"You gotta see this real quick. You're gonna shit," Mimi Soltysik tells me. It's an afternoon in late February, and Soltysik, the presidential nominee for the Socialist Party USA, is leaning over his laptop in the living room of his cramped, cat-dominated Los Angeles apartment, showing me a YouTube video of a legendarily awkward performance by a seemingly deranged Chicago pop singer named Bobby Conn.
"It almost makes you uncomfortable, which is great," he says.
No matter who he's talking to, anytime there's air in the conversation, Emidio "Mimi" Soltysik (pronounced "saul-TISS-ick") tends to ask the other people what kind of music they're into, or what they listened to when they were younger.
When he first met his vice presidential candidate, Angela Walker, he picked her brain about music too, but his reasons were political. "What's one of the songs that shaped you politically? What were you listening to that pushed you to be who you are?" Walker recalls Soltysik asking. Music was important to Walker as well—her identity, she says, was shaped by "being a black metalhead." Her reply to Soltysik included Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy.
In some ways, the Soltysik for President campaign even resembles a friend's band, on a self-funded tour of half-empty venues. So far, Soltysik and Walker have had four campaign events: two in Pennsylvania, one in Indianapolis, and one in Thousand Oaks, California, an affluent suburb just north of Los Angeles County. "When you go to these conservative fucking strongholds," Soltysik says of Thousand Oaks, "not everyone is going to be happy about that. Oftentimes you may see your best responses in these really tough places."
The next stop, an event called "An Afternoon with Socialist Party USA Presidential Candidate Mimi Soltysik," is scheduled for April 9 at the Seventh Circle Music Collective in Denver, Colorado. After Soltysik and Walker clear out, Seventh Circle will host a night of alt-rock.
Like a band just starting out, the Socialist Party running mates don't assume the crowds are familiar with their act yet. "We introduce ourselves and explain why we run," Soltysik tells me when I ask what his campaign events were like. "From there, we open up a discussion with participants covering what's important to them."
Is this open-mic approach a viable way of getting elected as the next leader of the free world? Apparently not. "This campaign really has got little to do with the race to the White House," Soltysik says, before adding, in no uncertain terms, "We're not going to win.
"Bernie Sanders is running to win, and I think [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein is running to win. Whereas—in a very hypothetical fairytale situation where we won in this system—we'd have to fire ourselves on the first day," he continues. "Because if we actually made it to that spot in this system, we would've have had to so thoroughly compromise who we are to get there, that we would've betrayed everyone."
It's safe to say the Socialist Party USA candidate won't be sworn in as president next year—and, increasingly, it's safe to say that neither will Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist senator who, on the surface at least, seems like the closest thing to an ideological ally that the Socialist Party is likely to see in a mainstream presidential race.
That's just as well for Soltysik, who emphatically isn't feeling the Bern. "His record is imperialist to me," he tells me. "He would not end the drone program. How that looks to the international community when our supposed socialist candidate—our progressive candidate—is saying, 'I wouldn't end the drone program.' It's like, where are we? Who are we?"
Soltysik's alternative is simple. In contrast to Sanders, he says, "We don't advocate for reforming capitalism. We actually advocate for the overthrow of capitalism. This is a revolutionary move."
Socialism was once a force to be reckoned with in American politics. Before the Cold War, and long before there was a senator named Bernie Sanders, socialists used to show up on ballots all the time in the US. Soltysik's political party, the Socialist Party USA, is an offshoot of the once prominent, but now-defunct, Socialist Party of America (SPA), a group Soltysik called "the party of Eugene Debs"—the turn-of-the-century labor leader and socialist hero whose picture hung on the wall of Sanders's Senate office in Washington.
The SPA was no joke. In its first two decades as a party, from 1901–1920, more than 1,000 SPA candidates were elected to public office, according to University of Washington researchers Rebecca Flores and Arianne Hermida, including 130 mayors, dozens of state lawmakers, and two members of the US Congress. But support for socialists waned in the 1920s, alongside the rise of the Soviet Union, and by 1960, American socialists had more-or-less vanished from elected office. The rudderless SPA floundered through the next decade, beset by internal disagreements, and eventually split in the early 1970s.
