Rolling Back Neoliberalism

In Chicago, there are cracks in the foundation of Rahm Emanuel’s political machine.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at City Hall. E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

The big story from Chicago’s recent municipal election was county commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff — the first time in city history an incumbent mayor hasn’t won outright.

Emanuel had nearly everything in his favor: a well-organized political apparatus; seemingly limitless fundraising capacity; the active support of Barack Obama in a race that hinged on black votes; and the endorsement of seventy union locals.

Garcia had little name recognition, entered the race only three weeks before the filing deadline, and was outspent by Emanuel twelve to one. Nevertheless, the mayor didn’t break the 50 percent mark — winning 46 percent of the vote to Garcia’s 34.

Emanuel’s City Council, where the average alderperson supports the mayor’s agenda 95 percent of the time, was also shaken. Progressive, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and other labor-backed challengers forced more aldermanic runoff elections (nineteen) than there have been in decades.

In fact, Emanuel’s opponents on the council did better than incumbents overall: every one of the eight members of the City Council Progressive Caucus up for re-election came in first, and six won outright. This was despite the extensive resources that Emanuel and his political allies amassed against them through the Chicago Forward Super PAC.

The election saw a large number of credible candidates with progressive politics, and marked the first contest for the Chicago Socialist Campaign, whose standard-bearer, aldermanic hopeful Jorge Mujica, came up short. The CTU and SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana created an independent political organization called United Working Families (UWF), which had a big impact in aldermanic races.

The power of incumbency was still very strong. Out of the forty-four incumbent city councilors who sought re-election, forty-two were the top vote-getters in their races. Seven had no challenger. Twenty-two won absolute majorities. Fourteen came in first place, but will have to win in the runoff to hold onto their seats. Only one alderman was beaten outright: scandal-plagued, Emanuel-allied, 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon.

Alderman John Arena, who represents the 45th Ward and has been one of Emanuel’s most vocal critics for four years, was forced into a runoff by Emanuel ally and Police Lieutenant John Garrido and $20,000 worth of ads by Chicago Forward. Garrido won 40 percent of the vote to Arena’s 45, suggesting that a tough contest awaits.

But on the whole, the election results were favorable for progressives. In addition to favorable outcomes in City Council races, voters overwhelmingly approved — by majorities citywide and by rates of over 85 percent in many wards — non-binding ballot measures to mandate paid sick leave and to establish an elected school board, a clear defeat for Emanuel and his appointed school board.

The Progressive Challengers

So what happened to Emanuel on Election Day?

The mayor’s first term has been neoliberalism par excellence, but it’s his education record that has attracted the most scorn. The role of the CTU can’t be underestimated here. When the union faced down the mayor in their 2012 strike — and organized in the community in the years preceding the walkout — they demonstrated Emanuel’s vulnerability and the viability of a working-class alternative.

Chicagoans have consistently supported the teachers over the mayor — before the walkout, during it, and ever since. After losing the strike, Emanuel didn’t seek reconciliation: he closed nearly fifty schools, over the objections of community members. This decision weakened Emanuel’s political machine ahead of the election and, despite CTU President Karen Lewis’s inability to enter the mayoral race, made him similarly assailable.

Garcia, Lewis’s chosen candidate, rode the spirit of the strike and the resources of the CTU and progressive labor allies to his relative victory. His presence in the race as a strong Latino candidate seems to have changed the dynamics of the election. His strongest wards were all working-class Latino neighborhoods, while Emanuel’s were all wealthy white areas.

An unusually small number of registered voters cast ballots (only 32 percent), and there was also an especially pronounced drop from the November general election, particularly in white and black wards. Boosting turnout among Rahm-skeptic voters — including those who supported Willie Wilson in last month’s election — will be key for Garcia.

Of the progressive aldermanic challengers, Carlos Ramirez Rosa had the best Election Day. The twenty-six-year-old immigrants’ rights organizer defeated the incumbent, the aforementioned Colon, by a whopping two-to-one margin.

Rosa, who will be Chicago’s first openly gay Latino alderman, had a few advantages: Colon was notoriously corrupt, and there were no other challengers in the race. His ward also overlapped significantly with the state legislative district that elected progressive Will Guzzardi a few years ago.

