Small Town Socialism: A Case Study

On December 7, 2020, Bertha Perez was sworn into office as the first democratic socialist city council member in the history of Merced, California. Nathan M. asks, how did a graveyard shift custodian, who was a Republican five years ago, end up in this position? And what lessons can other small town and rural DSA chapters take from this victory?

Beginning over a year ago, the DSA Merced & Mariposa Organizing Committee started the process of mapping our local conditions. What does the local labor movement look like, and where are our members well positioned to intervene? How are people elected, who supports them, and what would it take to win? 

Merced is a town of 82,000 people–and a political scene as devoid of features as the bare, flat land that stretches to the horizon in every direction. While it is represented by moderate Democrats at the state and federal level the local Democratic Party is functionally non-existent–only awakening every four years to shift some money around for the statewide institution. Also missing is any semblance of “progressive” political institutions–no Our Revolution, Indivisible, or other community focused political organizations that seem to proliferate across California. The median income is $32,000, disability rates are double the state average, and the population is majority Latinx. Merced is difficult territory to organize within–everything must be done from scratch. Without an existing political movement to develop from it was imperative that we analyzed every aspect of Merced.

In mapping out the electoral landscape, we noticed a few things: cops and real estate money are the only consistent local source of funds. While they dominate campaign funding, closer inspection revealed none of these local backers are politically relevant. Though they may be members of the Chamber of Commerce or Association of Realtors, these donors are not meaningfully organized, and whatever power people think they hold does not stand up to scrutiny. Unions do provide some financial support for candidates, primarily through the regional labor federation. When the labor movement supports a candidate, it’s to the tune of $2,000-$4,000, and the candidates are typically endorsed not only by labor–including police unions–but also by conservative groups like the Chamber of Commerce. Why are reactionary groups governing a city that votes blue, that voted for Bernie overwhelmingly in the Democratic primary, and where, in Perez’s district, over 60% of voters are registered Democrats living in the most poverty-stricken conditions in the state of California? During the Democratic primary, we heavily canvassed Perez’s district as part of the DSA for Bernie campaign. At 60% registered Democrat, 60% renters, 60% Latinx, this was prime territory to test our ideas and build our skills. Armed with this analysis and experience, and with the recognition that the candidate pool was generally atrocious and did not match up with the voters, we came up with a plan.

Without a strong analysis of your local conditions, your local will not be able to make effective decisions. You need to know who matters, who does not, and where you can most meaningfully intervene with your membership.

Merced lacks many of the features of the labor and electoral ecosystems that exist almost everywhere else. There’s a handful of liberal nonprofits who occasionally intervene in local politics by performing advocacy work, and that’s the sum of existing non-DSA electoral work. No progressive organizations exist here, and the local Democratic Party functionally does not exist. The lack of a local political ecosystem through which candidates mature and bubble up meant we would have to identify and develop a candidate of our own. This candidate would ideally be accountable to DSA first and foremost, already part of the movement, and someone who could in some way bring in enough funding to offset the lack of local funding sources for a democratic socialist candidate.

In order to identify and recruit this candidate, we had to do a few things to jump-start the very bare-bones labor movement that exists in Merced. We mapped our chapter membership: who works where and for what unions? This mapping revealed that we had our highest member density at the University of California, Merced (UCM) campus. Our membership at UCM existed at all levels: students, educators, faculty, classified staff. Students in our nascent YDSA formation participated in labor solidarity events with union workers to build DSA legitimacy on campus; union workers and union staff created a campus labor council so the many unions could begin to coalesce as a united force. These very basic and achievable labor organizing practices brought Perez into our orbit and allowed us the opportunity to recruit her.

Perez matched all of our ideal candidate criteria. She was already a leader within the labor movement as a worker-leader. She was elected to the AFSCME 3299 Executive Board, serving on the negotiation team that won a statewide contract after a multi-year impasse, and as a steward, she was a fierce protector of her co-workers. Her union experience and strong ties across the state as part of one of the more progressive unions in the state meant we could backfill campaign funding by leveraging her statewide labor connections. This was particularly important as small towns do not have the donor base that many larger DSA chapters can call on. Importantly, through our chapter’s intentional recruitment, Perez would also be accountable to DSA first and foremost. The idea of her candidacy came from our chapter, and we brought her towards DSA long before we presented the idea to her. There was no other organizational support of her campaign by anyone in Merced; a victory would mean complete accountability to our chapter.

The incumbent was not seeking re-election, so Perez’s opponent was Allen Brooks, president of the local NAACP chapter and a real estate agent. Brooks spent most of the summer trying to co-opt the defund the police movement in Merced, a movement that our chapter kickstarted and heavily influenced through directing people to budget hearings and drafting a list of demands for other groups to coalesce around. Meanwhile, Brooks coordinated a photoshoot for the mayor and police chief to take a knee that ran on the front page of the local paper; he facilitated multiple panels featuring the police chief, district attorney, and local politicians which attempted to solidify support for #8CantWait; and when he announced his candidacy, he spoke of police needing more money for training while disparaging the young, newly awakened abolition activists in the streets and city hall by saying they need to rethink their ideas and messaging. He said that while he agreed with the idea of BLM, he did not support the organization, as they were Marxists “and we don’t have those here.” Perez, meanwhile, had a role in AFSCME 3299’s full-throated support of defunding the police, and throughout the campaign, the trees in her front yard featured “AFSCME 3299 – Defund the Police” signs. Despite the clear differences between the candidates, the people who took up the local abolitionist cause declined to meaningfully support the Perez campaign, despite attempts on our end to include them. There was a definite ultraleftist character at play among the coalition.

