Arizona's Democratic Socialists Inspired by Bernie Sanders Seek Political Left Turn

Members of the Phoenix chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America knock on doors in Tempe on October 21. Taylor Cifuentez, left, is the chapter's vice-chair.EXPAND
Members of the Phoenix chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America knock on doors in Tempe on October 21. Taylor Cifuentez, left, is the chapter's vice-chair.
Joseph Flaherty
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On a recent Saturday, several dozen people filed into a dimly lit Phoenix union hall with a scuffed floor. A few wore red shirts decorated with a rose emblem and a slogan: "Solidarity in the Southwest." Most were in their 20s and 30s. They picked up clipboards on their way to a folding chair.

Andrew Hudson, 30, wore a pin with the logo of the Phoenix chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a pair of clasped hands and a rose over the red-and-yellow stripes of the Arizona state flag. He stood up at the front of the room near a poster board with "universal healthcare" written in big letters at the top.

The group's central topic: How to encourage others to join the fastest-growing socialist organization in the U.S.

"Someone once told me that the most dangerous question in left-wing organizing is, 'Are you coming to the next meeting?'" he told the group.

Hudson was making a wry point about how they needed to knock on more doors. Their success would depend on face-to-face discussions with friends and neighbors, he said, and reeling them into the cause.

"We really will not win single-payer unless these people come and canvass with us," he told the chapter members.  "We’re not selling them some bunch of nonsense. This is actually the only way to do it."

The Phoenix DSA was preparing to knock on doors in Tempe as part of DSA's nationwide push for the Medicare for All Act, a single-payer health care bill in Congress.

"We think that private insurance has been really exploitative for millions of Americans," Hudson told the group, in an example of what to say at the door. "And we want to instead expand and improve on Medicare so that everyone can go to the doctor without having to pay huge premiums, or co-pays, or deductibles."

Championed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Medicare for All proposal in Congress would create a single-payer health care system, phasing out an employment-based U.S. health care system dominated by massive private-insurance companies. Doctors would bill the state for care, paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy. One option to finance a single-payer plan would increase progressive income tax rates to 50 percent or higher on individuals making over $2 million annually.

Hudson, 30, is a graduate student at Arizona State University and has previously volunteered with California’s East Bay chapter of DSA. He said that unlike knocking on doors to shill for a particular candidate — DSA is a political action group, not a political party — a push for single-payer health care is different. It requires listening to people and hearing their health care struggles; more often than not, he said, canvassers can relate.

"In many ways under capitalism, we’re all made to feel alone," Hudson said. "And having someone knock on your door and be like, ‘Hey, you’re not alone under capitalism,’ I think that’s in many ways really transformative."

Phoenix’s DSA chapter was officially recognized in July. The energetic group of young people has a core group of 40-50 members who attend weekly meetings. Chapter members quip and promote their latest work on Twitter — many are self-professed Twitter addicts — and spot fellow comrades by the rose emoji in their handle. They also have a "beer not bombs" homebrew working group.

In total, there are 109 card-carrying DSA members in metro Phoenix, according to the Phoenix DSA chair Devin Howard. Their ranks are growing. Nationwide, DSA membership has more than tripled since last year. Last week, the organization claimed they hit 30,000 dues-paying members. It’s now the largest socialist group in the U.S. since World War II.

DSA's growth is stunning and impressive. But whether the Arizona chapter has political muscle remains to be seen.

One of the DSA members at the canvass training was LaDawn Stuben, a 39-year-old professional pastry chef running as a Democrat for the Arizona House of Representatives. She's running in the 18th district, which encompasses west Chandler and parts of Tempe and Mesa.

"It's a solidly purple, if not leaning-blue district, I believe," she told Phoenix New Times.

Stuben is the legislative action director for the Phoenix DSA. She's also a pastry chef at Liberty Market and owns a small business selling pastries at the Chandler farmers market.

At a recent candidate meet-and-greet on October 3, Stuben was collecting signatures at a table alongside other Democratic candidates. A woman approached Stuben to ask, "What exactly is DSA?" The group started decades ago, Stuben explained, but Sanders' presidential campaign last year galvanized the group.

"So what would be the difference between the traditional Democratic party versus the democratic socialists?" the voter asked.

