Madison's socialist organizers look to transform local politics, starting with the school board
As DSA makes headlines across the country, the Madison chapter is having a modest but real impact. (Illustration by Lauden Nute.)
In the past two years, members and endorsees of the Democratic Socialists of America have won elections around the country. In the most high-profile victory, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat centrist Democrat Joe Crowley, the machine-backed incumbent from New York's 14th Congressional District in the Bronx and Queens, to become one of the most exciting new members of the House of Representatives. More recently, in Chicago, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez won her race for alder of Chicago’s 33rd ward, beating her opponent by just over a dozen votes. Rodriguez-Sanchez’s victory was newsworthy not just because she toppled a 44-year family dynasty with connections to Chicago’s political machine to become the first Latinx alder of the 33rd ward. Rodriguez-Sanchez was also the fourth democratic socialist to win a Chicago City Council Race this year. Democratic socialists now hold six of the 50 seats on the Chicago City Council.
In Madison, the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter had its own reasons to celebrate this spring. The chapter's very first foray into local politics yielded success when DSA-endorsed school board candidate Ananda Mirilli won her race against sitting school board member TJ Mertz on April 2.
That was just one endorsement and just one race, and DSA still has yet to achieve any substantive policy victories in local government. It doesn’t quite compare to winning a spot in the House of Representatives, or even taking hold of a respectable fraction of a city council. Even members of the Madison Area DSA (MADSA) electoral politics working group are modest about these first steps and the impact their work might have had on the outcome of the election. Mirilli's campaign, after all, had plenty of momentum with or without the DSA's help. She made the unconventional but ultimately successful choice to run a collaborative campaign with another school board candidate, Ali Muldrow, who handily beat local racist David Blaska for her own spot on the Madison Metropolitan School District's board .
Karl Locher, a member of MADSA’s Electoral Politics Working Group, was careful not to take too much credit. “I want to preface everything by saying that Ananda and Ali really did a phenomenal job of movement building on their own," Locher says. "I hope we contributed in some meaningful way but I don't want to overshadow anything they did themselves.”
DSA did contribute, though, however modest it might have seemed. After endorsing Mirilli, the local chapter leveraged its social media channels to boost her campaign and called on its growing membership not just to support Mirilli at the polls but to knock doors for her in five or six DSA-led canvassing events. The electoral politics working group also created a voter guide, which not only explained in detail why the group chose to endorse Mirilli, but why other candidates, including now-mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, did not get an endorsement from the group. Even if DSA’s involvement wasn’t the thing that tipped the scales in Mirilli’s favor, it did at least win the group one new member: Mirilli herself, who was attracted to DSA's political platform and its commitment to organizing to make the DSA platform vision Madison’s reality.
Mirilli’s victory in her school board race is, by itself, worth celebrating. She and Muldrow put a big emphasis on achieving justice for students and addressing systemic problems with systemic solutions. Theirs was definitely a “change” platform, pushing for a break with a status quo that is very specifically not serving students of color in the Madison Metropolitan School District. “It was less about doing more, and more about doing different,” Mirilli explained to me when we spoke on the phone in April.
When I asked Mirilli about her idea of an ideal school district, her answer was powerful, especially in light of the school year that students and teachers have been having, marked with numerous racist incidents and even a sexual assault at one of the high schools.
“It’s a vision of a place that people feel they belong to, where they can say, ‘I’m in community,’” Mirilli says. “And that’s not just a vision I hold for my daughter, and for students, but for the adults in those buildings, too. It’s a vision where schools are centers for hope, centers for love.”
Redefining the local left
DSA’s involvement in local electoral politics is exciting in its own right, not just because it’s a part of a growing national trend, but because of what it could do for a city with fairly homogenous politics, where it’s hard to distinguish one candidate’s politics from the next unless they’re truly abhorrent (see again: David Blaska). Madison’s progressive veneer rubs off on its citizens, allowing outsiders and insiders to assume that the people who run for office here are, by and large, on the same liberal page. There are no sides to take, no competing interests. We’re all just one big, happy left-of-center co-op, right?
Not according to Dan Backes, another member of the MADSA electoral politics working group.
“I always laugh because Sean Duffy called Madison a communist community,” Backes says. “It's just not even close. You look at these cities all over the country, cities with these really progressive reputations, and they do not take care of the needy people in their city. And that needs to be spoken to.”
From DSA’s perspective, the liberalism that prevails in local politics is one of half-measures at best.
“What we believe is that the [government] should be addressing the needs of a community and that's not happening now,” Locher says. “What happens is there's a need and the county or the city will put x amount of grant money towards it and the same handful of non-profits will take it and it's a system that creates lots and lots of gaps and lots and lots of disparities and doesn't address the fundamental things that perpetuate poverty or perpetuate racism in our community.”
This recognition of steep inequality and a skepticism of using public money to fund private problem-solving is echoed throughout MADSA’s new political platform, developed and approved by its membership over the course of several months starting in 2018. The platform identifies some of the major problems in Madison in four points—People First Transportation, Housing Justice, Equitable Schools, And Humane Approach To Addiction—and puts forward ideas about how to address them that begin to delineate some of the competing interests in Madison.
