By JOHN LESLIE
As the socialist movement grows, independent socialist candidates for local office will be faced with challenges. How to advocate for the oppressed and exploited effectively without adapting to bourgeois politics? Once elected to local office, a socialist candidate can use the megaphone offered by their office to be what Lenin referred to as “a tribune of the people.”
As an advocate for oppressed peoples and the working class, a socialist on city council can draw a clear line of demarcation between the interests of working people and those of landlords, developers, and business. A socialist in office should not be afraid to vote no or to stand on principle. This means that the working-class and popular movements have to be mobilized to sup-
port the office holder. Bourgeois politics rests on a passive relationship between voter and candidate. Socialist politics require the continued mass mobilization of the working class and its allies.
The working class lacks its own political instrument—an independent party representing workers and oppressed peoples. Such a party would fight every day through elections and through the day-to-day struggles of working people for justice. As socialists, we recognize that “lesser-evil” compromises and work inside the Democratic Party can only reinforce our subordination to the “other” party of big business. In this sense, local independent socialist campaigns can be seen as the beginning of a process that leads us to the formation of a Labor Party based on fighting unions and communities of the oppressed.
Ellie Hamrick is the candidate of the Athens Revolutionary Socialists (ARS), a local collective that used to be a branch of the former International Socialist Organization (ISO). Hamrick will be on the ballot in November.
The campaign is focused on issues that are crucial for working people, such as offering solutions to the opioid crisis that go beyond criminalization, gentrification, and high rents; living wages for workers; environment and climate; and standing up for the oppressed. Hamrick and the ARS have been clear that they do not support the Democratic primary bid of Bernie Sanders, a stance we agree with. That said, their support for independent mayoral candidate Damon Krane, a DSAer in Athens who has expressed his support for Sanders, contradicts this important stance and blurs the class lines in politics.
Socialist Action is publishing this interview for the information of our viewers. We have not endorsed Hamrick, but applaud the positive aspects of the campaign. We hope that this interview will help to illuminate some of the issues faced by socialists running for local office.
Socialist Action: What brought you to socialist politics?
Ellie Hamrick: I first started calling myself socialist after reading The Jungle and Les Miserables in the sixth grade. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew it meant being on the side of oppressed and exploited people rather than those doing the oppressing and exploiting. In college, I was an activist with the Conflict Free Campus Initiative; I built a campaign pressuring my university to adopt procurement and investment policies that would favor those electronics companies not funding war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We had very moderate demands, and we did everything “right.” We met with administrators, got unanimous support from all the university senates, got a positive recommendation from various university committees, etc. Yet we were met with complete intransigence from the university administration. They laughed at us, slammed doors in our faces, and said we were “like children asking for cookies.” It was the best education I possibly could have gotten about power.
I had a socialist friend helping me with the campaign, and he helped me learn all the right lessons the hard way. Through that experience, I learned a lot about what kinds of tactics are (in)effective, and I learned about the folly of single-issue struggles. I soon became involved in a student coalition that was fighting for environmental, feminist, and class issues. Next thing you know, I was reading “Capital” and signing a membership card for the ISO!
SA: How do you see the role of elections for socialists?
E.H.: We cannot achieve socialism simply by electing socialists; we have to completely do away with the current system, and change has to come from the bottom up for that to happen. But whether we like it or not, elections are an important part of the political landscape, and people’s ideas can find expression or change through elections. We need an independent workers’ party sooner rather than later, and I think socialists running (and hopefully winning) as independents can help pave the way for that. I hope to use this election to spread revolutionary socialist ideas, amplify the message of struggles, and advance the qualitative and quantitative organization of the left in my community.
SA: What are the central issues you want to raise?
E.H.: My platform has four central points:
1) Fighting for the working class. This includes support for the Athens Fight for $15 Coalition, and challenging the immense local power of slumlords, two of whom I’m running against for at-large seats. Damon Krane, a local DSA member, is running for mayor as an independent, and he’s put forward an exciting plan he calls “Operation Slumlord Smackdown.” It includes rent control as well as measures to actually enforce our city housing code.
