A left-wing group has been flexing its muscles for the past month in Minneapolis — and no, it's not the DFL Party.
It's the DSA — the Democratic Socialists of America — and it's endorsed five candidates for the Minneapolis City Council. So far three of them have also won the backing of the DFL, including activist Soren Stevenson who wrested the party endorsement from Council President Andrea Jenkins.
But not all progressives are happy. Some Democrats see the DSA platform as extreme, view the group's tactics as too confrontational and fear it's giving a bad name to the political left, which enjoys dominance in Minneapolis.
And there's a more practical prize at stake: If DSA-endorsed candidates run the table in the November election, it could tip the balance of the City Council from the comparatively moderate majority coalition generally aligned with Mayor Jacob Frey.
That could have ramifications for a number of major issues, including city policies on public safety, homeless encampments, rent control and responses to climate change.
Here's the scorecard for DSA-endorsed candidates.
— Second Ward: Council Member Robin Wonsley is running for re-election as an independent and didn't want the DFL endorsement. She instead asked the DFL to endorse no one, and that's what happened. Wonsley was first elected in 2021 by a mere 14 votes; so far this year, no challenger to her has emerged.
— Eighth Ward: Stevenson, who gained prominence after police shot out his eye during the protests after George Floyd's murder, handily won the DFL endorsement over Jenkins on the first ballot. Jenkins is staying in the race.
— Ninth Ward: Council Member Jason Chavez faced no serious opposition in his bid for the DFL endorsement, and he easily got it.
— 10th Ward: Council Member Aisha Chughtai's bid for DFL endorsement has been delayed following the ward convention two weeks ago that descended into chaos when supporters of opponent Nasri Warsame stormed the stage. Warsame is on the verge of being banned from the party, and DFL leaders have said they want to reconvene the convention — meaning that Chughtai remains in the driver's seat to get the party nod.
— 12th Ward: City Hall aide Aurin Chowdhury won the DFL endorsement over several candidates in a crucial swing seat. Council Member Andrew Johnson, who is not seeking re-election, straddles coalitions on the City Council but often sides with the majority on major issues.
Council Members Elliott Payne and Jeremiah Ellison haven't sought the DSA endorsement, even though they frequently vote with the DSA-aligned group on the council.
Victories for all these candidates this fall would add up to seven votes on the 13-member council, though short of the nine-member supermajority needed to override a Frey veto.
What's the DSA?
The Twin Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is a local branch of a decades-old fringe movement that was given mainstream credibility — and a massive boost in membership — when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016.
Sanders, a Vermont independent who identifies as a democratic socialist, won Minnesota's Democratic caucuses.
"We grew like crazy," said Kip Hedges, co-chair of the Twin Cities DSA, who cited membership rolls soaring from fewer than 10,000 in 2015 to more than 100,000 by 2020.
The Twin Cities DSA isn't an actual political party, though there are some internally who want to make it one.
"We're trying to build a political movement that puts human needs before profits," Hedges said, emphasizing what he describes as the DSA's core values. "Part of the reason we're doing really well is we have very good, talented people who are running, and they're delivering."
The leadership of the Minneapolis DFL Party is now peppered with DSA members and supporters, including City Chair Briana Rose Lee. Lee has maintained there's nothing mutually exclusive about being a DFLer and a fan of the DSA, noting that Democrats often join any number of movements and political organizations.
DSA members and supporters bristle at the idea that they're anything more than a reflection of a progressive ideology widely held across much of Minneapolis and St. Paul, especially among younger voters and traditionally disadvantaged communities. Some note that a DSA endorsement amounts to backing from only one of any number of politically active groups, ranging from labor unions to civil rights organizations.
"I'm not too concerned with the dynamic of which team folks are on," Stevenson said. "I'm running on shared values with my neighbors … and my neighbors have said loud and clear they want to see a change in leadership."
But DSA critics see an affiliation with the left flank of the DFL Party which they say is based solely in activism, not governing.
"Are we honestly in a place here where we're not seeing the true progressive that Andrea is?" said Frey after Jenkins lost the DFL endorsement to Stevenson, who accused her of not getting results on issues like police reform.
For her part, Jenkins attributes her loss of the DFL endorsement to being "out-organized" by Stevenson. But she hopes she has the support of the broader Eighth Ward electorate. Voters, she said, understand that it will take "a long time to realize the changes" in policing and housing begun during her tenure.
As for DSA members, Jenkins said their approach to winning is putting "every single tactic ... on the table." She cites profane social media posts and aggressive protest tactics that, while not official DSA activity, emanate from Minneapolis' furthest-left ecosystem that includes DSA members.
On paper, the DSA has some far-left positions. Some examples from its national platform:
- "Defund the police by rejecting any expansion to police budgets or scope of enforcement while cutting budgets annually towards zero."
- "Disarm law enforcement oﬃcers, including the police and private security."
- "Freedom for all incarcerated people."
Hedges, who attended the 2021 national DSA convention that approved the platform, said he doesn't recall those particular positions and said the group is a "big tent" with room for a diversity of views. He said voters should focus on the group's local positions, though he noted that not all DSA-endorsed candidates agree with all of them.
The group's local platform includes:
- "No new money for cops — fund public safety alternatives," and "demilitarize the police and ban tear gas," a plank that Hedges said does not mean disarming all cops.
- "Municipal shoveling" of sidewalks.
- Immediate halt of "encampment closures," and full funding for "a housing first approach to homelessness."
What's the future?
Council Member Johnson said he's watched the DSA's growing influence with caution, but not necessarily alarm.
"I think it's too soon to tell," he said, when asked whether the DSA represents a force that will fundamentally transform Minneapolis.
Johnson noted that Chowdhury, the candidate who earned both the DSA and DFL endorsements in her bid to succeed him in the 12th Ward, earned the DSA seal of approval without agreeing with all their positions in her candidate questionnaire. For example, Chowdhury won't commit to the restrictive rent control policy sought by the DSA.
Johnson, who was first elected in 2013, said most of his discussions with constituents focus on concerns that affect their daily lives more than which group has endorsed whom. Ultimately, he said, winning candidates will be judged by how they perform in office.
"Are they at City Hall to govern, or are they here to push a handful of issues?" he said. "That's always the rub in all this: You can be an activist all you want in the community, but when you're sworn in, you do have responsibilities as a leader of a large organization."