Twenty-six-year-old Jason Chavez was born and raised in the East Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis. His family, like many others in Ward 9, struggled with housing, and lost their home amid the 2008 housing crisis.
Now, Chavez will represent that same part of town as one of three candidates selected to the Minneapolis City Council last week who were endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that’s championed national politicians like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Chavez sees the new DSA block as a way to shift the power balance on the council, which he says has too often served the interests of the wealthy, instead of helping Minneapolis residents meet their basic needs.
“People are tired of doing the same thing over and over again,” Chavez said. “This new wave in Minneapolis that just hit with the three of us is something that is going to return power back to regular people.”
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In order to make progress toward their goals, the newly elected council socialists must work alongside a mayor whose approach and ideology they disagree with. They’ll also have to navigate a new system that took executive power from the council and allocated it to the mayor.
Democratic Party falls short
On the east side of Minneapolis in Ward 2, community organizer Robin Wonsley Worlobah won her race by just 19 votes, unseating longtime Green Party Council member Cam Gordon. At a post-election forum hosted by Twin Cities DSA, she called Minneapolis one of the worst places to live as a Black, working-class person.
“And this place is run by Democrats,” she said.
Wonsley Worlobah, 30, joined Twin Cities DSA in March 2020 when she didn’t see other progressive political organizations willing to critique state Democrats for their early pandemic response.
“Our local [DSA] chapter was calling out Gov. Walz every step of the way,” she said. “Why are you not prioritizing financial packages for every family and individual across Minnesota?”
Wonsley Worlobah said her socialist platform wasn’t too tough of a sell for Ward 2, which had strong turnout for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids.
Her predecessor, Cam Gordon, was a consistent voice for progressive policies for decades, including both the public safety amendment and another authorizing the council to craft rent control policies. Wonsley Worlobah said she never ran an “anti-Cam” campaign, and thanked him for his years of service for progressive causes. But she said the ward has been changing too quickly for many residents.
“There’s a mandate for a Black woman renter, who also is a Democratic Socialist,” Wonsley Worlobah said. “There’s a mandate even more so in this political climate, where there’s more consolidation of power going towards the rich, corporations, big business, for a movement leader in city hall.”
Labor organizer and first-generation immigrant Aisha Chughtai won Ward 10 in an open seat, seven-way race. The central Minneapolis ward includes most neighborhoods in Uptown.
At 24, Chughtai is the youngest person ever elected to the Minneapolis City Council. She entered the race after feeling dissatisfied with the other candidates running to replace outgoing City Council President Lisa Bender, who chose not to run for reelection.
Chughtai wanted her reality of living in the ward to be represented.
“I live in an 80 percent renter community, and I saw a lot of people step up to run that did not understand what the experience looks like in the here and now,” Chughtai said. “Ward 10 has not been fully seen and understood as a community that is made up of working class people, immigrants, first-generation families, multigenerational families.”
Chavez, formerly a state legislative aide, was discouraged that Democrats couldn’t successfully pass legislation that would allow all Minnesotans, regardless of immigration status, to obtain drivers licenses.
“We didn’t do it, and we let down undocumented neighbors,” Chavez said, noting that his ward has a large undocumented community. “It makes it so if the police stop them, they could be deported back to a country they haven’t been to in years.”
Chavez said that unlike traditional DFLers, Democratic Socialists hold themselves accountable to those most affected by legislative policies.
The socialist appeal
Chughtai, a Twin Cities DSA member, said her new constituents were much more concerned about housing affordability and police violence than the fact that she’s a socialist.
But none of the newly elected council members are shocked that a fleet of young Democratic Socialists were voted into office.
“Our generation is the one that lived and is living under late-stage capitalism,” Wonsley Worlobah said. “And we’re seeing the failures every single day of this particular political system. We’re living proof that — no, this is not sustainable.”
Ian Ringgenberg, co-chair of Twin Cities DSA, said the socialist left in Minneapolis saw big losses with the reelection of Mayor Jacob Frey and the failure of the public safety ballot amendment. He’s excited by the prospect of three socialists on the council of the largest city in the state, but sees it as just the start.
“We feel really optimistic and heartened by what will be a progressive and socialist minority on the council, but we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Ringgenberg said. “Our goal isn’t just to be critical of power, but to build power for working people, so we need to do more.”
Beyond endorsed candidates winning races, Twin Cities DSA has seen “explosive growth” in local engagement and in its member base since Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and former President Donald Trump’s election. The national organization went from under 10,000 to over 90,000 members. Locally, Twin Cities DSA grew from under 100 to more than 1,500 members.
Bhaskar Sunkara, a founding editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin and former vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, also sees the rise of Sanders as an inspiration for the new Democratic Socialists running for office.
“I don’t think it’s a rising tide that’s slowly going to build until one half of America is run by socialists,” Sunkara said. “I think it’s more like — spaces being carved out within and outside of the Democratic Party for a certain wing of progressives to embrace the label Democratic Socialists.”
Sunkara expects the issue of public safety to present a particular challenge for socialist officials in Minneapolis. He points to tension and disagreement around the role of police in keeping communities safe.
“Those of us on the left have to both maintain a real criticism of police abuses and the importance of supporting grassroots movements to address that, but also recognize that ordinary people don’t want the police abolished — they want better policing,” Sunkara said. “It’s been a difficult thing for socialists in many ways.”
Alignment in a split council
Due to redistricting, all Minneapolis City Council seats will be up for reelection again in just two years. That gives the new candidates just a short amount of time to show that they can make a mark in the DFL-dominated city.
Chughtai, Chavez and Wonsley Worlobah plan to align together and “move in lockstep as an institution,” Chughtai said at the DSA forum, predicting that the Democratic establishment will “pit the three of us against each other.”
They also start at a time following voters' approval of a charter amendment that gives the mayor’s office more executive authority, which is considered to be at the expense of the council’s power.
One priority for the trio is making good on the city’s vote to allow the council to pass rent control measures, which all three socialist council members predict will be difficult with a skeptical council, and a mayor who has said he doesn’t see a rent control policy as the way to address the city’s housing crisis.
“We’ll make sure even the moderates on City Council know that you have to work with us as working class people and with our council members to pass a strong rent control policy,” Wonsley Worlobah said.
Wonsley Worlobah, Chughtai, Chavez and four other new Minneapolis City Council members will be sworn into office in January 2022. At least three of the other new members publicly ran against the charter amendment to restructure public safety in the city, knocking off incumbents who supported the proposal. It’s the most racially diverse City Council in Minneapolis history, with a majority of the members identifying as people of color.