A Good Night for Chicago Socialists

Chicago has long been dominated by a powerful Democratic machine and decades of austerity and gentrification. But the city’s left won victories across the board in Tuesday's elections.

Campaign literature for Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a democratic socialist alderman who won reelection in Chicago on Tuesday. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa / Facebook

Four years ago, after Rahm Emanuel won reelection to a second term as Chicago mayor, I wrote that despite the losses of that election cycle, the city’s working-class organizing had “laid the infrastructure for a new independent politics in the longer term.” Which sounds like the kind of thing leftists tell themselves to feel better after getting our asses kicked yet again: with tangible victories scarce, we can always claim vague, empirically unverifiable ones about “building momentum” or “sending a message.”

But left victories in Tuesday’s Chicago elections are tangible and undeniable. Few could have imagined such an unquestionably positive night for leftist candidates.

The socialist left and the progressive labor-community movement of which it is a part are well positioned to continue advancing working-class demands in the years to come, through electoral candidates and militant community and labor organizing, and in opposition to the vicious austerity politics that has dominated the city over the last few decades.

The night was specifically good for socialist city council candidates. The city has fifty city council members (or aldermen), and all were up for reelection (though five were unopposed). The elections are nonpartisan, but Chicago is dominated by the Democratic Party. (None of the fifty identify as Republicans.) In order for both city council and mayoral candidates to win, they need a majority of votes; races in which no candidate gets a majority go to a runoff election between the top two vote-getters in April.

Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsed five candidates, all but one of whom identify publicly as socialists. (Jacobin has interviewed all five candidates recently.) One won his race outright by an overwhelming margin. Three others not only made runoffs, but were the top vote-getters in the first round. Their victories could lead to a socialist caucus on the council.

The lone socialist currently on Chicago’s city council is Carlos Rosa, a DSA member. Most of his thirty-fifth ward lies in Logan Square, the formerly working-class, Latino neighborhood that has gentrified at warp speed. Rosa has stood up to displacement in his district, fighting wealthy landlords like Mark Fishman who have evicted longtime working-class residents. In response, Fishman and other developers threw massive amounts of money behind a challenger, Amanda Yu Dieterich.

The adjective I most heard to describe her campaign was “sad.” She was swimming in money from developers and allies of Rahm Emanuel, but Yu Dieterich never knew how to distinguish herself from Rosa, whose progressive positions — affordable housing, immigrant rights, stalwart support of organized labor, and more — were obviously very popular. So, she echoed them. Watching her campaign against Rosa, she sometimes didn’t even seem to want to be running.

Rosa won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Losing by nearly twenty percentage points is a walloping, so we might not see her challenge Rosa (or anybody) again. But capitalists like Fishman will keep fighting Rosa tooth and nail while looking for a better pro-developer candidate to throw their money at next time around. Still, Rosa clearly has a mandate in the thirty-fifth ward.

Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez ran against Deb Mell, daughter of longtime city council power player Dick Mell, who literally gave her the thirty-third ward aldermanic seat in 2013. Mell’s ward is dominated by the working-class, immigrant neighborhood Albany Park, which has also gentrified in recent years.

She has taken substantial campaign donations from property developers and refused to aid tenants facing eviction whose landlords cut checks to her. Rodriguez-Sanchez — a former teacher who moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico because of austerity a decade ago, a DSA member, and the candidate chosen by the independent neighborhood organization 33rd Ward Working Families — actually came in first on Tuesday and stands a good chance of winning the runoff, the first in the ward since the 1930s.

(Full disclosure: I put in many hours on the doors for both Rosa and Rodriguez-Sanchez, though probably not enough.)

Byron Sigcho-Lopez took first place in the twenty-fifth ward, dominated by the historically Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, another rapidly gentrifying area, as well as Chinatown and wealthier areas closer to downtown. And Jeanette Taylor is at the front of the runoff in the twentieth ward. Taylor doesn’t identify as a socialist but is a longtime anti-gentrification and public education activist on the historically black South Side and recently organized against the Obama presidential library and went on hunger strike against a school closure.

