In September 2016, building off the momentum of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, activists with the newly revitalized Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, rallied behind one of their own and elected Mike Connolly to the Massachusetts statehouse, knocking off incumbent Tim Toomey Jr., a Bay State institution who’d been in the office since 1992.
As a state representative, Connolly, known around the region as Big Mike, has become a leading voice in the fight over rent control, housing for all, and social housing, authoring landmark eviction and foreclosure moratorium legislation at the beginning of the pandemic. Connolly has been a DSA member for seven years; he helped found the local Our Revolution chapter after the first Sanders campaign, was Massachusetts co-chair of the 2020 campaign, and served as a Sanders delegate.
Just last week, the Cape Cod chapter of DSA invited Connolly to address their group on his housing justice agenda. This week, however, newly elected leaders of the Boston chapter of DSA introduced a resolution to expel Connolly from the organization — to be voted on at the Cambridge Community Center at 3 p.m. on July 23.
The Boston DSA leadership published a list of charges against Connolly they claim proved he crossed a “red line” and leave him out of step with the organization’s socialist principles. Connolly, though, is vigorously defending himself, and a sizable portion of Boston’s progressive community has come out publicly in his defense. If Connolly survives the motion to expel, it may signal that factionally led expulsion efforts are losing steam inside the organization.
A member-based organization that works to build democratic socialism in the long term while making gains for the working class in the near term is necessarily going to grapple with questions of whether too much energy is going toward the former or the latter, or whether the two work in concert. Such debates often express themselves over whether to support candidates or politicians who align with many of the organization’s values but work in coalition with some who don’t. In 2021, a faction drew national attention by failing to expel New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman from the DSA, producing backlash among other members who argued the fight was a self-obsessed distraction and a hapless attempt to display political purity for purity’s sake.
In a nod to that fight, the DSA members pushing for Connolly’s expulsion noted in their resolution that in a September 2022 member survey, 76 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “If a Boston DSA-endorsee has clearly crossed a red line, I would still want to see accountability even if it results in some public-facing ‘noise’ and/or ‘drama.’”
What follows is the full list of the charges leveled at Connolly, along with responses he provided in an interview with The Intercept.
1. Failure to engage with the chapter’s electoral endorsement process since 2016
Connolly sought and received DSA endorsement in 2016. In the 2018 cycle, Connolly said, he actively participated in the endorsement process and spent more than 20 hours answering some 100 questions — some of them open-ended, requiring substantial elucidation. The process coincided with the height of the legislative session and a long-planned summer vacation; Connolly said he asked for an extension of roughly 48 hours beyond the deadline to finish the candidate questionnaire but was denied. In 2020 and 2022, he said, he heard nothing from DSA about the status of the endorsement process, and merely learned it was over when a list of endorsements was publicized. He did not face primary or general election competition in any campaign since 2016.
2. Endorsing, materially supporting, and making public statements praising politicians/political actors who are fundamentally opposed to socialist reforms
- Endorsed Christine Barber over a DSA candidate in 2020.
In 2020, Christine Barber was an incumbent state representative for Medford and Somerville and was challenged by DSA member Anna Callahan, whom she beat 58 to 42 percent. Connolly told The Intercept that he does not regret endorsing Barber and that, as he argued at the time in a meeting with leaders of Boston DSA, they were making a mistake by bucking serious, member-based immigrant worker groups who were rallying behind Barber.
Barber was the lead sponsor of a high-profile piece of legislation called the Work and Family Mobility Act, which, among other things, made drivers’ licenses available to all state residents — the top priority of immigrant rights groups in the state amid Trump’s xenophobic crackdown. Connolly noted, “I said to them, there’s a contradiction here, I believe, when this organization is saying we’re going to supplant our judgment for, for example, a people of color-led immigrant justice group that’s been working on this proposal.”
Barber had also been a champion of rent control, casting one of roughly 20 votes for it in the entire chamber, Connolly noted.
- Endorsed Kevin Honan and Maura Healey.
In 2022, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey ran for governor and faced no serious competition in the primary; her only opponent dropped out before gaining traction. Healey’s platform committed to lifting the statewide ban on rent control, a key step in combating skyrocketing rents and ensuring real affordable housing in Boston and around the state. While Healey is not a socialist, Connolly argued that it was in the interest of housing justice advocates to endorse her and then push to have her platform translated into law.
Kevin Honan was the incumbent state representative who co-sponsored an eviction and foreclosure moratorium with Connolly at the start of the pandemic, a law that has been held up as a model across the country. Housing justice groups roundly endorsed Honan.
Though Honan’s primary opponent, Jordan Cameron Meehan, was a DSA member, he did not have the endorsement of the Boston DSA, which weakens the chapter’s charge against Connolly. Honan won by 8 percentage points.
- Used a DSA group chat (that of the Cambridge Neighborhood group) to solicit canvassers for Lydia Edwards’ Senate campaign.