Locher explains the platform it as not just doing “the same thing we've always been doing but with a slightly more equitable bent than what we had been before,” but looking at the tremendous wealth that exists alongside sharp racial and economic disparities in Madison and thinking about how to redistribute resources.
MADSA's transportation agenda, for example, emphasizes prioritizing people over cars and calls for fare-free bus transit among other ideas. The ultimate goals include providing more equitable bus service than Madison Metro currently does, and making the Isthmus car-free by 2028. The platform also contains a proposal to pay for all this: “developing a Transit Demand Management (TDM) land use policy requiring developers to build or fund better transportation solutions.”
Developers are among those currently profiting the most from Madison’s growing population, so looking to them to fund transportation solutions and help alleviate the city’s growing pains makes sense. Furthermore, accessible transportation isn’t a luxury add-on—it can be the difference between having a job and not. Communities in Madison shouldn’t have to wait for solutions as if the city is too cash-strapped to provide them. The wealth that exists here is on full, high-rise display up and down East Washington Avenue.
Why DSA focused on a school-board race
But the section of MADSA's platform that played the biggest role in the April 2019 election was Equitable Schools. Its demands include one first made by members of Freedom Inc’s Youth Squad: ending Madison Metropolitan School District’s $360,000 contract with the Madison Police Department and getting cops out of schools. “That money—and more—should be used to prioritize student learning and family wellbeing,” MADSA’s platform reads. It lists universal pre-k programming, free breakfast and lunches, and expanded after-school programming as alternative uses for the money the district currently spends on Educational Resource Officers (EROs), who disproportionately ticket and arrest black students. The MMSD board voted in December to renew its contract with the Madison Police Department.
The “No Cops in Schools” campaign has been ongoing for the past few years. MADSA members weren't involved in that at the start, but joined more recently to protest and speak out at MMSD school board meetings. The meetings took on new urgency this year, after video of a white teacher throwing an eleven-year-old black student to the ground came out in early February, the most shocking of a string of racist incidents to take place at MMSD schools since September. The fight continues: Freedom Inc. posted a video of activists speaking about the issue at MMSD's Monday, May 20 board meeting.
If cops in schools are one of the drivers of racial inequity in Madison, Backes sees the failures of Madison liberals to reject the police as another one of our “progressive” city’s shortcomings. “Progressive liberals don’t really see [No Cops in Schools] in the context of racial justice,” Backes says. “And so that’s why the contract passed. But racial justice is a big part of the socialist program.”
Mirilli distinguished herself by being the only school board candidate to support the call for removing EROs. She thinks support for the police contract is a matter of people wanting it both ways. “In Madison, a lot of times we want all of it," Mirilli says. "We want to end racial disparities but we also want cops in schools. People need to understand where these contradictions exist and also what our common interests are.”
Now an official school board member—sworn in along with Muldrow and Cris Carusi in late April—Mirilli will face pressure to change her position on cops in schools. Both she and MADSA members recognize that the need for collaboration isn’t over, and they’re making plans to continue working together. They’ve discussed educational events where people can learn more about the negative impact of having police in Madison schools. Locher mentioned the potential for canvassing around the issue, a tactic MADSA is currently using to rally support for Medicare for all.
“People need to know that the campaign did not end on April 2, it’s just shifting,” Mirilli says. “Before it was about motivating people to vote. Now we have to make sure that there’s action. People can’t expect that we have justice or democracy because we did something once a year. People really need to know that it’s an ongoing process.”
In thinking about potential next steps, it’s worth examining how the issue of No Cops in Schools and racism in Madison came to be a focus in the most recent elections in the first place, not just in school board elections but also in the mayor’s race. Racial justice is arguably the most visible issue facing the school board right now. Similarly, failed mayoral incumbent Paul Soglin couldn’t stop talking about racism on the campaign trail—primarily to reassure white Madisonians that they aren’t racist, and that Madison is not a racist city, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. How did racism become the issue candidates had to speak to?
It’s not just a coincidence of timing, but a product of movements around the issue of racism—and specifically racism and the police—that have been active in Madison recently. Thousands of people in Madison have marched, gone to meetings, and participated in activism around the issue of racism and specifically racism and policing in Madison in the last five years. The most prominent examples are the Young, Gifted & Black Coalition’s work to bring #BlackLivesMatter to the streets of Madison after an officer killed unarmed teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, all of YGB's organizing around the murder of local teenager, Tony Robinson, who was shot to death by an MPD officer at his home on the 1100 block of Willy Street, and fights led by Freedom Inc. and others against a new Dane County Jail. Led by a group of teenage activists in a Freedom Inc affiliated group called Freedom Inc Youth Squad, the No Cops in Schools movement grew out of these earlier campaigns. All of this history and the more recent protests of the Freedom Inc Youth Squad and its supporters combined to put the question of Madison’s racism and racial disparities front and center in early 2019. (Tone Madison did reach out to Freedom Inc. for comment for this story, and will update it if we hear back.)