Rosa was involved in that campaign and was able to develop Guzzardi’s campaign organization into his own. He also received endorsements from both the CTU and SEIU, the latter of which spent $230,000 on his race, dwarfing the $13,000 that Colon got from Chicago Forward.

Also impressive were the three rank-and-file teachers who forced sitting councilors into runoffs: Sue Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward), Tim Meegan (33rd Ward), and Tara Stamps (37th Ward). In each of these races, the support of the CTU, SEIU, and UWF made a huge difference. Garza had sixty-seven canvassers in her ward knocking on doors every day, mostly mobilized through her labor allies.

Meegan distinguished himself by identifying not as a Democrat, but as an Independent (though municipal politics in Chicago are nonpartisan, so no candidate had a party affiliation on the ballot), and espousing a class-conscious radicalism. Meegan’s opponent was Deb Mell, who is the daughter of famous Chicago machine-politician Dick Mell and who Rahm appointed when her father retired in 2013. Meegan, a leader in the 2012 CTU strike, mobilized students and other union members in the district to force Mell into a runoff by only a handful of votes.

On election night, when the last precinct was counted and Mell was slightly under 50 percent, Meegan told his supporters:

I am for the working class. . . . And that means: raising the minimum wage, making sure there is enough affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood, making sure that our schools are fully funded and resourced, and making sure that we stop charter expansion. . . .

We have a situation with a regular teacher guy, from the neighborhood, who is in a runoff with one of the most entrenched and powerful political families in not just the city, but the state of Illinois. . . . No to dynasty and machine politics, up with the working class!

It’s hard not to feel excited when those words are coming from the mouth of someone who could be a Chicago city councilor.

The next day, however, absentee ballots favored Mell at a higher rate than any other precinct of the ward, pushing her over 50 percent and arousing suspicion of foul play. Meegan has filed a challenge to secure his chance to compete against Mell in a runoff, and is already campaigning hard.

The Chicago Socialists

The election numbers for the 25th Ward, where the Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC) ran labor and immigrants’ rights organizer Jorge Mujica as their candidate in this working-class immigrant ward of traditionally-Mexican Pilsen and Chinatown, were less favorable. Mujica came in third, and the incumbent he challenged, Danny Solis, won an absolute majority. It’s rarely easy to run as a socialist in the United States, but it’s worth looking at what else Mujica and CSC were up against.

In many ways, this campaign was a photo negative of Rosa’s in the 35th. While Rosa could develop the organizational base from the Guzzardi campaign, the CSC was trying to create an entirely new formation and run a challenging electoral campaign at the same time. The CSC was only established at the end of 2013, inspired by Kshama Sawant’s successful socialist campaign in Seattle and Ty Moore’s near-miss in Minneapolis.

A broad coalition of independent and affiliated socialists (including from the International Socialist Organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Solidarity), the CSC struggled to develop an effective structure for this kind of ad-hoc electoral coalition. Many of those involved with the campaign didn’t have much prior experience with electoral work, and there was turnover in the campaign leadership.

One of the CSC’s biggest successes was recruiting Mujica, who had previously run for Congress and was very well known in the neighborhood for his decades of immigrant and worker organizing. Initially, the CSC wanted to run two or three candidates in different wards, but activists from other wards who they talked to eventually decided not to run or not to run as socialists. The CSC then effectively became the campaign to elect Mujica in the 25th Ward, although its members came from all over the city.

Despite Mujica’s deep ties to his neighborhood, the CSC didn’t have the established organization in the community that Rosa had in his. And while Rosa was the only challenger to a disgraced alderman, Mujica ran in a field of four challengers against an extremely powerful, well-funded incumbent. This diffuse opposition divided endorsements and funds, not to mention votes.

Also in the race was Byron Sigcho, a liberal community activist who came in second with the support of the community organization for which he works, the Pilsen Alliance. Ed Hershey, a public high school teacher and a member of the small Trotskyist group “Spark,” received the CTU’s endorsement but didn’t receive any union funds. He finished last, with a little over six hundred votes.

Four unions endorsed Mujica: the Communications Workers of America, the Newspaper Guild, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, and incredibly, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, one of the most powerful labor forces in Illinois. (UNITE HERE Local 1, the hotel workers union, unfortunately endorsed Solis, the pro-Emanuel incumbent.)

