“… I have consistenly acted as a socialist in my personal life and as an elected official” Councilman, Cecil Bothwell
There is no organized Socialist Party in Asheville or Buncombe County, but there is a growing “small-s” socialist presence. That became clear last month, when a full third of the candidate field heading into the October 10 city council primary self-identified as socialists.
Those revelations took place at a meeting sponsored by the Asheville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”). The four candidates who witnessed were Cecil Bothwell, Rich Lee, Sheneika Smith, and Dee Williams. And according to political analysts, the emergence of that many self-proclaimed socialists in a nonpartisan municipal election in a small Southern city reflects a spreading national trend.
DSA, which is careful to point out that it is a political organization and no respect a political party, was founded in 1982. Early on election night 2016 its membership stood at about 8,000. Within 24 hours, as the nation absorbed the news that it had elected Donald Trump its President, membership in the DSA had rocketed to 25,000. Current estimates put membership at about 28,200.
The new recruits were overwhelmingly young, deeply shaken by the mere fact of Trump’s election and enraged at a Democratic Party establishment whose machinations, they felt, had robbed them of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avowed democratic socialist who had become their standard bearer.
On August 17, the recalibrated DSA – it had severed ties earlier in the year with Socialist International over philosophical differences — held its first national convention, in Chicago. It took less than a month for its Asheville chapter to enter the local political lists by holding a candidates’ forum, on September 14 at the West Asheville branch library, to which all 12 candidates for city council were invited.
Of those 12, six candidates attended: Bothwell (an incumbent), Lee, Smith, Williams, and fellow candidates Kim Roney and Jan Kubiniec. Roney and Kubiniec stopped short of calling themselves socialists, though each said there were certain aspects of socialism that dovetail with their own political views.
… and who didn’t.
Absent was the other council incumbent, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who is running for a second term. Also not appearing were candidates Pratik Bhatka, Andrew Fletcher, Jeremy Goldstein, Vijay Kapoor, and Adrian Vassallo. (The mayoral candidates, incumbent Esther Manheimer and challengers Martin Ramsey and Jonathan Wainscott, weren’t invited.)
Hold that thought. We’ll revisit who was and wasn’t there below.
Asking a question that basic in an article like this one usually invites condescending comments from both left and right wings of the political spectrum along the lines of, “If you don’t know, why are you writing about it?” But the fact is that many Americans, even the condescenders, have a less-than-secure grasp of socialism’s meaning. And like most “isms” its interpretation usually depends on the political stance of who is being asked.
The website Vocabulary.com puts it this way:
… socialism is now often used to mean everything from “fascism” to “progressivism.” But in its purest form, socialism was a political, social, and economic system meant to empower the working class. In the U.S. today, though, it’s often used as shorthand for “the services that government provides and which are paid for by taxes.”
Marx saw socialism as an imperfect transitional stage between capitalism, where goods and services are privately owned and circulated for profit in a free market, and a Utopian communism where everything produced by the workers is taken by the state and distributed to the people according to their needs. That idea, of course, is directly repugnant to capitalism, which involves private ownership of goods and services and participation in a free market for profit.
So socialists denounce capitalism as being self-serving to the point of evil, creating vast social and economic inequality, and government by the rich, powerful, and corrupt. Capitalists are quick to point out numerous failed experiments in socialism that have ultimately resulted in revolution, the rise of dictatorships … and government by the rich, powerful, and corrupt.
In this country, capitalists, especially those who can remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, see socialism as striking at the heart of America’s founding principles, and socialists see those principles as broken and outmoded, if indeed they ever worked at all. The resulting tension has produced a full-scale cultural and class war – a populist crusade that resonates with the young, hip, and extremely vocal segment of the Asheville electorate who renounce the mainstream Democratic Party that has owned liberal politics for generations.
“As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow,” its website says, “ DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people … We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.’
In that light, it’s interesting to consider the attendees and the non-attendees at the Asheville DSA forum, according to background.
- Bothwell, the perennial council gadfly, law unto himself, and, at age 61, the oldest candidate, describes himself as a lifelong socialist. (He successfully overcame the legacy of his father, who was a prominent Florida Republican.) He has in his time been a builder, an author, and an editor of Asheville’s Mountain Xpress.
- Lee, as a socialist, would seem to be an anomaly. He is a financial advisor for Edward Jones Investments, a field which is concerned entirely with protecting and enhancing income derived from capitalist activity. Nevertheless, according to Xpress, he told the audience, “To me [socialism] means government providing a robust network of social services and social goods.”
- Smith, one of two black candidates, is the present Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at Asheville’s Green Opportunities and a board member of the Center for Participatory Change. The child of a minister and a missionary, she’s a fourth-generation Ashevillian who says she would work to remedy the city’s “disgusting wealth gap.”
- Williams, the other black candidate, is a successful businesswoman (construction and real estate) who nevertheless embraces the socialist label. She is a longtime city political activist who has denounced the 1980’s urban renewal that destroyed Black Asheville’s core and says she’s dedicated to rooting out the “paternalism” with which she says city government treats its black community.
At the end of the day it was Williams who came away with the DSA of Asheville endorsement.
It’s interesting to view them through the same socio-economic lens.
- Bhatka is a hotelier (Days Inn) and is on the City Board of Adjustments.
- Fletcher is by profession a jazz pianist. He has worked with the city in drafting rules governing street musicians and one of his major concerns is “getting a handle on short term rentals.”
- Goldstein is a commercial real estate broker, a principal of G/M Property Group. A member and past chairman of the city’s powerful Planning and Zoning Commission, he has so far raised more campaign funds than any other candidate.
- Kapoor owns a financial consulting firm. He has a law degree and gained notoriety in helping resolve a potential South Asheville neighborhood problem with a proposed apartment complex.
- Vassallo is a business development executive with Asheville CPA firm Dixon Hughes Goodman. He has served on the Asheville Downtown Association and the Downtown Commission.
- Wisler is past CEO of Coleman Company, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of camping and outdoor equipment. Wisler serves or has served on 13 city governmental boards and currently chairs the Finance Committee and Planning and Economic Development Committee.
So … not a lot of political philosophizing but a great deal of moving and shaking going on among those who skipped the DSA forum.
Analysts emphasize that not all Asheville-dwelling socialists-at-heart are members of DSA, which, for that matter, represents only a single set of positions within a broad political spectrum.
“I would call myself a Democratic Socialist in the same sense that Bernie Sanders uses the term. I think capitalism works best when workers have a voice. In Germany labor has a seat on corporate boards, for example, and when unions were strong in the U.S. they forced companies to do better by workers.