By Patty Friend
If you had the profound misfortune of having been inundated by mainstream and cable news coverage of the 2021 elections, you would have thought that the Democrats had suffered a national wipeout. But believe it or not, the United States is comprised of states other than Virginia, where Democratic hopeful Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin in his bid to become Governor. McAuliffe, an old Bill Clinton crony, offered nothing but the usual centrist mix of fiscal austerity and liberal identity politics. Less attention was paid to New Jersey where, for the first time in 44 years, a Democrat won back-to-back terms as Governor, and Phil Murphy did so by campaigning on a progressive platform with the help of Bernie Sanders. While the corporate media gloated about socialist India Walton’s loss in Buffalo, it was much quieter about the much larger city of Boston, where the unabashedly progressive Michelle Wu became the first woman and person of color to become its mayor.
New York City is not so fortunate in its mayors. Mayor-Elect Eric Adams’ disdain for the Left is well-known, and he has made it clear that he will oppose fundamental progress toward addressing the worms in the Big Apple. But as the city went to the polls on November 2, it elected progressive Democrats like Brad Lander as Comptroller, re-elected Jumaane Williams as Public Advocate, and elected 17 new City Council candidates who openly campaigned for Defund the Police, immigration reform, closing Rikers Island prison, sex work decriminalization and other badly needed urban remedies. Two of those City Council candidates, Tiffany Caban and Alexa Aviles, are open socialists (Caban was endorsed by SDUSA). So, there is going to be a significant check on Adams’ ability to do as he sees fit.
However, there was one new progressive Democratic City Council candidate who won her primary but lost in the general election: Felicia Singh. Centrist Democrats and Trumpists have joined together to say that Singh, running to represent Council District 32 in Queens (Ozone Park, Belle Harbor, Howard Beach, Woodhaven), lost because her agenda was too radical, too out of touch with New Yorkers. Of course, this is absurd, since the same campaign platform she ran on was victorious in dozens of other city council districts. But Singh’s supporters have been mostly quiet, except to offer occasional mutterings about white supremacy being the cause of her defeat. And what a defeat it was: she lost to Republican Joann Ariola, 67% to 32%, in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 3:1 and where the Republican incumbent, Eric Ulrich, had to step down due to term limits.
A difficult conversation needs to be had on the Democratic Left, focusing on what happens when things don’t go quite as well as we had hoped for after the odds looked to be in our favor. We need to own up to mistakes our side made, so that they don’t get repeated! For instance, pointing to the bogeyman of “White Supremacy” as a one-size-fits-all explanation is a bad habit that needs to be broken. White supremacy exists in every city council district, yet the incoming council class of 2022 is the most progressive, anti-white supremacist one in NYC’s history. Felicia Singh defeated Mike Scala, a white man, to win the Democratic primary last June, and was endorsed in the general election by the most powerful white elected officials in the state, Governor Kathy Hochul and Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, each of whom knocked on doors for Singh.
SD USA officially endorsed Singh and published its endorsement – “Awake and Singh!” – on this blog on October 18. (Previously, we had committed resources to her campaign in the form of phonebanking and social media promotion). At that point, her campaign was riding high and it felt like Singh could actually take the district. But the next day, we received a call from Singh’s campaign manager, Stephanie Caballero, who asked us to take down our endorsement. While she liked the endorsement, Caballero stated that because SD USA is an openly socialist organization, Singh being linked to any such organization or individual would hurt her campaign by making it impossible for her to have a dialog with, say, the more centrist residents of Howard Beach, who would then stampede en masse to the Republican side. Caballero added that the Singh campaign had also turned down endorsements from Julia Salazar, Tiffany Caban, AOC and other elected socialists for fear that their presence would spark a right-wing backlash against Singh (Ironically, Caballero is a member of Queens DSA). SD USA subsequently withdrew both our endorsement of Singh and our resources from her campaign, seeing this strategy as doomed to failure. Sadly, we were proven right.
Down the stretch, the Singh campaign exuded fear. The Republicans undoubtedly noticed the unusual absence of prominent leftists from the roster of Singh endorsers, smelled blood in the water, and pounced. If anything, THAT may have triggered the right-wing backlash that led a crowd of Ariola supporters to threaten to shoot Democrats and cause Schumer to cancel a campaign appearance with Singh. And, by pushing away popular, charismatic socialists who are effective in winning over skeptical working-class Democrats, combined with its public embrace of mostly establishment Democrats, the Singh campaign gave registered Democrats in her district the impression that, if elected, she would be just another machine Democrat, certainly not one to provide inspirational leadership. It also might have struck some voters as odd that Singh was not embracing the support of socialist politicians while at the same time campaigning on the very same platform they use. Hence, a critical mass of Democrats who could otherwise have been persuaded to vote for Singh wound up voting for no one.
Shamefully, a great chance to turn a city council district blue went up in smoke. Social democrats understand that progressives can not win races tethered to the vices of respectability politics or the “White Supremacy” bogeyman. We can – we must – do better!
Patty Friend is the National Chair of Social Democrats USA.