Pizza, beer and an introduction to democratic socialism. At a recent Monday night meeting of the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a few dozen people gathered in the lobby of a pale yellow building housing WHIV-FM on Orleans Avenue for PowerPoint presentations outlining the history of the organization, understanding intersectionality and how to engage in respectful discussion.
A few weeks before the meeting, the group organized a sit-in with several other local progressive groups at the Metairie office of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy. It all was part of a national push to combat the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — and to bring attention to the groups' support for single-payer health care under "Medicare for All." (Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office deputies arrested three DSA members sitting in the building's lobby.)
The multipronged national effort was coordinated by DSA chapters and several other progressive organizations, including the pro-Bernie Sanders group Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of America, Ultraviolet, The People's Consortium for Human and Civil Rights, ResistHere and The Working Families Party.
Last year, the local DSA chapter had a handful of members meeting in a coffee shop. In January, it formed its first-ever organizing committee. Today, there are more than 70 dues-paying members, along with more than 100 regular meeting attendees, hundreds of followers on social media and new faces at every meeting.
Progressives are having some surprising successes elsewhere. Voters in Jackson, Mississippi elected 34-year-old Chokwe Antar Lumumba as mayor in 2016 after he pledged to turn Jackson into "the most progressive city in the country." Lumumba didn't win by a slim majority, but with 93 percent of the vote. Other progressive candidates are beginning to see significant victories across the U.S., from school board seats in St. Louis, Missouri to municipal races in Illinois and Georgia in 2016.
Locally, the DSA and like-minded organizations defer to groups that have carried progressive issues for years, particularly groups led by people of color and those fighting for issues largely affecting people of color.
The 2016 election galvanized both longtime and first-time activists, "#resist" liberals and young people getting their first taste of electoral politics and direct action in the wake of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders contending for the Democratic nomination. Whether motivated by outrage over a Donald Trump presidency, frustration with moderate Democrats, or a sense of needing to do something, newly formed groups now are looking to craft local policies around housing affordability, racial justice, health care and pay equity.
Organizing efforts follow energetic campaigning around Sanders' bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, according to Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center. "He mobilized so many people to get involved in the presidential campaign," Chernevak says. "There's some spillover from that campaign to what's happening on the local level." Progressive groups hope to place their ideas at the forefront of the Oct. 14 municipal elections. This year, they were the first to host mayoral and City Council town halls for the current election cycle, and some will issue endorsements. They also promise to hold the winners accountable to the pledges they make during the campaign.
Though town halls and forums are forcing candidates to recognize groups' platforms and presence on local fronts, candidates aren't likely to guarantee their commitment in an election dominated by issues of crime, economic development and affordable housing, Chervenak adds. Still, local organizers want their issues on the candidates' collective radar. "The candidates are showing up for their forums, so that's enhancing the awareness of these groups," he says.
"Who ordered a shirt?" A few hands dart up inside a large meeting room inside Temple Sinai on St. Charles Avenue, where Joyce Vansean conducts a Sunday general meeting of the activist group Indivisible NOLA. Many of the more than 40 people at the meeting became politically engaged within the last year; others have a long history of activism. Nearly everyone is attending for the first time. There are mothers with sons, a few teenagers mulling a political run and new and experienced activists spanning a range of ages and backgrounds. One woman says she recently changed her voter registration from Republican to Democrat.
A national organization offering a "guide to resisting the Trump agenda," Indivisible has local chapters in Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Motivated and empowered after attending the Women's March in Washington, D.C., Vansean founded the New Orleans chapter. Indivisible NOLA now has dozens of regular meeting attendees and more than 3,000 followers in its Facebook groups.
"After the election, just like a lot of people, I was just devastated and horrified and scared and didn't really know what to do," Vansean tells Gambit. She says she was moved to action by the Trump administration's January immigration and travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries. "It was that moment, for me, that it came into focus," Vansean says. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to sit around and be sad for four years, or however long. I was going to have to do something."
Indivisible members made hundreds of phone calls to the offices of U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy in support of the ACA. The group also held several protests outside Cassidy's office, including a last-minute rally with colorful umbrellas urging Cassidy to vote to "keep us covered."
The day after Cassidy's vote supporting the failed "skinny" health care repeal, Vansean says the group didn't necessarily take it as a loss.
"I think the activism is not only geared toward changing elected leaders' minds, it's also about making the public aware — making moderates and independents and even Democrats and Republicans aware of what's happening in their government," she says. "If they see on the news an activist saying, 'Yes, 22 million will lose health insurance,' that's something that's hard to ignore if you haven't been paying attention to politics. There's a lot of people who don't think politics is for them, who may have just been informed by our activism. It definitely accomplishes a lot more than just changing that vote. What we can do is have an impact on the rest of the constituency, so at some point they may have to listen a little more."
A Black Lives Matter banner stretched across the altar at First Unitarian Universalist Church at Jefferson and Claiborne avenues on June 17, where Indivisible held the first mayoral town hall in advance of New Orleans' fall election — nearly a month before qualifying for mayor and City Council. Candidates Michael Bagneris and LaToya Cantrell sat in front of roughly 300 people in a standing-room-only crowd; Desiree Charbonnet, the other invited candidate, had planned to come but cited a scheduling conflict.
Vansean asked the first question: whether the candidates support a platform established by the People's Assembly, part of an international movement to strengthen policies impacting working people. Its New Orleans agenda combines efforts from several groups and roughly 400 activists, centered on a hospitality workers' bill of rights, expanded public transportation efforts and a $15 minimum wage.
Neither Bagneris nor Cantrell expressly supported the People's Assembly platform — but the opening question telegraphed the priorities established by progressive groups in town halls and other public forums that followed.
