Dean Preston’s fellowship program is a model for DSA chapter–politician cooperation.
DSA and Our Elected Officials
In November, Chicago DSA censured Alderman Andre Vasquez and officially asked to revoke his membership in the organization after he publicly backed the Mayor’s regressive austerity budget, which Chicago DSA had been vocally opposing for weeks. While Chicago DSA’s rapid public condemnation of Vasquez was an excellent first step in trying to hold him accountable, the whole affair illustrated just how massive the gap currently is between DSA electeds and their associated chapters nationwide.
Levels of engagement vary widely between different chapters: some have their elected members show up to every meeting while others haven’t seen them since election day. The accountability gap is especially pronounced when it comes to national figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress, where it appears that DSA has no direct influence over their decision-making, policy creation, or day-to-day governance. This can in large part be attributed to the total lack of national DSA guidelines for how chapters and electeds should relate to each other, leading to the growth of an ad hoc system of case-by-case “accountability” procedures that have left our movement and its representatives woefully disconnected from one another.
While a wide number of solutions have already been proposed to remedy this problem, most focus on punitive strategies of holding officials accountable after the fact and do little to actively grow organic connections between chapters and representatives. If we want our DSA electeds to not just be held accountable to our organization but actively be a part of it, we must begin exploring ways to integrate chapters and elected offices at every level. Luckily for us, a blueprint already exists: in one foggy city on the west coast, a democratic socialist district supervisor and his local DSA chapter have begun pioneering a model of member involvement that has already produced incredible results for both the DSA chapter’s power and the city’s working class.
Enter DSA San Francisco and Dean Preston
If there is such a thing as an archetypal DSA candidate, Dean Preston is it. Elected as the District 5 Supervisor for San Francisco first in 2019 and then again in 2020, Dean is a longtime tenants’ rights activist and DSA member who has repeatedly battled with the city’s monied elite throughout his career. During his most recent race this past November, Democratic and Republican billionaires teamed up to spend over $3 million on his opponent’s campaign, flooding D5 residents’ mailboxes with fliers claiming Dean ran “homeless fight clubs” and was secretly a mass evictor. In this battle of the class war, however, the rich couldn’t buy their way to victory: Dean won by an overwhelming margin across D5, greatly increasing his vote share from 2019 and showing that only a year of socialist governance had already won the support of his constituents. Dean’s socialist theory of change was key to his success. A large portion of his campaign staff and volunteers are DSA SF members, and together their huge ground game knocked on hundreds of tenants’ doors and called thousands more over the course of the campaign.
So far, everything about Dean — his local activism, wealthy opponents, grassroots campaign, etc. — are pretty typical features of most DSA candidates around the country. Where Dean stands out is in the incredibly DSA-integrated structure of his office that has been achieved through a specially designed Fellows Program, whereby local DSA members have had the opportunity to join Dean and his aides in doing research, answering constituent concerns, and even drafting resolutions to be put before the Board of Supervisors. While one might initially be tempted to compare this to a regular internship program where unpaid workers do menial labor around an office, the fellowship program is radically different in that it educates fellows in the real practices of socialist governance by having them actively participate.
Following an application and short interview, fellows are brought onto the team and immediately given the resources to begin working on what interests them, whether that’s doing research on city budgets, developing new transit policy, meeting with constituents and community groups, etc. So far, Dean’s office has had anywhere between three and nine fellows at a time, working together and individually on a huge number of projects and initiatives that the office could not have completed without their help.
The program’s demographics are exceptional as well: whereas traditional internships in politician’s offices usually attract young students angling for careers in politics, the fellowship program actively seeks to recruit DSA members regardless of their other jobs and previous experience. Since it is flexible part-time work that fits largely to fellows’ own schedules, they are able to contribute to the office while also having other jobs and responsibilities. This has led to fellows coming from such diverse backgrounds as the tech industry, YDSA campus organizing, and even grocery store work — all are welcome as long as they are ready to fight for the working class of San Francisco.
The promise of collaboration
Even though it has only existed for barely over a year, the fellowship program has proven immensely successful in growing an organic link between Dean’s office and DSA SF, and in doing so has created a model for other chapters to build on. Firstly, it has directly connected DSA members and the chapter to their representative. Instead of only sporadically interacting for endorsements, fundraising events, or censures, Dean is kept in constant contact with DSA SF by the members in his office who keep him updated on chapter projects, priorities, and positions on important legislation. By having people embedded in Dean’s office, DSA SF also has direct influence over the kinds of policies he introduces and the decisions he makes, which makes the chapter’s overall presence in government a lot less reliant on Dean’s individual political opinions or maneuvers. This makes situations like the Alderman Vasquez debacle far less likely, as a DSA run office will not ignore and defy their chapter as readily as an independent office that will only be slapped on the wrist after the fact.
The fellowship program gives DSA members of all ages, experiences, and job backgrounds a learning opportunity and chance to directly affect policy. Rather than having the privilege of holding office be restricted to just one lucky candidate, an office that invites in fellow DSA members allows for a wide array of people to participate in and learn about what holding power is really like. Not only does this prefigure the kind of highly democratic and participatory politics that socialists strive for, it also creates a culture of political education and knowledge-sharing in DSA that can make the entire organization less reliant on established political structures and figures.
By using the elected offices it has won to train a broad base of members in political leadership, DSA is better able to recruit and support future candidates from within its own ranks. This can create a feedback loop of education and organization that expands every time a new DSA member wins office and brings more of their comrades along with them, allowing for a progressively larger and larger share of members getting experience in socialist leadership.
Of course, the exact details of Dean’s fellowship program cannot be cleanly copied onto every other DSA elected office around the country, as varying conditions will require different approaches. For example, while a city supervisor can easily draw from their own city’s DSA chapter, officials at other levels of governance such as the state and national level may have a harder time deciding which chapters to prioritize engagement from. Nonetheless, the basic principle of the fellowship program is one that all chapters and officials should draw on to grow their mutual connection with each other: give DSA members the opportunity to participate in governance through your office, and not only will you accomplish more, you will also be developing a new crop of leaders and organizers ready to educate others and potentially even run for office themselves.
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