Three Months In: Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest Reports Back from an Albany in Strife

Rob Katz Mar 23, 2021

When Phara Souffrant Forrest and three other democratic socialists announced their leap into the world of New York politics in 2019, Forrest had just emerged from a transformative housing justice campaign that suddenly illuminated the promise of a Democratic legislature reinvigorated. A veteran organizer in the Crown Heights Tenant Union (where she organized with neighbor Michael Hollingsworth, who would go on to run for City Council with the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America this year), a union field nurse, and a lifelong resident of Crown Heights, Forrest harnessed the kind of people-powered campaign that could beat a four-term Democratic incumbent with an 11-point margin of victory. 

Now, just under three months into her freshman term, Forrest and her fellow colleagues in the General Assembly Marcela Mitaynes, Zohran Mamdani, and Emily Gallagher, along with Sens. Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar, are faced with the contradictions of an ossified legislative body tasked with providing for a state of over 19 million people.

“From the outside looking in, it was like a brick wall. You just didn’t see how this process involved actual people. But once you’re inside, you see that people can be moved.” 

“Something as simple as the sign that is on your door is a process,” Forrest said during a meeting of about 300 DSA members to debrief before the final weeks of the organization’s Tax the Rich campaign. “The initial expectation is, ‘Oh you’ll get it. Don’t worry, sit back, relax, it’s your first year.’ And I’m like, my first year is in a pandemic, bruh. My first year is, we can’t pay rent. So while you’re still figuring out my sign, I need to figure out the rent for millions of New Yorkers.”

As this piece goes online, Albany appears to be in the midst of a slow-motion crisis. Forrest spoke with the Indypendent about navigating the contradictions of the state capitol, and her take on the way forward toward a legislature equipped to respond to the needs of all New Yorkers.

Indypendent: So you’ve been on the inside for a few months. What are the main takeaways you have? What are the things that you’ve expected and turned out to be to match your expectations? What are the things that have surprised you?

Pharra Souffrant Forrest: I knew that this process was an undemocratic process. and COVID-19 just made it even more daunting. So, you know, people are always politicking on the side and everything, but it’s even harder when you’re on Zoom and you’re not able to really look somebody in the eyeball and be like, “Okay, well, this is my stance, and this is your stance. Let’s try to meet in the middle.”

So I already knew that part was coming. But what I didn’t expect was to see how much 20 new members could really shake things up. What I’m hearing from older members, past members, is that the tone of the General Assembly has changed a bit, and so that gives me a lot of hope. I didn’t expect to see hope in this place. Not at least not quite so soon, if that makes sense.

What do you mean by hope?

I knew that a lot of the process of government in New York state is basically three men in a room [referring to the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Majority Leader of the Senate, who meet in private to finalize budget negotiations]. I think when people see that there’s such new blood, there’s such a zeal for ideology that surrounds the upliftment of the working class, the idea that we’re going out for advocacy for issues like housing, healthcare. I didn’t expect to see people actually like, “Oh, yeah, I care about that, too.” Because from the outside looking in, it was like a brick wall. You just didn’t see how this process involved actual people. But once you’re inside, you see that people can be moved. It really does give me hope to see that people are inside and they can be moved and they’re paying attention. It’s less of “three men in a room” and more of “what can we do together?”

How is the Socialists in Office committee used as an organizing tool? How is that used to interact with socialist outside of office? What’s your experience been with it?

[We’ve been] clear about not only organizing the advocacy groups, using our offices as an organizing space, using our platform to amplify organizing that’s occurring all around — and then when I say organizing, not just like, “Can you sign on to my bill?” I mean, like, generally focusing on education, pulling in people who were not part of this, focusing on inclusion. [On the outside,] that means continuing to door knock, engage constituents, engage people who are often isolated. 

And so when we brought that into the legislature, we realized again that there were so many people that were isolated. There were some people that were progressive, alone in Long Island. I’ll give you one example, I probably would have never connected with [freshman Assemblymember representing Tompkins and Cortland Counties] Anna Kellis in general life. But the very fact that I have my stance and she has her stance, [it feels like] I have a link upstate and she has a link downstate. During my campaign, I went up to Albany to campaign with [now-freshmen legislators] Samra Brook and Demond Meeks, Jeremy Cooney. These are people that were, according to what I was being told, untouchable. Upstate is upstate. It’s a no man’s land, right? But obviously it’s not because we’re cool. We actually talk, and we legislate together, and our policies reflect what we believe in. 