The chat, said Connolly, was his local one, which he’d been involved in for years, and all he did was let people know that, during a special election for an open Senate seat, a canvass for Lydia Edwards was happening. In his district, he said, 95 percent of his constituents voted for Edwards — though the race, which she won, was closer, and Edwards received 60 percent of the vote. In that election, he said Edwards was far and away the superior of the two candidates, particularly on the issue of housing justice, a claim that even Edwards’s DSA critics from the left acknowledge. Once she was in office, she co-founded the Housing for All Caucus with Connolly.
Whatever the relationship was between Edwards and DSA members before, it has now fully collapsed. “The ‘let them eat cake’ wing of the left is so out of touch with the lived struggle of so many people,” she told the Boston Globe when asked about the effort to expel Connolly. “They will hold their breath for purity and throw a temper tantrum, while they are stably housed, food secure, and healthy.” Edwards dubbed the expulsion leaders “progressive white supremacists,” and when asked by the Globe to explain why, she said, “They are progressive. They also believe they know what is better for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) people. And whether they want to admit it, trusting your perspective of what is better for people of color than people of color telling you … is white supremacy.”
- Twice supported Ron Mariano for State House Speaker
Several leaders of Boston DSA urged Connolly to vote against Mariano for speaker in 2020, he said, but he told them there was nobody running against him, so he didn’t see the point. Other DSA-backed legislators either voted for Mariano or said they would have had they not missed the vote. After his vote, Connolly said, the DSA leaders told him they were disappointed, and he held a 90-minute meeting with them to hear their concerns and explain his rationale. Mariano ran unopposed in 2022, and Connolly voted for him again.
- Praised Ed Augustus, former city manager for Worcester who championed corporate give-aways and housing policy which led to great amounts of gentrification and displacement.
This charge, said Connolly, is “materially inaccurate.” The DSA resolution links to a Twitter post by Connolly that welcomes Augustus to his new role as secretary in the newly created Executed Office of Housing and Livable Communities. “I am excited to welcome incoming Secretary Augustus to this vitally important role! My hope is that he and the Healey Administration will pursue policies to guarantee housing to all residents of the Commonwealth,” wrote Connolly, going on to make the case for a broad social housing agenda. “As a member of the Joint Committee on Housing and a Co-Chair of the #HousingForAll Caucus, I can’t wait to get to work with Secretary Augustus!”
Connolly argued that attacking Augustus out of the gate made no tactical sense, and that his statement was not “praise.” “All things being equal, I think we will accomplish more with Augustus if we welcome him to his new job rather than attack him before he’s even walked in the building,” Connolly said.
This type of defense from Connolly doesn’t land with his more hardened detractors. In fact, it only inflames them further, seeing in it political hackery masquerading as knowing sophistication. “It’s one thing to (allow oneself to) be taken advantage of,” said one Boston DSA member and a sponsor of the expulsion resolution, Peter Berard, on Facebook. “It’s quite another to flaunt being taken advantage of by a group of people as gormless and transparent as Democratic Party hacks, to be publicly stymied and humiliated again and again, and then to self-present as canny realists. You don’t get to act like the mature, thoughtful party, you don’t get to lecture us on any reality. It’s like being lectured on basketball not by the Washington Generals, but by some team that the Washington Generals regularly ignominiously beat.”
Boston DSA member Evan George, a longtime critic of Connolly’s, said that such disagreements on tactics shouldn’t sever a relationship, and taking up the fight against Connolly now distracts from the work they are doing on behalf of candidates currently in the field. “I have been very critical of multiple actions Mike has taken as a state representative, and my public criticism has strained my relationship with him many times in the years we have known each other,” said George in a public statement. “I have disagreed with his use of political endorsements and his willingness to support Democratic leadership in ways that I believe hurt the state of democracy here in Massachusetts. However, these have always been criticisms over tactics and my desire to apply pressure to our elected official’s ‘left’ so they do not so easily slide to the right.”
- Endorsed a Somerville City Councilor, Matthew McLaughlin, who has been openly hostile to DSA’s program and its members — and who has taken developer money.
McLaughlin, Connolly argued, is a committed progressive who helped win Somerville for Bernie Sanders and has been a powerful ally on the housing justice fight. Asked about the claim of taking developer money, Connolly said he wasn’t sure. “I have no idea,” he said. “Matt is a working-class ward councilor, Iraq war vet, rock solid progressive, tireless canvasser for Bernie Sanders, the first of the current wave of socialists and progressives to be elected to the Somerville City Council, who has been deeply involved in fighting for justice in our community, including countless fights taking on real estate developers and landlords. I haven’t gone through his campaign finance report line by line, but the last thing anyone who is active in our community would think about Matt is that he’s in the pocket of anyone. Isn’t it up to the prosecution to provide the details of their evidence?”
