In 1982, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM) merged to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The new organization had two chapters in the Washington area, the DC/MD chapter north of the Potomac and the smaller Northern Virginia (NOVA) local to the south.
Both locals started the new era with a high level of activity. The DC/MD local, in particular, was heavily involved in District politics. Its members constituted a significant delegation at that year’s convention to draft a constitution for the state of “New Columbia” to present to Congress along with a petition for DC statehood. The local also was heavily involved in the successful challenge by Dave Clarke to become DC Council Chair in 1982. Numerous DSA members attended a fundraiser for Clarke wearing the organization’s pins where attendees were heard to ask, “Who are all those people with the rose-and-fist pins?” Branches of the DC/MD local formed in Prince George’s and Montgomery County to generate activism and intervene in local politics there.
DSA was active and influential enough in DC politics in those early years that two 1982 candidates for Ward 1 Councilmember, Frank Smith and Marie Nahikian, both joined DSA in order to secure the organization’s endorsement. Smith won the endorsement and the election. Meanwhile, NOVA was involved in coalitions in Virginia and raised funds through its spaghetti dinners, a folksy variation of DC/MD’s more elaborate “Debs-Thomas Awards” dinners which were usually catered and held at venues such as the National Press Club.
Despite being smaller than many other local left organizations or chapters – DC/MD DSA had a membership of about 400 in the mid-1980s and the NOVA local was a fraction of that size – DSA was an active and visible member of the local left well into the 1990s, sponsoring public programs, participating in local coalitions and endorsing and campaigning for candidates for local office. The local’s Cultural and Education Committee sponsored a series of public forums, many of them well-attended; speakers included Salvadoran opposition leader Ruben Zamora, left journalist Christopher Hitchens and DSA co-chair Michael Harrington. The local’s Prince George’s branch was a prominent part of progressive labor leader Paul Pinsky’s successful 1986 campaign for Maryland House of Delegates and was an early supporter of the Maryland Citizen Action Coalition. The Takoma Park branch provided major backing for Sammie Abbot’s 1983 re-election campaign as mayor. The NOVA chapter was active in opposing US intervention in Central America and in Virginia electoral campaigns.
A notable DSA-initiated local project was the Coalition for Fair Transit Finance (CFTF), created by the DC/MD local in 1984 to challenge the most recent in a series of rate increases by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. While the majority of CFTF’s active members were also DSA members, the coalition also included a number of non-DSAers eager to fight the constant rise in the cost of riding Metro. CFTF encouraged public turnout at Metro’s hearings on the increase and gathered nearly 2,000 signatures in a petition drive against the hikes. While Metro ultimately approved a fare increase, it adopted CFTF’s “Freeze the Fares” slogan and promised no hikes in the near future – and Metro kept that promise for several years.
Yet even during the busy 1980s, maintaining a high level of local activism was a constant struggle. Only a minority of local members were active – perhaps 10 percent of the local members were involved in some kind of ongoing DSA committee or project. This was a factor in the DC/MD and NOVA locals agreeing in May 1985 to “affiliate” – not a merger but an arrangement to share the expense of rent at the local office at the Dupont Circle Building which DC/MD had been renting for several years. The two also agreed to share expenses for a local staff person and for production of the local newsletter.
The merged locals employed staff sporadically during the 1980s. They used a temporary staff member to organize the Debs-Thomas awards dinners – the last one taking place in 1985 – and for brief periods employed a general staff assistant. But raising funds for the staff member’s pay proved burdensome, and by the 1990s the local had reverted to being an all-volunteer operation.
DSA also maintained an office until the early 1990s, moving from the Dupont Circle Building to the downtown Woodward Building in 1986. It later rented space at the Washington Peace Center for a brief time. But eventually the local concluded that the burden of raising money to pay for the office exceeded its benefit, and the “virtual office” became a post office box and a telephone answering machine in a member’s home.
