Carlos Rosa’s Political Capital
Recently, Chicago city councillor Carlos Rosa's socialist politics cost him in the halls of power. He speaks to Jacobin about why he refuses to "throw a movement under the bus."
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
Carlos Rosa is alderman of Chicago’s thirty-fifth ward, but he’s not a typical member of city council. He is the first openly gay Latino to serve as a Chicago alderman, serving since 2015 (when he was only twenty-six), a socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and a former delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Bernie Sanders.
After recently agreeing to join State Senator Daniel Biss’s ticket for the upcoming Illinois governor’s race, Rosa made headlines for being forced off the ticket by Biss after only six days over Rosa’s refusal to denounce the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Rosa faced pressure both for publicly supporting movements for justice in Palestine in the past, and for his membership in DSA, which voted at its August convention to endorse BDS. He refused to budge.
Jacobin associate editor Micah Uetricht interviewed Rosa about how he came to run for office, his attempts to bring movement demands to his electoral work, and the lessons he learned from his short-lived stint on Biss’s gubernatorial ticket.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you decide to run for office?
I grew up in a very political family. My parents were involved in the brown nationalist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, and they then transitioned into electoral politics in the 1980s during the Harold Washington era. There had been a long fight between more reform-oriented, progressive folks and the Democratic machine. My parents were very much on the reform, progressive, independent side of that fight.
I always viewed electoral politics as a way to move towards movement for social and economic justice. At the same time, I also grew up queer and Latinx and was very aware of the different ways in which people that were marginalized faced oppression. All of those experiences led me to get involved in activism in high school against the Iraq War in 2003. Then in 2006, the mega-marches that started in Chicago for immigrant rights and against HR 4437, the anti-immigrant bill, began. Seeing hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets informed my worldview: there were people in power who would use that power to hurt our communities unless we organized to build our own collective power.
That led into activism in college at the University of Illinois, then Miguel del Valle’s campaign against Rahm Emanuel for mayor in 2011, then working in the office of Rep. Luis Gutierrez as a congressional case worker. That experience helped radicalize me because I saw working-class people, mainly Latinx immigrants, come into the office every single day facing all types of exploitation and disenfranchisement: foreclosure, deportation. And I threw myself into the work of helping families in deportation crisis, trying to use the leverage Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s office had to stop deportations.
In Congressman Gutierrez’s office, I focused on deportation defense work, linking up with a group called the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). We began to engage in an inside/outside strategy where they would send me individuals that were facing deportation, I would secure the assistance of Rep. Gutierrez’s office in appealing to ICE for an end to their deportation; likewise, when individuals would come to our office and seek assistance with their deportation case, I would refer them to IYJL, in hopes that they would join this grassroots base of undocumented people fighting individual deportations and to win relief from deportations at the federal, state, and local levels.
That then led me to become an organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights where I became a deportation defense organizer. We worked on legislation at the state level to stop deportations and close the trapdoor that leads to the deportation pipeline. For example, if someone gets stopped with a broken light and they don’t have a driver’s license, it can lead to them being detained by ICE.
When we would advocate for these laws to stop deportations, we would often sit across the table from so-called progressive Democrats who were oftentimes a bigger impediment than some of the Republicans we were speaking to. So I began to think about the need to have elected officials that were deeply tied to movements and viewed themselves as an extension of those movements — whose job it was to raise those demands through the official channels in the halls of power.
You were elected to represent Chicago’s 35th Ward two years ago, at the ripe age of twenty-six. How do you implement that commitment that you say you have, to being an extension of movements in the halls of power, on city council?
I consider myself a movement elected official. That means that my role is to be an organizer on the inside for those movements that are organizing people-power bases on the outside.
I’ve continued my relationship with the immigrant rights movement in Chicago, for example. IYJL has since become Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD), and the immigration policies that I push at the local level are always informed by and come directly from the base of people, primarily undocumented people, that are organized through OCAD. My moves at city council are dictated by the decisions that they make within their community membership assemblies, which are led by those that are directly impacted by the policies that I’m pushing.
Similarly, when it comes to police accountability reform, I’m pushing forward an ordinance called the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) that comes from a grassroots movement. They have engaged in a robust grassroots campaign with marches, public town hall meetings, and collected over fifty thousand signatures by canvassing, tabling, and going door to door to talk to Chicagoans about the need for community-controlled police. CPAC directly links their ordinance to the Black Panthers’ demand for community control of the police; they want a democratically elected body over the police that can discipline the police and set the terms of police contracts and policies.
