FLUSHING, New York — Last weekend, when Democratic Socialists of America members kicked off their national campaign for Bernie Sanders, a pair of organizers dressed in Medicare for All and Bernie merch climbed the stairs of the Bland Houses, a New York City Housing Authority complex in Queens. As they knocked on doors, they were bombarded with questions about health care, Sanders’ platform, and how it all ties into fixing tenants’ lives.
“People always want to talk about the American Dream. They tell you to work hard toward owning that house with a white picket fence, have two kids, and maybe get a dog,” said Jeanette Alvarez, a resident who’d been living in the apartment complex for 30 years and had moved her mother into the home to help provide senior care she says the government won’t cover. “But what’s the point of the American Dream if when you get older and you’ve worked so hard to get it, that you can’t maintain or enjoy it because you can’t afford to take care of yourself and the government doesn’t care about you?”
The case was the same when they walked two floors down and talked to another resident who was struggling with medical costs. She told the organizers that that’s why she wants Medicare for All and why she’s supporting Bernie Sanders.
The DSA organizers have been here before, and they know how to make their message connect: offering up their own struggles with health care coverage to push the Sanders campaign and Medicare for All as the way to fix the system. They helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez become a member of Congress and national figure on the left, they nearly got Tiffany Cabán through a Democratic primary in Queens that would’ve made her one of the most radical district attorneys in the country, and they successfully mobilized to block Amazon from making Queens the home of its new headquarters.
Now they’re using that experience to convince beaten-down and skeptical New Yorkers that they should make Bernie Sanders president.
Since the 2016 election, DSA has grown to more than 55,000 members nationally. When the national organization announced in February that it would let its membership vote on whether to launch an independent campaign for Sanders, it proposed a structure for Sanders similar to DSA’s Medicare for All campaign, which focused on canvassing and raising awareness about the health care proposal.
DSA officially endorsed Sanders in March and began forming plans for how to mobilize on his behalf later in the year. Individual DSA chapters were not required to campaign for Sanders, but in New York, the DSA’s work on behalf of candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán set organizers up to be uniquely successful.
The organization only ever considered endorsing Sanders in the presidential primary, despite the presence of candidates like Elizabeth Warren who have supported a large swath of progressive policies, including Medicare for All.
DSA’s Sanders campaign says now that it’s focused on encouraging chapters to canvass for Sanders, but they’ll move toward phone banking and holding town halls in the future. But some DSA chapters in Iowa have decided to solely focus on local projects rather than campaign for Sanders, exposing a rift in the progressive movement’s strategy toward achieving policies like Medicare for All and, more broadly, deciding who’s best to lead the movement.
On Monday, the Working Families Party — a progressive organization that has frequently worked alongside DSA in New York, including on Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial bid, Julia Salazar’s state Senate campaign, the Amazon campaign, and the Cabán campaign — voted to endorse Warren’s bid for president over Sanders (who they’d backed in 2016), splintering a coalition that had led to victories in the New York area.
Megan Svoboda, a DSA National Political Committee member and the chair of DSA’s Sanders campaign committee, told BuzzFeed News prior to WFP’s endorsement that while the DSA has focused on putting out materials on Sanders’ campaign, it could be open to distributing talking points about the differences between Warren and Sanders.
“I’m sure people would be very excited to work on that,” Svoboda said. “It’s obviously an important thing, and we wouldn’t endorse Warren. She’s a capitalist and part of the establishment of the Democratic Party and there’s a lot of good resources out there that show and talk about the differences between them.”
“We try to show that all of our fights and campaigns are interconnected,” Svoboda explained.
During the canvassing in Flushing this month, organizers handed out voter registration forms and encouraged residents to check their voter registration. They also asked residents if they knew they were registered as Democrats to make sure they’d actually be able to vote in next year’s primary, something organizers realized too late was in issue in the Cabán race.
Organizers also handed out palm cards explaining issues that Sanders supports, like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and ending cash bail.
“The big thing that we try to focus on is getting people out into their communities to talk to, often strangers, about an issue or about a candidate — but not just that specific issue and never just one candidate, but about how that issue and that candidate is a part of a larger movement and a part of a larger vision and part of the fight that will really confront capitalism,” Svoboda said.
Svoboda said that for DSA, a lot of its success has come from building off the work for issues and campaigns in the past, particularly pointing to DSA’s work to raise awareness about Amazon’s effort to move into Queens.
“There are very clear examples of this working,” Svoboda said, explaining that canvassing lists from the Ocasio-Cortez campaign were used to target doors to knock during the Amazon canvases.
“We use this term in DSA called 'class struggle candidates,'” she explained. “These are campaigns and candidates who, when you run their campaigns, the goal isn’t just to get them elected, but the goal is to raise the class consciousness of everyone you’re canvassing or talking to about that candidate so that future fights are possible.”
That was evident in the canvassers' conversation with Alvarez, who agreed with the DSA organizers about Medicare for All and told them it was her top priority in the coming election. She also said she’d visit Sanders’ website to read about more of his policies.
After speaking with the canvassers at length, Alvarez told them she still had some reservations about supporting Sanders in the primary because of the 2016 primary.
“The Democratic Party has this way of deciding whatever they want and then banding together around one particular candidate,” Alvarez explained.
“Well, we’re here just to try to fight that, you know, with our door knocking and talking to folks,” a canvasser told her while handing her a Sanders palm card. She then asked if Alvarez has ever heard of DSA.