The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your friendly neighborhood socialist is running for office in D.C.

Jewel Stroman, candidate for a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat, talks with fellow Democratic Socialists of America members Justin McCarthy and Kim Lehmkuhl after participating in a candidates’ forum at the DC Dream Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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American socialism is having a moment.

Leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, the ideology has been embraced by some as the future of progressive politics and shunned by others as a dangerous notion that could destroy the American way of life.

But in the District, home to a president who is unabashedly hostile to socialism in all its forms, democratic socialism has taken root.

Socialist candidates appear on this year’s ballot for Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats in five of the District’s eight wards. It’s the largest election push by the Democratic Socialists of America in any city in the country.

They’re tabling, canvassing, knocking on doors and pitching themselves as your friendly neighborhood socialists. And they want your vote.

“For me, socialism is someone who doesn’t want to be controlled by politics or the typical political standards,” said Jewel Stroman, a candidate running for an ANC seat in Southeast Washington. “Socialists just think that the people should run the system, that the people should have a bigger voice. And I agree; we should have the biggest voice in these decisions that are made about our lives.”

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The DSA — an organization that has endorsed candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who unseated New York’s top Democratic congressional incumbent and is poised to win on Tuesday — is supporting 11 ANC candidates in the District. There are 296 commissioners serving on 40 ANCs.

It’s the largest electoral effort the DSA has spearheaded in the District and the beginning of bigger things to come, organizers said.

“Two years from now, we’re going to run a whole lot more people,” said Matthew Sampson, 27, a DSA organizer and graduate student at Georgetown University running unopposed for an ANC seat representing the Dupont Circle neighborhood. “We want to show our neighbors that socialists are not people to be afraid of. We’re people who want to push for change from the bottom up instead of the top down.”

Focusing on ANC races instead of backing a D.C. Council candidate will put candidates closer to the issues facing communities, officials said. Organizers said it could be a precursor to having a socialist candidate run for higher city office.

DSA candidates are running for seats in Northwest, Northeast and Southeast Washington. ANC members, who serve two-year terms without pay, are nonpartisan elected representatives who advise District government leaders.

Not all of the city’s inhabitants are sold on socialism.

Last month, the White House issued a 72-page anti-socialist manifesto that decried some ideas of leading Democrats — including Medicare-for-all and free college education — as echoes of oppressive socialist regimes of the past, such as Vladi­mir Lenin’s Soviet Russia and Mao Zedong’s Communist China. The report compared socialist political platforms of today to policies that led to the violence and instability of present-day Venezuela.

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According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, public opinion has warmed to the notion of socialism, particularly among young voters.

According to the survey, 51 percent of respondents ages 18 to 29 had a positive view of socialism — though the term was not explicitly defined — and 57 percent of Democrats expressed the same. Among Republicans, 16 percent reported positive feelings about the ideology, a slight increase since 2016.

On the campaign trail in the District, ANC candidates said they’ve gotten a largely positive reaction.

“I think a lot of people are feeling like they don’t have a voice in politics or a seat at the table,” Stroman said. “Especially with the president and what he’s said and done, I think people just want to take their government back, and they want to have a say-so in what’s going on. That’s why I think all this new energy is there around socialism.”

Other residents don’t know what it means to identify as a socialist, candidates said. Socialism is predicated on the idea that wealth, goods and services should be shared by the community as a collective.

“People are so used to the liberal-conservative thing that I think most people, when they hear my platform, just assume I’m a liberal,” said Sampson, running on a platform of more walkable and bike-friendly communities, fighting gentrification and distributing resources from wealthier wards to poorer areas. “When I say, ‘Well, actually, I’m a socialist,’ usually they’re just surprised. Like, ‘Oh, wow. Okay. Cool.’ ”

Incumbent Beau Finley, a Cleveland Park resident endorsed by the DSA who is running for reelection to the ANC, said neighborhood issues aren’t always as politicized as national ones.

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“When I’m going door to door, people are really asking questions like, ‘What are you doing about the pothole on my street?’ ” he said. “And there really isn’t a [socialist] specific answer to that question.”

Potholes, it turns out, just need to be filled.

Finley’s other platforms are more informed by his politics, such as affordable housing and construction of a short-term housing facility for families in crisis.

Stroman is also running on housing issues — with a unique perspective: She once was homeless herself.

Sampson said the diversity of the DSA’s field — LGBT candidates, candidates of color and people from various socioeconomic backgrounds — is its biggest strength.

“Our current political parties don’t address the realities in our local neighborhoods and communities,” he said. “They treat people like resources and wallets rather than constituents. The ANC campaign is part of our movement to challenge that and push back on that thinking. We’re going to change the way D.C. politics is done.”

Correction: This story originally said the District has 40 ANC commissioners. There are 296 commissioners serving on 40 ANCs.

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