So the work that I do at the legislative level is always informed by those that are directly impacted. I also try to replicate this at the ward level. Aldermen have extraordinary unilateral control over many decisions that are made in their ward. We decide things on zoning, liquor licenses, business permits. We allocate $1.3 million every year in ward infrastructure funds. I have created democratic processes within the ward to empower the people in my district to make the decisions about what to do with that money for themselves.
When it comes to zoning, I do not put forward any change that would allow something different to be built — whether it’s being sought by a private property owner or by a large developer — without first holding a community assembly that’s bilingual where every single resident that lives within 750 feet of the property is given a written notice inviting them to this assembly where we discuss any zoning change that is being sought and what the impact would be on the community.
The community then tells me what they would like me to do. Likewise, when it comes to allocation of the $1.3 million in ward infrastructure funds, I’ve turned that over to the community through participatory budgeting. Through a series of neighborhood assemblies and a vote that is held every year, every ward resident, regardless of immigration status, who is above the age of fourteen and can show that they live within the boundaries of the 35th ward, gets to vote to decide how they want to allocate that money.
Zoning is particularly important, because your ward covers parts of the Logan Square and Albany Park neighborhoods, which are ground zero for gentrification in Chicago right now, and the decisions that an alderman makes on zoning have a huge impact on how quickly or to what extent that process of gentrification can move forward.
Changing gears, though: you were a delegate to the DNC for Bernie Sanders. Can you talk a bit about what his campaign meant to you?
I, like many others, was very wary about the 2016 election, because I felt that the options that were being presented to us — Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else — would essentially ensure that Wall Street continued to maintain their control over the White House.
It was important to me that working people be given an alternative — one that spoke to the conditions that they were facing in their communities and spoke to their need for policies that uplifted them, policies that addressed poverty, climate change, the need for police accountability reform, and the need to protect immigrant rights.
Bernie Sanders not only had a very robust track record advocating for working people, but he also turned over key elements of his policy to those that were directly impacted. For example, it was an undocumented activist and organizer who wrote Sanders’s immigration policy platform. When it came to his platform on police accountability, it was informed by people that had been directly impacted by police violence.
What also excited me about Bernie Sanders was his consistent understanding that it was not about him, it was about us, and the recognition that changes never come from on high, it is always from below. Change always comes from people coming together and building movements demanding social and economic justice. That was a very important perspective for a president to have, to understand that it wasn’t just going to be the White House determining policies and changing the future — that he had to do that in tandem with movements out in the streets.
In my ward, I have an independent political organization that was started by individuals who volunteered for my campaign. They were very intentional during my campaign that once the campaign was over, we weren’t going to stop knocking doors — we were going to create a grassroots people-power base in the 35th ward that would hold me accountable to the platform and policies that I ran on, but would also stand by my side when I uplifted those policies and took on the mayor of the 1 percent and big corporations at City Hall.
That organization has since blossomed to over 109 active members, individuals that knock doors every week. So, when we have a zoning meeting in support of public housing and I open up this neighborhood assembly to ask folks to tell me whether or not they want to see this development move forward that will bring public housing and affordable housing for the ward, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward is out knocking doors in that community, drumming up support and making sure that they’re organizing the people in support of affordable housing in the community.
Similarly, they were out there knocking doors for Bernie Sanders, and as a result, the 35th ward had the highest percentage of any ward in Chicago vote for Bernie — about 62 percent of the vote.
In addition to campaigning for Bernie, you have also “come out” as a socialist, and you joined the DSA. It’s one thing to say that you’re a progressive and believe in movements, but it’s a leap, to say, “I am a socialist.”
There’s not a ton of political capital in claiming that label. We’re working on changing that, but currently, there’s not. Why was it important to you to claim that label?
I’ve identified as a democratic socialist for some time now. After reading Noam Chomsky in high school, after being involved in leftist spaces and movements for social and economic justice, I decided I was a democratic socialist because I believe we need both an economy and a government that works for the many, not the few. That we need a government that’s of, for, and by the people, not the rich and powerful corporations.
Democratic socialism means that the people govern every facet of their lives, whether it be the economic structure or the government that’s determining the policies that impact their lives.
That’s not something that I readily discussed on the campaign trail when I ran for alderman because to me it was more important to talk about the policies rather than focus in on any single label. When I went door to door I talked to people about putting zoning in their hands. I talked to people about participatory budgeting so that they had power over the infrastructure dollars being allocated in the district. I talked to people about the need for a City Hall that’s of the people, not for big and powerful corporations.
