Gabriel Sanchez is a democratic socialist campaigning for Georgia state house. Raised in a working-class family, Sanchez is running in a district that went for Bernie Sanders but is represented by a moderate Democrat who takes money from Lockheed Martin.

Candidate Gabriel Sanchez, who is running for the state house in Georgia. (Atlanta DSA)

At nineteen, in 2016, Gabriel Sanchez cast his first vote: for Bernie Sanders. Now, at twenty-six, Sanchez has just launched his campaign for Georgia state house and was endorsed by the Atlanta chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) last week.

Sanchez, who grew up in the northwest Atlanta suburb of Marietta, told Jacobin by phone late last week that he wasn’t politically active until the Bernie campaign, but he’s had socialist values for much longer. His parents immigrated from Colombia in 1996, and he was born the following year. His mother was a hostess in a restaurant, and his father worked as a bartender and as a fry cook for McDonald’s, among other jobs. After the 2008 financial crisis, the family had to move to Miami for a while because “there was no work” in Georgia, Sanchez recalls. He remembers realizing for the first time how easily the volatility of the economic system could upend his working-class family.

If Sanchez wins, his electoral victory would be a first for the Atlanta DSA chapter, a dynamic one that has been growing steadily — hundreds of new members and thousands of new supporters this year alone — due to its popular work on reproductive rights, labor, and especially as part of the coalition working to stop Cop City, a proposed police training center threatening to destroy a beloved forest, militarize law enforcement, and inflict further violence on poor and working-class residents (disproportionately black and brown). Sanchez has been a field leader in that effort, organizing volunteer canvassers to collect thousands of petition signatures this summer to trigger a referendum. Though the city has been stalling, Sanchez and his supporters hope the Cop City question will be on the ballot in 2024.

Sanchez is already thinking about how he could advance that cause in the state house. Many Cop City activists are facing horrifically long sentences, prosecuted under the state’s draconian RICO (criminal conspiracy) laws, which were crafted to address organized crime and gangs but are now all too often used against peaceful protesters, a situation Sanchez calls “disgusting and a clear violation of free speech.” He’d work to address other criminal justice issues, too, including over-incarceration and inhumane conditions in the local jails.

Sanchez worked on the Democratic organizing that flipped Georgia’s Senate seats from Republican to Democrat in 2020. As successful as that effort was, he joined DSA the same year, realizing that while it’s good to beat Republicans, “We need more than this.”

Around the country, this insight is increasingly propelling DSA activists into state and local government. The biggest advances have been in New York, where an NYC-DSA slate boasts eight, a small but growing power base that has notched concrete wins on tenants’ rights, taxing the rich, building publicly funded renewable energy, funding public transit, reforming an unjust criminal justice system, and much else. New York’s slate is expected to grow this year, with other candidates running to join them, including Claire Valdez. Besides New York, DSA-backed candidates hold state-level offices in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota, and elsewhere, in addition to city councils around the country.

As a socialist in office, Sanchez says he’d push for health care and housing for all; pro-worker measures like a $20 living wage, repealing the state’s anti-union “right to work” law, and paid leave for every worker; reproductive rights; free public college; protecting the Okefenokee Swamp (a wetland along the Georgia-Florida border); shutting down a local toxic chemical plant; and securing state funding to improve Atlanta’s notoriously bad transit system (funded by counties and the city, it’s the only major urban public transit system that receives no state money).

He’s looking to develop an inside-outside model like NYC-DSA’s, where elected officials remain part of the movement. “I don’t just want to be a legislator,” he says, “I want to be an organizer bringing people to the Capitol.” Eventually Sanchez hopes others will join him in office, building a slate. Atlanta DSA is also seeking to run candidates for city council — another power center that could help with the Cop City campaign — and school boards.

Sanchez is running in Smyrna, a town right next door to Marietta. His district is a promising one, a majority-minority area that voted 40 percent for Sanders yet is currently represented by a moderate white Democrat whose donors have included Lockheed Martin, Chevron, and other pillars of the community. If Sanchez wins the Democratic primary, the seat will likely be his: no Republican has run there in years. In 2017, a libertarian socialist staged a campaign, raising $420,000 and getting 40 percent of the vote, without even telling DSA or mobilizing its forces.

Sanchez has a matter of fact and low-key manner, but he seems confident. Talking with him, you get the impression that he and his DSA chapter can pull this off and much more. “We can start something big here,” he says.

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