The power of local politics

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At the federal level, politics sucks. Republicans have been going farther to the right, and Democratic leadership refuses to fight them. Biden or Harris will likely be the 2024 presidential nominee and will have to defend four years of nothing getting done. It’s hard for progressives to get elected when Democratic party leadership makes it so difficult to challenge centrist incumbents, and when progressives are in office, they have few allies and work under less-than-competent Progressive Caucus leadership.  

A lot of things about this country suck, but one of the things that makes it easiest for progressives to organize is our ability to organize when it comes to state and local politics. At the state and local level, it costs much less to run campaigns, especially against incumbents, meaning that progressives and socialists have been able to amass significant presences in state legislatures and city governments across the country.  

In 2018, progressive Democrats in New York maneuvered to defeat the caucus of conservative Democrats in the New York State Senate who worked with former Governor Andrew Cuomo to hand control of the Senate to the Republicans. Two-thirds of those Senators lost, and on the same night, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Julia Salazar defeated a machine incumbent and was elected. That same year, the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia chapters of the DSA established a presence in the Pennsylvania State Legislature, taking out two members of the powerful Costa dynasty and electing a third DSA member to an open seat.  

Socialists and progressives have continued to establish strong presences in state legislatures in 2020 and 2022, knocking off more incumbents and capturing open seats in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as in Minnesota, Colorado, Washington State and others. In New York state in 2020, the DSA defeated four incumbent members of the State Assembly, captured an open State Senate seat and reelected Senator Julia Salazar, their only incumbent at the time. New York currently has the largest socialist presence at the state level.  

In 2019, progressive Tammy Morales captured an open city council seat in Seattle after narrowly losing to the city council president four years prior, and socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant won reelection, despite millions spent by Amazon to defeat her. In fact, in all but one out of six seriously contested races, the Amazon-backed candidates lost. That same year, the Chicago chapter of the DSA established a six-member caucus on the City Council.  

In 2020, DSA member Nithya Raman defeated Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu (who was endorsed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi). On June 7, 2022, DSA member Eunisses Hernandez defeated City Council member Gil Cedillo, another machine incumbent, and another DSA member, Hugo Soto-Martínez, forced City Council member Mitch O’Farrell into a runoff in November, placing ahead of him in the primary. Cedillo, along with Councilmember Kevin de León and former Council President Nury Martinez, were recently caught making racist comments about progressive Councilmember Mike Bonin’s Black son, as well as making anti-Armenian, antisemitic, anti-Asian, classist and homophobic remarks while discussing gerrymandering their districts to benefit themselves and the powerful. The leak has impacted the race for city controller between leftist Kenneth Mejia and Councilmember Paul Koretz, as well as O’Farrell’s race, since O’Farrell was named as a key ally of the disgraced councilmembers in the recording, and Koretz is often seen as being aligned with the same council faction. Although the election was on Tuesday, we will likely not know the results of O’Farrell and Koretz’s races until later in the week.   

Progressives and socialists have also established a large presence on the Minneapolis and New York City councils, as well as in cities such as Oakland, San Antonio, Denver, Austin and even St. Petersburg, Fla. Also at the municipal level, reform-minded prosecutors have won elections in places like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Durham, N.C. and Los Angeles County.  

Although we are far from achieving the world that we can and must build, having a strong presence in local government can make a difference in the power structures in the most influential cities in our country. We can transfer wealth to the working class, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build walkable and accessible public spaces and decarcerate our communities from the ground up. Change, just like the economy, does not trickle down. It trickles up from the community level.  

By establishing a large presence of socialists and progressives in local office, it makes it easier to get good people in Congress. Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) were State Representatives before being elected to Congress, and State Representative Summer Lee (D-PA), who defeated one of the Costa cousins in 2018, recently became the Democratic nominee in a competitive Pittsburgh-area congressional primary. At the same time, Congressional candidates who spend all day on Twitter, with little roots in the community, are regularly defeated in landslides. The only way to establish power is from the community level on up.  

And although progressive elected officials cannot solve all of our problems, they can affect the material conditions of their constituents and help push the movement and our ideas forward. For example, in Ithaca, N.Y., socialist common council member George DeFendini pushed the council to lend support to Starbucks workers organizing for better working conditions in the city. Progressive city council members in Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago have introduced similar legislation. Ithaca has also begun the process of establishing civilian oversight over its police department. In Ulster County, N.Y., County Legislator Phil Erner secured fare-free transit for residents of the county. Elsewhere, progressive Austin City council member Chito Vela recently introduced a bill to decriminalize abortion in the city, which passed a full city council vote. Travis County District Attorney José Garza, another progressive, has promised to comply with the government and not enforce Texas’s abortion ban.  If Garza had not defeated the incumbent, tough on crime District Attorney Margaret Moore, she may have opted to enforce state law instead. Importantly, many have been freed or spared from incarceration by reform-minded prosecutors and judges such as Garza. 

In New York, the slate of socialists in the State Legislature pushed Democratic leadership to pass the Build Public Renewables Act, which, although shelved by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-NY), pushed the conversation on climate change in the state legislature to a much bolder place. Progressives also pushed for measures like barring evictions with no good cause as well as keeping track of the legislators who stopped them from passing, such as Heastie. Outside of New York, progressive State Senator Omar Fateh (D-MN) has introduced legislation to ban police from using tear gas and to repeal bans on rent control and DSA-aligned State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler (D-PA) was able to successfully get one billion dollars allocated for repairs in Philadelphia Public Schools.  

To those who don’t think voting is important, I get it. But if there is someone running in a local election who’s challenging the kind of machine politics that made you feel that way in the first place, I hope you’ll consider it. You never know how close an election might be.