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Election night with L.A.’s Democratic Socialists: Bernie Sanders impressions, revolution

Candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez at an election night party in Los Angeles.
City Council candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez prepares to snack on Costco pizza at an election night party Tuesday with Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles chapter.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)
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There were Sen. Bernie Sanders impressions, glasses raised to happy comrades and hating on the capitalist system.

The pizza, snacks and alcohol were Kirkland Signature brand, Costco’s finest. Speakers blared — among other songs — N.W.A’s “F— Tha Police.” People wore pins that read “Tax the rich.”

It was election night with the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Los Angeles chapter was celebrating. Spirits were high. Temperatures were low. Cold rain drenched beanies and Bernie caps at the late-night outdoor party.

As the young, progressive set watched the returns roll in, it became obvious that the second-largest city in America was taking a left turn.

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The race between L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez was leaning in the latter’s favor. And in the race for city controller, Kenneth Mejia — who secured the endorsements of an array of progressive organizations — was trouncing City Councilmember Paul Koretz.

Despite a significant fundraising advantage, Koretz, 67, trailed Mejia, 32, by more than 20 points early Wednesday.

Nov. 9, 2022

Councilmember-elect Eunisses Hernandez, also endorsed by DSA-LA, won earlier this year and will take office in December.

“While we’re winning here, socialists around the country are looking to L.A., not just for how it’s done but to come out and support,” Samuel Sukaton, a member of the chapter’s electoral politics committee, told the crowd. “Across the country, when people are given the socialist option, when people are given an option beyond the corporate party duopoly, we are standing, we are running, we are winning.

“I’m going to tell you right now, what’s happening in L.A. — where we are in City Hall – this is happening everywhere,” Sukaton said. “Are you ready, friends? Are you ready for a political revolution, friends? Are you ready to govern, friends?”

His comrades broke out in cheers.

Community activist Eunisses Hernandez unseated L.A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo in June, but won’t take office until December.

Oct. 21, 2022

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More than a hundred people filtered in and out of the election night party — which was open to the public — at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, where people clustered under canopies in a futile effort to stay dry. A rose was projected on a bare brick wall; the symbol of socialism wore sunglasses and carried a “Vote” sign. The stickers on a Nissan Sentra in the parking lot spoke volumes: “Bernie for President 2020.” “Hugo Community Power.” “I’d rather be taking public transit.”

Attendees closely followed election results of DSA-endorsed candidates across the country, but the star of the show here was Soto-Martinez. Throughout the night, the candidate gained a lead over O’Farrell to cheers from a crowd that grew steadily drunker on hard seltzer, Coors Light and boxed Cabernet Sauvignon.

Democratic socialists dance in the rain on election night party in L.A.
Members of the Democratic Socialists of America’s L.A. chapter dance in the rain at an election night party in Los Angeles.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)

Soto-Martinez has been involved with DSA-LA since around 2018; the organization endorsed him in his bid for the City Council.

O’Farrell, a two-term incumbent, was facing an aggressive challenge from Soto-Martinez in a contest to represent Council District 13 in which the two offered different views on police spending, the city’s response to homelessness and other issues.

Over the last few months, DSA-LA members knocked on thousands of doors in District 13 for Soto-Martinez, said Lori Dajose, the L.A. chapter’s communications director. More than 800 DSA-LA members live in the district, Dajose said.

As of Wednesday, Soto-Martinez had 17,401 votes, while O’Farrell trailed with 15,896.

The winners of four contests for Los Angeles City Council will have the power to shape policy on housing, homelessness, police and other issues.

Nov. 9, 2022

But throughout Tuesday night, Benina Stern, who sits on the chapter’s electoral politics committee, periodically shouted out results from where she monitored them on the L.A. County election results page via her phone. The 27-year-old joked that she feels like a middle-aged DSA member because of a younger wave of people who joined in 2020.

Stern announced it early on as O’Farrell’s lead began to drop.

“He’s going down,” Dajose shouted.

As the night got underway, Noah Suárez-Sikes, who jokingly referred to himself as the spokesperson for the Puerto Rican sector of DSA-LA, said he was agitating for the chapter to start purchasing Don Q, a Puerto Rican rum.

“If we do buy rum, it has to be Bacardi because it’s [United Auto Workers] made, it’s union made,” Yoni Hirshberg, with the UAW, chimed in.

“OK, profit off the colonization of my people by the aristocrats,” Suárez-Sikes joked. Hirshberg and Suárez-Sikes are in leadership with the organization’s Hollywood labor circle.

Suárez-Sikes, whose parents are both art professors, said his politics veered more to the left after he started working in the film industry.

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“I was working with a bunch of extremely bright, extremely talented people who were telling me how much they wanted to die because of the way their job was,” he said. “They were getting worked too hard, paid very little and some of them were having things thrown at them.”

Seeing his boss’ house at his first job and how little he himself was being paid — making “subminimum wage” — “catalyzed something in me,” he said. Suárez-Sikes is 26 (meaning he “just got booted” off his parent’s healthcare coverage) and joined DSA-LA around three years ago.

He studied history at USC and called socialism “an integral component of the labor history of the United States.” But, he added, “I think people have the residual effects of the Red Scare.

“A lot of people are still dealing with the hangover of that,” said Suárez-Sikes, who wore a red silk pocket square he’d gotten from a friend. “When you explain that socialism is you getting to keep the value of your labor, there are very few things that are more American than that.”

Dajose made the rounds with a mango-flavored hard seltzer in hand. The 29-year-old, who wore glitter, gold eye shadow and a Soto-Martinez campaign shirt, joined DSA-LA two years ago on election night.

Raised as an evangelical Republican, Dajose spent a year in Copenhagen, where, she said, “democratic socialism is much more the norm.” In the years after she returned, she watched as Sanders’ campaigns shifted the conversation around socialism.

“Now it’s not a crazy, radical thing to say universal healthcare, healthcare is a human right,” said Dajose, who works as a science writer for Caltech. “I think maybe 10 years ago, it was like, ‘Oh, these left-wing people.’”

Conversations around the party were a window into attendees’ mindsets.

Speaker No. 1, sporting a Bernie cap: “At least you’re not part of the capitalist machine like the rest of us.”

Speaker No. 2 was quick to correct; the project they were working on is getting funding from Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos.

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Speaker No. 1: “Never mind.”

They talked about changing election day so it would fall on a weekend instead of a weekday, so that the working class could more easily cast a ballot.

As the night wore on, the music’s volume rose along with the jubilation. Attendees danced to cumbia in the pouring rain. DSA-LA members stood atop a table to call out each new election drop.

Shortly before midnight, Soto-Martinez was increasing his lead. Instead of “O’Farrell,” a speaker dubbed the incumbent “O’Failure.”

“Are you ready to lead this country, this city, this region into the 21st century? To a 21st century that works for the many, not the few?” Sukaton asked.

The crowd roared in response.

Hugo Soto-Martinez addresses the crowd as election results showed him ahead.
Hugo Soto-Martinez addresses his supporters Tuesday night as L.A. City Council election results showed him ahead of his challenger.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)

Soon after, Soto-Martinez took the microphone to resounding chants of “Hugo.” In a short speech, he shouted out the support he got from DSA-LA and the Unite Here Local 11 hotel workers union.

“The moment that made me the most happy was seeing this family, the Democratic Socialists of America, for the first time link up with organized labor,” Soto-Martinez said. “That is going to be the coalition that we need to build in order to truly change the city of Los Angeles.”

When we do that, he continued, “I know we’re going to be unstoppable.”

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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