Defeat For Boston Old Guard as Progressives, Socialists Make Gains in Historic Election

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By Henry De Groot

*The views expressed in the article do not represent the official position of the Boston DSA*

Broad Mandate For A New Boston

As national media observers have recognized, last week’s election was a big win for the progressive movement, as Michelle Wu swept the mayoral race and a slate of DSA members won city council seats across Greater Boston. While falling short of a full sweep, progressives and socialists soundly defeated Boston’s Old Guard with a clear mandate from voters for radical change. 

These victories were in contrast to stark defeats for progressives across the country, including India Walton’s loss in Buffalo’s mayoral campaign, and a Republican gubernatorial victory in Virginia. The latter points to the continued threat posed by the far right, and the urgency of building up the progressive electoral movement throughout the country. 

However, there are other results to celebrate, including victories for DSA candidates in Hamden, Connecticut; St Petersburg, Florida; Carrboro, North Carolina; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Despite losses for some DSA candidates, this election was a massive step forward for the socialist movement in Greater Boston, with important lessons for the American left. Not only did DSA members gain important seats, but they also defined the issues that campaigns revolved around and championed bold platforms. Furthermore, DSA candidates were able to draw closer to the labor movement, winning a large number of endorsements from individual locals and the Greater Boston Labor Council. 

Additionally, the Boston DSA completely overhauled its field operations.  Members who openly identified themselves as DSA members knocked on over 100,000 doors. YDSA chapters played an especially important role –– over 80 YDSA members attended one Boston canvas. The Boston DSA chapter also raised over $30,000 in internal funding for our candidates. Boston DSA’s successes – based on the model established by New York City’s DSA chapters  – are an important case study for DSA chapters across the country. 

Beyond the successes of the DSA itself, our allies in Our Revolution and the wider progressive left scored victories which have created a far more favorable terrain – and an unparalleled democratic mandate – for bold policies that will empower working people, foster healing and justice, and bring the fight to corporate special interests. 

Michelle Wu Defeats Boston Old Guard

Former Mayor Marty Walsh had one foot in the progressive movement, but kept one foot in Boston’s Old guard. Michelle Wu, in contrast to Marty and to her opponent Annissa Essaibi George, has two feet firmly planted in the progressive movement that continues to grow across the country. 

Wu – the first Asian-American and first woman elected to Boston’s highest office – ran a campaign focused on issues including rent control, a municipal Green New Deal, aggressive accountability for police, and free public transit. Her opponent condemned this bold platform as “pie in the sky” while running a campaign which dog-whistled to Boston nativism and based itself firmly in Boston’s older, whiter voters. Wu’s 64.2 to 35.8 victory shows that Boston voters know that if Wu’s proposals are big, that’s because the problems faced by our communities are too. The landslide was also a clear rejection of Essaibi-George’s racist campaign. 

Wu’s victory numbers track closely to Boston’s 2020 presidential primary results, where progressives won 57.5 percent (Bernie 30.1 percent, Warren 27.4 percent) while conservatives won 38.3 percent (Biden 30 percent, Bloomberg 8.3 percent). Wu’s victory clearly represents the ascension in Boston of the Bernie-Warren wing of the Democratic party over the Biden wing. 

Socialists know that winning elections – including for our progressive allies and not just our own candidates – matters. But we also know that once progressive candidates are in office, it takes movements to enact the kind of bold initiatives Wu has built her campaign on. 

As we draw closer to victories for Boston residents on racial justice, rent-control, free public transit, and a municipal Green New Deal, the interests opposed to our platform will fight all the harder. Landlords, developers, police, racists, and other forces of Boston’s Old Guard are defeated, but not dead yet. It will take a movement inside and outside of city hall to escalate this war between classes in Boston. Let us keep up the pressure and bury Boston’s Old Guard.

Socialist Kendra Hicks Elected to Boston City Council

Wu was not the only leader making history on Tuesday night. Kendra Hicks’ victory in Boston’s District Six city council race is a victory of national importance to the socialist movement. Another DSA member has won a seat on the council of a major US city!

Hicks, the daughter of a first generation Dominican immigrant, was raised in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of District Six, where she has been active for years as a community organizer and artist. For the last five years, Hicks has worked at Resist – a left-wing philanthropy organization founded by Noam Chomsky.

In many senses, Hicks was the perfect candidate. She has a life story and resume which appeals both to Berniecrats and Warrenites, and decades of roots in the community. Like Wu, she announced her campaign early last fall, giving her time to build up name recognition, endorsements, a volunteer army, and a war chest. And Hicks also faced off against a moderate candidate, allowing her to unite Berniecrats and Warrenites, albeit with a smaller margin than Wu.

Hicks won in spite of running in a district that includes West Roxbury, traditionally a bastion of white and conservative voters. Her opponent – Mary Tamer – built her campaign on racism and red-baiting, focusing on Hicks’ radical politics and DSA endorsement. But these efforts backfired, as organizers channeled community outrage into volunteer shifts.

Like Wu, Hicks ran not only on the power of her story and roots in the community, but also on a bold left-wing platform. From education to housing to the environment, her platform pushes for the policies our city deserves while centering justice for Boston’s most marginalized communities. 

Congratulations to Kendra on this historic victory!

Boston Ballot Measures Increase Democratic Power

While DSA-endorsed candidates were winning races across the city, two DSA-endorsed ballot measures, Question 1 and Question 3, also passed with strong support.

