congress

Democratic Socialists Look to Bronx U.S. House Race for Next Victory

Organizer and South Bronx native Samelys Lopez got the DSA nomination for the crowded 15th Congressional District race.
Organizer and South Bronx native Samelys Lopez got the DSA nomination for the crowded 15th Congressional District race. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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By one calculation, The Bronx’s 15th Congressional District is the most left-leaning in the country: A greater share of its voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than anywhere else in the nation.

But is the district ready for the Democratic Socialists of America?

The activist group that mobilized ultra-liberal voters in Brooklyn and Queens to win key state Senate seats — and nearly got one of its members, Tiffany Cabán, elected Queens district attorney — is betting that The Bronx is theirs to conquer.

DSA’s most famous member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won a congressional seat split between The Bronx and Queens last year in an upset that rocked national politics — but got a lopsided share of her votes in Queens.

On Saturday, NYC-DSA announced its endorsement of Samelys Lopez for Congress in the 15th District — support that could help the relatively unknown 40-year-old housing organizer stand out in a field of at least nine Democratic primary candidates.

They’re running to succeed longtime Rep. Jose Serrano (D-The Bronx), who in March announced his retirement from Congress.

“The South Bronx is overwhelmingly revolutionary,” said a “super excited” Lopez. “There is a thirst for revolutionary, transformative leadership.”

Hotly Contested

Lopez beat out four other candidates for the DSA endorsement, including ex-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former labor organizer who was instrumental in pushing to close Rikers Island.

The hopefuls seeking DSA’s backing were required to fill out a questionnaire and then attend a forum, according to Jazz Hooks, a member of the city DSA’s labor branch organizing committee.

Tomas Ramos.
Tomas Ramos. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Three high-profile candidates — Councilmembers Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz Sr., and  Assemblymember Michael Blake — did not pursue DSA support, the group said.

The DSA’s Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch is growing, Hooks said, with more than 500 registered members, mostly in Upper Manhattan.

“I was born and raised in The Bronx and the issues that are important to people in the district are the issues that are important to so many of us,” said Hooks, who cited rising housing costs, environmental and economic injustice, and unemployment.

Lopez, a Bronx native and already a DSA member, noted that the organization “doesn’t take their endorsements lightly.”

Since the days of the South Bronx burning, the borough has been a key arena in the fight for social equality, economic justice, and workers rights, among other things, said Lopez, a former Bronx Community Board 7 vice chair and past candidate for 78th Assembly district leader.

“If you care about all of that, then you are a member of the far left, and you are a member of the Squad, because you care about all of these issues,” she said. “You are part of the team.”

Lopez isn’t the only candidate running in the left lane. In October, Brand New Congress, a progressive group that assisted Ocasio-Cortez’s run, endorsed Tomas Ramos, who directs youth programs at the Bronx River Houses Community Center.

More high-profile endorsements from the left could be coming, too.

Ocasio-Cortez is “looking really closely at that race,” said a source familiar with her thinking. The Congressmember is hoping the district will be represented by a candidate who, like her, has refused to take money from corporations and lobbyists, the source added.

‘Not the Next AOC’

While Lopez said she would appreciate a nod from Ocasio-Cortez, she told THE CITY she wants to maintain her independence. “I’m not the next AOC,” she said.

The two share similarities, however.

Both identify as democratic socialists and are vocal backers of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All and universal childcare. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Lopez has rebuffed “big money” donations from corporations, real estate developers and political action committees, or PACs, to her campaign.

But unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Lopez is not a complete political outsider.
In addition to her run for district leader, she served as an intern for Serrano. She most recently worked for the nonprofit Breaking Ground on affordable housing development.

Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A centerpiece of her campaign is “Homes Guarantee,” a pledge to house homeless Americans. Lopez suggests a tax on real estate speculation could help fund what she acknowledges is an “ambitious agenda.”

“Housing should not be seen as a way to accumulate wealth and capital and power. It should be viewed as a collective good,” like public education, she said.

The housing push is a personal mission, she said — when she was a child, Lopez and her family lived in a shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Her mother moved the family there to escape domestic violence at home, she said. Her family eventually found stable housing in the South Bronx.

“To me, the South Bronx, this Congressional district, is the embodiment of the American dream,” Lopez said. It was where she developed an interest in education, she added, later attending Barnard College and earning a master’s degree in urban planning from NYU.

Where Sanders Struggled

Some political observers are unsure the DSA backing for Lopez will carry much influence in stampede to succeed Serrano.

“It’s gonna be much much tougher for [DSA] in this race than it was in the AOC race,” said John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research.

In that primary, in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez was not running against nearly as many candidates, bettering her chances, said Mollenkopf. And she didn’t do as well in The Bronx portion of her Bronx-Queens district, performing better in the gentrifying north-central Queens neighborhoods she now represents, he added.

And a primary election in a presidential year won’t necessarily do a Democratic socialist or similar candidate any favors.

Out of 70,800 people in NY-15 who voted in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Mollenkopf notes, 18,714 chose socialist Bernie Sanders, while 47,300 went for Hillary Clinton. “Sanders did worse in that Congressional district than he did in that borough as a whole,” he noted.

“On the other hand, in a crowded multi-candidate race, if the DSA can locate everybody who voted for Sanders in 2016 and get the Sanders share of the total to be in this primary what it was in that primary, they could well have their person come out first,” Mollenkopf added.

’Jedi Forces’

Lopez has already laid some groundwork for grassroots support.

She worked on community organizing to push New York’s new pro-tenant rent law. She’s a co-founder of the collective Bronx Progressives, which endorsed Ocasio-Cortez during her upset 2018 run against longtime Queens power broker Rep. Joe Crowley.

The choice to back Ocasio-Cortez, then a political unknown, came at a moment “when everybody in the city did not want to do that because they wanted to support Crowley — or at least the political leaders — and that’s something that we saw happen,” Lopez told THE CITY.

Congressmember José Serrano (D-Bronx) at a 2017 press conference. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo/Flickr

“But then the group saw something different, and we wanted to fight for a different kind of political representation.”

The group also endorsed state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who ousted Jeff Klein, the incumbent Democrat who created the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference and went into league with Senate Republicans.

Biaggi’s success, part of a left wave that led to a Democratic takeover of the Senate, signaled a move toward “transformational,” not “transactional” politics in the borough, Lopez said.

“Basically, like, I was part of the Jedi forces in New York City politics last year.”

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