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In California, Jovanka Beckles Challenges the Democratic Establishment

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The battle against the corporate establishment heated up in August when California Assembly District 15 candidate Jovanka Beckles released her bold new platform, calling for Medicare for All, a $20 minimum wage, a green jobs program for 100% clean energy, and the construction of hundreds of thousands of units of quality social housing. Her campaign video denounces the rule of big business over our political system and highlights the crisis faced by working people in the Bay Area. At the same time, her new campaign materials provide a vision of an alternative, based on social movements and on struggle against corporate interests – something her big business opponent doesn’t offer.

Beckles is up against the Democratic Party establishment candidate Buffy Wicks. Wicks worked with president Obama in the White House, and later became known for her role in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as “Buffy the Bernie Slayer” – coined by her own team! Unlike Beckles, Wicks’s donors read like a Who’s Who of the Bay Area establishment, including billionaires, hedge fund CEOs and even a personal advisor to the former Republican Governor. She has received over $450,000 from a Political Action Committee called Govern for CA, run by a Republican strategist and funded by billionaires and venture capitalists, which supports the expansion of charter schools and opposes Beckles’ progressive platform. Wicks’ donors represent the sort of corporate domination of politics that working class and young people are increasingly rejecting, and we hope to see these big business interests defeated in November.

Beckles has never taken any corporate money for her campaigns and pledges that she never will. Winning the election will be an uphill battle, considering the treasure chest that the super-rich and the Democratic establishment are amassing. But Beckles’ campaign has begun to develop a strong base of grassroots support. The Democratic Socialists of America in the East Bay have thrown their weight behind her, and were instrumental in helping her advance past the primary. By the time of the primary, Wicks had already raised over a million dollars, but Beckles was able to squeeze into second place partly thanks to the door-knocking and phone-banking efforts that DSA had prioritized. Now after the primary they are not only providing foot soldiers, but have been playing a major role in developing her platform.

Bay Area Housing Crisis

Assembly District 15 includes some of the areas most impacted by the Bay Area housing crisis, like Berkeley and north Oakland. Beckles has aligned herself with the movement for Proposition 10, an initiative on the ballot for November which would open the door for strengthening and widening rent control statewide. She has recently joined DSA and is also a leader in the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which has built successful movements in Richmond, CA for rent control, tenant protections, and has won several seats on the city council. Beckles herself is on the city council in Richmond, after winning two elections with a corporate-free campaign and a left-wing platform.

Bay Area rents have grown astronomically, which has fed gentrification, evictions, and brazen profit-seeking along with it. A campaign that is bold enough to call for “several hundred thousand units of new affordable social housing statewide,” as Jovanka Beckles does, will be enthusiastically received by the working class of her district. The big developers on the other hand are lining up with other corporate interests to go all-out to defeat Beckles and Proposition 10 this November. This campaign will be a critical fight for working people in California and nationwide.

The Rising Left in California

Why has big business amassed over $1 million to defeat Beckles? What keeps the rich awake at night is the rising anger that moderate Democrats cannot appease. They fear the continuous growth in popularity of left ideas in the U.S. and a new opening for socialist ideas. Medicare for All has now become so popular that a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll indicated even a majority of Republicans favor it. As we saw with Bernie Sanders in 2016, a bold progressive election campaign can give people confidence to fight and can unite a movement around broad demands like Medicare for All. Kshama Sawant in Seattle shows what an elected socialist can do with their office when they win – use that platform as a megaphone to build social movements that can win real victories. For the Silicon Valley tech billionaires and people like them, it’s not so much Beckles they’re afraid of, it’s the role she can play in raising expectations for social change and inspiring working people to fight.

Beckles has often spoken out against the corporate establishment that runs the Democratic Party. In Richmond, the Democratic Party’s politicians acted as puppets of Chevron, the largest employer in the city. Chevron even had their own desk at city hall! For the RPA, which Beckles is a part of, working within the Chevron-dominated Democratic Party machine in the city was just not an option, and this contributed to the RPA organizing itself outside the Democratic Party. However, in most cities not dominated by a single employer, the Democratic Party’s role as the primary political weapon of the bosses in California is far less obvious. Socialists should put forward a positive program of what we want to fight for, but it’s also important to explain what we’re up against, and the Democratic Party machine is one of the central obstacles in the way of Beckles’ vision.

Beckles should continue to keep the economic demands front and center in her campaign and not be swayed by the endless line of corporate Democratic moderates who now want an audience with her. Leaning back to the center to accommodate this layer in the Democratic Party could be fatal to winning. There is a progressive wave building across the country, which underlies the victories that democratic socialist candidates have seen in recent months. While some mainstream Democrats are adopting progressive demands such as Medicare for all, real left candidates should use their campaigns to boldly mobilize working people, millennials, and those who don’t usually vote. Tilting to the center is the failed model of Pelosi and Co. which is ultimately about selling moderate change that will not significantly improve the lives of working people. People are fed up with the establishment and want to rock the boat!

