Interview: NYC DSA Co-Chair Sumathy Kumar

New York City Democratic Socialists of American Co-Chair Sumathy Kumar. Contributed photo.

With the recent wins of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates in local state elections, there is no denying that the organization’s political clout is growing in leaps and bounds across the city and the nation.

Starting with the upset election of DSA Member U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens, Bronx) over former U.S. Rep. and Queens Democratic Party Chair Joe Crowley in the 2018 Democratic primary, the 501(C)4 nonprofit organization’s winning streak in elections has not only given them a seat at the political power table, but has become a driving force within the Democratic Party to move further and further left.

Most recently, this winning streak included Brooklyn Democratic Primary wins for DSA Candidates Jabari Brisport in the 25th State Senate District, Phara Souffrant Forrest in the 57th Assembly District and Marcela Mitaynes in 51st Assembly District, among other state election wins.

While the roots of the DSA go back to a socialist organizational merger in 1982, its membership ranks swelled with the rise of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) starting with his successful independent run for Senate and his runs for president which energized the mainly white and white Latinx base of the DSA. As of September 2018, DSA membership nationally stood at 50,000 while as of December 2017, the median age of its membership was 33, compared to 68 in 2013, according to links from Wikipedia.

New York City DSA Co-Chair Sumathy Kumar has been organizing in New York City since 2014, while she was a student at New York University, and said she was exposed to organizing at an early age from her mother, who was active in her union.

Kumar joined the DSA in 2018. Before becoming co-chair she was on the organizing committees for the Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus and the Central Brooklyn Branch. 

Kings County Politics (KCP) spoke with Kumar about the organization and politics in the following edited interview.

KCP: Congratulations on your recent primary election wins. Now that the DSA has a growing seat at the table, is there an agenda? What are some things, the DSA would like to see accomplished? 

SK: Yeah, I think the same things that our candidates have been campaigning around, what our organization has been campaigning for. So specifically housing justice like canceling rent, canceling mortgages for people during the pandemic. Keeping the housing courts closed. Passing the New York Health Act. Criminal Justice reform. Repealing the bail rollback.

KCP: So when you say, the right to housing, what does that mean? 

SK: It’s housing justice. We have three bills right now in Albany. Canceling rent. Housing the homeless. And keeping housing courts closed and stopping evictions for at least a year. That’s a big priority and then our healthcare campaigns are a big priority. And also our public power campaigns especially right now when we are dealing with a huge storm and all these heatwaves. It’s especially important that we try and fight to make our grid public and democratized. 

KCP: So the DSA advocates for the nationalizing of utility companies? 

SK: ConEd and National Grid and other utilities upstate, bringing them under municipal control and transitioning them into green energy sources.

KCP: Right so when you say “under municipal control,” like nationalizing them. Right now they are publicly traded utility companies on the stock market. So you’re saying to nationalize it, the government would take over ownership?

SK: Yeah. So in this case they would be like publicly-owned utilities. Again one of the things that we are fighting for is that you know things that should be publicly owned. Things that are for the common good. That’s what we’re fighting for.

KCP: Right. So there are people including seniors who have their retirement and other investments in these utility companies. Would these investments be made whole if these utility companies were nationalized?

SK: I will have to take a closer look at the public power bills in Albany right now just to answer all of your questions better. 

KCP: So is it the DSA position that all housing should be publicly owned, too? I mean is that what the DSA is advocating? To do away with landlords and form a whole new model? 

SK:  Right now we are trying to fight for a public option for housing where everybody has guaranteed a safe and quality home. And so that can look like a lot of different things. It could look like public housing, community-controlled housing, community land trusts but that is like the vision that we’re fighting for. 

KCP: Alright, it’s interesting because there’s always the ideology, but now you have DSA people in office and there is the logistics of actually transitioning to this model of government. And that includes trillions of dollars that people have tied up in investments and retirement accounts.