The Socialist Party USA has been one of the more prominent offshoots, having secured at least one local elected office since 2012, but others, like the Trotskyist Socialist Alternative Party, still compete for political oxygen. "Right now in the US, there's a ton of lefty organizations, and they generally tend to share some common history," Soltysik says, "but the infighting—the sectarianism—is incredible."
The Socialist Party USA suits Soltysik's temperament. The vibe is more low-key than what he calls the "heavily academic" tone of other socialist groups, and the party actively encourages goofing around at meetings.
"One of the best things I think I ever heard," he tells me, "was at one of our national meetings. Somebody asked our national secretary, like, 'Oh, I met some guy who's sort of interested. Should I bring him to a meeting?' The national secretary said, 'Well, fuck a meeting. Go have a drink with him. Go watch a movie or some shit.'"
That Soltysik likes his politics casual and crude makes sense. His origin story makes him sound like a character in a Springsteen song: He grew up in the depressed Rust Belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of blue-collar parents, who he says had him very young. His father was a welder at Dana Steel, and Soltysik remembers him coming home temporarily blind, his skin reddened from exposure to welder arcs. "I remember the shade he was. Kind of burgundy," Soltysik says.
"Such an American story," he adds. "They shut the plant. So many of these folks lost their jobs. My dad was one of them."
Between the ages of 17 and 32, Soltysik played guitar in a stoner metal band called Pill Shovel. The group attained enough local success in the late 90s to prompt its members to attempt a fateful move to Los Angeles in 2000. For money, he picked up whatever work he could find. "I think I set a world record, along with some of my friends, for getting fired from jobs," he laughs.
But like so many aging rockers, his body eventually rebelled, a development that became the catalyst for his political career. He needed a biopsy on his liver at age 26. "I think it scared me for a minute, but then I went right back, and kept on. I think it took me until I was about 32. At 32, I went to the doctor at UCLA, and he said, 'If you were a cat, you'd be on the ninth life.' And it was right about then I was like, Wow. I have a choice here to make. And it's tough, but I decided to go and try to get my shit together." He enrolled in college at 33, getting his degree in political science from Troy University in Alabama, and earned a Masters of Public Administration from California State University at Northridge last year.
At 41, Soltysik's socialist point-of-view feels youthful. Instead of a pipe-smoking bookworm drolly reciting Marcuse, he seems like someone permanently lodged in the Che Guevara–poster phase of the socialist life cycle. But beneath the surface, he's a guy who's cracked his books, and he knows his ideology front-to-back, although he admits his political education hasn't been easy. "I found myself frequently referring to a dictionary as I'm reading this stuff and re-reading lines over and over," he concedes.
Eventually, he found a leftist kindred spirit in the writings attributed to Subcomandante Marcos, the mysterious figurehead of Mexico's Zapatista movement. "I also found a lot of poetry in Huey Newton and bell hooks and Fred Hampton. From where I was coming from, it really resonated with me," he says. "Since then," he adds, "I've gone back to Marx. But it was definitely a process.
"He's someone who people can identify with because that's the life that he's lived, and he's very candid about that," Walker says of her running mate. After running for sheriff in Milwaukee County in 2014, Walker says she was over electoral politics. Although she earned 21 percent of the vote—an impressive achievement for a socialist candidate—the grueling process of campaigning had taken its toll.
"I had said I was not running for office ever again," Walker tells me. But after talking to Soltysik, she adds, "it was like he made an offer I couldn't refuse." At the Socialist Party USA National Convention back in October, the party threw its weight behind their ticket.
