Why DSA? “The passion, energy, and strength of the broader democratic socialist movement” speak strongly to Susan Kang, Associate Professor of political science at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of NYC-DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee, representing Queens.
“Another world is possible,” she says. Grassroots organizing, DSA’s great strength, she adds, is the way “to get people to discuss ideas.” When such discussions expand the parameters of debate, change can occur.
DSA’s ability to use the electoral process to introduce ideas, such as the right to a decent life, is already generating fresh national dialogue, Kang says. The recent election to Congress of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member and DSA-endorsed candidate, is one clear example. Says Kang: “Alexandria's vision of ‘democratic participation in our economy, and our economic, social, and racial dignity,’ spoke to the people of NY Congressional District 14, myself and my neighbors, in a way that made the impossible possible.”
Kang joined DSA formally in February 2017, though she became active in DSA in 2016. A Bernie Sanders supporter, she joined DSA in reaction to Donald Trump's election. “I wanted to be a member who did things,” she says.
From Occupy to Ocasio-Cortez
Kang had lost patience with the Democratic Party’s “moderate, transactional” politics well before the 2016 election. An expert on labor and human rights, in 2011 she helped craft Occupy Wall Street’s demands, which included nationalizing the Federal Reserve, ending corporate personhood, and providing universal, free education and health care for the 99%. Though the Obama Administration ultimately repressed OWS, neither lawmakers nor the 1% have regained control of the public narrative: Occupy’s platform gained a life of its own, most notably in Bernie’s campaign. The notion of the 99% lives on as the meme for our times.
Kang’s passion, strategic genius, and political prescience came to the fore in three campaigns this year: She was an early and ardent supporter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign to defeat 10-term incumbent Congressman Joseph Crowley, the supposedly invincible boss of the Queens County Democratic Organization (read: machine) and a rumored replacement for Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker. Kang was in the thick of it. “All that new baby energy, you know?” In the AOC campaign video that instantly went viral, Kang is "the lady pushing the baby stroller."
Kang also advocated for NYC-DSA's endorsement of Cynthia Nixon’s Democratic primary campaign for governor against Andrew Cuomo. Nixon, the first openly gay, progressive woman to run for governor, took that support to heart and proclaimed DSA’s endorsement on the campaign trail.
Less well-known, perhaps, to many DSA members is Kang's role co-founding the campaign to defeat the eight New York State Senate incumbents who had dubbed themselves the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). These Senators had run for office as Democrats, but once elected, they caucused and voted with Republicans, which helped neo-liberal Governor Andrew Cuomo to block progressive legislation in New York State and position himself as a centrist candidate for president in 2020.
Kang was a young professor with a baby in early 2017 when her own State Senator, Jose Peralta, went IDC-rogue. Outraged, she organized other young mothers, neighbors and activist friends to form No IDC-NY. While Kang says she was largely ignorant of local and state politics at the time, she did her research and got active: She leafletted, she canvassed, she social media-ed, and she leaned on local news reporters to get the word out. “We raised $250,000 in small donations!” Kang crows. No IDC-NY was off and running.
Kang also demanded Peralta call a Town Hall meeting in Queens to explain himself. He dodged her calls. When they finally spoke, he suggested meeting in her home. Kang was adamant, “No!” She wanted “a town hall meeting so everyone can hear your answers.” In the end, he relented. The hall was packed, and the overflow crowd banged pots and pans to show their outrage.
Kang says she thinks of her parents, immigrants from South Korea, when she thinks of the precarious lives of her Jackson Heights neighbors. Many are undocumented immigrants, she says, and like her parents, “they deserve more.”
A Two-Fold Attraction
DSA’s draw for Kang is two-fold, social and hard-boiled. “First, I am lucky to be part of an organization with such youthful energy and optimism,” she says. As the mother of two young boys, now three- and eight-years-old, and a full-time professor, “I can’t socialize like a regular member.” Still, at meetings in Queens, “I can have serious political conversations with a 17-year-old or a 48-year-old!"she adds with obvious delight. "That’s why I like being there.”
Kang also relishes DSA's big-tent approach. DSA is “unique among socialist organizations: It doesn’t have a party line. [And it] respects a diversity of ideologies."
And those election results? Two and one-half out of three. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a breath-taking upset in the Democratic primary in June and then won the general election. Six of the eight IDC turncoats, including Peralta, were defeated in primary elections in September by progressive candidates.* The latter prevailed in November and became part of the Democrat's new majority in the Senate. The Cynthia Nixon–Jumaane Williams ticket, for governor and lieutenant governor, lost, but pushed Cuomo to the left on key issues and provided air cover for the anti-IDC candidates.
This year's elections “put DSA on the map,” Kang says. NYC-DSA played an important role in Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in June, which galvanized support for progressive and socialist candidates in nationally and in New York State, including the No-IDC slate. Julia Salazar, a DSA member and endorsed candidate for NYS Senate, received a flood of donations and endorsements for her state Senate campaign just after Ocasio-Cortez's win. With hard work from an enormous team of DSA organizers and others, she, too, won an upset victory. “We are all learning together,” Kang says.
What's next? Kang is part of her union's fight to win a decent contract for CUNY’s full-time and adjunct professors.
*Jose Peralta died of a heart-attack in mid-November. Since the, he has been honored by supporters and recent opponents for his long years of work on behalf of his community.