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Socialism Returns to the Lower East Side

Issue 268

DSA candidate Illapa Sairitupac vows to "take risks" and fight for his community's working-class residents.

John Tarleton Dec 20, 2021

New York voters have sent six socialists to the state legislature since 2018. And more could be on the way to Albany in 2022 including one from Lower Manhattan.

The Lower East Side and Chinatown are two of the last working class neighborhoods in Manhattan. Besieged by gentrification and weary of the traditional Democratic Party machine, voters have been moving left in recent years. In 2016, progressive firebrand Yuh-Line Niou took over Sheldon Silver’s Assembly District 65 seat (which also encompasses the Financial District) after the former Assembly Speaker was felled by federal corruption charges. In 2021, left-leaning Christopher Marte won a City Council seat formerly held by real estate ally Margaret Chin.

On December 10 City & State reported that sources close to Niou said she was planning to primary moderate incumbent State Senator Brian Kavanagh. In turn, the Democratic Socialists of America’s Illapa Sairitupac has shifted his sights from running against Kavanagh to running for Niou’s soon-to-be vacated Assembly seat (NYC-DSA will also be primarying incumbent Democratic legislators in three other races).

If Silver’s legacy is one of tax breaks for luxury real estate developers and grift for himself and his cronies, Sairitupac told The Indypendent he wants to use that assembly seat to tap into an older political tradition in Lower Manhattan.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

INDYPENDENT: Your thoughts on jumping into the race for Sheldon Silver’s old Assembly seat, and that you and Yuh-Line Niou will both be running as progressive anti-machine candidates in Lower Manhattan this election cycle.

ILLAPA SAIRITUPAC: We are very excited for the race. Socialism has deep roots in Lower Manhattan going back to our Jewish Marxist comrades who settled on the Lower East Side more than a century ago and the Puerto Rican diaspora who came here as well.

 “I believe that an incrementalist approach to the changes that need to be made isn’t enough. And it hasn’t been good enough for a while.”

I think the fall of Sheldon Silver was a long time coming. Yuh-Line taking over his seat restored the respectability of this district. I hope people are excited to see Yuh-Line and I running as a progressive one-two punch. I think having a socialist represent this district which includes Wall Street would be a huge symbolic shift. We haven’t had a socialist representative down here since the 1910s. It’s long overdue.

You’re a first-time candidate. What do you bring to the table that voters should know about?

I’m a gay, indigenous, Latino son of immigrants. I’m a social worker who used to work at a preschool, as a dog walker and as a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital. I think as a person who’s been working class, who lives in the community and comes from organizing on the ground. I’m not someone who’s ever been a staffer. I’ve never been anointed or appointed. I’m not someone who comes from that political milieu. I’m someone who just came from the movement, and I’m proud of that. I’m running as an outsider. I believe that an incrementalist approach to the changes that need to be made isn’t enough. And it hasn’t been good enough for a while.

Talk about your job as a social worker and how that informs your candidacy.

I work at a mental health clinic and serve a working class population, 80% of whom are from the Lower East Side. My youngest client is 14, my oldest are in their 80s. I’m literally working with my community every day. These are people who would not ordinarily have access to mental health care. Some of these people are formerly incarcerated. It’s a lot emotionally sometimes, but it fuels my commitment to what we’re fighting for down here. These are folks that have been forgotten by our society and I want to fight for them once I’m in office.

In terms of specific issues, what’s on your mind?

I’m running a campaign that supports a Green New Deal, universal healthcare, a good cause eviction law for tenants, the SWEAT Act to end wage theft by employers. I think it’s a really exciting opportunity to bring in people who maybe ordinarily might not use “socialist” to define themselves to see my platform, and go “yeah, these are common sense, issues and bills that speak to me, and that would protect me and that would protect and fight for my community.”

As a socialist, I’m inspired by people like Bernie Sanders. That’s the lane we’re fighting for right now. It’s the lane of liberation. At the local level, we’ll be fighting against displacement, against billionaires buying and building empty high rises while homeless people sleep on the streets. I’m very against the Two Bridges plan which would build four more skyscrapers along the East River which is the last thing we need. I also oppose the destruction of East River Park. The way it’s being done is a failure of leadership.

The failure of whose leadership?

Of the city. Of a politician who thinks that they’re above the law. I support the Big U plan, as originally devised, to protect Lower Manhattan from future flooding. However, the East Side Coastal Resiliency project offers no interim protection during the years that it will take to complete construction. While they say it will take five years to construct the new East River Park, it will probably take more than a decade. And, they will be dumping millions of tons of fill to build the new park on top of the old one which will create an air quality crisis that will impact NYCHA folks who live nearby. We need better solutions.

What’s your vision for simultaneously being a legislator on the inside and an organizer on the outside? In the past year, DSA legislators like Marcela Mitaynes and Zohran Mamdani have gone as far as joining hunger strikes for causes such as an excluded workers fund and forcing the city to bail out indebted taxi drivers.

I think what Marcela and Zohran are doing is an inspiration for what we should do as legislators, putting our body on the line and being unafraid to call out injustices which harm the working class in our communities. In June, I partook in a direct action calling out state politicians who refused to pass legislation to build publicly controlled renewable energy. I go on trial next month. If elected, I want to be someone who’s not at his desk all day. I want to be in the community taking risks, speaking truth to power and calling out this corrupt system which needs to shift and change.

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