That was a message that was overwhelmingly popular. It elected me with 67 percent of the vote. But it wasn’t until I saw Sanders running for president as an open democratic socialist that I then began to think that the paradigm had shifted. Now was the time to embrace that label fully and to come out as a democratic socialist and say, “Look, all these things that I’ve been talking about: community controls of police, making sure that public dollars benefit the people’s needs and not big corporations, ensuring that we have control over zoning and the policies moving through City Hall and moving through my office — that’s democratic socialism.”
Every ward has an official representative of each party elected at the same time as the presidential primary every four years. When I ran to be the official representative of the Democratic voters in my district in March 2016, I said “I’m running as a proud democratic socialist and yes, I’m going to enter the formal apparatus of the Democratic Party to represent my fellow democratic voters, but I want to make it clear that my ideology and my values are those of democratic socialism.”
You’ve been in the headlines in Chicago and nationally recently. You were briefly a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the state of Illinois on a ticket with State Senator Daniel Biss. Why did you decide that you wanted to run for Lieutenant Governor? What were you hoping to accomplish?
When I was first approached by Senator Biss about the possibility of being his running mate, I decided that it was an opportunity to more strongly advocate for all those things I’ve been advocating for in my community: health care as a human right, housing as a human right, education (including at the college level) as a human right.
So I wanted to join the ticket to fight for Medicare for all at the state level, free college tuition in Illinois, affordable child care for working parents, and a $15 living wage today — not five years down the line. Those are the things that my community needs. I thought of the campaign as an opportunity to more strongly advocate for all those things.
When you first announced that you were running with Biss, I was a little skeptical, because Biss does not exactly have a spotless progressive legislative record. He was a co-sponsor of a bill in Springfield that would have gutted public sector workers’ pensions, for example. Did you think about that when you decided to run with him?
Yes, and we had conversations about that. I did not join the ticket until he had publicly said that that was the wrong legislation to push — that he regretted putting forward a piece of legislation that would have slashed public employee retirees’ benefits for the benefit of Wall Street, and he publicly and clearly recognized both in his platform and in his statement that he understood that a pension is a promise and that the solution to underfunded pensions is not to cut to retiree benefits, but to tax the rich to ensure that our retirees have the dignified retirement that they earned and deserve.
So you felt like he had adequately assured you that he’d had a change of heart and was dedicated to the state-level issues that you mentioned — a kind of Bernie Sanders-inspired campaign at the state level in Illinois.
That’s right. One of the unique things about this governor’s race in Illinois is that we have a kind of Donald Trump of our own. We have a billionaire governor who has pushed right-wing policies that hurt people of color, working people, working mothers. At the same time, we have a leading candidate on the Democratic side who seems on a path to win the nomination who is a billionaire, JB Pritzker. He’s spending $100,000 a day campaigning, and when he’s out on the campaign trail, the only thing I’ve seen him talk about is that he’s not Donald Trump and he’s not Bruce Rauner and that he’s going to fight both of them.
It was important that in the Democratic primary, we had a ticket that was actually advocating for substantive policies that would address the needs of working people.
Pritzker, of course, is part of the Pritzker family, one of the wealthiest families in Chicago. They’re heirs to the Hyatt Hotel chain and play a big role in politics. Penny Pritzker, for example, was the Commerce Secretary under President Obama. But in addition to Pritzker, we also have Chris Kennedy in the Democratic race, who’s actually of the Kennedy family and is a millionaire himself. The whole field is dominated by the 1 percent.
That’s right, and I’ve been privy to some polls that actually have JB Pritzker polling at over 40 percent and on track to be at over 50 percent very soon. So joining the Biss ticket was always going to be an uphill battle. It was going to be a longshot race, but nonetheless, I felt that it was important to advocate for those core issues that impact Illinois working families.
So you made the announcement. There was a big event with you and Biss and there’s lots of pictures of you looking very happy. Then, within seventy-two hours, things get heated. The first thing that kicked this off was a statement made by Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois, who brought up your membership in the DSA, specifically around the DSA’s recent endorsement of BDS at its convention, as well as your other statements in support of justice for Palestinians. He rescinded the endorsement that he had previously given of your campaign.
It was interesting that he targeted you around your membership in DSA, How did you feel when all this happened?
As I explained to Rep. Schneider prior to his Facebook announcement about rescinding his endorsement, I am a strong believer and advocate for social and economic justice for all people, and I support an end to the occupation of Palestine. I want to find a solution that recognizes the humanity of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples. That’s why I said in the past that the nonviolent BDS movement is a conversation that needs to be had so that the US government can exert pressure to bring about an end to the occupation of Palestine.
