive Democratic primary. Both Fiedler and her campaign manager are members of the DSA, which was one of many progressive groups to endorse her candidacy. In Fiedler’s race, DSA helped out with her expansive door-knocking operation, which she said reached 55,000 homes.
“I think that health care and education and clean water and clean air, these things to me are obvious, they’re human rights and things we should all have access to regardless of how much money we have or where we live or the color of our skin or our gender,” said Fiedler. “I don’t apply labels to myself or to my politics, but I do share a lot of my vision of the world with them. I knew a lot of folks who were quite active in DSA and I was really fortunate to have their support. They were a piece of the puzzle for me, along with other groups like teachers and nurses unions.”
Along with the DSA ground game and campaign staffers drawn from the group’s ranks, many of these races displayed another hallmark of the organization’s electoral approach — elevating minority voices. In New York City alone, the DSA’s candidates have included two Latinas, Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar, El-Yateem, who is Palestinian, and Brisport, an African-American. It’s part of a deliberate effort with the DSA’s national electoral strategy noting, “only truly multiracial electoral coalitions can build working-class political power.”
Nevertheless, the stereotype of the group is that it’s largely filled with young white men. A May New Yorker article on Lee’s campaign in Pennsylvania described her volunteers at an event by noting “most of them bearded, white millennials.” And a source from Crowley’s campaign who talked to Politico’s Laura Nahmias somewhat derisively described Ocasio-Cortez’s win as the result of a “hipster uprising.”
The DSA said it doesn’t track demographic information about its membership. However, in August 2017, Jared Abbott, a member of the DSA steering committee told Vox that the group “is still a heavily white and heavily cis male organization, as have been most socialist groups in the history of the United States.” While Abbott didn’t provide statistics, he said the organization was attempting to improve diversity and had seen some progress.
“The percentage of people of color has increased from a relatively low percentage to a somewhat higher percentage,” said Abbott.
Salazar, the Latina state senate candidate in New York said she knows DSA is “perceived as overwhelmingly white young people,” but says the reality is different.
Not all of DSA’s local chapters, which are highly autonomous, have entered electoral politics. Instead some have opted to work on local initiatives and political causes. The Cincinnati chapter, which was founded in December 2016 and has a little under 200 members, hasn’t endorsed a single candidate but has partnered with local activist groups. Over the last year, the Cincinnati DSA pushed for a needle exchange in nearby Newport, Ky., and mounted a months-long campaign to stop officials from selling off part of the downtown Cincinnati public library.
The Austin, Texas, chapter has endorsed just one candidate (a county commissioner challenger who lost in the primary) but has worked with advocacy groups to get paid sick leave passed by the city council, push a local detention center to end its contract with ICE and attempt to get an affordable housing bond approved. Protesters from the Portland, Ore., DSA chapter forced the closing of a local ICE office.
“Most people see politics, hear politics and think exclusively of what’s going to happen in November, following the horse race between the two parties,” said Cincinnati DSA co-chair Simon Powell. “What we’re saying to members is ‘No, politics is a lot more than that.’”
And DSA’s campaigns aren’t the organization’s only venture that’s made nationwide headlines. It was members of the DSA’s Metro D.C. chapter who heckled Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant in Washington on June 19 during the height of the controversy over President Trump’s child separation policy. The move helped spark a debate over “civility” that is still dominating the political conversation and, according to local DSA leaders, drove a spike in recruitment.
As the DSA gains momentum, wins seats, and develops a ground game, particularly in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, it could become a player in the 2020 presidential race. That’s a position that comes with both power and peril.
Multiple sources told Yahoo News there’s currently internal debate over what role the group should play in the 2020 race. Some members are eager to repeat the endorsement of Sanders if he runs again while others question whether their efforts would be wasted on that mission instead of being focused on more direct action at the local level.
The bitter 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Sanders and the eventual nominee Hillary Clinton threw a spotlight on a divide between progressives and more centrist elements of the party. With its mounting influence, the DSA could be poised to take on a role as a leading progressive voice with its endorsement questions becoming a litmus test for the left wing. Ocasio-Cortez’s win has already amplified the discussion around abolishing ICE, which was a core component of her platform.
However, if the organization takes on prominence or pushes potential Democratic nominees to the left, it could present opportunities for Republicans. In the days since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, conservative media voices including Sean Hannity have described her platform as extremist, and attempted to tie the national Democratic party to it.
DSA candidates who talked to Yahoo News said they aren’t concerned about being painted as leftist extremists by voices on the other end of the spectrum.
Jacquelyn Smith, the Metro D.C. DSA member who helped lead Lee Carter’s insurgent campaign in Virginia said they focused on issues voters in the area cared about. She said they while they didn’t make the “s-word” a loud part of their campaign and focused on issues, Carter didn’t hide his affiliation if asked about it.
“If you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, Republicans are going to call you a socialist anyway, so you may as well just own the label,” Carter said shortly after his victory. “The issues that I care about and the issues that the Democratic Socialists of America are working on are the issues that the Democratic Party’s voter base cares about.”
Salazar, the DSA state senate candidate in New York was also unconcerned about attacks from conservatives and predicted socialism will become more mainstream.
“Ultimately, I’m sure that Sean Hannity is going to continue to freak out as socialism, the word socialism, becomes more normalized,” Salazar said. “But I think that speaks to how out of touch some pundits probably are with what Americans … actually care about.”
Not all DSA criticisms have come from the right wing. At its 2017 convention the DSA voted to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, a position that some pro-Israel U.S. politicians have attempted to criminalize. Ocasio-Cortez has been supportive of Palestinians but been silent on BDS, which could potentially put her at odds with many in her caucus.
Given the energy around the DSA and the potential for friction with more traditional elements of the party, one Democratic operative who spoke to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity said they feared the mainstream elements of the party would be unable to embrace the newly ascendant socialists.
“I feel like we’re watching Napster all over again, and Dem leadership is like the record industry, refusing to acknowledge what is clearly happening,” the operative said.
Jon Reinish, a veteran Democratic strategist, is far less worried and thinks the DSA could be good for the party.
“If it’s candidates in certain districts in certain races that are aligned with DSA or any other organization that’s inspiring voters, then that’s great and that’s valuable,” Reinish said. “If that’s where energy and enthusiasm are and if that’s where new voters are jumping in, then that’s only a net positive.”
While the 2016 primary saw Sanders and his supporters regularly clashing with Clinton and ultimately protesting the Democratic convention due to indications she had been favored by the party, Reinish predicted the DSA would be easier to work with because their platform is “about a series of issues rather than devotion to one person.”
“Bernie’s main issue was Bernie. DSA people are about policy,” Reinish said.
He also predicted the left would avoid infighting because they are “staring down the barrel of Donald Trump’s America.”
“Democrats and people whose positions are affiliated with the Democratic Party have made that mistake once,” Reinish said. “I don’t see it happening again.”
Correction: This story has been updated to note that Ron Dellums was a member of DSA who served in Congress from 1971-1998.
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