Question 1 gives the Boston City Council increased power to shape the city budget. Kendra and her allies will have increased power to shape a city budget that includes progressive policies and reflects socialist values.

Question 3, while non-binding, moves us closer to an elected school committee in Boston.

Mixed Results for DSA Members in Cambridge, Medford, Somerville

Across the Charles River, in Cambridge, Medford, and Somerville, DSA victories were paired with defeats.

Cambridge DSA incumbent Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler lost his seat on the Cambridge City Council, while DSA incumbent Quinton Zondervan held onto his seat.

Medford DSA incumbent Zac Bears secured re-election on the Medford City Council. Additionally, two Our Revolution endorsed candidates, Kit Collins and Justin Tseng, won seats on the city council, giving Our Revolution a majority on the Medford City Council.

On the Somerville City Council, DSA incumbents Ben Ewen-Campen and J.T. Scott secured re-election, with the latter fending off a right-wing opponent backed by the Somerville Old Guard and the outgoing mayor. DSA members Willie Burnley, Jr. and Charlotte Kelly won their at-large races. Tessa Bridge was narrowly defeated in Ward 5, Becca Miller was defeated by a slightly larger margin in Ward 7, and Eve Seitchik failed to win their at-large seat.

Unlike in Boston, many candidates north of the river were facing off against “progressive-lite” candidates, which made it more difficult to unite Berniecrats and Warrenites behind the DSA members’ unapologetic platforms.

DSA doubled its representation on the Somerville City Council, but fell short of an outright socialist majority. The issue of defunding the police played a role in every campaign, but especially in Somerville, where it marked the distinction between “progressive-lite” and genuine progressive candidates.

We should remember that just one socialist winning municipal election seemed like a fantasy just a decade ago. We should also remember that many candidates who lose their first election go on to win their next election because they have built up name recognition, relationships, and community support. In dealing with the tough reality of defeats, we should remember that we are in this for the long haul.

Unions Backed Socialists… and the Old Guard

Although we still have work to do, this election cycle represented a massive step forward for relations between socialists and unions in Greater Boston. 

The Greater Boston Labor Council endorsed 10 out of the 12 DSA candidates. Additionally, all DSA candidates received at least one individual union endorsement. Notably, Kendra Hicks received a wide range of union endorsements. Candidates endorsed by Our Revolution Medford also succeeded in receiving union endorsements.

Wu’s victory calls into question the future role of some of Boston’s most powerful unions. Wu picked up a strong list of union endorsements, including from Unite Here NEJB, SEIU Local 32BJ, SEIU Local 1199, SEIU Local 509, Laborers Local 22, OPEIU, Teamsters Local 25, UFCW Local 1445, UAW, Carpenters, and the MBTA Inspectors Union. 

However, Essaibi George also picked up union endorsements, winning the backing of  the Massachusetts Nurses Association, AFSCME Council 93, and multiple building trades (including IBEW Local 103, Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, Laborers Local 223, Iron Workers Local 7, Sprinkler Fitters Local 550, and Insulators Local 6).

Money from these latter unions continued to attack Wu in TV commercials and paid ads on social media, even after it was clear from polling that Wu was going to cruise easily to victory. These unions need to get on board with the new political landscape in Boston. They will either wake up to the new reality and find it in their best interest to stop dividing the labor and progressive movement by backing conservative candidates, or they will squander their members’ contributions and political power on hopeless conservative ventures.

Strengthening the Socialist Movement in Greater Boston

There’s no other movement  in Greater Boston politics that is standing up its own candidates across the region and organizing hundreds of volunteers – to defend seats and win new ones – all while playing an active role in labor unions, housing, environmental, police reform, prison abolition, and other community fights for justice and policy, and building a presence on every campus and in every neighborhood. 

Only the Boston DSA is doing that. In a metro area where the Republican Party has almost no chance of election, and all factions essentially compete within the Democratic Party, Boston DSA is rapidly shaping up as one of the most powerful forces to contend with.

The successes of this election are testimony to the role played by members from across our chapter, and especially the membership and leadership of the Boston DSA Electoral Working Group. All those calls, all those shifts, all those conversations have paid off. 

Of particular note is the BDSA Electoral Working Group’s restructuring before the election, which created a more efficient system by which a small group of the most dedicated comrades took on the responsibility of engaging our wider membership. 

With an effective leadership team focused solely on elections, the chapter was able to put boots on the ground behind our candidates, as well as to help  coordinate messaging, endorsements, and other basic organizing issues. 

While elections aren’t everything, election cycles are a useful framework for making decisions about long-term planning. As we celebrate our successes, now is the time to discuss, debate, and to draw lessons from our experiences, and plan for the next cycle. What worked as we hoped, and what fell short? What factors best explain our victories, and our defeats? 

We should be recruiting new members, strengthening them into committed and capable volunteers, developing new member-leaders, and identifying potential candidates now so that we are ready to fight even harder when the next election season is upon us. 

While we need to continue to develop members into volunteers, volunteers into organizers, and organizers into leaders, volunteer work will only get us so far. Hiring a local organizer would go a long way towards strengthening our capacity to win seats in 2022 and beyond.

Henry De Groot is a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group, an editor of Working Mass, and a rideshare driver and organizer. Erik Baker, Evan George, Seth Gordon, and Russel Weiss-Irwin also contributed to this article.

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