Democratic Socialism in PDX

By Dom Belcastro|June 5, 2018News, Top Stories|

Democratic Socialism in Portland

The Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America prepare for a busy summer. Between the campaign to gather signatures in support of the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF formerly PJET), a first annual Socialism Summer Day School event for members, continued canvasses to agitate for the Medicare for All (M4A) campaign, the members of the PDX DSA are active.

As other outlets have reported, local Democratic and Republican party membership meetings struggle to assemble 50 attendees. While in the halls of SEIU (and Sunnyside Community Center on occasion) the local branch of the Democratic Socialists average 100+ engaged organizers and activists in their monthly general meetings.

Nationally, the DSA grew exponentially after Bernie Sanders presidential campaign ended: from 5,000 to 35,000 national members. Chapters exist in cities across the country, in ‘blue’ states and ‘red’ states alike. Portland’s chapter exploded from less than 20 members at the end of 2016 to roughly 800 dues-paying members at present.

Natasha Beck, is one of the few current members who originally was a member of Portland’s chapter of the, “New American Movement (NAM), a democratic socialist feminist organization, [which] merged in 1982 with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) to form DSA.”

Beck explains The Portland NAM chapter, “focused on … anti-nuclear, public power, labor, especially plant closings, reproductive rights. We also attended feminist, anti-war, gay/lesbian rights marches and rallies and worked in coalition with many progressive groups in the Portland area. We had a socialist feminist study group … [before] the Portland DSA chapter became inactive in the late 1980s.”

In the summer of 2017, as hundreds of Portlanders joined the ranks of the expanding political movement, the ‘establishment’ figures of the DSA chapter lost support of the membership.  

A dispute over quorum during one particularly momentous general meeting, placed the nails in the coffin of the status quo within the PDX DSA. ‘The old guard’ as some members described them, used voting procedures to jam up a meeting, citing bylaws that required the national reps of the DSA to O.K. the proposed vote to change quorum.

Despite minor drama and political disagreements, this political organization has made its impact upon the city. The organization democratically chooses where to fight and how to respond to local issues.

As the WW reported a few weeks ago, members of the Portland DSA supported the picketing Burgerville Workers Union on several occasions.

Members each get a voting card to decide on proposals brought by the membership. Sometimes paper and digital surveys decide the direction of working groups or committees.

Jody Folkedahl, member of DSA since Spring 2017, explained, “[after I joined] we did an informal survey of membership of what their priorities were, and Single Payer/ Improved Medicare for All came out as important to the membership. Then it was identified as a national priority as part of the 2017 National Convention.”

Riley Brann, co-chair of the M4A Working Group (WG) campaign and member since 2017, says he is, “going to be a new father soon and I am seeing first hand the advantages [and] disadvantages of what having healthcare means for a family, OR the crippling debt that can ensue from our healthcare system.”

Emily von W. Gilbert, DSA member since November 2016 and a feminist caucus organizer, supports “the campaign for the Reproductive Health Equity Act as a way to anchor our larger health justice work firmly to our vision of reproductive justice: where every person is fully supported in their choices to raise a family or not.”

While the M4A campaign emphasizes free, universal healthcare for all, the feminist caucus has held events agitating for, “Full bodily autonomy, free childcare, stable housing, good education opportunities and a valuation of care-work.”

While Brann and others, “believe that Healthcare is a human right.,” an Oregon state legislature attempt to add an amendment to Oregon’s Constitution stating this failed to pass during the short session earlier this year.

Brann argues,

Insurance companies exist to make a profit and doctors exist to take care of people and provide the care that they need. Insurance companies have no place in our healthcare system other than to muddy up the process, deny care to people and it is high time that we simply removed them from the equation.

Measure 101 passed January 2018 with help from healthcare activists of all kinds. Many were volunteer canvassers within the DSA. Folkedahl and other members “felt that working on the Measure 101 campaign was important for Oregonians, not as a final goal, but as something that was important to working class Oregonians.”

Portland DSA-ers canvassed over 90 separate times to rally support for a Bernie Sanders-style Medicare for All policy, all the while fighting for the passage of 101. Folkedahl says “It was personally important to me because I have lived without health insurance and with inadequate insurance. I know how much bills for cancer treatments cost, and I am thankful that my father had insurance and I wasn’t left as an underemployed 24-year-old to pay those on my own.”

Rick Belliveau, member since late 2013, “sees [the Medicare for All campaign] as a continuation of Bernie’s ‘Political Revolution’ especially with Bernie sponsoring legislation in the senate and M4A becoming a sort of litmus test for truly progressive Democrats.”