"The candidates can't really address [the platforms], they have to give as good an answer as possible," Chernevak says. "They have to operate within the reality of the budget and the realities of the problems the city faces — crime, poverty. We would like to have more money to devote to social welfare programs; we would like to have a $15 minimum wage. There are just barriers there. ... If they can convince Baton Rouge to set their own wage, then of course you'd be confronted by businesses here in New Orleans as well. There are a number of fronts they'd have to deal with." Vansean says that's the idea.
"We're new to this," she says. "What we try to do whenever we can is defer to organizations led by people of color, people who have been doing activism forever — it made a lot of sense for us to say, 'This is what the people want. We are going to advocate for that.' ...
"For us, it's definitely an aspirational agenda. It all seems possible but pretty unlikely a lot of that would get accomplished within a year of a mayor's election. But as an aspirational goal and getting people on the same page, it's very clear to support them. It's to make one united voice across the city with activists."
Indivisible isn't likely to endorse specific candidates, but it is considering submitting candidate "report cards" on the issues the group has discussed in its candidate forums. "It's going to be a deeper dive on the things we care about," Vansean says.
Last month, Step Up Louisiana released its three-point platform supported by more than 40 groups, from local faith leaders to criminal justice reform organizations. Formed after Fight For $15 efforts in 2016, Step Up Louisiana distributed surveys through the Fight For $15, OUR Walmart, Service Employees International Union and Stand With Dignity networks. The group used the results to build a platform which Step Up now is asking candidates to adopt: Establish a $15 minimum wage for municipal workers and lobby for local control over adopting a citywide $15 minimum wage; promote and ensure equal pay for equal work; guarantee family and sick leave for city employees and contractors; and "ban the box" on all employment applications to ensure formerly incarcerated people have a fair shot in the workplace.
As the city continues to spend more than $2 billion on repairs and infrastructure projects, local organizers are fighting to ensure local workers are hired for those jobs and earn fair shares of significant federal dollars. The city instituted a $10.55 minimum wage for city contractors; Louisiana has no minimum wage of its own, following the federal minimum wage guideline of $7.25 per hour. (State law prevents New Orleans from setting its own minimum wage hike outside municipal employment.)
Despite political obstacles, voters largely support raising the minimum wage and ensuring sick and family leave time, according to veteran pollster and sociologist Silas Lee. (The 2016 Louisiana Survey, conducted by Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs in the Manship School of Mass Communication, found that 76 percent of those polled supported a raise in the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour, including 59 percent of state Republicans.)
Step Up packed a town hall at Ashe Cultural Arts Center July 25. More than 20 candidates from nearly every race on this fall's ballot appeared — not on the stage, but in a seating area on the floor — while members of workers' groups such as Stand with Dignity and union organizers told their stories and gave candidates 30 seconds to give their positions on a wide range of issues. Those issues included raising the municipal minimum wage to $15, expanding New Orleans Regional Transit Authority access, supporting workers' rights to organize and whether they agree that curbing the city's crime rate can be solved with job training and career access among vulnerable residents.
"It's not just the minimum wage, it's closing the income gap, especially in an economy like New Orleans where you have a significant portion of the population in the service sector," Lee says. "Sick leave is a big issue, particularly among hourly wage workers, depending on the job they have, because if they take off sick [for themselves or a family member] ... that impacts their monthly income."
Mayoral candidates Tom Albert, Brandon Dorrington, LaToya Cantrell, Byron Cole, Troy Henry, Matthew Hill, Frank Scurlock and Hashim Walters have signed on to incorporate the platform into their agenda if elected. City Council At-Large candidates who support the platform include Joe Bouie, Jason Coleman, Kenneth Cutno, Helena Moreno, David Gregory Nowak and Jason Williams.
District A candidates who support the platform include Tilman Hardy, Dan Ring and Toiya Washington-Kendrick. In District B, Jay Banks, Eugene Ben-Oluwole, Timothy David Ray and Andre Strumer have signed on. District C candidates Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Nadine Ramsey support the platform, which also has the support of District D candidate Joel Jackson and District E candidates Dawn Hebert and Cyndi Nguyen.
Step Up plans to announce endorsements later this year.
New Orleans' DSA chapter is unlikely to make endorsements in 2017's local elections, but the group hopes to see more progressive candidates on local ballots. The national organization, the largest socialist body in the U.S., supports a broader ideological goal of remedying the systemic impacts of capitalism with a platform rooted in understanding health care and housing as human rights and advocating for a living wage, built on a foundation grounded by feminism and civil rights advocacy.
"New Orleans' Democratic party is pretty all-powerful," says Josh Lewis of DSA New Orleans. "You don't get a lot of candidates for [City] Council who are going to rock the boat because it's so critical for them to have the support of the party. ... Over time, hopefully that will change, and the more political engagement you have in the city, and more people paying attention, the more possibility for different kinds of candidates becoming successful."
The group also is stepping up its local activity. Among its earliest events as a group was supporting Nissan plant workers in Mississippi who rallied to unionize. The chapter's committees currently include locally focused efforts around labor and health care, and on Aug. 10 at Sidney's Saloon, the group hosts a fundraiser to replace car brake lights at no cost. Its goal remains amplifying existing organizations and efforts pressing for pragmatic reforms.
Lee says progressive groups will "without a doubt" play a role in future elections.
"They're able to mobilize people who are voters," he says. "That can have an impact in terms of who turns out and who is supported by those groups. They've gained visibility. In the past, people focused on a lot of the political organizations. Now you are witnessing the emergence of not only neighborhood groups but also groups looking at social, economic and educational equity and inclusion. ... You're looking at groups that have specific interests and are able to build coalitions around those interests."