SK: With anything, everything will have to come with a just transition — we’re not leaving people high and dry. [It needs to be] where we can transition to an economy that works for everybody in a way that doesn’t leave people behind. 

KCP: Moving on to next year’s citywide elections, I’ve heard the DSA strategy is to go for more city council seats and not concentrate as much on the mayoral and borough president races. Is that accurate? 

SK: We’re still discussing and debating our strategy for 2021. But our goal is always to run elections in places where they can talk to the people, talk to the voters about socialism, talk to them about the issues that are impacting their lives. So we’ll concentrate on more local elections like city council races but we’re still formulating what our strategy is going to be for next year. We just had a very busy six months. 

KCP: How do you respond to critics including myself that say the DSA is by and large a white-run organization and that by putting up black faces to run in communities of color the organization is usurping Black empowerment, in which Blacks have fought long and hard to get going back to when a black voting rights district was created in Brooklyn in the 1960s? That candidates like Jabari Brisport and Phara Suffrant Forrest unseated Assemblymember Walter Mosley and beat Tremaine Wright in the senate race – two candidates that came from Black-run political clubs – the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association (VIDA) and the Progressive Association for Political Action (PAPA).

SK: Our candidates are Black and Brown candidates who are working class, who are from the neighborhoods, who are trying to continue a legacy of empowerment and liberation. I think their legacy is going to be housing for all, healthcare for all, it’s actual justice in their communities. So I think to me, Phara and Jabari are continuing a very exciting and very powerful legacy of regular people taking control of their own neighborhoods. 

KCP: So it’s not a question of color it’s a question of people and empowerment? 

SK: Our candidates are all people of color, from the neighborhoods that they live in and they are also fighting for policies that are going to help people in that neighborhood in that district. 

KCP: Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte is the head of the Democratic Party and you’re the co-chair of the DSA. What’s the difference in makeup between the DSA and the Democratic Party organization? Is the DSA part of the Democratic Party? Is it a separate thing? 

A: We’re a socialist organization, totally run by volunteers and it’s people who are giving up their free time because they are so fed up with the way the establishment and system is working right now. To commit to our causes. It’s not just electoral races it’s also issue-based campaigns, mutual aid to help our communities and to run a better world.

KCP: What distinguishes that from a normal political party? 

SK: We’re not a political party. We’re an organization. Not just building power for the sake of building power. We’re trying to win a world where people can have the things they need and have access to quality education, quality healthcare and quality housing. Those are things I’m fighting for.

KCP: I noticed in the DSA questionnaire given to all local candidates looking for DSA support before this year’s state races, that they were asked if they support Divestment, Sanction and Boycott (BDS) the state of Israel for their policies regarding Palestinians. Does the DSA support BDS as a policy plank?

SK: The DSA is in favor of BDS and believes everybody has a right to their home. Obviously in New York City, we don’t have that much that we’re doing around that here but we have a national organization that focuses on international affairs.

KCP: So does the DSA support the existence of the state of Israel?

SK: I feel like that’s not really relevant to this conversation

KCP: In researching you for this interview, I found that your day job is with the Wall Street-based  UHAB, a large nonprofit property management company, that with city help gets large fees for taking and redeveloping properties under the guise of creating more affordable housing. KCP has done a series of stories highlighting how UHAB has attempted to take several fully paid Black-owned smaller properties under this policy and in the process take generational wealth out of Black communities. Do you think working for UHAB creates a conflict of interest for you as the DSA supports this model for affordable housing?

SK: I don’t see any conflict. In my day job, I’m a tenants’ organizer and my goal is to organize tenants for housing justice and stronger rent control and for right now to cancel rent to protect tenants and renters and also homeowners through mortgage cancelation policies during the pandemic. So I don’t see a contradiction there

KCP: Well, we here at KCP have to tip our hat to the DSA for their success in running campaigns. Anything you want to add here?

SK: I’m really excited our entire slate won for our state-level races. I think that shows on the state level and it shows the people in our city are ready for a change and ready for a new kind of politics.