Next year, New York’s democratic socialists hope to grow their bloc in the state legislature by electing union organizer Claire Valdez, who is running to represent Assembly District 37 in Queens. Jacobin spoke with Valdez about her campaign.

Claire Valdez is running to represent New York State Assembly District 37. (Claire Valdez for Queens)

The New York State Legislature now boasts a bloc of eight democratic socialist members, representing the New York City and Mid-Hudson Valley chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Socialists are hoping to continue to grow their numbers in Albany in 2024, as New York City DSA looks set to run three challengers for the state assembly.

Claire Valdez has received the NYC-DSA endorsement for New York State Assembly District 37 in Queens, which includes the neighborhoods of Long Island City, Sunnyside, Maspeth, and Ridgewood. Valdez, who works as a program assistant in the visual arts department at Columbia University, is a longtime organizer in NYC-DSA as well as her union, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110. As a member of the reform caucus United All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), she helped elect Shawn Fain UAW international president earlier this year.

Valdez is challenging incumbent Democrat Juan Ardila, who has received calls to resign from Governor Kathy Hochul and other prominent Democrats after being accused of sexual assault. Valdez recently sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss how she became active in politics, what she’s learned as a union organizer, and how she understands the role of socialists in elected office.

Peter Lucas

In 2021, a group of DSA members approached you about running for this seat, but you declined. Why are you running now?

Claire Valdez

When I was approached the first time, it came from so far out of left field for me. I’d never imagined myself running for office. I was considering going to graduate school, and a comrade told me that we have a lot of people in the movement who are doing that already — what we don’t have are people who we think can step up into these roles, and if that’s something that I think I can do, I need to take that incredibly seriously.

That had been kicking around in my mind for the last couple of years as I spent more time organizing within my union and DSA. I became the unit chair of my shop, helped elect Shawn Fain with UAWD, and I worked as a field coordinator on a DSA electoral campaign adjacent to the district I live in.

The idea started to become more concrete in my mind, and I envisioned what it would actually look like: What kind of campaign would I want to run as a candidate? What would it actually take to be that person? But I also didn’t think that I was going to ever be asked to run again. When I was approached again earlier this year, that comrade’s words were still resonating in my mind.

I also said yes because joining the UAW changed my life, and I think the historic moment for organized labor we’re living through extends beyond the shop floor — this a moment for unionists to organize not just our workplaces, but in legislatures too.

Peter Lucas

You have worked and volunteered on several DSA election campaigns. What do you think distinguishes a DSA campaign from that of your run-of-the-mill self-proclaimed progressive?

Claire Valdez

They are campaigns for the movement. It’s not just about electing an individual who’s going to do the right thing or vote the right way. It’s about organizing intentionally in working-class districts; introducing people to the idea that they’re political actors in their own lives — that they can knock doors, make phone calls, and organize their neighbors, people in their building, their family, their friends — that they’re political participants in this process and have real power and agency; and that we can change our very broken system if we organize together.

The historic moment for organized labor we’re living through extends beyond the shop floor — this a moment for unionists to organize not just our workplaces, but in legislatures too.

Another way to put it: DSA campaigns are about moving people to do something that they’ve never done before — something that they might be scared to do or might be unfamiliar with — that will help them realize the latent power they have as working people.

Peter Lucas

You joined DSA almost five years ago. Have you always been a socialist?

Claire Valdez

I don’t think I would have considered myself a socialist before joining DSA, but I have always identified strongly as a worker. I think I was intimidated by theory. I joined on the heels of seeing Julia Salazar and AOC get elected, and seeing this center of gravity building on the Left in New York that I found really inspiring.

I had also just started a new job that was unionized, which allowed me free time that I previously didn’t have. I know that may sound like a boring or odd reason to get politically active, but it’s a real phenomenon that working people just don’t have a lot of free time to give to things. The benefits of union work — lunch breaks, clocking out at five, and so on — transformed my life in terms of what I was capable of doing.

Peter Lucas

It sounds like there was overlap between getting a union job and becoming active as a socialist organizer.

Claire Valdez

Absolutely. I see them as being inextricably linked in my life. When I first joined my union, I had a hard time getting involved or figuring out what my place was going to be in the union. In DSA, I was able to plug in and learned how to do some basic organizing, which I brought back to UAW.

That’s around the time I got involved in UAWD and my shop’s bargaining committee. Vice versa, too ― I’ve taken the things I’ve learned in UAW and my workplace back to DSA. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

Peter Lucas

Do you think aspects of your role as unit chair in your union would translate to your role as an assemblymember?

Claire Valdez

Yes. A lot of what I do as unit chair is the work of enforcing a contract — making sure that our members know what their rights are and defending them when those rights are being violated. Among the five hundred workers I represent on campus, there is a broad range of titles — administrative workers, call-center workers, cashiers — that have very different schedules and responsibilities, that are accorded different levels of respect by the university and by the people who work and learn here.

A big part of my responsibility as unit chair is bridging those differences, understanding people’s needs, interpreting the contract, and so on, but also making sure that people know that they can fight for more, that they deserve real dignity on the job no matter what their job responsibilities are. Being an elected official, much like a unit chair or shop steward, is about raising expectations.

I think coalition building, understanding different needs, and bridging divides is something I’ve done well as a unit chair. I think the same applies if I’m elected — I will need to work within my district to develop solutions to the problems constituents face, then bring them to Albany with a plan to realize those solutions.

Peter Lucas

UAW Region 9A and the international UAW have both called for a cease-fire in Gaza. You’ve been vocal about your support for justice in Palestine and a cease-fire on social media and with attending protests. Are you at all worried that taking a stand on this controversial issue might hurt your election chances?