101’s continuation of a bundle of taxes on hospitals and insurance companies to fund affordable healthcare for millions of Oregonians fit in perfectly with the DSA’s goal to achieve universal healthcare.

Belliveau believes “DSAers like Meagan Day [writer for socialist publication, Jacobin] that say that M4A is non-reformist reform  or transformative reform, that is [it] removes a significant part of the economy from private capital and puts in the the public sphere under democratic control [are correct].”

“M4A would be empowering to working people because it would provide some degree of relief of stress and insecurity, both factors in keeping people too busy to organize or even imagine a better world,” according to Belliveau.

Since DSA National and the Portland chapter prioritize the M4A campaign, Brann says, “we will continue to knock on doors, have conversations with our neighbor, put pressure on our legislators and do whatever is necessary to win.”

DSA is a ‘big tent’ or multi-tendency socialist organization — meaning that there’s a place for everyone on the expansive Left: Progressive Bernie Sanders-style Democrats, Marxists, Leninists, Anarchists, Trotskyists, Libertarian Socialists, labor and tenant union organizers, teachers, nurses, radical fast-food workers, and everything in between.

Members formed a Socialism Study WG that hosts socialist reading groups and functions as the general internal educational body of the chapter.

Sheena Sisk, organizer with Portland Tenants United and DSA’s Socialism Study WG, describes the upcoming Socialism Summer Day School as, “the first event in Portland where Democratic Socialists come together to study how capitalism functions, and more importantly, how we as an organization can mobilize to be a powerful force in getting rid of it.”

While other chapters of the DSA have been in the news for primary victories, Portland’s socialists did not endorse any candidates this election cycle. Olivia Katbi-Smith, Co-Chair of PDX DSA told the Willamette Week, “our job is not to just put our name on the best candidate in the race. There are plenty of other progressive organizations doing that,” in response to candidates who unsuccessfully sought the DSA’s endorsement.

Instead members are focused on other grassroots causes, like collecting nearly 35,000 signatures for the PCEF ballot initiative to tax corporations to pay for weatherization and green jobs with a focus on racial equity.

In recent months, DSA organizers for the Tax the Rich campaign, a policy in Portland to create a progressive tax on incomes above $250,000, have turned out in force to City Council budget forums. Keith Guthrie, member since March 2017 and DSA’s Tax the Rich, organized alongside, “the Care Not Cops campaign, calling for more priority spending on mental health services instead of police,” and he says that “highlights how universal our message relates to the immediate needs of the working class.”

“The public conversation around wealth is shifting and DSA is going to keep challenging the misguided perception that the rich and corporations have ‘earned’ their money.” Guthrie argues that those with the highest income should be taxed to “fund the city and services that the working class need and deserve.”

Most recently, on Monday May 21st, members of several chapters of the DSA in Oregon and supporters of the Poor People’s Campaign convened on the Oregon State Capitol building to rally against a tax break bill, HB 4301, for individuals with pass-through businesses, like landlords.

Emily von W. Gilbert, argues that by convening the, “Special Session [to approve tax cuts,] Gov. Brown fundamentally misunderstood of the reality of our state. It was a response to a false picture painted by lobbyists in Salem and a calculated, political move — in the completely wrong direction.”

She balances the political expediency of the governor with how it was, “encouraging to see a handful of progressive representatives take a stand against their party’s race to the right,” as a few Democratic State Representatives and one Democratic Senator voted against the bill.

“But as usual, the cash from the donor class drowned out the voices of the rest of us.” Von W. Gilbert questions the wisdom of tax cuts for wealthy proprietors,

“While farmworkers in Oregon have an average life expectancy of just 50 years?” – As Ramon Ramirez of Oregon farmworkers union PCUN stated during his speech on the capitol,

“When 40% of our families face hardship paying their rent, food and utility bills month after month?” per recent CNN report, and “With climate change looming over us?”

Alyssa Pariah, the direct action organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign, believes that, “genuine anti-poverty activists [across the country] support Democrats because of the threat of Republicans gaining ground,” but this should not apply in Oregon.

“With unsurmountable majorities at all levels of government, the Democrats choose to impose austerity on the poor and give tax cuts to the rich. This is the logical end of the politics of fear. We have to break from these donkeys,” to achieve real wins for the working class, Pariah argues.

Despite local setbacks and the US’s increasingly right wing federal government, the members of the DSA continue to fight for a socialist future.



Jordan Sheldon, co-chair of the PCC YDSA and member of the Portland chapter since early 2017 says interested students should, “Follow the PCC YDSA Twitter or Facebook page for details on getting involved.”

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