Without these movements, it’s unclear that it would have occurred to MADSA to get behind the “no cops in schools” issue. It’s also unlikely that any school board candidate would have taken up the demand on their own. (And David Blaska's campaign represented an overt "law and order" reaction to that demand.) The lesson in this, for activists and elected officials who are serious about forcing change in Madison, is that it takes more than just good politics to win a place on the agenda. It takes movements that involve hundreds and even thousands of people to move the dial.
The battles ahead for socialists in city-level politics
Socialist Alternative, another national organization with a branch in Madison, sees the fusing of movement building and electoral work as an essential practice. Though Socialist Alternative membership nationally is a fraction of the size of DSA's (which has over 56,000 members throughout the U.S.) the organization scored a big victory in 2013 when member Kshama Sawant won her bid for Seattle City Council. Her campaign was closely tied with the fight for a $15/hour minimum wage. People got involved not just to get Sawant elected but to see the struggle through even after election day, keeping her accountable and pushing other city council members to support the minimum wage increase. They won an incremental minimum wage increase within six months of Sawant’s election and the start of the 15 Now campaign. Today in Seattle, businesses with over 500 employees worldwide are required to pay a minimum wage of $16.
As a city council member, Sawant has also been able to expose the battle lines in Seattle, another city with a progressive reputation that conceals steep economic inequality. Sawant and her allies have spotlighted the connection between Seattle's worsening homelessness crisis to the fact that giant corporations like Amazon and other large employers headquartered in Seattle don’t pay their fair share in taxes.In 2018 Sawant and Socialist Alternative, in coalition with unions and other activists and organizers, won a head tax on businesses that make over $20 million a year, requiring them to pay $275 per employee. The backlash was immediate. Businesses led a vicious campaign to repeal the tax, and within a month, Democratic city council members caved to the pressure in a 7-2 vote. It was a loss, but it was educational for all involved, because it brought previously hidden conflicts of interest out into the open. Now everyone knows which businesses are standing in the way of alleviating homelessness in Seattle, and which city council members are helping them.
I spoke with Connor Beckerle, a member of Socialist Alternative’s Madison branch, about the organization’s outlook on local electoral politics. For Beckerle and Socialist Alternative, the “sides” involved in city-level politics across the country are stark. There’s the class of billionaires and millionaires (Amazon in Seattle; Epic, developers, and landlords in Madison) and the rest of us. And any elected official who wants to challenge the interests of the billionaire class with a head tax, or rent control, or by requiring developers to foot the bill for expanded transit, for example, will come up against their wrath.
“It's really an achievement to get people elected who are supportive of our goals and are fighting for the same things we are,” Beckerle says of Mirilli’s successful school board campaign. “The next step to actually achieving what we want is to build campaigns and movements that bring a lot of people in and actually give [politicians] power. Because bargaining on the city council or on the school board is hostile terrain for socialists and progressives. They need to get their power from outside those places.”
Numerous questions remain about what comes next for MADSA’s electoral work, not just as it relates to Mirilli and the No Cops in Schools campaign. The next election cycle is just around the corner. MADSA has a whole list of policy ideas that didn’t make it into the first iteration of its political platform. The question of whether and how to be involved in state-level races looms. Both Locher and Backes of MADSA, as well as Beckerle of Socialist Alternative, are aware that successes in Madison have to translate into fights at the state and national levels, too, particularly as it relates to climate change, but also with regard to things like rent control or wage increases. State-level lawmakers, including Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature, often tie cities' and counties' hands with state-level restrictions on local control.
These are questions I’m personally invested in answering. For the last three years, I’ve been a member of the International Socialist Organization, a group that was committed to the idea of socialism from below (i.e. won by the majority of regular, working people, and not handed down by politicians). My membership only ended because the national organization dissolved this spring. Before I joined the ISO, I was elected to a two-year term on the Board of the Marquette Neighborhood Association (MNA), which gave me an up-close view off how local politics work and who has power in the city. For one trippy year year, I was involved in both. I’m familiar with the limitations of being a lone socialist, even in a lower-level body like a neighborhood association. Not only was it hard to figure out the right answers alone, the tools that socialists in the ISO used to influence change—direct action and movement building—weren’t available to me in this context. I didn’t run again because it didn’t seem like the most effective use of my political time.
But that doesn’t mean that politics weren’t happening. They were and are, all over the city and county, often in ways that don’t serve most of us who live in and work in Madison. The need to connect socialist politics and movements with the decisions that govern our day to day lives is urgent. The potential for socialists to seriously shake things up in a city like Madison is too great to ignore. More and more people, especially young people, recognize the hollow promise of “liberal bastions” in the face of gentrification, racism, and climate disaster. Affordable housing and rent control, free and robust public transit, and relief for the kind of suffering you can see every day on the streets around the Capitol Square are all things that people will be willing to fight for, even when it forces them to go up against the interests of landlords and businesses, and they will expect their elected officials to also take a side. Socialists have only recently begun a new foray into local politics, but are already building a framework that raises the stakes and makes the sides in Madison more apparent.