Part of the difficulty in maintaining activism in a socialist organization at that time was certainly the conservative onslaught of the Reagan years in which “activists have tended to abandon, if temporarily, the struggle for a brighter future in order to prevent the present from becoming even more bleak” – as I wrote in the local newsletter in 1986 when I stepped down as chair. One year later, the next outgoing local chair, Rich Bruning, lamented that while the local maintained a vigorous activist profile, “membership probably declined slightly and attendance at membership meetings and forums has fallen noticeably.”
Nevertheless, during the latter half of the 1980s the local maintained a steady calendar of internal and public events and hosted the January 1987 DSA National Board meeting (a since-discontinued national meeting held in years between conventions) and the December 1987 National Convention. A major focus of the local during those years was opposing US intervention in Central America, which involved working in coalition with national and local anti-intervention and peace organizations, and working with the Rainbow Coalition, starting in a major way in the mid-1980s and culminating in work for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
The DC-area locals’ struggles to maintain activism was common to DSA locals around the country, as the number of active locals gradually dropped and involvement in the more active ones declined as well. This led to the rise of one of DSA’s early internal national caucuses, known as New Directions, formed in 1988 in response to the organization’s declining membership and calling for a renewal of grassroots activism to help spur growth. The caucus was short-lived and failed to stem the decline of locals.
In the fall of 1988, the two separate area locals became one; the full merger created the DC/MD/NOVA local. In order to alleviate concern that Virginia concerns would be lost in an emphasis on DC politics, the leaders of the local pledged to encourage independent activity on Virginia-specific concerns.
The local always emphasized the “social” aspect of socialism, with holiday parties, swim outings and summer picnics. A combination of political activism and socialist socializing was the aim of the mid-Atlantic regional retreat, which originated as an annual affair during the DSOC era and after a lapse was revived principally by the DC/MD local in 1987. The retreats, like those from the earlier days, were mostly held at the Bishop Claggett Center in Buckeystown, MD and involved participants from DC, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. (The 1988 retreat was principally organized by the Baltimore local and held there). The weekend retreats involved discussions of current events and the direction of DSA as well as swimming, softball, hiking and late-night partying. Unfortunately, declining participation in the retreats led to their discontinuation after 1990.
The issue focus of the local evolved over time, from a heavy involvement in the Central American anti-intervention movement in the 1980s to single payer health care in the early 1990s to an emphasis on socialist education in the later 1990s. But even with shifting organizational priorities and changes in national and local leadership, several issues remained fairly constant focuses for the local during its active years:
The local established close ties with the Central Labor Council and its longtime president Joslyn Williams. For most of its existence the local had an active Labor Committee and frequently recruited members to swell union picket lines.
At least as early as the regular Women’s Brunch (later renamed the Socialist-Feminist Brunch), which began in 1988, the rights of women were at the center of the local’s priorities. The local was the driving force behind the 1989 creation of the Metro-DC Coalition for Choice (MDCCC), bringing together supporters of abortion rights for rallies and defense of reproductive health clinics against abortion opponents. Even as the overall vitality of the local lapsed in the late 1990s its feminist activism constituted a large part of its public visibility.
This was the lifeblood of the local from the beginning, starting with a large role in the 1982 DC elections and continuing with some level of involvement in elections up to the present except for the lapse in local activity from 2001-2008. DC elections tended to be the focus of electoral activity but Maryland and Virginia members also played roles in elections in those jurisdictions. DSA members were active in the DC Council campaigns of Hilda Mason, a DSA national vice-chair who served on the council from 1977-1999.
DC statehood and home rule
This waxed and waned as a priority for the local, but it was a major focus as early as 1982 with several members involved in the drafting of a statehood constitution, and as late as the late 1990s with the opposition to the Control Board takeover of the city government.
Lesbian and gay rights
Like DC statehood, LGBTQ issues (today’s acronym not yet in use then) were usually in the background of the local’s priorities but occasionally moved to the front. DSA participated in the April 1993 March for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, and took a leading role in lobbying the District to provide benefits for the non-married domestic partners of DC workers, a measure which greatly benefitted the LGBTQ community. Local DSA member Chris Riddiough, who also served as national director and national vice-chair, was DSA’s principal national leader in developing the organization’s role in promoting lesbian, gay and bi equality.
