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    A group of volunteers with Louisville’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America fanned out across the city in September to search for comrades in their fight against capitalism. Among them was a teacher, a lawyer and a guy in a cardboard hat. They carried clipboards among the crowds at the Flea Off Market in NuLu, the Highlands Festival on Baxter Avenue and on the University of Louisville campus. Louisville Pagan Pride Day, somewhat controversially, did not make the cut.

    Working in groups of three, the volunteers approached people with an icebreaker that functioned as a political Rorschach test: “Do you like Bernie Sanders?” An eye roll or a “MAGA!” made it easy to move on. A “Hell yeah!” or a shrug or even an “Is that the KFC guy?” was an invitation to keep talking.

    So was, “I don’t really follow politics.” That’s what Jo Smiley heard from a U of L student after asking her opinion of Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont and Democratic candidate for president.

    Smiley, the 27-year-old co-chair of Louisville DSA, saw an opening. Less than two minutes later, after a pitch that included a brief explanation of Sanders’ plan to forgive college debt, the freshman from Spencer County added her name to a list of potential volunteers and would-be Democratic Socialists.

    She wasn’t the only one. Louisville DSA has collected hundreds of email addresses by hitting the streets to talk to people about Sanders, who was endorsed by DSA in March and is now benefitting from the efforts of its more than 55,000 nationwide members. Louisville DSA is benefitting too. The group is expanding its rolls and increasing its visibility as it pushes for more influence and progressive policies in a state with few of them and a city that, according to some members, isn’t much better. “It’s about building a working-class movement,” says Smiley, a library clerk with a library voice. Smiley was elected co-chair last December on a platform of growing the group’s membership and prominence. Over the next year, Smiley says, Louisville DSA will hold events (such as Socialist Night School), work to draw consistent support of laborers whenever there’s a strike and, of course, talk to voters about Sanders.

    Sanders is largely responsible for DSA’s growth. In 2016, the bristly septuagenarian activated disaffected leftists, many of them young and disconnected from electoral politics, with a platform built on workers’ rights, Medicare-for-all and a promise of political revolution. He also proudly wore the label of “Democratic Socialist,” making it more acceptable for others to do the same. DSA’s ranks grew with Sanders’ popularity. “Trump’s win was a part of it,” Smiley says of the Louisville DSA’s founding in 2016. “But we’re not just anti-Trump. We’re anti-capitalist. We’re anti-racist. We’re anti-fascist.”

    After volunteering for Sanders’ 2016 campaign while living in Missouri, Smiley moved home to Louisville and began searching for a group of like-minded folks eager to fight the “rising tide of white supremacy and racism in this country.” Three years later, Louisville DSA has 200 members who elect a seven-person steering committee each December. Last year, Smiley was elected co-chair, along with 27-year-old computer programmer Alec Robinson.

    Ryan Fenwick, a Louisville attorney and DSA member who challenged Mayor Greg Fischer in the Democratic primary last year, says, “People are really looking for an alternative to the status quo. There’s this massive disconnect between most of our politicians in the city and the day-to-day reality that people are experiencing. I think that the closer we get to putting DSA members in office, the more we’re going to heighten the awareness of what the real working-class issues are.”

    Fenwick ran to Fischer’s left, criticizing the incumbent for cozying up to big business and failing to live up to the promise of making Louisville a “compassionate” city. Fenwick lost the primary, and Richard Becker, a local labor organizer and DSA member who ran for state representative last year, lost his too. But there are ways to win that don’t require votes. Earlier this year, Louisville DSA publicly urged U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth to endorse Medicare-for-all. First on social media, by threatening a primary from the left (in the spirit of young socialist icon and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and then in person, when two members appeared on a podcast with the seven-term Democrat from Louisville. Just over a month later, Yarmuth signed on as a co-sponsor of four bills to expand Medicare. “I would consider that a win,” Smiley says.

    The group will continue its electoral work, with at least one member planning to run for office next year. But don’t expect Louisville DSA to spend much time on this month’s election. In September at the Louisville DSA monthly meeting, electoral committee chair Nick Conder announced the group hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates running statewide because none of them have returned its questionnaire.

    Held in the Smoketown co-working space where the group regularly gathers, the meeting drew about two dozen people, making it the best-attended in months. Maybe it was the promised potluck and post-meeting Democratic debate watch party. Or maybe it was because of efforts to expand the group’s reach.

    Adam Romano’s presence suggested as much. The 32-year-old with a well-kept salt-and-pepper beard was only vaguely aware of DSA when he met several members at an August rally Sanders held at the Muhammad Ali Center. “They were explaining their positions and it was linking up with a lot of the way I feel, the way I think,” says Romano, who heard two Louisville DSA members speak at the rally. He later researched DSA and decided to attend a meeting, even if he’s hesitant to call himself a socialist.

    “The main reason I’m here is not so I can hang out and kick it with people who have similar ideas,” he says. “I like that, and I want that, but the main reason I wanted to come out is that they look like a group of people that can mobilize and get things done.”

    This originally appeared in the Nov 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

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