GUEST COMMENTARY - The Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has emerged as the clear winner of the city’s June 7 primary in the weeks since ballot counting began.
Five out of the nine candidates on the ballot for city office to earn the DSA’s endorsement have either won outright (garnering more than 50 percent of the vote) or advanced to the general election with leads over their rivals. The results reveal the expanding political might of L.A.’s socialist Left.
Los Angeles primaries usually see low turnout. Well-organized groups with a solid ground game stand to do best. This year, every registered voter was mailed a ballot, and 84 percent of ballots were cast by mail. The city now permits ballot harvesting and unguarded drop boxes, and it doesn’t check signatures. The DSA took advantage of these rules, got boots on the ground, and reaped the rewards.
In the race for city controller, activist Kenneth Mejia—who has called for deep cuts to law enforcement and for guaranteed-income programs—won 43 percent of the vote, outpacing longtime councilmember Paul Koretz by nearly 20 percentage points. In the race for city attorney, civil rights lawyer Faisal Gill—who has promised to impose a 100-day moratorium on misdemeanor criminal filings and argues that a municipal rule regulating the locations of homeless encampments is illegal and immoral—won 24 percent of the vote, leading attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto by four percentage points.
The city council, too, may soon be reshaped. In Council District 11, which represents coastal neighborhoods such as Venice and Pacific Palisades, Erin Darling won 35 percent of the vote in a competitive eight-person race. Darling is a civil rights lawyer who has represented high-profile activists such as Melina Abdullah—a cofounder of Black Lives Matter L.A.—in lawsuits against the city. Progressive incumbent Mike Bonin, who narrowly survived a recall effort by exasperated constituents but decided not to run for his last term, has endorsed Darling as his successor. Meantime, in Council District 13, which encompasses Hollywood neighborhoods along the 101 Freeway, union organizer and neighborhood activist Hugo Soto Martinez won 41 percent of the vote, maintaining an eight-point lead over incumbent Mitch O’Farrell, who has been in office since 2013. Hundreds of DSA members knocked on 35,000 doors to help elect Soto-Martinez, who recently signed a “no new cops” pledge organized by Black Lives Matter, thereby committing to voting against any plans for hiring additional police above attrition. In fact, Soto-Martinez would replace every officer who leaves the department with mental-health professionals or other unarmed workers.
Nowhere was the DSA more successful than in Council District 1, where its favored candidate scored an outright victory and unseated Councilman Gil Cedillo, a 24-year political veteran who had served in Sacramento and at city hall. Thirty-two-year-old Eunisses Hernandez won outright with 54 percent of the vote, beating out the incumbent Cedillo by eight percentage points. Hernandez refers to herself as L.A.’s first elected “abolitionist”—as in the abolition of police and jails. A lifelong resident of the district, Hernandez is best known for her work at La Defensa, a group that advocates alternatives to criminalization and incarceration as well as the election of progressive judges. As the executive director, she worked with high-level activists such as Patrisse Cullors, a founder of Black Lives Matter, to coauthor Measure J, approved by voters in 2020, which prompted county officials to divert $100 million from the jail system into community services. Hernandez has successfully pressed county leaders to move forward with plans for closing a major men’s jail and replacing it with social services. She will join Nithya Raman as the second DSA member elected to the city council; Raman’s January victory was described as a “political earthquake” by the Los Angeles Times.
For all its electoral success, however, the L.A. DSA’s ideas would make life worse for Angelenos. The group supports “a universal public and unionized education system” and opposes “further charter privatization,” which explains its recent alliance with the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Ironically, working-class minorities tend to support educational choice, either in the form of vouchers, charters, or all-district admission policies. Yet California children are educationally redlined into their ZIP-code-determined schools even when state officials know that these schools are failing.
I grew up in El Sereno, a neighborhood that, as of 2015, had a 33 percent poverty rate and a median family income of $42,188, and I attended El Sereno middle school, where 60 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders do not meet or exceed English language requirements, and 65 percent do not meet math standards. Today, I live on the west side of Los Angeles, where the closest elementary school is Palms Middle School, which, as of 2015, had a poverty rate of 12.6 percent and a median family income of $92,422. Only 36 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders do not meet or exceed English language requirements, a rate that rises to 51 percent for math requirements. Minority students are disproportionately hurt by Los Angeles’s subpar public school systems. The DSA’s refusal to challenge underperforming schools in minority neighborhoods is a testament to its role as a mouthpiece for failed public-sector unions such as the UTLA. Despite cannibalizing almost half the annual state budget, California’s schools fail their students miserably compared with other states, with test scores near the bottom nationally. Yet public schools remain dominated by teachers’ unions, and their overflowing coffers make them the most potent political force in California politics.
The DSA also attacks private property rights in the city, opposing “the dominant mode of housing under which most residents of LA must rent their housing from landlords or banks” while supporting “new housing that is permanently affordable and not operated for profit.” The pandemic led to a partial moratorium on evictions that extends for a year past the end of the Covid state of emergency—under which the state is still operating. Many landlords have gone without rent since March 2020 and lack any legal recourse to evict nonpaying tenants. A recent Urban Institute study found that anti-eviction laws during the pandemic disproportionately hurt minority landlords. “Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy,” the DSA assures, nor does it want “big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either.” Instead, it maintains that “social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.” But the DSA’s policies have the opposite effect of these expressed intentions. With mom-and-pop landlords going under, only well-capitalized corporate landlords can stay in business.
Progressive criminal-justice policies also hurt the communities on whose behalf the DSA purports to speak. In June 2020, city councilmember and president Nury Martinez tweeted that she and three other councilmembers had introduced a motion calling for $150 million in cuts to the LAPD budget. The cuts came just as violence in the city was beginning to surge, especially in black and Latino communities. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis of LAPD data, the rise in homicides over the 18-month period since the beginning of the pandemic was almost entirely made up of Latino and black victims. Latinos account for 49 percent of the city’s population and 50 percent of homicide victims during the same 18-month period. Black residents, just 9 percent of the city’s population, accounted for 36 percent of the victims. Meantime, non-Latino whites, who make up 29 percent of the city’s population, accounted for fewer than 8 percent of homicide victims.
One might view the DSA as a younger, well-organized apparatus for the public-sector unions that have long dominated Los Angeles politics. In the name of equity, democratic socialists support high-tax, anti-mobility, and anti-law-enforcement policies that will endanger the city’s already-embattled middle class.
(Soledad Ursúa (@SoledadUrsua) is a finance professional and elected board member of the Venice Neighborhood Council. She holds an M.S. from The New School for Management and Urban Policy. This article was featured in City Journal.)