2) Care, not criminalization. Athens and the surrounding areas have been hit hard by the opioid crisis, and the response has been policing and incarceration. More on this below, but I’m arguing that we should direct resources away from policing and toward ending poverty, which is at the root of the opioid crisis.
Drug use or possession should be decriminalized. People who use drugs are human beings, deserving of rights. They should have access to health care, clean needles, safe injection facilities, and a voice in drug policy. People who use drugs are so often treated as a problem, when in fact they have so much to contribute and can be a central part of the solution when it comes to reducing the harm caused by addiction.
3) Standing against oppression–
I want to make it clear that being a socialist means being feminist, anti-racist, anti-border, and standing against all forms of oppression. We want to advance abortion access and reproductive health care. We want to make our community more accessible for people with disabilities. One platform point that I’m particularly proud of is demanding local voting rights for non-citizens, and demanding an end to cooperation with ICE and DHS. In addition to advancing gender-inclusive bathroom policies, we’re investigating other steps we could take to promote LGBT liberation. I believe I’d be the only openly queer member of council if elected.
4) Planet over profit. Coal and now fracking companies have exploited Athens and all of Appalachia for far too long. They have taken and taken from our region, giving only poison in return. Though the coal companies have left for China, the acid runoff they’ve dumped into our local rivers and streams remains.
Thankfully, fracking already has been banned in city limits, but it’s happening all around us in our county and region, further destroying our water quality. It causes cancer and God only knows what else. A water quality report
for the neighboring town of Buchtel was released a couple of weeks ago, and it turns out there are chemicals in the water called trihalomethanes that cause cancer as well as liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage over time. I want to expand our local wellhead protection areas and restore full funding to stream restoration projects. I also support the Athens County Charter, an activist initiative that aims to expand county powers so that fracking can be banned countywide.
In addition to the platform points, I also want to highlight how undemocratic our local government has been. The Democratic Party has run Athens uncontested for decades. In over 90% of cases, people elected to local office face no challengers in either the primary or the general elections. Essentially, then, the Democratic Party just appoints people to office. Despite facing exactly zero opposition from Republicans or anyone else and maintaining total power for decades upon decades, the Dems have done nothing to change the fact that Athens is the poorest and the most unequal county in Ohio.
SA: How will you deal with questions like police militarization? Police funding? Hypothetically, how would you deal with the hiring process for a new police chief?
E.H.: Policing and prisons do not keep us safer. Instead, they make life more dangerous for black and indigenous people in particular, but also for all people of color, LGBTQ people, and poor and working class people. I want to decrease police funding by as much as possible at every opportunity. I want to ban the local police from accepting any donations from the 1033 program, and to take away as many weapons as possible up to the point of entirely disarming them. I’m not sure how to answer your last question, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!
SA: How do you envision the future of the socialist movement in five to 10 years?
E.H.: We literally have a decade to make a revolution before total and complete ecological collapse. I’m 27, and already in my lifetime 90% of amphibian species and 70% of mammal species have gone extinct. Millions of people have been killed or displaced as a result of climate change and broader ecological catastrophe, and we ain’t seen nothing yet. Far, far worse is coming in the near future.
Ecological disaster is going to get much, much worse much, much more quickly than the nightmare we are already living, starting in 2030. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that billions of lives are at stake. Socialist revolution is our only hope of survival. So, while I can’t predict what will happen, I know what needs to happen starting yesterday. Our movements need to grow in size and militancy, and our socialist organizations need to grow quickly as well.
At the same time, it’s tricky because if we jump the gun before masses of people are ready for revolution, we will fail miserably and put ourselves in an even worse position. We basically have one more chance to get it right. It’s really scary and stressful and depressing, but once you know what’s at stake I don’t think you have a choice but to fight as hard as you can for a radically different world.
This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted in May 2019.