FARGO — Socialists play softball, though that may seem out of left field.

They also help organize annual fundraisers to pay off student lunch debt. And they serve locally in the North Dakota Legislature and on Moorhead's city council and school board.

Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America formed in 2017 as a local chapter of the national socialist group, and since then it's been active in Fargo-Moorhead in fighting for fair wages, affordable housing and election reform.

"We are working on improving the lives of the folks in our community, but we're also having fun, hanging out. We're your neighbors. We're people with children and jobs. We’re not scary radicals," said Kara Gloe, a member of the local socialist chapter who's on the Moorhead School Board.

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Gloe was one of eight socialists to first join the chapter. Now there are 120 members paying dues, though more attend events and protests. Their regular gathering spot, Red Raven Espresso Parlor, recently expanded its meeting space to accommodate the growing crowd.

More socialist groups are forming across the region, too, in Grand Forks, Bismarck and Bemidji, Minn. This growth is reflective of the national democratic socialist movement, with membership now surpassing 60,000 as the 2020 presidential election draws near.

"I definitely think it indicates pretty strongly that people are tired of the inequities in our society and looking for positive change," Gloe said.

Due to the growth in local membership, the socialist chapter here decided to form a softball team, the Red Ravens.

Every Wednesday night, socialist players sport red jerseys with "For The Union Makes Us Strong" on the back. It's the only political team in the Fargo Park District's coed league, while competitors are often from construction companies and restaurants.

It's not about winning on the ballfield, though the chapter has chalked up several recent political wins with some of its members getting elected — including Gloe, Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, and Moorhead Councilwoman Shelly Dahlquist. The group also successfully campaigned for passage of approval voting in Fargo, which became the first U.S. city to adopt the voting method that lets voters pick any number of candidates in a given race.

Zac Echola, who helped start the local chapter and is now serving on the national Democratic Socialists of America steering committee, said forming the softball team was another way of raising visibility and connecting with the community.

Zac Echola helped form the Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. He now serves on the national steering committee and is gearing up for the national convention in Atlanta the first weekend of August. Echola said it will be the largest convention ever for democratic socialists, which is seeing a surge in membership locally and across the country. Chris Flynn/The Forum
Zac Echola helped form the Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. He now serves on the national steering committee and is gearing up for the national convention in Atlanta the first weekend of August. Echola said it will be the largest convention ever for democratic socialists, which is seeing a surge in membership locally and across the country. Chris Flynn/The Forum

Arguably the most attention recently given to the local chapter was when member and former North Dakota State Bison football player Jack Albrecht wore a socialist pin during his visit to the White House with teammates.

"We want people to know we are here. We are regular people who live in this community, and we have a vision of what our community should be," he said. "We're normal people who like to play softball, not some big scary group. We're just saying the S-word out loud."

The 'S-word'

So what exactly is democratic socialism?

It's defined as social democracy. In other words, a political philosophy and movement transitioning away from capitalism to socialism to equally distribute wealth.

Democratic Socialists of America is not a political party, rather a nonprofit organization advocating for social welfare causes. The national organization's website states it "fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people."

Echola described democratic socialism as a liberated world in the long term and rebuilding the community in the short term, adding it's a labor-friendly organization that believes all workers deserve dignity. He said it's a fairly young organization and members tend to skew younger, though folks of all ages are involved.

"Older generations do have some sort of negative connotation because of the Cold War. Young people just don't. If you think about it, 20-year-olds today weren’t around even when there was a Berlin Wall," he said. "But that's not what we're talking about when we talk about socialism. What we're talking about is making sure people have the things they need to survive and thrive in the world. That appeals to a lot of young people because they need those things, and we're the ones struggling the most under the system we have."

Andrea Denault, a local chapter member, said she's always identified as a socialist. She was heavily involved with Occupy Wall Street while living in Denver and spent more than four months at Standing Rock during the DAPL pipeline protest. She grew up in Larimore, N.D., where he father served as mayor for nearly her entire childhood.

