Democratic socialist seeking Jersey City council seat
Joel Brooks says he’d be first democratic socialist to win in N.J. in 100 years
Joel Brooks is running to unseat a one-term incumbent Democrat. (Fran Baltzer for the New Jersey Monitor)
A Jersey City council candidate is hoping to bring a touch of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Hudson County’s Democratic machine with his bid to become the first democratic socialist elected in New Jersey in a century.
Joel Brooks, a union representative with Health and Allied Professionals Employees, is in a two-person race to become the council rep for the city’s Ward B, a swath of Jersey City’s west side. Brooks said he’s knocked on 30,000 homes there with support from the Democratic Socialists of America.
“Building a West Side for all, voting and electing me is just one step. It’s a step in the direction of changing direction away from policies that benefit landlords and police unions that have blocked civilian review boards,” Brooks said in an interview with the New Jersey Monitor. “It’s a shift in direction for policy that’s for the majority.”
If successful, Brooks could help move New Jersey’s Democratic Party to the left, like democratic socialists on the rise in other states.
In 2020, Los Angeles gained a Democratic Socialist on the city council. A slate composed mostly of democratic socialists seized control of Nevada’s Democratic Party leadership in March. In June, democratic socialist India Walton won a major upset in Buffalo when she defeated incumbent Mayor Byron Brown to win the Democratic nomination for mayor (Brown is seeking re-election in November as a write-in).
“I think we’re going to see more of this. This has been building for sure, and 2018 taught the progressive and socialist movement a lesson in that DSA is on the ground, and that’s really what allows them to upset a major incumbent,” said Heather Gautney, a sociology professor at Fordham University who worked with the Sanders campaign and the Sanders-tied PAC Our Revolution for 10 years.
Brooks’ platform includes a commitment to housing justice, increased funding for public schools, and a Green New Deal for Jersey City.
The longtime labor organizer said he derived his proposed policies from conversations with residents, learning what representation they need. A Jersey City resident for five years, one of the biggest concerns he hears — and has dealt with himself — is about rent control and sleazy landlords.
“There’s no enforcement or education, or very little, and community organizers let us know what our rights were. We filed a complaint because we were being overcharged illegally, and it took nine months for the city to make a decision,” he said.
Jersey City’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, but its council members are usually Democrats. Brooks said he finds people in the city are receptive to the idea of an unconventional Democrat representing them.
“My worldview is that working people deserve power, that resources should go to people having a dignified life, good housing and a living wage,” he said.
Brooks’ opponent, incumbent Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, said she’s been progressive during her time on council, and noted she is the first Ward B candidate to run for re-election in 15 years.
“On the West Sider what’s been important is having their voices heard and consistency in leadership. As soon as we get moving in one direction, you have to make sure you can steer that ship to follow through,” she said, touting the city’s COVID-19 response, her work on a committee assessing rent control enforcement, and her commitment to environmental justice.
DSA on the ground in Jersey City
Born in Honduras and adopted by a Jewish American family, Brooks said he’s always believed that working people deserve a powerful voice, which led him to work with unions for 16 years.
The hold real estate developers have on Jersey City and the lack of engaged residents led him to run for office, he said.
“When you make the case to workers face-to-face or on the phone, and say, ‘This is the power of the city council to budget your tax dollars. Is that spent to benefit 99.9% of us? Or what kind of development do you want in our community?’ people are really receptive to that,” he said.
The DSA backed Brooks early on, and he’s the first candidate the organization’s North Jersey chapter has thrown their weight behind, said DSA organizer Sofia Guimarães Cutler.
Having the support of DSA has been instrumental to Brooks’ campaign, as it was for Ocasio-Cortez and other elected democratic socialists. The organization is known for aggressive canvassing, a strategy that has helped its candidates win seats across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Hudson’s Democratic machine does “not have a meaningful connection with the working class of Jersey City, and we can see that because people are really unhappy with the current city government,” Guimarães Cutler said.
Gautney noted money is one of the biggest hurdles for progressive candidates, but the rise of smaller donations and the DSA’s manpower help level the playing field.
Brooks said he has cracked $60,000 in donations (his campaign finance reports are set for public disclosure on Tuesday). He is not taking corporate donations, he said.
“If we want to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk,” said Brooks. “It’s enough to be competitive. It’s not millions, but in a local race, it’s enough to print our literature, have an office and pay for pizza.”
While there’s no party line in the Jersey City council race, Hudson County voters are loyal to incumbents. Prinz-Arey is running with the support of Mayor Steve Fulop and the county’s Democratic machine and she is on a team of council running mates that has reported raising more than $360,000.
“I understand that (the DSA) is moving into areas where there’s liberal pockets, but it’s really a matter of, at a city level, understanding your role and not conflating with things that need to be done at the state level,” said Prinz-Arey.
The obstacles are difficult to overcome, but not impossible, Brooks said.
“The line is not just on the ballot, it’s the power of the party and the organization they have. But we knew that’s what it would be,” Brooks said. “We’re distinguishing ourselves in a way that’s in opposition to politics as usual in Hudson County, and that’s the game.”
Could moderate blue N.J. go further left?
Guimarães Cutler said the DSA is “just getting started” in New Jersey.
After two Sanders presidential campaigns, the organization settled on some long-term strategies, beefed up its resources and put its energy into worthwhile races, she said.
“I do think it’s possible to change New Jersey’s political landscape. We’re really focused on this race now, but after it’s gone … we’re going forward to bigger races as well. It’s not going to be easy,” she said.
I think we're going to see more of this. This has been building for sure, and 2018 taught the progressive and socialist movement a lesson in that DSA is on the ground, and that's really what allows them to upset a major incumbent.
– Heather Gautney, sociology professor at Fordham University
New Jersey is dominated by Democrats, but some of the moderate Democrats are so moderate, they’re practically conservative, which makes breaking through Democrats’ stronghold difficult, said Gautney, the Fordham professor.
Still, she said, there’s a clear shift in the party and how it is mobilizing. Progressives can claim credit for successes at the federal level: President Biden has sided with liberals in Congress on taxing the wealth, public spending, and climate change .
“You’re seeing a much more progressive view coming from the top. That’s a fast track to normalizing this agenda, but at the same time, there’s been a long history of scaremongering around the word socialism since the early 20th Century,” Gautney added.
The DSA is confident Brooks will secure the Ward B council race and allow it to eye other seats in New Jersey. It would be a huge demonstration of the DSA’s ability to take on old-school Jersey politics.
“Four years from now, if we win here, that gives us the platform to talk to folks where we’re not able to right now. It’s about organizing and digging in and putting the plan to win together,” Brooks said.
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