With progressive nonprofits and important union endorsements spread around, some critical labor forces stayed out of the race, including UWF and SEIU. The divided field wouldn’t have been a problem in terms of voting, because of Chicago’s run-off system, but it seemed to hamper the progressive challengers, because relatively little labor money or volunteers came into the ward. While Rosa was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from unions, the CSC and the Mujica campaign never broke $20,000.

In addition, Mujica seems to have committed a strategic misstep in declining to identify himself with Chuy Garcia because of the mayoral candidate’s Democratic affiliation; Sigcho connected his campaign to Garcia, who is extremely popular in Pilsen’s Mexican community.

Nevertheless, the CSC managed to overcome many challenges: they successfully recruited a credible candidate, rented out a campaign office despite landlords’ hesitance to offend the local alderman, gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot (no small task in Chicago politics), won endorsements from unions and community organizations, created regular teams of as many as forty volunteers to canvass the neighborhood, and eventually came in third place in a competitive election.

Mujica’s campaign again demonstrates that explicitly socialist politics are not the taboo that some believe them to be. In the ward’s working-class immigrant neighborhoods, campaign workers found, the response to the socialist label tended to be one of indifference or, occasionally, support. For his part, Mujica says that he always emphasized that he was a socialist because he supports workers’ rights and immigrants’ struggles, not the other way around.

Labor’s Triumph — and Failure

What’s clear in all these cases — from the mayoral race down to each of the ward races mentioned — is that organized labor plays a critical role in progressive victories and that its absence is felt in defeats. UWF did quite well: their endorsed candidates were top vote-getters in eight of fifteen races and only lost outright in three. And it’s hard to imagine that Garcia could have successfully forced Emanuel into a runoff without their support.

They achieved this without even having the unified backing of organized labor in the city. Although SEIU Healthcare was instrumental in forming UWF, the rest of SEIU in Illinois attacked them for participating in the mayoral race when SEIU had decided to remain neutral.

UNITE HERE Local 1, generally a progressive local of a progressive union, actively backed Emanuel, even though their members lost jobs when the mayor shut down schools. The Chicago firefighters’ union, IAFF Local 2, endorsed Emanuel, and the IAFF international donated $25,000 to him — even after he bargained in poor faith during their last contract negotiations. Including the teamsters and building trades, a full seventy unions supported Emanuel.

Why? Probably because they think that they can get a better deal for their members by being part of a winning team. But this is the problem: if union after union cuts a private deal with the political establishment so they can get union labor for a building project or a card-check neutrality agreement for a new hotel or hospital, some workers benefit, and those unions grow stronger (or avoid concessions).

But if those same deals aid politicians whose policies lead to school closures, gentrification, tax breaks for millionaires, police brutality, and austerity, the working class collectively loses and the union movement inevitably grows weaker. Playing into a divide-and-conquer strategy, it’s often only a matter of time before unions currying favor with anti-labor politicians are threatened themselves.

There is some positive movement in the direction of labor unity. The other SEIU locals in Chicago, who initially opted to stay neutral in the mayoral race, are now considering taking a side. In Chicago and everywhere, labor unity in politics (and in strike support, new organizing, and other forms of struggle) is essential. The UWF’s strong showing suggests the power workers could have with an even broader electoral coalition.

As for the Chicago Socialist Campaign, their inaugural effort has established an infrastructure for future contests, and provides lessons for electorally minded radicals around the country. In some cities, there may be left formations that are already in a position to run socialist candidates. In other cities, socialists can study Chicago and avoid reinventing the wheel. Indeed, some have already begun to develop such groups, with the San Diego Socialist Campaign being the most obvious example.

In the mayoral race, Chuy’s ability to beat Rahm next month seems contingent on whether he can outline a clearer agenda, whether he can boost turnout, and whether he can beat Emanuel among black voters. Until now, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the most powerful black politician in Chicago, has stayed neutral in the mayoral race.

But she’s reportedly talking with the leadership of SEIU’s state council about endorsing Chuy — which would of course be an enormous boost for the challenger. While no radical, Garcia represents a pro-worker alternative to Emanuel’s neoliberalism. A victory would be a blow to austerity and signal a coming progressive response.

Last month’s election wasn’t an unalloyed victory for leftists. But at the very least, the election results showed that there are cracks in the foundation of Chicago’s political machine.