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DSA’s Sumathy Kumar & the Socialists in Office Committee

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Posed group of about 30 people, mixed ethnicities, men and women, mostly young.

We need to build new structures to amplify the possibilities created by Left organizers winning elected office.

This is the fifth installment of Organizing Upgrade’s “Mapping the Moment” interview series. We’ll be talking with activists and organizers about pressing issues and strategic questions that define the terrain our movements work in. With this interview, we shift our focus to co-governance. Many groups on the Left are taking up independent electoral work as one path to building governing power. This stirs up swarms of new questions. What does true co-governance look like? How can electeds use their positions to bring marginalized communities into decision-making? How can we support our own and our allies after the election? How can we work together to build the movement? Sumathy Kumar, one of two co-chairs of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sat down with OrgUp’s Stephanie Luce to talk about what DSA has learned through the work of its Socialists in Office Committee.

‘Now you’re elected: How will we work together?’

There are now six DSA-endorsed New York State legislators. How does DSA work with those legislators and how do you hold them accountable to promises they make while campaigning?

Sumathy Kumar: We first elected Julia Salazar in 2018 and she was by herself in the legislature, so it looked a little bit different. Then we elected five more people, also from New York City—Phara Souffrant Forrest, Jabari Brisport, Zohran Mamdani, Emily Gallagher, and Marcela Mitaynes—and we realized that we needed to do something to work with them. Part of our idea was going beyond accountability. We don’t just want to be holding people accountable – we want to move with them. And so, we set up a Socialists in Office Committee with the electeds.

We wanted to lay the groundwork of what a socialist mass party could look like in the future. Part of that was making sure that people who are familiar with and supportive of the socialist project and the DSA were hired as their staffers. Then we needed to develop a way to strategize together. We did a lot of relationship-building, and we had a retreat when they first got elected.

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Our idea was not, “Now you’re an elected official so you can do things for me” but instead, “Now you’re an elected official, you represent DSA, and how are we going to work together?”

A lot of the people we elected were not necessarily insiders who were familiar with the legislative system. They’re working-class people, organizers, and activists, so we did a ton of “Albany 101”- type trainings with them about things like, how do you actually get a bill through? What is the power dynamic in different situations? I think that was really helpful because it showed that we have something to offer them.

It was also important because part of our strategy is to make clear that they, as legislators, are so much stronger when they have other socialist legislators in office with them, and also when they have an entire movement supporting them.

We set up a system and now we meet regularly to strategize together. It’s been a huge learning curve. I think the biggest thing that we learned was that we need a little bit more formalized process for how we make decisions. Implicit in that is the idea that the socialist legislators should, for one thing, act collectively together. They should be a bloc within the legislature and in politics generally. And those collective decisions that they make should have movement input through DSA.

I’m happy to say that we’ve now created a decision-making process and in the last year we’ve gotten to a place where everyone’s committed to making decisions collectively, which is really cool.

Who ran the trainings?

SK: One of the good things for us was that before we had elected people, we were running issue-based campaigns up in Albany and that gave us a lot of knowledge and experience about how all this functions. So those DSA members active in those campaigns were able to do the trainings.

When we set up our Socialists in Office Committee it included our electeds and our DSA steering committee and we also included representatives from each of our priority issue-based campaigns. We can benefit from their experience and their strategic analysis.

It sounds like the group of six legislators is working well together, but is there a chance someone could defect? That someone could be pulled to the center or to working with moderate Democrats?

SK: I think it’s always a fear because when someone is elected and goes to Albany, they are going to be hanging out with a whole bunch of legislators and everyone’s trying to convince you to move to the moderate way, the more pragmatic way. They are around other legislators and not people from their district. But right now, I think everyone’s really solid. It is amazing. But it is not by accident. It takes a ton of organizing constantly. Also, because there are six of them, they can sort of hold each other accountable. “We’re a crew.” That helps people stay grounded.

They also have really good relationships with each other. They ran together and were a slate together and had to deal with people not endorsing them and people being mean to them. They dealt with that together and with the rest of DSA, so there’s solidarity and bonding there that makes it harder to break apart.

And part of the reason that we meet with them so often – we do two retreats a year and monthly in-person meetings – is so that they feel strong relationships with DSA leadership as well.