Andrea Denault has always identified as a socialist. As a member of Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America, she helped successfully pass the nonpartisan approval voting initiative, making Fargo the first city in the country to embrace this change in election systems. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Andrea Denault has always identified as a socialist. As a member of Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America, she helped successfully pass the nonpartisan approval voting initiative, making Fargo the first city in the country to embrace this change in election systems. Chris Flynn / The Forum

"The political bug bit me at a pretty young age," she said. "He was a union welder, but he didn't identify as a socialist. He was populist and believed in equality, the strength in numbers and people's rights over the rights of the wealthy."

Denault said the local democratic socialist chapter has been trying to "rebrand socialism in the community to make it a lot more palatable and approachable and normalized," she said.

"We're just people who want everyone to be taken care of. That's all this is. It's very simple. No need for the stigma," she said.

Dana Bisignani, a local professor and socialist member, said the word socialism has been "demonized" similar to how feminism has been, but she attributes that to misunderstanding.

Dana Bisignani, member of Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America, is passionate about eradicating school lunch debt among other local initiative backed by the group. "We live in the wealthiest nation in the world and we have the highest rate of children living in poverty," she said. "How is that possible?" Chris Flynn/The Forum
Dana Bisignani, member of Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America, is passionate about eradicating school lunch debt among other local initiative backed by the group. "We live in the wealthiest nation in the world and we have the highest rate of children living in poverty," she said. "How is that possible?" Chris Flynn/The Forum

"I mean the root word of socialism is social. We believe in collective well-being and that's what we want to see for all of our communities," she said, adding that people of opposing political views often care about the same issues. "I think sometimes that's a radical notion to people these days because our media and public interactions, everything is so polarized. Lots of people feel that tension in our nation right now and it sucks. How are you supposed to actually get to know anybody in that environment?"

President Donald Trump has been using the specter of a socialism system to boost support for his reelection campaign. At a recent rally in Florida, he said that "a vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream."

But democratic socialists point to existing aspects of socialism, nationally and locally. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 created the 40-hour work week and ended child labor. Roads and bridges, the military, police and fire departments, public education and transportation, libraries, parks, Medicare all have socialist roots.

Echola said a hundred years ago a "bunch of socialists got together, won power in North Dakota and created the state bank." The Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in the country, and the state also has a state-owned mill and grain elevator.

"Even Republicans use socialist systems," he said. "It's not about government control, it's about controlling our own lives."

2020 presidential race

Democratic socialism is already part of political discourse and bound to be part of the Democratic primary debates set for Wednesday and Thursday, June 26 and 27. The debates feature a slate of 20 candidates, split between two crowded nights.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is running on the democratic socialist ideology he's long identified with and popularized. Other Democrats in the presidential race support socialist platforms, like the Green New Deal and Medicare for all, but Sanders is the only one to brand himself as a democratic socialist. The national group was the first to endorse Sanders as well.

Denault said democratic socialists aren't just a bunch of "Bernie bros." She and other chapter members do support him, but they are excited about other presidential hopefuls, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The local chapter isn't so much focused on the presidential campaign, however. Members said it's more about creating change in the Fargo-Moorhead community. "Most of our energy is spent local. That’s where it’s most important," Gloe said.

The PB&J fundraiser at Moorhead's Junkyard Brewery, for example, was Gloe's brainchild. This campaign to pay off student lunch debt started three years ago. That first year, organizers — many of whom are socialist — raised $4,000. Recently at the third annual fundraiser $8,500 was raised and an anonymous donor plans to match up to $10,000.

"Why is school lunch debt a thing?" Bisignani said "Maybe instead of reducing school lunch debt, we can start to eradicate it."

Another initiative endorsed by the local democratic socialist chapter was approval voting. Fargo became the first city in the country to adopt the voting system that results in a more accurate reflection of support for each candidate. Denault led efforts to pass the new voting method last year.

"It was tough to sell something that no other city in the U.S. has ever tried before," she said. "Even though socialists worked on this campaign it doesn't actually make it easier for socialist to win elections unless that socialist campaigns really well."

Denault said the reality here in North Dakota, an overwhelmingly red state, is that it doesn't matter who folks vote for president because the electoral college "is going to annihilate whoever we pick".

"However, I do think it's worth it to still campaign and get people that hope," she said. "Down-ticket wins for local races, that motivates me to get behind whoever is going to help us win the most down-ticket wins locally."