Ugo Okere, a young activist and Nigerian immigrant, was the one DSA endorsee who didn’t make a runoff. But even his loss was impressive: Okere, like most of his campaign volunteers, is in his early twenties, ran an unabashedly socialist campaign, and came within a few hundred votes of the runoff in a relatively wealthy, largely white ward, despite facing racist attacks from the incumbent, Patrick O’Connor, and nationally. (Another DSA member, André Vasquez, who was not endorsed by DSA, made the runoff.)

DSA members held staff positions in all five of these campaigns, and socialists played key roles as volunteers. In at least one campaign, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s, the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative also played a role. But socialists did not go it alone in these elections. Most were also strongly backed by the left wing of the labor movement, including the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Health Care Illinois Indiana, and the United Working Families (UWF), the electoral arm of the left wing of the city’s unions and community organizations. Socialists played important roles in the campaigns, but as one player among several in broad coalitions.

Other progressive candidates won, too. The noxious Joe Moreno, who has also overseen massive gentrification in his ward and is universally agreed upon (among my friends, anyway) as being the sleaziest member of the city council, was trounced by Daniel La Spata, a DSA member. Maria Hadden, a strong progressive candidate endorsed by UWF, handily defeated Joe Moore (who has shifted from being named the country’s “most valuable progressive” local official in the Nation in 2008 to a shameless bootlicker for Emanuel who once begged the mayor to let him help publicly spin the police murder of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager shot sixteen times by a Chicago police officer, in Rahm’s favor) in the city’s forty-ninth ward.

The mayoral race featured fourteen candidates on the ballot. The worst possible outcomes — the election of reactionary former police commissioner Garry McCarthy; former Goldman Sachs banker BIll Daley, who received not one but two donations of a million dollars from Illinois’s richest man, hedge fund manager Ken Grifin; or Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO and hatchet man for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s education privatization attempts — were avoided.

Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, and Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board, will be in the April runoff. Neither is particularly progressive despite both trying to claim the mantle.

Lightfoot has a mixed record, with some progressive accomplishments, such as her time as head of a Police Accountability Task Force that issued a scathing report in 2016 on racist policing in the city. But her track record as a former federal prosecutor has led to criminal justice reform activists’ criticism. She also has no real base in the city — certainly not among organized labor or other social movements.

Preckwinkle’s record, too, is checkered. She has pushed undeniably strong criminal justice reforms and spoken out against Rahm Emanuel’s school closures. She has also instituted cuts in health care at the county level and even at one time supported a cut in public sector workers’ pensions. But Preckwinkle is endorsed by the CTU and other unions, so she will have some compunction to keep the city’s organized working class happy.

The mayoral race is only a slight break from business as usual (at least another Daley won’t be running the city), but the aldermanic races suggest the possibility of serious upheaval. And none of this would have happened without the working-class organizing that has transformed Chicago’s political landscape in the last few years. The Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike and its organizing over the last decade made that union the anchor of a broad left-labor movement in the city. So far this year, two different charter school networks have gone on strike, city community college faculty narrowly averted a strike, and a graduate worker strike at the University of Illinois-Chicago may come in the near future.

Police officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of Laquan McDonald and the subsequent official cover-up led to large protests by black youth groups as well as widespread calls (including from the CTU) for Emanuel to resign. The scandal and widespread protests led to his downfall and animated the debates in this year’s mayoral election, in which candidates were forced to take a stand on policing issues.

The energy around these and other campaigns in the city — for affordable housing, immigrant rights, and much more — along with the upsurge in socialism seen in the growth of DSA after Bernie Sanders’s campaign have completely changed Chicago politics. Real estate developers spent millions of dollars in these elections to try to beat back the spate of candidates fighting for the working class, and it didn’t matter. The city’s organizing infrastructure is, indeed, getting stronger, and the possibility of an independent working-class politics is emerging.

Capital and the Democratic machine still reign in Chicago. But after Tuesday, it’s clear that the Left has the momentum on its side.