Are Georgia Democrats ready for a Democratic Socialist?

Gabriel Sanchez, a democratic socialist, won the Democratic Party primary against state Rep. Teri Anulewicz on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Gabriel Sanchez, a democratic socialist, won the Democratic Party primary against state Rep. Teri Anulewicz on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Courtesy

When Gabriel Sanchez knocked off state Rep. Teri Anulewicz by 14 points in a Democratic primary last week, he not only pulled off a stunning upset of a popular incumbent, he also positioned himself to become the first Democratic Socialist in the Georgia General Assembly.

Although previous Democrats like state Sen. Nabilah Islam of Gwinnett have been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America before, none has ever won with the expansive support of the Atlanta chapter of DSA, nor by calling themselves a “Democratic Socialist” as Sanchez did in his Smyrna-based district. If he wins in November, will Georgia Democrats be ready for a Democratic Socialist?

Although Democrats and Democratic Socialists share broad goals, like expanding abortion rights, affordable housing, and broad access to health care, several elements of the DSA’s platform are outside the mainstream of Democratic ideology. Sanchez hasn’t said if he would embrace the full platform as a member of the General Assembly, but it could pose messaging problems for Democrats as a whole if he did. That’s because the DSA platform includes positions like an explicit pledge to defund the police, including police training centers, as well as a pledge to free all incarcerated people, close local jails, and decriminalize prostitution and drug dealing.

It also also calls for economic guarantees that could make progressive voters happy, like guaranteed jobs for all who want them, a four-day, 32-hour workweek, and an end to “at will” labor laws in states like Georgia.

Sanchez, 27, worked as a paid canvasser for the Democratic Party of Georgia in 2020 and as an organizer for the “Stop Cop City” effort. He told me in an interview that he absolutely considers himself a Democratic Socialist.

“I believe in the values of Democratic Socialism, which to me means the issues that people care about, like housing and health care for all, and an economy that is there to work for regular people, working people, who are the foundation of the economy,” he said.

That’s good enough for the Democratic Party of Georgia, which has not laid out its plans for spending money in specific districts in November, but did not rule out sending resources to the Sanchez race in Cobb County.

“Georgia Democrats support people committed to backing our values,” DPG executive director Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye said, in part. “We thank Rep. Anulewicz for her years of service and we look forward to working with Gabriel Sanchez, who has clearly stated his commitment to ‘Housing, Health Care, and a Georgia for all.’”

That’s music to the ears of Georgia Republicans, who have long accused Democrats of being socialists and Marxists without any actual Socialists to point to. In a Democratic Socialist like Sanchez, they will have one.

That’s what worries some Democrats, who warned that having a Democratic Socialist in the General Assembly will open the entire party up to charges of extremism they can’t easily bat away.

“He calls himself a ‘Democratic Socialist.’ That is not a Democrat,” said one high-ranking Democrat. “That’s going to be problematic because we’ve seen with Republicans, they like nothing better than to call Democrats ‘socialists.’ And we’re not. This can be weaponized by Republicans on the right, and it’s really unfortunate.”

Along with the label “Democratic Socialist, the Democratic Socialist platform could cause angst for some companies and interest groups headquartered in the 42nd district itself. Lockheed Martin and Dobbins Air Reserve Base are both in the district, but the DSA platform calls for drastic cuts in military spending.

Other groups headquartered in the district include the Georgia Hospital Association, which may be surprised to learn the Democratic Socialist platform calls for public ownership of all hospitals and health care facilities. The Braves baseball organization, Truist Park, and even Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign office are also in the 42nd district.

State Rep. Derrick Jackson, who is considering a run for House Minority Leader or House Democratic Caucus chairman, could be in leadership if and when Sanchez takes office. He said House Democrats would “embrace Gabriel with open arms, as we have with all of our colleges. We have a big tent in more ways than one.”

Jackson pointed to the Oct. 7 attack in Israel as a “stress test” that the caucus faced, with members who are both Jewish and Palestinian-American, and got through.

Sanchez could become another kind of stress test.But it’s a test Jackson said growing parties, including Georgia Democrats, have to handle to expand their numbers.

“I would give Gabriel the same advice that (veteran lawmaker) Calvin Smyre gave me, which is try to learn the legislative process your first term, don’t try to reshape the world,” Jackson said. He’d also share Smyre’s other piece of advice, namely to “proceed with caution” on ideas like defunding the police.

“Speak your piece, but understand how we should move as a caucus as we try to get to 91 seats,” Jackson said.

But before Democrats get to incorporating Sanchez into their ranks, he has to win his race in November against Republican Diane Jackson.

Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University, said it’s a mistake to consider it a foregone conclusion, based on the new lines of the district. “I’m really curious to see who actually wins the general election here, because I think this one is really up for grabs.”

Winning the race will be the first test for Sanchez. Winning over Democrats while they try to expand their majority could be a test for Sanchez and the Democratic Party alike.