Zachary Eldredge Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Zachary Eldredge is gearing up for election day. The 26-year-old physics Ph.D. student isn’t running for office, nor is he working on a single specific campaign; he’s working on 11 of them. 

Eldredge, a member of the Metro DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America since July of 2017, is the core organizer for the political group’s campaign to get some of its members elected as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners—elected non-partisan neighborhood representatives that advocate to the mayor and Council for their communities. 

It’s part of a broader effort to, as the group puts it, “begin the process of strengthening its presence in local government and advocating for socialist policy and meaningful progressive change on the neighborhood level across the District.” 

Eldredge sees the local ANC races as a pivotal opportunity. Over the past couple of years, the DSA—the largest organization of far-left progressive and labor-centered socialists in the country—has significantly boosted its profile, highlighted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory in the June Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district. 

In D.C., the Metro DC DSA made national headlines this summer when its members protested Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s actions while she was dining at MXDC Cocina Mexicana. At a July meeting of the Metro DC DSA, leaders reported that the group gained about $7,000 in donations after the Nielsen protest. 

“I think that… the Democratic Socialists’ movement is growing a lot in the U.S.,” Eldredge says. “I think that with Ocasio-Cortez and [Julia] Salazar and other people across the country … local offices are really starting to be a place where we clearly can compete, and I’m hopeful that we’ll move forward in the elections to come, in future election cycles.” (Salazar defeated incumbent Martin Malavé Dilan in the New York State Senate race to become the Democratic nominee for the 18th district earlier this year.) 

D.C. is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and the Council’s record on issues often lines up with its progressive makeup: It was one of the first jurisdictions to legalize gay marriage and, just a couple of years ago, passed a bill brought to the table by living wage advocates to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, one of the highest minimum wages in the country. In 2016, the Council passed a paid family leave bill, which grants new parents—or people who need to care for a sick family member—up to eight weeks of paid leave. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, one of the body’s most left-leaning members, spearheaded the latter effort. 

But neither she nor any of the city’s councilmembers are Metro DC DSA members, and some argue that the Council isn’t as progressive as it thinks it is. In the June primary, two incumbents, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds saw a challenge from the left on their progressive records in the form of Ed Lazere, the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and activist Jeremiah Lowery, who is a member of the Metro DC DSA. 

Both Lazere and Lowery ran campaigns criticizing their incumbent opponents for their records on addressing D.C.’s affordable housing crisis, transportation issues, and keeping cozy relationships with deep-pocketed developers. Though Lazere is not a member of the Metro DC DSA, he says that because both he and Lowery “come out of the progressive D.C. advocacy crowd,” several organizations—DC For Democracy, Jews United for Justice, and the Trans United Fund—coordinated their volunteers to campaign for them, calling them the “True Progressive” ticket for the primary. 

The June primary didn’t see any change in the Council—all of the incumbents won reelection—but both Lazere and Lowery’s results were significant: Lazere, who was Mendelson’s only challenger, pulled in 36.38 percent of the votes; while Lowery, who ran against Marcus Goodwin in addition to Bonds, came in second in his race with 23.58 percent of the votes. 

Both Lazere and Lowery’s campaigns helped spark a conversation about the future of the District’s progressive politics, and where they might be headed. 

“The future of the left in D.C. … is not about the liability of socialist candidates or anything like that. It’s a struggle for the soul of D.C.,” says Todd Brogan, a Metro DC DSA member who was elected in June as a Ward 4 committeeman in the Democratic State Committee as part of the Dump Trump/Dems 4 Action slate. 

“Are we going to be the type of city where there’s life on the street? The kind of place that asks the ultra-wealthy in upper Northwest, in Kalorama, and the Kushners and the Bezoses, and their 25-bathroom mansions, are we going to ask them to pay their fair share so we can provide things like healthcare, housing, education, and transportation for everybody?” Brogan wonders. “Or is it the kind of place where we’ll actually enforce labor laws that we pass?”

For Brogan, the June primary exposed a deep schism in the District’s establishment Democrats, and the future of the District in general. While he was campaigning, Brogan says he talked to many residents who felt like the current Council isn’t doing enough to address housing and displacement issues. It’s the same sentiment that Lowery says he heard from voters while knocking on doors during his campaign.

“Based upon the conversations that I had with residents throughout the city, my big takeaway is that people are still concerned about displacement in the District,” Lowery says. “People are still concerned about rent rising and the cost of living here in D.C., from Ward 1 all the way down to Ward 8.” 

With the general election just weeks away, the Metro DC DSA doesn’t have any candidates running for Council. Instead, they’re focusing their efforts on the ANC races. The 11 members they have running are: Caleb-Michael Files for single member district 1B02; Dan Orlaskey for 1B02; Stuart Karaffa for 1D05; Matthew Sampson for 2B01; John Grill for 3C01; Beau Finley for 3C04; Ashik Siddique for 4C03; Luke Cieslewicz for 5C07; Ryan Linehan for 5D01; Mysiki Valentine for 7D04, and Jewel Stroman for 7B07. The group is also endorsing Emily Gasoi for the Ward 1 seat of the DC State Board of Education.

“What I think excites people in the DSA about ANC races is it’s really an opportunity for people to take some level of ownership over the decisions that affect them right down the street,” says Eldredge.

Lowery feels similarly. “Labels aside, I think the majority of people do agree with our messaging, even with what the messaging is telling DSA members,” he says. “People do generally agree that we need to focus on the needs of the most marginalized residents over the needs of wealthy donors, over the needs of luxury condo developers here in the city; that we need to focus on inequality economically, in our educational system.”