In some ways, the Sanders campaign has been good for business in the lefty universe. In most election cycles, obscure third party candidates get no press at all. But as evidenced by the fact that I'm writing this piece, the 2016 cycle has been different. Publications like Bloomberg and Salon have reached out to Soltysik, and his words have even been printed in the conservative-leaning Washington Times.
"When we made the choice to consider running," Soltysik says, "the idea was in acknowledgement that we'd receive media attention that normally we wouldn't."
On the other hand, with Sanders in the race, some socialist groups have thrown their support behind the Vermont senator instead of more purist candidates. Carol Newton, an organizer for the Los Angeles County chapter of Democratic Socialists of America had only kind words for Soltysik—but is supporting Bernie anyway.
"As a fellow human, [he] has never disappointed me, has always done everything he promised, and has always been respectful," she tells me in an email, making it clear that she was not speaking for her organization. But Sanders, Newton adds, offers "more visibility than any of the socialist parties' candidates would have." Plus, she continues, he has a greater "likelihood of getting on state party ballots."
In spite of the political compromises required in backing a Democratic candidate—even one who used to belong to a socialist-leaning third party—Newton admits "there would be more power" in endorsing Sanders.
Soltysik says his own personal brand of socialism sprang from his experience in street activism in LA during his 30s. "A lot of the work felt like trying to cure cancer with a band aid," he explains. "[You would] see folks walking around with bags that costs hundreds of dollars to hold their goods, and they're just completely unaware of what's going on in the community, even though it's a few miles away." The "cancer," Soltysik decided, was capitalism.
"I did my research and talked to a lot of folks, and eventually found myself in the Socialist Party," he adds.
The author (left) and Soltysik at a meeting of Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. Photo by Aidan Sheldon
Today, street-level politics are still part of Soltysik's day-to-day life. At his apartment, he invites me to go with him to a meeting of an organization called the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, held in a bleak warehouse on LA's Skid Row, where a large and permanent concentration of the city's homeless has lived for decades, sleeping in nearby shelters, or tents and sleeping bags along the sidewalks.
The purpose of the meeting is to give attendees grassroots tools to use at an upcoming meeting with the city's police department. Soltysik sits like a student, taking notes on the LAPD's surveillance systems, particularly its Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) program. When he has a question, he raises his hand.
The meeting turns into a teach-in, conducted in English and Spanish by a woman named Mariella Saba, who begins by asking us all to recount our "earliest memory of a time when you were treated as suspect or suspicious." Most of the stories are bruising, tinged with resentment toward a system that has seemingly mistreated attendees here on the basis of race, or appearance, for their entire lives.
After the meeting, I follow Soltysik and Lynn Lomibao, his wife, to a restaurant nearby to debrief. A TV on the wall shows news footage of an anti-FBI protest outside of an Apple store in LA. The demonstrators are mostly white, and in some unseemly part of my scared, white soul, I realize I would have been much more at ease picketing an Apple store tonight than I was taking notes at an LAPD surveillance meeting on Skid Row.
Soltysik notices the difference too. "If you look at a meeting like we were at tonight," he notes, "I think you and I are the only white folks there."
"One of the biggest struggles we face, and one of the fears that people have is,If I get involved that means I have to do something," he adds. "You know to make those type of changes? It's going to require your active participation."
For Lomibao, this is what set the Socialist Party USA apart from Sanders. His supporters, she argues, aren't doing much by playing politics by the the rules, or by posting online that they "stand" with Sanders. "Ask yourself, what the fuck does 'stand' mean? Do you just mean posting a meme? Casting a vote? Do you honestly think that is going to bring about the changes that Bernie is talking about?" she demands.
But the great paradox of the Soltysik campaign is that the candidate himself steadfastly refuses to prescribe a method for bringing about that change, except to say that other people have to figure it out for themselves, in something he calls a "bottom-up" revolution.
"We have to look at this pragmatically, and look at this long term. Long-term health and peace? Winning the presidency wouldn't deliver that. Having the people come together from the bottom—and [I] understand what a tremendous effort that is—that would do the trick."
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