The campaign itself was straightforward. Merced is very politically undeveloped; because of this, our strategy was to get Perez’s name in front of as many people as possible and to make sure she was presented as the nice, down-to-earth person she is. For the first time ever, we presented regional labor unions with a high-credibility left-labor candidate. Because this was a DSA campaign above all else and we endorsed early, each subsequent endorsement questionnaire we submitted featured our chapter front and center when they asked who had already endorsed Perez, further building our legitimacy within the labor movement. These unions–local, regional and statewide–provided the financial backing we needed and would not otherwise have been able to find. We made more phone calls than any other local campaign had ever made. We even sent pot holders to every voter in the district. While there were clear ideological differences between Perez and her opponent, we could not expect voters to pick up on those differences. Our solution was to push for name recognition above all else: BERTHA splashed across all signs and graphics, in addition to pot holders with “Bertha Perez” printed across them. What better way to cut through the endless campaign mailers and implant a candidate’s name in the forefront of voters minds than a physical gift they will actually use? For smaller campaigns, the financial commitment is going to be significant, and it does require making the decision early on in order to allow for production, but having a unique item land in everyone’s mailbox the week of the election was probably the tactic that put Perez’s campaign over the top.

This campaign culminated in a very narrow victory. Election night results showed Perez down a handful of votes, but each successive report earned her a few more votes than Brooks, ending in a victory by 180 votes. Every local institution with even a little bit of organizational heft was aligned against us: the local paper, Association of Realtors, Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood organizations, civil society organizations, and various neighborhood associations. In the eyes of the people who make up Merced’s elite, Perez was a complete unknown. During an Association of Realtors political debate–we declined to participate, which was noted on the front page of the paper twice–Brooks said, “Who is she? I’m not trying to be funny. Where did she come out of the woodwork?” to audience laughter. The few liberal and progressive organizations that do exist here declined to pitch in on the campaign. Our sense was that they were very skeptical of our chances. We spoke to people from these organizations, as well as other unaffiliated local activists, in the preceding months and were left with the sense that they did not believe this victory would be possible.

It’s much easier, and perhaps more comfortable, to resign yourself to complaining about the present state of things and how your local city council is terrible. This impulse must be combatted. Changing the world is not meant to be comfortable or easy.

Good organizing and mapping fundamentals combined with a Marxist analysis of local conditions brought us this victory, which has left us well positioned to win majority control of the city council in two years. We now have legitimacy and stronger ties with the local labor movement. In the days after the election, we held a new member call as part of the DSA 100K recruitment drive along with other central valley chapters. When Perez spoke during the call, the chat lit up with people applauding her story. Over the course of November, we were the fastest growing DSA local in the nation, by percentage.

Organizing committees and chapters in small towns and rural areas would be well advised to consider the following points:

  • Identify and develop your own candidates. By taking the lead here, locals do not have to wait for a decent candidate to show up who may have other organizations they are more accountable to. This also allows for your local to be at the forefront of any endorsement discussions with other organizations, further building legitimacy. By moving early and ensuring the candidate is accountable to your chapter, you can begin building a small scale party surrogate through which every aspect of your chapter can benefit.
  • Power mapping. Without a strong analysis of your local conditions, your local will not be able to make effective decisions. You need to know who matters, who does not, and where you can most meaningfully intervene with your membership. In small towns, you will likely find that the people driving local politics are paper tigers and can safely be ignored. Map your membership, where they work, and whether they are union members. Help them become stewards. Take advantage of member density to recruit new members. Help them get involved in labor movement formations like labor councils; being active in these formations will help you learn which unions exist and are active in your area.
  • Money. Victorious campaigns require money, and as a working-class organization, your DSA local probably cannot self-finance a winning campaign on its own. By mapping local conditions now, well before you have to make decisions, you can learn what it would take to win and where you can get that money. Volunteer labor from members is valuable, but it is only one part of the equation.
  • Don’t get caught up chasing coalitions with progressives and activists. The liberal and progressive organizations in Merced threw their support behind a different electoral race. They supported a county supervisor incumbent, even securing an endorsement by the Working Families Party. If we were to have just followed the lead of the more established political players, we would have either not done anything or been caught up in a losing effort in support of a vaguely progressive candidate. You should lead the way. When you win, those potential coalition partners can fall in line down the road if they so choose. However, you should absolutely secure a left-labor coalition; without extremely broad union support, you probably won’t get anywhere.
  • Integrate labor into everything. While this was an electoral campaign, the foundation was built on labor organizing, both on our end and on Perez’s end, as her involvement in the labor movement led to her having the credibility and connections to receive such vast support from the statewide labor movement.
  • Avoid consigning yourself to permanent opposition status. This stretched our abilities and capacity, but by arming yourself with a strong analysis of local conditions and orienting the entirety of your organizing work towards a strategic goal, you can make change.

It’s much easier, and perhaps more comfortable, to resign yourself to complaining about the present state of things and how your local city council is terrible. This impulse must be combatted. Changing the world is not meant to be comfortable or easy.