Local Democratic Socialists to host politician on the rise Tuesday — and hope their time is next


Update (7/31/18): The venue has been changed to Grey Area on Mission Street. But, alas, any extra tickets sold out faster than one could say, “Ocasio-Cortez.”  

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the 28-year-old political newbie who upset Democratic party fixture Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York primary in June — will stop by the Mission District’s El Rio bar on Tuesday.

For many of the city’s young and left-leaning denizens, the visit is a big deal. All 300 tickets sold out in seven hours, shortly after they became available last Wednesday afternoon, said organizer Claire Lau, an interim co-chair of the San Francisco Progressive Alliance.  

“We’re exploring larger venues,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are wanting to buy tickets, and we’re trying to see if we can accommodate.”

Around 5,000 people were interested on Facebook, she said — but she and other organizers are unsure they will be able to locate a larger venue in time.

Ocasio-Cortez, who less than a year ago was bartending at a Mexican restaurant in New York City, earned instant celebrity status after she unseated Crowley, a 10-term Congressman and aspiring House Speaker, in New York’s 14th Congressional District. She is expected to defeat her Republican opponent, Anthony Pappas, in November — and become the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress.

Her win has further galvanized a new movement of mostly young Democratic Socialists around the country. Democratic Socialists of America membership jumped to 47,000, from 41,000, nationwide following her win.

Ocasio-Cortez’s visit is also a nod to this city’s ascendant DSA movement. In San Francisco, DSA membership gained around 180 members since June, and now stands at 1,000. But, perhaps more importantly, the group has proven itself to be a political force in this city.

The DSA was instrumental in passing June’s Proposition F, which would provide city-funded attorneys for tenants facing eviction. At the same time, it played a major role in organizing against the Police Officers Association’s Taser measure, Prop. H, which would have rapidly armed officers with the electronic weapons and broadly permitted their use on members of the public. Despite the police union’s well-funded effort and pre-election polls claiming nearly 80 percent of city residents supported Taser use, Prop. H went down in flames by a 60-40 split.  

In short, the local DSA and national candidates like Ocasio-Cortez are having a moment — one that could be a first step to large-scale political relevancy.

“Before [Ocasio-Cortez] won, a lot of people could marginalize socialist movements by saying, ‘They’re never going to win and they’re on the fringe,’” said Shanti Singh, a co-chair of the San Francisco DSA. “It builds on, locally, what we were able to do with Prop. F. People are starting to realize that [democratic socialism] is a force that can deliver.”  

San Francisco’s DSA chapter was virtually nonexistent before summer 2016. It was then made up of only “five bearded white dudes,” Singh said. But during the heat of the 2016 presidential election and rise of Bernie Sanders — who considers himself a Democratic Socialist — membership steadily grew. “We now have 16 committees in San Francisco alone,” Singh said, adding that those committees are focused on a range of local issues, such as housing, homelessness and environmental justice.

This has, for a certain stripe of San Francisco or Bay Area politician, become an attractive label to self-apply. Several candidates for city office are now identifying as Democratic Socialists. In San Francisco, Tony Kelly, a longtime activist and a member of the DSA and San Francisco Berniecrats, is running for District 10 supervisor in November. And Dean Preston, who narrowly lost to London Breed two years ago in District 5, is now running for that seat again as a Democratic Socialist.

In the East Bay, Cat Brooks is running for mayor of Oakland as a Democratic Socialist. Gayle McLaughlin, the former Richmond mayor and a Green Party member, is running for California lieutenant governor with the backing of the East Bay DSA. Richmond City Council Member Jovanka Beckles, who is running for the California State Assembly, also has the endorsement of the East Bay DSA, which grew 260 members since Ocasio-Cortez’s win and now has a membership of around 1,200. 

It’s Beckles, an openly lesbian African American woman who, more than any other Bay Area politician, gives local DSA members hope they’ve found their West Coast Ocasio-Cortez.

Ocasio-Cortez’s visit will only further inspire an existing local movement, said District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who helped organize the Congressional candidate’s journey to the Bay Area. “There’s strong interest in her, and we want to make sure we’re supporting her in San Francisco,” Kim said.

Progressive activist movements, like DSA and the Berniecrats, have long been present in San Francisco, Kim continued. “What’s different now,” she said, “is a connection to a national movement.”

Example A: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

She’s the embodiment of what we want the next generation of people who work in government representing us to look like,” Lau said. “Running our own candidate has been on people’s minds for a while. The most inspiring thing is: It’s actually doable now.”