Wicks has secured endorsements from the Democratic Party establishment that reach all the way up to former President Obama. She is attempting to brand herself as a progressive, but a more “practical” one than Beckles. However, the facts would argue otherwise. Buffy Wicks was the only candidate in the crowded primary election who opposed Proposition 10. Her progressive veneer can be wiped away with a strong focus on concrete housing demands like Proposition 10 and the other bold elements of Beckles’s platform. Wicks cannot endorse these popular and necessary reforms without upsetting her corporate backers.

The Need for a Broad Working-Class Movement

Jovanka Beckles has chosen not to run as an independent socialist, but has stayed registered with the Democratic Party. She and many in the DSAs argue that there are advantages in being part of the Democratic Party election process, including early visibility, party loyalty from some sections of voters, and fewer technical hurdles. Obviously this “pragmatic” argument has a lot of appeal especially in the wake of the victories for DSA backed candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar in New York.

However, we need to look at the deeper process undermining corporate politics in the U.S.Since the financial crisis, many of the institutions that run society have been discredited in the eyes of working people – big corporations, the banks, political parties, congress, the presidency, and more. There is deep frustration in society towards both parties of big business, and along with this frustration, a desire for fundamental change. What is the best way to tap into that mood? In the crowded primary this June, all but one of the twelve candidates ran as Democrats, and most claimed to be progressive. A powerful way to stand apart from the corporate careerist politicians would be by running outside the Democratic Party, as an independent socialist.

But there are other reasons to take the independent approach, which go beyond calculating the easiest path to win an election. Win or lose, progressive candidates can use their campaigns to point the way towards a strategy that can win even greater victories. Beckles’s ally in the RPA, Gayle McLaughlin, used her 2018 independent campaign for Lieutenant Governor as a way to export the RPA model to cities beyond just Richmond. It’s difficult to tell if these new Progressive Alliances that have been created will ultimately meet with the same success as the one in Richmond, but they are important steps in the direction of political independence. Beckles’s decision to run as a Democratic Party candidate has the opposite effect.

The Democratic Party plays a central role in frustrating progressive challenges and blocking social movements. Prominent individuals like Jovanka Beckles and groups like the DSA are leaders in the growing left-wing movement – not just after they win elections, but in the whole process of struggle. Their leadership should be used to warn about the dangers posed by the Democratic Party and to raise the banner of a new party for working people. This can be done in a way that doesn’t condemn us to the margins of politics, but instead can put us right in the center of the key debates in society.

When Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant ran for Seattle city council in 2013 as an independent socialist, she was able to win 94,000 votes citywide by basing her campaign on the $15 minimum wage struggle. Since she won the election, Kshama has been able to serve as a voice and a megaphone for the low-wage workers fighting for $15, and also for tenants, union organizers, and oppressed people across Seattle. At the end of the day, the strength of the movement is what determines how much we can win – the role of socialist political representatives is to use their position to help build that movement. Kshama’s bold critique of capitalism and her approach of calling out the anti-worker policies of local politicians has made her no friends among the Democratic Party establishment in Seattle. But by basing herself on the struggles of working people, with complete independence from corporate politics, Kshama and Socialist Alternative have helped the movement avoid some of the pitfalls of establishment politics.

What Can One Socialist Do?

If Beckles wins, what can we look forward to in the first 100 days from a self-described socialist in the California Assembly? Though she will be opposed bitterly on the majority of her progressive policies, she should use her new platform to amplify the struggle for a solution to the housing crisis. We could finally have an elected socialist saying what needs to be done – we need to build hundreds of thousands of homes across the state which are permanently affordable. Working with the movement, Beckles should draft a bill to accomplish this and which could mobilize working people to fight for it. The bill should fund the housing through a tax on wealthy tech companies, the big housing developers, and on big business generally. It should require the state to follow through with a combination of new construction and utilization of vacant or foreclosed homes.

Beckles also has the opportunity to reignite the battle for Medicare for All. In California, the Democratic Party has a super-majority, meaning the only opposition to these proposals that matters will come from the leaders of her own party. A bold Medicare for All bill could force likely governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who claims to support single-payer health care, to reveal his actual position on this issue and not hide behind broad generalizations.

If, in the next few weeks, Beckles proudly declares her intent to shake up the California Assembly with immediate proposals such as these, it would inspire working people and youth and lay the basis for a new stage of struggle in 2019. The next month until the election will be a huge battle. The Democratic Party establishment and Republicans are united in their desire to defeat Beckles. They will use their money to send negative mailers to targeted households to attempt to whip up fear of what they say Beckles represents. Moderate figures in the Democratic Party will either step aside from this fight or jump in to argue for Beckles to be more moderate. In reality, the ideas of the DSA and Beckles’ program go beyond the liberal politics of the Democrats. Through this process, whether through victory or defeat, the DSA, the socialist movement, labor and community activists will increasingly be driven towards the need for an independent movement and political party of working people as the most effective way to win our goals. The next month will be important in this long term fight, and a defeat for the establishment on election day would be a victory for working people.

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