Claire Valdez

This is a real “which side are you on?” moment in New York State politics and beyond. People of conscience need to take a stand and demand an end to the horrific violence that we have seen over the past couple of months.

I’ll stand by calls for cease-fire, an end to the violence, and a real political path forward to lasting peace.

I’m incredibly proud that UAW and 9A came out in support of a cease-fire. It shows moral courage that’s consistent with the history of the UAW, which also stood against apartheid in South Africa. We should be standing for peace and for justice for workers all over the world, because an injury to one is an injury to all, and I think unionists especially are the ones who demonstrate that every day organizing their workplaces.

It’s true that PACs will be spending a lot of money against candidates who’ve taken similar positions, but I think that if you are someone who wants to be a political leader in this city and in this state in this moment, it’s incumbent on you to demonstrate some moral clarity. I’m proud that my union did that, and I’ll stand by calls for cease-fire, an end to the violence, and a real political path forward to lasting peace.

Peter Lucas

You’re running as a Democrat, as have all of the other DSA state legislators in New York. Despite that ballot line identification, it’s not uncommon to see DSA electeds in conflict with the party, particularly leaders like Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams. Do you see a contradiction in running as a Democrat while also fighting Democratic Party leadership?

Claire Valdez

Our power as socialists comes from moving together as a bloc, especially when challenging the political status quo and Democratic hegemony, which is often fiercely oppositional to the changes needed to transform our world. We run on the Democratic party line because it is one of the mechanisms that we have available to us to fight right now. Our project, including insurgent campaigns like this one, will continue to agitate against the status quo because we believe a better world is possible.

Peter Lucas

Part of that status quo is the decimation of public goods in New York, spearheaded by Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams. The MTA, CUNY, and K–12 public education are constantly seeing their budgets slashed or threatened with cuts.

What effect does that have on public services and the working-class communities who rely on them?

Claire Valdez

It’s hard to overstate the impact the routine destruction of public programs built by working-class communities has on those same communities. We’ve seen them dying a death by a thousand cuts for generations now, and the result has been catastrophic.

We’ve seen New York’s public services dying a death by a thousand cuts for generations now, and the result has been catastrophic.

It’s a long war on our public institutions orchestrated by corporations that seek to privatize every aspect of our lives to yield a large profit for a small few. The result is life in New York becoming less and less sustainable for people who are also getting pushed further out from where they work, from the communities they come from. It’s heartbreaking to see this city and all its abundant beauty withheld from the very people who built it.

Peter Lucas

Your opponent, Juan Ardila, has been accused by two women of sexual assault. Many have called for his resignation, and it was widely assumed he would not run again. But he recently filed for reelection. Were you surprised by that?

Claire Valdez

I wish I could say that I was surprised. After these allegations came out, elected officials on the Left as well as movement organizations called for this person to resign, and he refused. So we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that he will push forward with running again.

Peter Lucas

Establishment Democrats like Hochul have also called for Ardila to resign.

Claire Valdez

Definitely — it’s not just people on the Left, but the entire political class; the Democratic Party has functionally asked him not to run. I think we’ll be able to demonstrate that Queens deserves better.

Peter Lucas

Does this change how you’re going to run your campaign?

Claire Valdez

No. This was always going to be a grassroots campaign that focuses on affordable housing, workers’ rights, and combating climate chaos. We’re going to keep running on the issues that working people in Queens care about.

Peter Lucas

The district you’re running in shares a neighborhood with the district of Kristen Gonzalez, and several other socialists represent different parts of the borough, including Astoria, which has been dubbed the “People’s Republic of Astoria.” Why do you think Queens has become such fertile ground for socialist politics?

Claire Valdez

My district in particular is quite progressive, so I think this is a great opportunity to demonstrate that it has a constituency for socialism. Queens more broadly is a working-class borough, full of tenants and people who need real protections from bad landlords and abusive bosses, higher wages, and investment in public services like the MTA. I think they’re exactly the people who need socialism and are already seeing its power demonstrated by the other socialist electeds in the borough.

Peter Lucas

How do you see your role as an organizer changing if and when you’re elected?

Claire Valdez

Electoral campaigns are a great vehicle for talking to working people about the things that matter in their lives. When I started organizing on them, I wasn’t sure that we were going to win, but we did. Since then, we’ve built a formidable bloc in Albany, which is very exciting, and our electeds have successfully demonstrated the power that comes from district organizing, from organizing our constituencies.

I’m thinking, for example, about Zohran Mamdani’s Fix the MTA campaign, which won this pilot program of free buses, and the impact that actually has on workers’ day-to-day lives and his office’s ability to organize people for that legislation in the district. When we win office, we win this legitimacy in our own communities and the power and ability to keep organizing on a different level — an opportunity for deeper base building that is necessary for our socialist project to grow. It’s about using the resources and power that you have to organize in the district, to help people realize their political potential — as workers or tenants or commuters or parents, whatever they might be.

He’s not a legislative official, but Shawn Fain comes to mind as someone who’s an incredible spokesperson for working-class politics, always agitating for more.

Another part of it is about being a tribune of socialism, being someone who is carrying this word really proudly with them and demonstrating what it actually looks like — fighting for universal programs that advance the power of working people instead of corporations and their lobbyists. It’s about punching through demoralization and speaking to people’s real needs.

He’s not a legislative official, but Shawn Fain comes to mind as someone who’s an incredible spokesperson for working-class politics, always agitating for more.

Peter Lucas

Do you think there is any tension between DSA elected officials’ responsibility to the organization and their responsibility to their constituents?

Claire Valdez

No, because DSA members would be a part of my constituency — DSA members are members of the working class in New York City. We run insurgent candidates who are proud socialists, and when we win those races, we are demonstrating that there is a broad constituency for socialism in the city and that people are ready to fight for the public goods that have been under attack from capital.

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