Somerville was the first city in the country to officially recognize polyamorous relationships, and nearly 60 percent of voters chose Bernie Sanders, a proud democratic socialist, in the 2016 Democratic primary.
So perhaps the city’s socialist takeover comes as no surprise. But it may end up as a somewhat pragmatic affair, with more emphasis on the city budget and less on the proletarian revolution than one might have expected.
The Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America last week endorsed six socialists for City Council, a record number of candidates who, should they win, may make Somerville home to the only majority-socialist City Council in the country, according to Politico.
Long known for its progressive politics and left-wing activism, Somerville would seem a natural place for socialists to make electoral inroads.
“When you explain the policies we’re fighting for, a lot of people come around,” said Matt Miller, cochair of the DSA’s electoral working group, citing Donald Trump’s election and Sanders’s popularity as reasons for socialism’s current appeal.
In today’s Somerville, the socialist label seems to be an asset. The newly endorsed candidates define socialism as supporting a broad range of progressive but not particularly extreme policies, from increasing tenant protections and bringing the energy grid under municipal control to limiting the police budget and investing in community land trusts. For a leftist electorate, these are solidly mainstream positions.
“I’ve so far received no pushback on the socialist label,” said Tessa Bridge, 33, a DSA member who is running in Ward 5 and has been canvassing her neighbors. “Socialism is really about us caring for one another and building a community where everyone can thrive.”
The preliminary election will take place in September, with the general in November. Nomination papers aren’t even available yet (that happens in May), so it’s not yet clear how much competition the socialist slate will face. But four of the 11 members of the City Council have said they’re not running for reelection (two are running for mayor), so there will be at least some changeover.
In recent years, the DSA’s Boston-area membership has surged and now hovers around 3,000. Across the country, the number of people calling themselves socialists has climbed, said Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, as anger over income inequality and racial injustice has made once-radical views more widely acceptable. Popular figures like Sanders and Democratic US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, also a socialist, have also helped to reduce concerns about socialism.
The DSA has more than 90,000 members nationally, a spokeswoman said, and over 100 currently hold public office, according to a recent count by an Occidental College professor.
Of course, Somerville’s political leanings are not exactly representative of the country at large, Berman noted.
“Using the term ‘socialist’ in Somerville is not the same as using the term in Miami,” Berman said. “The contemporary reality is that a lot of people are going to shut down the minute they hear that term.”
Plenty of people aren’t particularly enthusiastic about a dawning socialist future.
“I don’t believe in a lot of things they want,” said William Tauro, 60, who is running for mayor in Somerville as an independent. Tauro said he would increase the police budget so officers could do more community outreach and work with business owners to reinstate parking spots that have been turned into bus and bike lanes — decidedly anti-socialist positions.
Other locals expressed concern that the emergent socialists will dominate a divided city.
“If the council could be made up of a fairly equal balance of DSA, progressives, and more moderate long-time locals it would be of great service to the city,” Matt Hoey, who grew up in Somerville, wrote in an e-mail. “Too lopsided and there is just going to be more class, cultural and political conflict.”
Most of the slate of socialist candidates have not run for office before. And while they cite similar priorities — namely affordable housing and racial justice — they followed different ideological paths.
“I definitely didn’t always call myself a socialist. It’s actually a label I struggled with for a long time,” said Willie Burnley Jr., 27, a DSA member who is running for an at-large seat. Burnley’s parents were born in Mississippi, and both were devoted Democrats, but certainly not socialists, he said.
Yet over time, Burnley came to the conclusion that socialism wasn’t merely an intellectual concept. It was about how money and power worked in everyday life. He signed his first apartment lease in Somerville in 2016 but had to move back to his native California after his work hours were cut and his rent was raised.
“Knowing I had no money, knowing I had bills coming that I couldn’t pay, it was one of the most anxiety-producing and depressing periods of my life,” Burnley said.
He returned a few years later, but describes his reluctant move as an illustration of the displacement many Somerville residents face. Even those who might be wary of the socialist label hear him out because they, too, fear being priced out of their homes, he said. He advocates extending the statewide eviction moratorium for a year after the pandemic ends and reinstating rent control, which would require a change in state law.
“You’re not going to change the American welfare state from the Somerville City Council,” said Berman, the Barnard professor. “Could they slightly reorient spending? Sure.”
Rand Wilson, a longtime Somerville activist, said the socialist candidates need to knock on doors and attend community meetings to win over constituents.
“Socialist platitudes aren’t going to cut it,” he said.
And regardless of what happens in this election, there is another hill to climb. So far, there are no socialists running for mayor, the position that wields the most power in Somerville’s strong-mayor system.
“The socialist takeover of Somerville is going to be a little disappointing,” Wilson quipped, “if nobody runs for mayor.”