Delegates raise their hands in the American Sign Language sign for applause for speaker Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, during the Democratic Socialists of America National Convention at the Westin Hotel in Atlanta on Friday, August 2, 2019. (Photo; Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com)
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta

Georgia democratic socialists pledge to step it up in 2020

When Khalid Kamau took the stage at the Democratic Socialists of America convention in Atlanta, the South Fulton councilman came armed with a message he hopes will reverberate next year: “We have to understand us fringe people are future thinkers.”

Kamau was referring to how several top White House contenders have embraced Medicare for All and free public college initiatives that were long championed by the party’s left flank, a sign that even the more moderate candidates are being pulled to the left.

Throughout the four-day democratic socialists gala that gathered at the Westin Peachtree Plaza, organizers promised a more musical approach to politics in 2020, emboldened by victories last year by two DSA members: U.S. Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Kamau, who won office shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, is perhaps the highest-profile elected official in Georgia who is a member of the democratic socialists. But he predicts he won’t be the last.

“Let me tell you this,” he told the roughly 1,000 delegates who gathered in Atlanta. “We’re going to run candidates and we’re going to win.”

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The awakening of the democratic socialists movement, which has nearly doubled its membership since Trump’s election, could pose a problem for more mainstream Democrats who chafe at any association with socialism.

And it’s a cause for celebration for Republicans, who have telegraphed a key part of the 2020 strategy is branding their adversaries, even those who are more moderate, as socialists bent on bringing European-style policies across the Atlantic.

At the convention in Atlanta, delegates talked of a scattershot approach to next year’s election.

A few will challenge establishment Democrats, much like Ocasio-Cortez did in 2018. Others will support the Democratic ticket. And many will refuse to support any candidate not seen as sufficiently liberal.

“We’re in the beginning process of fleshing out what a distinctive democratic socialist agenda looks like,” said Eric Robertson, a political consultant and former labor union negotiator from Fairburn who was a delegate to the convention.

That tension was punctuated during hours of debate in Atlanta. The organization had earlier endorsed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, but delegates struggled over whether to back a more moderate candidate if Sanders doesn’t win the Democratic nomination.

The organization passed a resolution that said it would not endorse another presidential candidate if Sanders lost, but left open the possibility of encouraging members to oppose Trump.

“We firmly believe that the only way to defeat Trumpism is through fighting for an unapologetically positive vision of an economy that serves the many, not the few,” said Maria Svart, the organization’s national director.

‘They are afraid’

The convention was unlike any traditional political gathering. Handwritten signs pointed delegates to quiet rooms for the overstressed; delegates were told not to applaud speakers but instead raise their hand above their heads with spread fingers lest they startle other attendees.

The cash-strapped organizers explained they provided their own coffee rather than buy from the hotel to save money, and volunteers raised cash online to buy cough drops, condoms and first-aid kits to dispense for free to delegates.

It was a world apart from an event held Friday featuring Vice President Mike Pence in Buckhead, which featured a string of Republicans praising Trump’s agenda and assailing socialists as mortal threats to American democracy.

Those dire warnings were treated with a mix of disgust and delight by DSA delegates. Rachel Kahn, a democratic socialist from Stone Mountain, said the Republican rhetoric meant “they are afraid of us – and I think they should be.”

“This is intended to distract from us, to demean us, and to possibly even intimidate us,” she said. “For the record: not intimidated. Just angry.”

Chris Riddiough, chair of the Democratic Socialists of America 2019 convention, speaks during the Democratic Socialists of America National Convention at the Westin Hotel in Atlanta on Friday, August 2, 2019. (Photo: Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com)
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta

While no high-profile state Democratic leaders surfaced at the convention, some Democratic candidates offered an olive branch. Nabilah Islam, who is running for Georgia’s 7th District, emphasized the big-tent nature of the party.

“There’s room for a wealth of voices, a wealth of ethnicities and a wealth of ideologies,” said Islam, who does not consider herself a democratic socialist. She added that she’s a believer in capitalism with regulations – but that she views healthcare and education as public goods.

“And that’s why I support Medicare for All and free public college,” she said.

Alexander Hernandez, who lost a longshot bid for Georgia’s 6th District in 2016, said he learned in that failed campaign to “wear my politics on my sleeves” and not play it safe by avoiding socialist policies.

He’s planning to run for office again, though he’s focused on grassroots advocacy, such as lobbying local leaders to end controversial federal contracts with immigration officials.

“We are shaking up the Georgia system, and we’re only getting started.”

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