Socialism, American Style: L.A. Comrades Look To 2012 Election
Mimi Soltysik’s epiphany sounded a lot like machine-gun fire.
The 37-year-old was working in South Los Angeles with his girlfriend Lynn Lomibao, 42, with the group A Place Called Home, giving away bikes to impoverished children when they heard a loud, metallic rat-tat-tat from afar.
The volunteers were frightened. But the kids they were working with seemed unfazed, continuing with their bicycle safety lessons as before.
“We asked the director [of A Place Called Home] why the children didn’t flinch,” Soltysik said. “He said the children were used to hearing that sort of thing.”
It wasn’t just the kids’ reaction that upset Soltysik.
“The director told us there’s no grocery store in the area,” he said. “If these families wanted to get a gallon of milk, they’d have to go to a liquor store where they’d pay twice as much as the families in Bel Air or Brentwood.”
As a tax-paying resident, Soltysik worried he was part of the problem.Soltysik said he felt pained that the neighborhood’s residents were being victimized by a system that seemed to favor the wealthy.
“One day while I was online, I began searching for an organization,” Soltysik said. “I wanted a place where the pain I felt [for this neighborhood] could be channeled into a positive effect.”
That was when Soltysik, a consumer advocate, and his girlfriend Lomibao, a nonprofit development professional, stumbled upon the Socialist Party USA website.
Soon, the couple joined more than 1,000 Americans alreadyregistered with the party.
Soltysik said after reading the party’s mission—provide universal healthcare, offer free college education, rebuild neighborhoods and establish a more balanced tax structure—he knew he had found a system in line with his personal beliefs.
“For working people, I don’t see any evidence of the success of capitalism,” said Soltysik, now the Socialist Party of California’s male chair. “I see capitalism being a success for maybe the executive board of the largest corporations on Wall Street, but for working people, I see it as an abject failure.”
California has the highest concentration of socialists, with more than 100 living in the Golden State. But nationwide, nearly 60 percent of Americans have a negative reaction to the word “socialism,” according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Soltysik blamed Cold War mindsets for the stigma.
“As those who were alive during the Cold War begin to leave the public debate, younger people are entering for whom the Cold War is just a historic relic,” he said. “So I think those misconceptions are beginning to wither.”
To that end, the same Pew Research Center poll reported nearly 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds actually had a positive view of socialism.
At its height last fall, the Occupy movement had branched out to nearly 100 cities across the country, exposing more and more young people to the fight for the 99 percent. The Socialist Party USA has long touted those themes.
“I think a lot of the things that people hear at the Occupy movement and a lot of people’s personal experiences since the recession has piqued their interest in socialism,” Soltysik said.
Like the majority of Occupy protesters, Soltysik said socialists are disheartened by Obama’s four years in office, even as right-wing conservatives—including one-time Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry—have repeatedly pegged him as a socialist.
In a recent Forbes magazine article, writer Paul Roderick Gregory questioned whether or not President Barack Obama, often derided as the socialist-in-chef by conservative circles, is, in fact, a socialist.
“By ‘socialist,’ I do not mean a Lenin, Castro or Mao,” Gregory wrote, “but whether Obama falls within the mainstream of contemporary socialism as represented, for example, by Germany’s Social Democrats, French Socialists, or Spain’s socialist-workers party?”
Citing similarities between Obama’s beliefs—greater access to healthcare, progressive taxation on the rich, a general distrust of the free market system—and the November 2011 Declaration of Principles of the Party of European Socialists, Gregory concluded Obama is a socialist after all.
Soltysik disagreed. “I don’t think there’s been a policy that Obama’s enacted that is socialist,” he said. “He’s as capitalist as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.”
It was disillusionment with Obama that drew Alex Mendoza, 35, a small business owner in Dallas and the Socialist Party USA’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, to split from the Democratic Party.
“I did not classify myself as a socialist until after Obama became president,” he said. “I supported Obama [in 2008], and I believed in a lot of his policies, but then it became evident a lot of those policies were not being implemented.”
Mendoza said he was disappointed that the president did not support the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would have made it easier for workers to form unions.
He also said the Affordable Health Care Act was a failed opportunity.
“As socialists, we believe in socialized medicine,” Mendoza said. “In his health care act, he threw a bone to the insurance companies [with the individual mandate], giving them millions and millions of new customers and didn’t even consider single-payer.”
Soltysik, who’s working as the campaign manager for Mendoza and his running mate Stewart Alexander, said the candidates’ experience in the working class makes them ideal for the Oval Office.
“Our elected officials are typically all cut from the same cloth,” he said. “They’re carefully crafted and shaped into these hollow, disconnected used car salesman types.”
He said the socialist candidates, who are aiming to get on the ballots in at least 22 states—including California—actually care about the issues and want to effect real change.
“I personally believe that the general public really needs to hear these guys right now,” Soltysik said.
And Mendoza said win or lose, the ultimate goal of his bid for VP is to educate the masses about socialism.
“It’s very clear that there’s a failure in the system when 1 percent of the population controls 35 percent of the wealth,” Mendoza said. “To believe that the free market is going to trickle down all of its benefits into workers’ pockets historically has not happened.”
If he and Stewart are elected, Mendoza said the new administration would take several steps during their first 180 days in office to put the country back on the right path.
“We definitely want to put together a path to socialized medicine, right off the bat,” he said. “We’d bring troops home and those billions of dollars would stay here and get reinvested into our communities and social programs.”
Mendoza said they’d also suspend the Bush tax cuts, make sure workers’ rights were protected and end all tax subsidies to oil and gas companies.
“I think people are starting to realize that the system is broken,” Mendoza said. “This whole idea of a laissez-faire free market capitalism that was supposed to be perfect for everyone is just failing.”
“I think we’ve all been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living these decent middle-class lives because we can afford cheap products like a flat-screen TV, an iPhone, a laptop,” said Lomibao, who’s serves as female vice chair to the Socialist Party of California. “But most families can’t afford to send their kids to college without that child going into deep debt.”
If presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins the general election this fall, Lomibao said she thought it would help drive scores of voters to the socialist party.
Lomiboa has some personal insight to Romney’s style of leadership. She said his venture capitalist group, Bain Capital, bought a company she used to work for.
An executive board of three people was installed to “clean house,” cutting two-thirds of the work force that had invested decades of their lives into the company. They suddenly found themselves unemployed, Lomibao said.
“I think if Romney were elected president, you would see this sort of restructuring happening on the macro level,” she said. “Maybe it would be just the thing that would get people up in arms. I think it would [ultimately] strengthen the socialist party.”
And Mendoza said his vice presidential ambitions hit a little closer to home than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I hope when [my kids] are old enough to go to college, they’ll not have to go into debt just to get an education,” he said. “I hope they can have healthcare and find employment that gives them a living wage.”
He said his vision for the country is not out of reach.
“This is not just attainable in a few generations,” he said. “It’s something we could do. If we get elected, changes could take place immediately.”
Reach Contributor John Hobbs here.