While the local’s intensity on this issue never matched its 1984 work on the CFTF campaign, it continued to remain visible on Metro funding and fare issues and was represented at most WMATA fare-increase hearings to oppose hikes and argue for dedicated funding. The local was an early endorser of MetroWatch, an independent transit watchdog group that was active in the 1990s.
The local engaged in these mostly through work in larger coalitions, especially in the 1980s opposing US intervention in Central America and South African apartheid, and in the early 1990s against the US invasion of Iraq. During the 1980s the local had an active international affairs committee.
The CFTF project and MDCCC were rare instances when the local initiated its own projects or coalitions. Its more common activist model was joining existing coalitions or projects, notably in Central American anti-interventionist work, promoting DC statehood and defending home rule, and work in broad multi-issue coalitions that rose and fell from time to time. This had a number benefits: It raised DSA’s profile in the local activist community, provided an opportunity to make contact with activists as potential allies and recruits, and enabled the local to play an active role in local political movements with a minimum drain on its limited resources.
The decline in membership in the local continued through the 1980s and beyond. From about 400 members in 1984, membership had declined to about 250 by 1988 and continued to slip after that. But even more noticeable was a drop-off in participation in local committees and projects and an increasing difficulty in recruiting members to the local leadership. The local’s decline was evident at its 1991 annual meeting, at which a lack of candidates for the local board as well as anyone willing to serve as chair eventually resulted in the formation of a three-member administrative committee that for a time effectively replaced a single chairperson.
But there continued to be high points, one of them the local’s hosting of the 1995 DSA National Convention. The business portion of the convention took place at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, MD, with the public outreach event, largely organized by the local, held at First Congregational Church in DC. This “Breaking Bread” event featured Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich, author/activist Clarence Lusane, Georgetown law professor Mari Matsuda and Afro-Latino activist Roland Roebuck, with Richard Healey as moderator. About 500 people attended the forum, which focused on the need to build multiracial alliances for economic and social justice.
But after that convention the local’s decline continued. Discussions about stemming the downturn produced many ideas about why it was happening but few effective solutions. The problem seemed to be both political and demographic. Politically, while numerous progressive activists were aligned with DSA’s positions, many were wedded to defensive struggles within single-issue organizations which were at odds with DSA’s overarching, multi-issue orientation. Many also thought being attached to a socialist organization would be unhelpful in an atmosphere in which socialism was looked by many on as alien, unworkable, too utopian or too linked with communism. As for the demographic problem, many of its working-age members were preoccupied with careers (many in social-change occupations) and family with little time for an active role in an organization such as DSA. Members “graduating” from the DSA youth section tended to drift away from the organization and the local experienced an aging of its activist base, whose shrinking numbers experienced overwork and burnout.
After the mid-1990s meetings became more irregular and more poorly attended. The year 2000 marked the last semi-active one before the local lapsed into organizational coma; that year marked the last printed issue of the Washington Socialist – the local had no online presence – and the last semi-regular local meetings.
Between 2001 and 2008 there were no regular meetings nor was there a newsletter or other regular local DSA publication. Nevertheless, the local continued to exist on paper (and on the national DSA website) and there remained a small network of DSA members who from time to time regrouped for specific activities. The local sent a six-member delegation to the 2001 national convention in Philadelphia and it assisted the national office in organizing an anti-poverty conference in the District in September 2002. While unable to recruit any delegates to attend the 2003 national convention in Detroit, local members came together to organize a November 2004 discussion with DSA Vice-Chair and American Prospect Editor Harold Meyerson about the national elections that year and what they meant for the left. In 2005 one member (myself) attended the national convention in Los Angeles.
Members also organized in 2006 under the flag of DSA-PAC to hold a September 20 fundraiser at the Mott House for Bernie Sanders’ initial campaign for Senate. Sanders and several other members of Congress appeared at the event which raised about $3,000.
That would be the final local DSA activity for more than two years. The local sent no delegates to the 2007 DSA convention in Atlanta.