Stuben explained the organization's name, which can elicit blank stares from the average voter. "I always say, 'Democrat: by the people. Socialist: for the people,'" she said. "So, things like Medicare for all; things like abolishing for-profit prisons; things like utilities being a public good."

The woman nodded approvingly. "Apparently, I’m a moderate DSA," she said.

Stuben has never run for office before, but got inspired this summer after hearing Sanders speak at the People's Summit, a progressive political convention held in Chicago. During his speech, the country's most prominent democratic socialist asked everyone who was willing to run for local office to stand up. People rose to their feet in response, and Stuben, surprising herself, stood up, too.

"We made a promise that we were going to do it, because the only way to have a more progressive Democratic party is if we actually run people who are progressive," she said. "So that’s what I’m doing."

"All of us are new to this, which I think is really inspiring," said Devin Howard, the chair of the Phoenix DSA chapter.

Howard, 26, is a lifelong Phoenix resident and a biology student at ASU. In a common story among Phoenix DSA members, Howard was motivated to join DSA after the 2016 election: a one-two punch of watching their preferred candidate lose the Democratic primary while an unthinkable figure won the White House.

"I was a big fan of Bernie Sanders and was devastated by his loss, and felt even more compelled to do something after Trump was elected," she said.

At the time, there was no DSA chapter in Arizona. Although she had never done any political organizing, Howard got tired of waiting for the surge of national interest in DSA to reach the Valley.

"I tried to wait until there would be a Phoenix chapter started, and nothing happened," Howard said.

Taking matters into their own hands, Howard and several other Phoenix residents banded together in February to discuss organizing a chapter. After receiving the official nod from the national DSA in July, they've watched Young DSA chapters crop up at ASU and the University of Arizona, and even at several local high schools.

Howard said that even in a Republican-controlled state like Arizona, disaffected people who are sick of the political status quo could be receptive to DSA’s message.

"I think people are tired of what they’ve had, which is the bipartisan: Republican or Democrat, which are just different shades of the same thing that they feel unable to influence," she said. "The really cool thing about democratic socialism is everyone has a say, everyone has a voice."

One of the other people who co-founded the chapter is 42-year-old Jake Bell. Like Stuben, he’s a first-time political candidate — Bell is running for the Arizona Corporation Commission as a Democrat.

"In some ways, it was almost funny," Bell told New Times. "'A socialist running for Corporation Commission!'"

"But maybe that’s where the socialists should be," he added. "If our job is to try to strike a balance and represent people against the corporations, then a socialist is who you want in there."

Jake Bell, who is running for the Arizona Corporation Commission, addresses constituents at a candidate meet-and-greet on October 3, flanked by DSA supporters.EXPAND
Jake Bell, who is running for the Arizona Corporation Commission, addresses constituents at a candidate meet-and-greet on October 3, flanked by DSA supporters.
Joseph Flaherty

In a question that often bedevils democratic socialists, Bell wasn’t sure which party banner to claim. He initially planned on running as a Green Party candidate, but instead registered as a Democrat because of the party apparatus — several thousand signatures are required to get on the ballot.

"The first time the Democratic Party contacted me after I filed paperwork, it felt like I was being called into the principal’s office. I thought I was in trouble," Bell said. Much to his surprise, Bell said that party officials were impressed with his resume and offered to help.

Bell was probably wise to prepare for the worst. Although it's more subdued than the GOP, with some of the party's most prominent figures disavowing or breaking from Trump every single week, internecine battles stemming from the 2016 Democratic primary are ongoing.

Since the election, the chairman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party has talked of being a "big tent" party. Nevertheless, left-leaning Democrats still feel burned from the way the primary ended, with establishment favorite and decidedly centrist candidate Hillary Clinton winning the nomination.

DSA members also can't stand certain Democrats in Arizona, such as Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who seems to be charting a path to the Senate with the most centrist, non-ideological campaign possible. When Sinema's name came up at the DSA canvass training, a few attendees let out audible sighs of frustration.

Yet for much of the history of the U.S., "socialist" has been anathema to the mainstream political parties. Should Sanders have clinched the nomination last year, he would have undoubtedly been smeared for his leftist politics — which makes it all the more remarkable that democratic socialist candidates are jumping into races, in Arizona no less.

