Our disagreements are not with endorsing Steve Dunwoody—Mark has worked with Steve in protecting the San Gabriel Mountains and we enthusiastically support DSA’s endorsement of him. It is not common we have a left candidate of Steve’s caliber and we should work hard to elect him. We also appreciate the Electoral Politics Committee’s leadership in developing an endorsement proposal and campaign strategy. Our concerns are more fundamental—how we as DSA, a predominantly white organization (note: we are Asian American) engages communities of color—in this case the historically African American 54th Assembly District.
How DSA conducts electoral work within L.A. County, which is 49% Latinx; 26% White; 16% Asian Pacific Islander; 9% African American and 1.4% Native American, is important to how we engage, work with and recruit people of color. We will frequently find ourselves in situations where there is more than one progressive candidate of color in the primary and in the general election. Our goals should be (1) electing Steve, and (2) strengthening relationships with the African American and Latinx communities, organizations and candidates in the District. We can do both by working hard to elect Steve in a thoughtful and respectful way.
Elections are not only about candidates and platforms; they are also about the social forces assembled behind the candidates. The Committee’s endorsement proposal describes only the “political machine” that elects corporate-backed establishment candidates that are often focused on incrementalist change. This analysis overlooks the important history of struggle by communities of color to elect progressive representatives of their race and ethnicity. An African American-led coalition with Jews, Latinxs, Asians and progressive whites took years to topple the racist mayorship of Sam Yorty in 1973, while recognizing all the limitations of electoral offices in a capitalist society. From 1962 to 1985 there were no Latinx members on the L.A. City Council, due to gerrymandering by Democratic and Republican incumbents. It took the threat by the La Raza Unida Party as an electoral force, a recall campaign and court orders that resulted in Richard Alatorre’s election in 1985. Court ordered redistricting rewrote L.A. County’s districts resulting in Gloria Molina becoming the first Latina County Supervisor in 1992. Communities of color can take pride in their struggles that elected candidates of their own, while also having varying levels of frustration with those same officials. We share this so we approach and respect voters with this duality in mind, not simply as passive dupes of the “machine.”
Electoral campaigns by their nature are polarizing, but they do not have to be denigrating or antagonistic. We can and must highlight issue differences that show Steve to be the best candidate without running negative campaigns against the other candidates, most of whom have their own accomplishments and loyal constituencies. The majority of Steve’s opponents are African American, including a trans woman who is an LGBTQ activist and another a senior legislative aide who has done work on welfare rights and criminal justice. For a predominantly white leftist organization and its campaigners to be making negative characterizations of other African American candidates will alienate African Americans who respect those other candidates for their contributions to the community, even if they like Steve Dunwoody.
Should DSA-LA vote in support of endorsing Steve Dunwoody, we urge DSA-LA and the Electoral Politics Committee to:
1) Redraft an endorsement statement that highlights issue differences and does not include negative characterizations of other candidates;
2) Develop thoughtful campaign messaging and campaigner training that considers these concerns.
-Mark Masaoka and Alex Wilensky