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DSA vs. Establishment Stalemate Continues

Issue 288

In this year's Democratic primary, neither side could dislodge the other.

John Tarleton Jul 1

Two hours after the polls closed and the election results showed him falling short in his bid to dislodge a machine incumbent in the heart of Central Brooklyn, Eon Huntley entered the backyard of a local bar to the whoops and shouts of more than a hundred of his DSA comrades. 

“We came this close!” Huntley said. “This is the start of something. It’s not the end of anything.”

Huntley lost his race against incumbent Stefani Zinerman for Assembly District 56 in Bed-Stuy and parts of Crown Heights by 53-47 percent, a margin of about 500 votes. For the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, it was a disappointing setback on a night that showcased both DSA’s strengths and its limitations as it continues to build a beachhead in New York State politics. 

All eight DSA incumbent state legislators were re-elected, five went unchallenged and three others who did have opposition won with anywhere from 66 to 85% of the vote. For critics who expected last fall that the organization’s fervent support for Palestine would be its demise, their hopes have been dashed. 

In Western Queens, UAW union organizer Claire Valdez became DSA’s ninth state legislator when she won by 59–32 percent over former City Council staffer Johanna Carmona in the 37th Assembly District, which encompasses Long Island City, Sunnyside, Ridgewood and parts of Maspeth and Woodside. 

“Tonight we proved that a different kind of political vision is not only possible in Queens, it’s a mandate,” Valdez told supporters. 

Valdez’s victory continues DSA’s run of success in their strongholds along an East River corridor that spans from Astoria in Western Queens to Greenspoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick in North Brooklyn to Sunset Park in South Brooklyn. In these areas, they now control four Assembly seats (Valdez, Zohran Mamdani, Emily Gallagher and Marcela Mitaynes), two State Senate seats (Kristen Gonzalez and Julia Salazar) and a pair of City Council seats (Tiffany Caban and Alexa Aviles). 

However, DSA was not able to advance beyond these strongholds this year with Huntley’s defeat and Jonathan Soto’s loss to 10-term incumbent Michael Benedetto in a Northeast Bronx district centered around Co-op City. 

DSA-endorsed Eon Huntley lost a tight race in Bed-Stuy for Assembly District 56.

In 2020, DSA shocked Brooklyn’s Black political establishment when Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest rode the wave of energy from Black Lives Matter protests to defeat proteges of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and claim a State Senate and Assembly seat respectively. Jeffries and his allies would not be caught napping again and have found deep wells of support from real-estate developers, billionaire charter school backers and pro-Israel groups who share the Democratic machine’s desire to prevent more socialist advances. Since 2021, DSA has run three insurgent candidates in Flatbush, Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy respectively and lost by single digits each time as hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads flooded each district in the final weeks of the race. In Assembly District 56, Zinerman and her Super PAC backer spent upwards nearly $500,000 or more than was spent in all the previous elections in the district for the previous 20 years. 

“We were not only up against the machine, but all the billionaires and millionaires,” said Huntley, 39, a father of two who is a retail worker at a Manhattan department store. 

In recent years, DSA’s bloc of legislators have played key roles in passing the nation’s most far-reaching Green New Deal legislation, in winning new tenant protections and securing emergency unemployment compensation for undocumented workers during the pandemic and in derailing Gov. Kathy Hochul’s conservative pick to lead New York’s highest court. They have also been outspoken in their support for Palestine and have sponsored legislation that would eliminate tax-exempt status for charities that funnel money to iIllegal settlements on the Occupied West Bank. 

With the cost of housing soaring in a district that is almost 80 percent tenants, Huntley contrasted his support for more aggressive laws to protect with his opponent’s support for landlord interests. 

For critics who expected last fall that the organization’s fervent support for Palestine would be its demise, their hopes have been dashed.

“This district deserves better. Nobody can pay the rent,” said Cea Weaver, a longtime Brooklyn housing activist who took time off from her job to volunteer for Huntley in the final two weeks of the campaign. “We went to playgrounds, senior centers, NYCHA houses. When Eon talks to voters, people love him.”

Weaver said a Huntley victory would have been “transformative” — replacing one of the biggest obstacles to sweeping tenant-friendly legislation in the State Assembly with a tenant champion — but she vowed to push on. 

“Next time,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going to go away for the next two years.”

Because DSA is a hybrid organization that combines electoral and non-electoral activities, its work is ongoing. Valdez’s victory, said NYC-DSA spokesperson Jeremy Cohan, will help boost the organization’s labor organizing campaigns while Huntley’s emphasis on affordable housing has opened new possibilities for tenant organizing in his district. 

“Our theory of election campaigns is that the infrastructure should not disappear with the candidate,” Cohan added.

For his part, Huntley already sounded like he was ready for a rematch as he urged his mostly youthful supporters to not be discouraged. He reminded them that Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team the first time he tried out, that Barack Obama lost his first run for Congress and that his friend Jabari Brisport had lost a City Council race in 2017 before winning his State Senate seat in 2020. 
Speaking afterwards to The Indypendent, Huntley said, “We’ve planted the seeds that will germinate later.”

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