DSA Philly: Changing the World, 7000 Conversations At A Time

This week, volcanic news from Philadelphia DSA —whose organizers are talking not about the national Democratic Party, but about how the electoral work could help further the policy priorities they’d been working on all year. (Below, a table of supplies for the canvassers who helped deliver those victories. Photo: Jeremy Wheatley, Philly DSA Canvassing Committee

 

Photo: Jeremy Wheatley

By Chris Lombardi

“Election results are a kind of solidarity,” wrote Philadelphia poet Gregory Laynor on May 16.

Laynor’s comment, a sort of refrain for the Temple University English professor, also evoked the mood of many of Laynor’s fellow members of DSA Philadelphia, the day after the state’s primary elections.

That day, national media seemed bemused as they reported on victories by DSA-backed candidates, with CNN announcing simply, “Democratic Socialist women make big gains in Pennsylvania.” Liberal outlets Mother Jones and The New Yorker exulted, while right-wing media sounded the alarm. “Socialist-backed candidates score primary victories across Pennsylvania,” cried Fox News, while the conservative National Review snarked, “Turn Pennsylvania red – No, Red.” By Wednesday, mainstream Democrats were just as worried, seeing socialist victories as the death knell for their hoped-for “blue wave.” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd declared, “We’re seeing a Democratic version of the Tea Party.” Most of the latter seemed focused on the news from Pittsburgh DSA, who backed a pair of charismatic women that defeated two brothers who’d long been in the state Democratic establishment.

But at the other end of Pennsylvania was similarly volcanic news from Philadelphia DSA—whose organizers were talking not about the Democratic Party, but about how the electoral work could help further the policy priorities they’d been working on all year.

For Marilyn Arwood, chair of the chapter’s Canvassing Committee, that means Medicare For All. The committee has been knocking on doors in Philly for more than a year, and gaining a surprising amount of support, she told me when I met her on May 6. That day, we were at an apartment in South Philadelphia, where Arwood was coordinating a “persuasion canvass” in the 184th District. More than 17 DSA volunteers came in that day, picked up packets of literature and went out to talk to voters. Their mission: Engage people, talking about state Assembly candidate Elizabeth Fiedler as part of the campaign for Medicare for All. “I often find that it’s much easier to start off talking to people about something like health care, that affects them personally,” Arwood said. “Then we can tell them about a candidate.”

Arwood’s committee has been canvassing for M4A for more than a year, she said. “We had one canvass a month between last summer and this spring,” she said. “Then our focus had to shift when the chapter endorsed candidates.” Unlike many chapters, Philly DSA had voted earlier not to establish electoral working groups, but to enfold its electoral work into its already-ongoing projects, from Medicare For All to the local issues targeted by Local Initiative-Local Action Committee (LILAC) (e.g. public education, housing/tenants’ rights, women’s health).  The chapter’s Electoral Evaluation Committee (EEC), then, judges candidates not on their “electability” but on their commitment to those core issues.

Greg Laynor, the poet quoted above, serves as coordinator of LILAC. The chapter’s interest in election work focuses on building multiracial, diverse coalitions, and Laynor divided the weekend before the election accordingly. On Saturday, LILAC brought the DSA Afro-Socialist Task Force to Philadelphia for a day-long organizers’ training to help build capacity for such coalitions, and on Sunday, Laynor joined the canvass for Fiedler, in South Philadelphia. (He also had some grading to do, reporting on Sunday: “Canvassed for an hour. Working on grades in Canvas for an hour.”) But by the end of Election Day, Laynor felt validated: “Trending in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: democratic socialist women winning elections with multiracial working class coalitions.”

EEC member Scott Alberts approved. “Our campaigns serve the organization,” Alberts told me in a recent phone conversation. Alberts said that he had joined DSA two years ago, after years “looking for a socialist formation” wherein he could use his political skills. Back then, he said, the chapter felt tiny, like “20 people meeting at Fergie’s.” Then came the post-Sanders boom, during which Alberts took a break from DSA to win election as treasurer of nearby Upper Darby Township in 2017. By the time he rejoined DSA the Philly chapter was up to 750 members with about 150-200 members active in chapter and committee work. Alberts joined the EEC, finding its electoral work essential to creating a socialist future.  “If your theory of social change doesn’t include an electoral component, it’s just liberal activism.” Charged with implementing DSA’s electoral component, the EEC in this election evaluated and recommended candidates for endorsement, after a detailed questionnaire and interviews.

After the chapter voted to endorse both Fiedler and Kristin Seale of suburban Delaware County, the Canvassing Committee got into gear. “We deployed our resources early to help Seale,” Alberts told me, noting that DSA canvasses collected a full half of the petition signatures Seale needed to get on the ballot. After both were nominated, the Committee organized weekly door-knocking efforts for both candidates.

“In total, we ran eight weekends of canvassing, during which approximately 50 unique canvassers were involved in our efforts,” Arwood said via email. “For the Seale campaign, we knocked 2000 doors, according to her campaign manager, and for the Fiedler campaign we knocked roughly 5000 per our own estimates.”

Neither campaign was easy. Seale was a queer-identified candidate in the traditionally-more-conservative  Philadelphia suburbs;  Fiedler ran against both a former police officer opposed to the city’s recent criminal-justice reforms, and a Democratic ward leader who blitzed the district with leaflets financed by corrupt union leader John (“Johnny Doc”Dougherty. Those 7000 conversations, door by door, helped both candidates beat their opponents. More important to most in Philly DSA, those conversations may have opened the door to the multi-racial, working-class coalition of our dreams.

“The path forward is clear,” wrote chapter co-chairs Melissa Naschek and Scott Jenkins in their post-election message. “As socialists we need to continue to talk to people about the urgent universal demands that can improve their lives.  We need to continue to talk to voters—shop to shop, door to door, and face to face—about our political program and candidates that will deliver on the reforms that can strengthen and cohere a working-class social base.”

Whatever happens in November, many members are quoting the Election Night tweet of Pittsburgh DSA chair Arielle Cohen: "We won on popular demands that were deemed impossible. We won on health care for all, we won on free education. We’re turning the state the right shade of red.”

Canvass coordinator Arwood told me that she joined DSA after growing up in n the District of Columbia, whose lifeblood is kind of  a wary cynicism: “I found the optimism of DSA so refreshing. I got to work toward what I really believe.” In Philadelphia, at least, Arwood and other DSA’ers agreed that the work of turning PA our shade of red is just beginning.

Chris Lombardi, one of DSA Weekly’s managing editors, has lived in Philadelphia for the past decade, which means she can finally call it her home.  

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