A big part of the appeal of your first campaign was that you’re a union nurse. You’re going to bring a very specific lens. You’re in a number of committees that deal with health, including being Chair of the Committee on Intergenerational Care. Now that you’re inside, how are you finding that your background uniquely equips you as compared to your colleagues?

Okay. So when people hear “union nurse,” they think that I worked in the hospital when, actually, that’s not quite it. I have a particular set of ideas regarding healthcare. 

I’m pretty sure a lot of people are wondering why Phara is sponsoring Less is More [which would largely eliminate incarceration as a punishment for technical violations of parole], for example. Of course, I care about things like the New York Health Act and coverage for all, but as a nurse I care about Less is More because I know that nurses have to take care of anybody regardless of where they come from. To create an incarceration system that is so punitive that technical violations send people back into jail — if you miss an appointment and you go back to square one, you go back to state prison and you have to wait for your parole as if you committed a new crime for the next two years, right? And then that means that you could never go back on parole again. For what? For missing an appointment. That’s insane to me. So for me, this legislation is not just criminal justice. It’s about care, about human rights, about the acknowledgement  of humanity. And that’s what nurses care about. 

“Cuomo’s an abuser; he’s abused working class people through his years of austerity, he’s abused politicians who’ve tried to stand up to him, and he’s abused the women who worked in his administration.”

So It’s not just health care, but, you know, they expect me to just talk about health care. But I talk about everything. I talk about food stamps. I was with the Committee on Social Services, and they were talking about people who want food stamps. Republicans were talking about — “will they be able to buy alcohol?” And I was like, as a person who’s been on food stamps, you could never buy alcohol. I don’t know why you even bring that up, my friend. That’s stupid. That’s racist. That sounds classist. That could have flown before, when there was no one here who understands what EBT means. You know, that’s not just an Electronic Benefit Transfer card. That’s an “Eat Better Today” card. That’s not a “Drink Better Today” card. So, you know, they’re not ready for me.

The Tax the Rich campaign is ostensibly wrapping up, and it’s really kind of hard to tell what kind of impact an issue campaign has when there’s no clear “win,” and there’s no clear “lose.” How do you feel that the campaign has had an effect on the dialogue in Albany?

DSA members holding a theme-appropriate banner at a “Tax the Rich” protest in Washington Square Park on Saturday. Photo: Ken Lopez.

So we know it’s not going to be $1.3 billion, right? From what I can see, it seems like we’re going to have a resolution for about $7 billion [as of March 23]. The Dems were very excited about this because this is the strongest budget proposed in a long time. I’m like, y’all are clapping hands, y’all are patting each other on the back, but we have an opportunity to get $50 billion, right? My thing is that I’m always going to push for the highest number. There’s no clapping of the hands. The work never stops, and that’s where I think it’s so important for us as a campaign. When we are pushing for revenue, we cannot stop. We should be looking for the nickels and the dimes, the way these lawyers, these accountants are looking for nickels and dimes for their billionaire friends. 

So I think that when we talk about the impacts of the coalition on the inside, it is fundamentally pushing people [in the legislature]. Because I swear to God, if we didn’t have this campaign, they would have been fine with $1 billion. They would have been fine, they would’ve clapped their hands, “we did it!” I will not allow them to sit there and clap for seven billion either. And this is what the coalition needs to understand. [The caucusing Democrats] did this with half a day’s work. Now they need to go put in 24 hours. Like how nurses put in 16 hours, how MTA workers do like 15 hours or 24 hours. How the lady on the corner is taking care of people in the nursing home. You need to put in those hours in too, and go find that $50 billion. At least get me $20 billion.

Socialists in Office called for the Governor’s impeachment very early on in the crisis his office has been undergoing. Whatever happens with him, what are you hoping will come after?

Let me just make sure I say Cuomo’s an abuser; he’s abused working class people through his years of austerity, he’s abused politicians who’ve tried to stand up to him, and he’s abused the women who worked in his administration, and this way of politics has to end. Basically, this whole whole thing between impeachment, between the budget process, it goes beyond the governor. 

This is not about Governor Cuomo. It could have been “Governor Nice Guy.” But if you are ruling or if you have a system with “three men in a room,” who are ruling, this is not democratic. This is not a way to aid the working class, this is not for the 99%. And it has to come down. We have to break the system. It has to die. I don’t care who is — “we have to protect the institution.” Protect what institution? The institution that’s broken? I beg to differ. Break it down. 

So this is the beginning of a long, arduous process to transform New York State into the real progressive promise that it’s made to us years and years ago. We’re going to take the system, going to take the table. We’re going to uplift it, going to throw all of it. We’re going to do like Jesus did in the temple. Remember that?

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