One thing that the right wing is good at is coming up with resources for elected officials: money to send them to trainings, researchers to write reports for them, conferences for networking. It sounds like DSA has been able to provide a lot of resources to Socialists in Office Committee: where do you get the resources for the retreats and so on?

SK: I’m constantly impressed by our fundraising. We can pay for all of this through member dues or grassroots fundraisers. Because our chapter is so big, we can raise enough money through dues. One good thing is that we just had a national convention and one of the proposals that passed was matching funds for office and staff for other chapters.

It is good to fund this through dues because it grounds you in the fact that to do all this stuff you need a base of people, and you need you need a mass movement. So, the organizing work must come first. If we couldn’t pay for a retreat with our committee from membership dues, we wouldn’t be able to do it and so that means that we need to make sure that our members are engaged, and we are always growing our membership. It is all connected.

Related to that: all the elected officials have home offices in their districts, and these are usually used to provide services for constituents. One thing we are talking about is how to move that from direct service to organizing, so that the district office is playing a role in organizing the base. It can create a cycle where electeds hire staff that go out and organize tenant associations, for example. And some of those tenants then might join DSA.

And then those members get input into how policy is made. What does that look like? How does that membership input happen? How do bills get crafted and how do you make decisions about what compromises should be made?

SK: The way it’s set up right now is that the committee has representatives from the priority campaigns that were running and the local branches wherever there’s an elected. So in New York City a representative from the Central Brooklyn branch sits on the Socialists in Office Committee because Jabari Bridgeport and Phara Souffrant Forrest are from central Brooklyn. That gives a direct like constituent link.

In terms of how bills are written: it depends. The ideal situation is that it’s the campaign writing the bill or writing it with the legislator and working it out together so that it’s truly our bill. That happened with our public power campaign; that’s what happened last year in March when we ran a huge tax the rich campaign. We were part of a huge coalition, but DSA members wrote those bills, which was really cool.

What impact will Cuomo’s resignation have on political opportunities in New York?

SK: Cuomo’s resignation creates a huge power vacuum in New York State. For years, he has blocked so many of our priorities, from tenants’ rights to taxes on the rich. With Cuomo gone, we may have more power to push our socialist vision through. But the real estate industry and corporations will find new ways to exercise their influence. So we’re hopeful but know that we still need to organize and keep the pressure up to win.

Do you expect to form a similar committee at the city level next year with incoming DSA city councilors?

SK: We are trying to put together something similar but probably a bit more scaled back. First, there are only two of them, which is good, but two people is not enough to build a significant bloc.

Also, there are very few things that the city has control over. [Editor’s note: This is true in most states, where “Dillon’s rule” means major powers lie with state government.] A lot of our programs involve funding projects or redistributing wealth and you can’t do that at the city level, so a lot of our priorities are aimed at the state level. The only priority campaign we have now at the city level is Defund the Police.

Our candidates, Tiffany Caban and Alexa Avilés, will have to build relationships with other council members themselves regardless of what happens. That’s part of why, when we’re thinking about who we want to endorse, we try and choose organizers who are ready to go out and organize their colleagues in the same way that they would organize people in a movement.

Do you have an analysis of why DSA has had more success on the state level compared to the city level?

SK: I think a lot is about our program and our vision for the state. It’s a bit harder to figure out what our program is on the city level. I think also in 2020 we were able to win seats because we took people by surprise. The other candidates were not door-knocking; it wasn’t clear how to run a campaign during COVID. We talked to voters, and we swept our races. I think that the establishment learned from that and now they’re running campaigns too. There is a bit of a learning curve and I think we have to realize that it can’t just be that we knock on doors, and we will win. We can’t just keep using the same playbook.

What advice would you give DSA members, or other activists in other states who want to build political power?

SK: It’s not easy. The most important thing is first to make sure you’re creating a very clear structure because these relationships come with so much power. It’s important to remember that we are a democratic organization and these decisions that we’re making now have huge implications. So, for example, when we’re coming up with the structure of who gets to sit on the Socialists in Office Committee, or who goes to these retreats, it’s important to have clear guidelines so that it doesn’t create internal fighting or a privileged elite within DSA.

Then I would also say: there’s no shortcuts. We have to organize, and we have to build a base in people’s districts in order to have them feel any kind of relationship or accountability to our organization. If we didn’t have any members in their districts, why would they listen to us? We have to organize.