"There have been a few LD meetings where I bring up Democratic Socialists of America — people kind of roll their eyes, or whatever," Bell said. "But for the most part, I get much more positive reactions from people."

He's tried to forge common ground, finding it even with libertarians and others on the right. Committed capitalists often agree with Bell, he said, when they talk about how industries can dictate much of American life.

Bell is also campaigning on making Arizona a renewable-energy leader and has positioned himself against the corruption scandals that have dogged the Corporation Commission. He cited a recent poll that showed Arizonans are widely convinced that commissioners, who regulate utilities, are influenced by campaign contributions from utilities they are supposedly overseeing.

"Campaigning against the corruption is almost inherent," he said. "You don’t really have to bring it up."

On Saturday, Phoenix DSA members grabbed clipboards and bottles of water before knocking on single-family homes in a Tempe neighborhood populated by many ASU employees. Chapter leaders said this turf would be an ideal starting place for their single-payer canvassing efforts.

Gilbert Romero, a 25-year-old DSA member from Peoria, knocked on his first door of the day with a canvassing partner.

Adam, a youngish bearded man with his two kids and mom at home, answered the door. The movie Pitch Perfect was on TV in the background.

Romero said that they were out canvassing for a Medicare for All system. When the recession hit, Romero's stepdad lost his job, he explained. Every cent that was taken out of his mom’s paychecks for their employer-sponsored plan hurt. "As a group, we think that the government should be able to pay our health insurance," Romero said. "It doesn’t seem fair."

"I agree, but that’s the world we live in, you know," Adam said. He had money taken out of his paycheck for health care, too, but it didn’t bother him.

"The plan I have right now is pretty good. It really doesn’t hurt me in any way," Adam said. But then he seemed to hesitate. "I agree, every American should have insurance. That’s the way it should be, I don’t think people should pay for it."

"Yeah!" Romero said.

"We pay for everything, that’s just how I see it," Adam said. "And they still take taxes from you, and it’s your money. Our money goes toward the streets, the signs, the schools..."

"So why not our insurance?" Romero agreed. He handed him a DSA flyer.

Adam looked it over and said he'll pass it on to the rest of the household. "We can go from there and we can start a change," he said. They shook hands. Romero walked next door to talk with two people who worked for the city of Tempe — they liked their city health insurance and were not interested. Then on to a retired sous chef who still remembered how much her boss took out of her paycheck for insurance, and so on throughout the neighborhood.

Phoenix DSA vice-chair Taylor Cifuentez, 23, was leading Romero’s group of canvassers on Saturday. From her point of view, DSA can succeed by working alongside other Arizona activist groups to address capitalism as "the third branch of oppression," along with systemic issues of race and patriarchy.

Cifuentez explained that people may not realize it, but "capitalism is ingrained in their life in a way that’s making it really hard for them," particularly in the health care arena.

"It’s because of capitalism that we’ve allowed pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies to really extort us in this way," she told New Times. "I think that if you want Medicare for All, that’s a socialist program. If you’re on welfare, that’s a socialist program. People often see these programs as benefiting people who don’t deserve it, because private options are available to the quote-unquote 'better people.'"

A turning point for Cifuentez’s path to the DSA leadership came after August’s white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She realized that working to make the politics of the left a reality was not necessarily going to be safe or easy, and got choked up as she recalled the moment.

"Charlottesville really brought it back to me that I’m engaging in a different kind of political action now: a non-liberal political action, a more fringe political action," Cifuentez said. "And that inherently does put my life in danger."

In the aftermath of the far-right rally, what lifted her resolve was a meeting with other DSA members, many of whom she didn’t know prior to joining the Phoenix chapter. "For them to be willing to take that risk also makes it easier for me to take that risk," she said.

The Phoenix chapter is going to keep canvassing in the coming weeks and months, along with their regular meetings. Medicare-For-All is DSA’s national priority right now, according to Howard. But the Phoenix socialists are also trying to make progress where they can on other fronts.

"We’re also trying to strengthen the labor movement, create more unions. The push for free college tuition is a big one, especially among YDSA chapters — anything that can put more power in the hands of the people," Howard said.

"The long-term goal is socialism," she added. "And we think we can do it."

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