Boston DSA did not respond to a request for comment or backup on the claim of developer money. McLaughlin told The Intercept that he has a policy of not taking developer money, but that he also uses the fundraising platform ActBlue, so sometimes contributions come in and land in his treasury before he returns them. He added that the year Connolly endorsed him, McLaughlin was working closely with DSA to help elect its candidates to City Council, which he said ought to undercut their allegation. McLaughlin represents roughly 10,000 people on the City Council and said a highly competitive candidate will raise something like $40,000 total.
The bad blood between a handful of Somerville DSA members, McLaughlin, and other progressives in Somerville dates to an Our Revolution candidate forum in 2021. DSA members running the forum, after managing to take over Our Revolution, blocked a council candidate, Stephenson Aman, a Haitian American organizer who’d grown up in local housing projects, from participating. The local DSA had endorsed a different candidate. McLaughlin and others withdrew from the endorsement process and issued scathing statements in protest. “The movement’s failure to organize low-income neighborhoods after years of activism makes the exclusion of Stephenson, who grew up in affordable housing, all the more problematic,” McLaughlin said at the time. “While Stephenson was denied entry outright, the other candidates of color were the victims of blatantly biased questions meant to humiliate them and promote members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Boston chapter, most of whom are white.”
While the charge he’s in the pocket of developers is absurd, McLaughlin said, the resolution does get one thing right. “One thing that’s accurate in that statement is Matt McLaughlin is hostile to DSA members. They’re incredibly hostile people,” he said, making clear he was referring to individuals within the group and not the organization itself. “This is a small clique of people who have decided for everybody that this is who we are and what we’re about. They think they are the movement.”
“The fact that I’m mentioned with the governor, the mayor of Boston, and the royal family” — see the final charge, further below — “just shows that this is someone from Somerville with an ax to grind,” he added.
3. Public statements and legislative actions which are in substantial disagreement with the national political platform on Housing for All
- Promoting “landlords for affordable housing” group
From a tactical perspective, said Connolly, it is effective to have an organized group of landlords willing to testify on behalf of rent control and other housing policy reform items. One of his constituents who is a landlord, Melissa McWhinney, has organized other landlords to fight on behalf of tenant protections and for rent control. The entire concept of rent control leaves in place the landlord but merely regulates the rent. So as long as DSA remains an advocate for rent control, even as an intermediary step toward full socialization of housing, it must acknowledge the continued role of landlords, Connolly said. Rather than refuse landlord support, his political strategy is to split landlords into divided camps.
- Public statements in favor of “fair rate of return/operating income to landlords”
Again, allowing a rate of return to landlords is a central element of any rent control policy, Connolly said. If DSA supports rent control, it supports a fair rate of return to landlords. The hangup over the landlord income is reflective of a lack of imagination among some advocates, he added, who should set their goals beyond mere rent control and toward social housing, which Connolly champions in the statehouse. “Don’t idolize rent control,” Connolly said.
- Publicly advocated for a milquetoast version of rent stabilization that is out-of-step with what the chapter’s members have organized for.
The city of Boston, after the 2021 election of Mayor Michelle Wu, produced a rent stabilization plan that included just cause for eviction, which has been an elusive goal for the socialist movement in cities like New York. But the plan allowed up to a 10 percent increase annually to rent, which some DSA members felt was too generous to landlords. The city needed state legislative approval for the plan, and ultimately Connolly and other DSA-backed legislators decided to support it. In the end, he said, it was preposterous to think that the state legislature would approve a plan to the left of Boston’s, so they decided to back it.
Connolly added that the repeated attacks on his housing policy agenda were “a real kick in the shins” because he grew up in public housing, is a lifelong renter, has never owned a home, and has been the champion and author of the most far-reaching housing legislation introduced in the state and probably the country.
4. Public statements which are in substantial disagreement with the national political platform on International Solidarity, Anti-Imperialism, and Anti-Militarism
- Support and promotion of the British royal family’s greenwashing junket to Somerville.
This charge refers to Connolly’s decision to attend an event held by Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, when they visited a green-focused co-working space in Somerville.
Massachusetts Peace Action, the most active anti-imperialist organization in the area, has condemned this bullet, saying on Twitter that Connolly “is a leader for peace and justice and has proven it over and over again. We hope @Boston_DSA members will reject the ludicrous attempt to expel him. They should instead honor his work.”
Connolly said that he stood on the floor above Harry and Meghan, looking down at them right near Bunker Hill, which he thought at the time was delicious symbolism. “There was sort of some element of me being a democratically elected representative of this district, having constituents invite me to witness their engagement with this royal couple — it felt to me like it was something good to do for those constituents who it was meaningful to,” he said. “It certainly is in no way, you know, any kind of support or endorsement for anything to do with the imperialism, colonialism, or all of the other shenanigans that have to do with the royal family.”
Update: July 10, 2023
The piece has been updated with a vote count for the Edwards race.