Even though the local was not active for years, I continued to be listed on the national DSA website as the DC-area contact. From time to time people contacted the local asking about meetings and activities only to find there were none. But in early 2009 a number of new members expressed an interest in helping to reactivate the local. A motivating factor seemed to be the election of Barack Obama. Although Obama was not a socialist, his historic ascension to the presidency and his message of hope generated wide interest in progressive activism. Perhaps no small boost to DSA were the right-wing charges that Obama was a socialist, to which the DSA national office responded with a messaging campaign emphasizing that “Obama is no socialist – but we are.”
A group of both newer and veteran members met at Mount Pleasant’s Dos Gringos Café in May 2009 to discuss reviving the local. This led to a June meeting at a member’s home which drew 23 people, with DSA national director Frank Llewellyn in attendance. With the energy and enthusiasm generated at that meeting the local was formally relaunched under the new name of Metro-DC DSA.
The revived local immediately established a leadership structure and a schedule of regular meetings. One of its earliest activities was handing out DSA literature at a local showing of Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story. It sent a two-member delegation to that November’s national convention in Evanston, Illinois.
The local’s increasing vitality was recognized when it was chosen to host the 2011 DSA national convention. The local elected a full slate of delegates to the convention, most of which was held at a hotel in Tysons Corner. The local played a large role in organizing the public outreach event at DC’s St. Stephen’s Church, which featured as speakers SEIU Vice-President Eliseo Medina; John Nichols of The Nation; DC Central Labor Council President Joslyn Williams; and Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice. About 200 people packed the church for the event.
In 2012 the local revived the Washington Socialist as an online publication. The immediate years that followed were something of a reverse of the pre-2000 pattern with a relatively small organization (averaging about 200 dues-paying members in those days) that nevertheless was able to engage sufficient numbers of members in order to remain visible and effective.
Between that time and 2016 the local’s political outlook was little changed from earlier years, but the issues it emphasized reflected the times. The local became active in the anti-racism organization Showing Up for Racial Justice and in the movement to stop climate change. It also retained its ties to labor through membership in DC Jobs with Justice as well as its opposition to Walmart’s locating in the District, and continued to be involved in electoral politics through endorsements and campaigning for candidates. It continued its focus on feminism by participating the annual DC Abortion Fund’s bowling and billiards tournaments. It launched a book discussion group and a “Socialist Salon” speaker series. The local sent a small delegation to the 2013 DSA convention in Emeryville, CA (near Oakland) and a larger one to the 2015 convention in Bolivar, PA.
As early as 2013 the potential, and then real, presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders occupied much of the local’s attention. Members plugged into the National Office’s canvassing campaign to encourage Sanders to run, and after he announced his candidacy it stumped for him in all three local jurisdictions as well as help organize local rallies and marches for him.
Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 was both a shock and a call to action for local left-progressive forces, and DSA was no exception. A November 11 DSA salon at Hunan Dynasty featured a discussion on how to respond to the election results. About 50 people crowded the private dining room to discuss the left’s need to fight back. David Duhalde, DSA’s associate national director, reported that DSA’s national membership already had increased by over 1,000 in the few days since the election. A surge of new-member enrollments was also coming into the newly updated local website which now was able to accommodate new member sign-ups. In addition to the desire to resist Trump, the surge of interest in DSA also was clearly fueled by Sanders’ having made an effective case for democratic socialism on a national stage.
The November 14 local DSA meeting at MLK Library drew more than 50 people, very likely the largest turnout for a general meeting in over 30 years, with the majority new or prospective members. The increased interest in DSA was also demonstrated by donations to the local through its website; within a week after the election 14 people had made unsolicited contributions totaling $480.
And that was only the beginning of the local’s explosive growth, which from 200 members just prior to the 2016 election sat at approximately 2,000 three years later. While DSA today is a much larger, stronger, more prominent and younger organization than ever before, the ground for the organization’s takeoff was laid much earlier – by the actions of DSA going back to the 1982 DSOC/NAM merger, and prior to that the legacy of American socialism dating to Eugene Debs. Following the many years of wondering if DSA had a future, locally or nationally, that worry has been laid to rest.