Jordan Hoiberg walks into the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana with a small, vinyl Socialist Party USA banner all rolled up. Half-a-dozen other activists await him at a large table in the middle of the restaurant, all sacrificing their Saturday morning to build an organization few have even heard of, much less in Orange County. Hoiberg, wearing a blue zip-up hoodie with an embroidered LGBT equal rights symbol, settles in and leads the two-hour meeting.
Activists start by giving report backs from progressive happenings around the county from the People’s Climate March in Irvine to Santa Ana’s May Day demonstration. The group is pretty evenly split between men and women, Latinos and whites. They place orders from the brunch menu while struggling to hear each other over the din of clanking utensils and the Gypsy Den’s indie rock playlist. The wait staff courteously turns down the tunes at their request as the conversation focuses on local issues like homelessness and immigration.
The Socialist Party USA in OC is only a local organizing committee at this point, a rung below becoming an official chapter. The national party was founded in 1973 and posits itself as the successor to the Socialist Party of America, who ran labor leader Eugene Debs for president from behind bars in 1920, an effort that earned nearly one million votes. This time around, the SPUSA ran a Emidio “Mimi” Soltysik/Angela Nicole Walker ticket for the White House last year, gaining just 2,689 write-in votes nationwide. Before Hoiberg wrote in his own vote for Soltysik in November, he voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and canvassed for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in the Democratic Party primaries last year.
“It was an exciting time because Sanders was a self-proclaimed socialist,” Hoiberg says. “That brought me back into politics. It was a way to get the conversation started.” But then Sanders fell second to Hillary Clinton and later endorsed her candidacy, a disillusioning experience for the 23-year-old activist. Hoiberg, who started reading some Karl Marx while studying critical theory at an Irvine Valley College English class, looked at the Green Party, liked Jill Stein’s Green New Deal, but ultimately decided to enlist in the Socialist Party USA a month before the presidential election with two of his friends.
With a charter on their mind, they began holding meetings at the Olde Ship British Pub & Restaurant in Santa Ana. The nascent, would-be chapter plugged into the constellation of activist groups fighting the good fight in the county, especially around the homeless issue. A sheriff deputy even threatened Hoiberg with arrest during one contentious OC Board of Supervisors meeting. But it was the counter-protest of the pro-Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” rally in Huntington Beach two months ago that drew the most notoriety for the party who helped organize it; Trumpbros brawled with a handful of antifa and assaulted Weekly journalists towards the beginning of the event.
Wanting to move beyond that moment, Hoiberg and crew are focusing on advocacy work, albeit sprinkling homeless activism in with a little socialist perspective that views housing as a right, not commodity. They are part of a network of activists defending PortaPotties installed without permits at the Santa Ana Riverbed for the homeless to use. Members also want to help in the fight against local immigration battles, like the county adding 120 beds at Theo Lacy Facility in Orange for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions.
The Socialist Party USA hopes to attract millennials who are increasingly comfortable with its namesake ideology. Last year, a YouGov poll found that 18-29 year-old respondents had growing affinity for socialism with 43 percent holding a favorable opinion as opposed to 26 percent with a negative one. Hoiberg describes his party as a “big tent” for fellow travelers who see the Democratic Party as a dead-end proposition, both nationally and in OC.
“You’ve had the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee relocate from Washington D.C. to Orange County,” he says. “That’s a multi-million dollar fundraising tool that’s supposed to be pumping money into congressional campaigns. Yet, you see groups like Indivisible here that are very disorganized. That top-down approach is failing.”
Towards the end of the monthly meeting at the Gypsy Den, Hoiberg discusses the party’s national convention in New York City this October and the need to become a charter in order to send a delegate. The group discusses the possibility before moving to gain enough dues paying members by next month to make it happen. “This is the time to do this because there’s a lot of disenchanted Democrats,” says longtime activist Sharon Tipton.
To avoid the fate of meeting for the sake of meetings, the group draws up plans to outreach to college campuses before volunteering themselves for campaigns on housing justice and living wages. They muse about one day running candidates in local races. “The big question is a year from now are we still going to be doing this?” Hoiberg asks, alluding to meeting without having grown as an organization. “We’ve got to start building connections with the community because it’s going to take a real permeation for the idea of socialism to seep into the county.”