Unfortunately, Rep. Schneider took issue with my previous statements, which I made in June 2016 at the People’s Summit, saying we should consider BDS as a way to end the occupation of Palestine. That led to him pulling his endorsement.
It was clear that rescinding the endorsement really shook the Biss side of the campaign. Six days after the announcement that you two were running together, you were booted from the ticket by Biss — specifically over this issue.
That’s right. He feels strongly that the BDS movement is an impediment towards reaching a two- state solution. I feel strongly that the BDS movement as a nonviolent movement for justice. I was hopeful that we could highlight where we agreed at the state level, and then move forward to focus on those issues of key importance to Illinois working families: Medicare for all, a $15 living wage today, affordable child care for working parents, and free college tuition for our students. Unfortunately, that did not occur.
BDS was not central to the campaign you were running with Biss. As you just said, the main issues were free college education, health care. A “pragmatic” politician might have simply dropped the BDS stance in order to pursue the other campaign issues. As far as I know, there isn’t a major campaign at the state level in Illinois demanding that you take a certain stance on BDS. So why not just say okay, I’ll back away from BDS in order to pursue what is actually central to the campaign I want to run?
It’s extremely important to me that elected officials and people that have a pulpit not throw non-violent movements under the bus.
One of the things that I remember from my time as an aide to Rep. Gutierrez and as an immigrant rights organizer was when DREAMers, undocumented youth, were out in the streets protesting President Obama and demanding an end to deportations. Undocumented youth across the US were occupying Barack Obama’s campaign offices.
And I’ll never forget the betrayal that I felt when Democratic Party officials, so-called progressive Democratic leaders came out and said, “This is the wrong strategy. These undocumented youth should not be occupying President Barack Obama’s offices. What they’re doing is wrong.”
Ultimately, history proved those establishment Democrats wrong, because it was those occupations, those nonviolent actions, which gave us Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It wasn’t because President Obama woke up one day and said “Hey, I really want to help out these undocumented youth that are being deported.” It was because those undocumented youth fought for their liberation.
The idea that I would use my position as an alderman or as a Lieutenant Governor candidate to throw a nonviolent movement for justice under the bus struck me as something that was fundamentally wrong.
The Palestinian people and their allies have been pushed for years to come up with a nonviolent solution to end the occupation of Palestine. They’ve done that with the BDS movement.
I was not going to throw that movement under the bus.
Having done that, and having paid a political price for it, how are you feeling about where you find yourself currently? I saw that the night that you were told that you were taken off the ticket, there was a party in Logan Square for you — seemingly not celebrating you getting booted off the ticket, but celebrating that you had refused to, as you say, throw BDS under the bus.
One of the things that brought me into this work is that it’s not about me. It’s about us. It’s about building a grassroots movement. When the announcement was made on Wednesday that I would no longer be on the ticket, I commented on social media that it had been an interesting six days and if anyone wanted to grab a drink and talk, I’d be at a watering hole near my house. In about two hours notice, over 150 people turned out.
That was very heartening because that’s exactly what we need. We need to build a diverse movement that brings people together from all different backgrounds to fight for social and economic justice for all people. That’s what I’ve done as an organizer, that’s what I’ve done as an alderman, that’s what I fought to do as a Lieutenant Governor running mate, and despite no longer being on the ticket, that’s exactly what I’m going to continue to do.
Do you feel like you have learned anything new from this experience? You mentioned Rahm Emanuel earlier in this interview referring to immigration as the third rail issue that Democrats shouldn’t touch. Seems like you touched a third rail issue yourself, and that is why you were taken off of Biss’s ticket.
When you look at the poll numbers for Democratic voters, 33 percent are more sympathetic to Israel than they are the Palestinians. 31 percent are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than they are to Israel. When you look at the numbers for those that are below the age of thirty, it’s very lopsided toward feeling sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. So I do think that the consensus is changing on this issue.
We need to find a way to talk about this issue that recognizes the plight of the Palestinian people; that humanizes the Palestinian people while at the same time recognizing four thousand years of discrimination against the Jewish people and rejects anti-Semitism in no uncertain terms. What I’ve learned from this experience is that this is a long game and ultimately, we need to be focused on building that grassroots movement, building that diverse coalition, because it’s going to be that movement and that coalition that bring people together that don’t necessarily always see eye to-eye on every single issue, but that can recognize those key areas where we need to struggle together. In the context of the state of Illinois, those key areas are those issues that are impacting Illinois’s working families. Medicare for all, the need for affordable child care, the need for a free college education, the need for living wages.