“Let’s Build a Fighting Force on the City Council”
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was once the lone socialist on Chicago’s city council — now he’s joined by five members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In an interview with Jacobin, Rosa talks about the attacks from the city’s political and capitalist class that didn’t land and the agenda for the city’s newly elected socialists.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
The half-dozen socialists who were recently elected to Chicago’s city council drew national and international headlines. Never in recent American history have so many socialists been elected to a major American city’s council.
But one of those six was up for re-election: Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. Rosa, the council’s first openly gay Latino candidate, has been on the council for a single term. During those four years, quite a bit happened: he joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); he was a candidate for lieutenant governor for a few days before he was kicked off the ticket by his running mate, State Rep. Daniel Biss, for refusing to back off his endorsement of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel (which you can read about in my 2017 interview with Rosa); he flirted with running for Congress; and he drew the ire of much of the city’s political and capitalist classes for his stances opposing gentrification and the expansion of Chicago’s policing infrastructure — even getting briefly kicked out of the council’s Latino Caucus.
Fresh off his reelection victory, I interviewed Ramirez-Rosa for my podcast, The Vast Majority. You can listen to the podcast at Jacobin Radio or by subscribing to The Vast Majority’s standalone feed. Do remember to subscribe and rate us, if you feel so moved.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re fresh off a re-election victory for your thirty-fifth ward city council seat in Chicago. You’re a polite elected official, so you probably wouldn’t say this, so I will: you destroyed your opponent, by twenty points.
It’s not me, it’s us, Micah.
Your win is both a satisfactory result to those who wanted to see a socialist re-elected to city council, but also to those who have fought for affordable housing in Chicago.
About a third of the ward is taken up by the neighborhood Logan Square, which is a formerly working-class, Latino neighborhood. It still has a large working-class, Latino population, but gentrification is advancing very rapidly — it’s probably the hottest real estate market in the city right now. So your race was a referendum on affordable housing and real estate development in the city.
Your opponent received a lot of money from real estate developers, and you really drew those developers’ ire — they defined the anti-Rosa campaign. Can you talk about why the race was defined by affordable housing and why real estate developers spent so much against you?
In the last four years, I’ve made it very clear I’m going to stand with working-class Chicagoans as they fight displacement; I’m going to fight for fully funded neighborhood schools and stand up for communities that are diverse both racially and economically. And that means I’m going to take certain stances: for affordable housing in the thirty-fifth ward, for policies like rent control. And I’m going to stand up to developers and landlords that are kicking families out of their homes.
I’m also going to ensure that when development takes place in the thirty-fifth ward, it’s not because a campaign got a contribution from a developer, but it’s because there was a community process in which the community had a real say over that development decision in their community. Those are all things that property management companies and developers and landlords do not like.
So developers, big landlords, and property managers, spent around $200,000 in a bid to unseat me. About two thirds of the money my opponent received this cycle came from big developers.
Two hundred thousand dollars on one of the fifty city council races. That’s an astronomical amount of money. But you polarized the race as one between the defender of the working class, of people being able to stay in their homes, versus an opponent who was backed by those developers.
Our opponent sent something like fifteen to eighteen mailers — I lost track at one point. My campaign sent seven. In those mailers and in the conversations we had with voters, we said Carlos has been an outspoken, progressive leader. He has stood up to big landlords evicting families from our community, he stood up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporate policies. And precisely because of that, he is now being targeted by big landlords, big developers, by Rahm Emanuel’s donors.
It was an egregiously negative campaign. For example, mailers said I brought no new affordable housing to the ward. They weaponized policies we’ve been fighting for against us. And it wasn’t true. We’ve actually built upwards of fifty affordable housing units in the thirty-fifth ward during my time. And that was very hard fought, because we did not have an ally in the mayor’s office — we would have built more, but Rahm Emanuel did not want to bring affordable housing to communities that were targeted for gentrification like the one I represent.
You even had one of those developers, Mark Fishman, who is the largest developer in the Logan Square neighborhood. There was a crazy story in which he bought the building that you had your office located in.
City council terms are four years, so when I took office, I signed a four-year lease at my predecessor’s office. It’s right in the heart of the ward. Several months later, the developer, who was my predecessor’s biggest donor and owns about $74 million worth of property in the community, purchased the office I was located in. He immediately started messing with me.
One of the first things he did was to send thirty-day notices to the tenants that lived there. In Illinois, if you don’t have a lease, your landlord just needs to give you a thirty-day notice to make you leave your apartment, or maybe make you pay double or triple your rent to stay. In this case, he was doubling the rent and telling folks, “If you can’t pay this in thirty days, you have to move out.”
So residents in that building formed a tenant union. My office asked Mark Fishman if he would meet with the tenants, if he would work with them to allow them to stay in their homes. He refused. He has since done the same thing to families in the winter. So this is a guy who doesn’t really care about the fabric of our community. He’s seeking to maximize the amount of money he can extract from the neighborhood. He’s no fan of mine.
This is important to bring up because it shows, for people who are interested in running left campaigns at the local level or any level around the country, the kind of pushback left candidates get when they take those stances. Mark Fishman was doing everything from the standard shoveling money to an opponent to petty harassment of you. Like trying to get you out of your ward office.
Right, and he did succeed.
You had to move your office, right?
Yeah, in the middle of the campaign — a week before Christmas!
That’s some Scrooge shit.
A week before Christmas, we get a notice: we have to immediately vacate the office. So we packed up our things. We were very lucky to find a new office in short order.
He owns a lot of property on the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, and in empty buildings, he was putting up signs for your opponent. He owns the movie theater in the neighborhood, too — the Logan Theater. So he put your opponents’ signs up in the theater’s windows. I’m sorry, I walked by them as I entered to see Gremlins.
There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, so it’s okay. It’s not under boycott . . . yet.
All of this was happening, and you still carried the election by 20 percent.
In corporate politics the narrative is you can screw over the voters, you can screw the working class, and as long as you have the money to get on TV and slam your opponents in the mail boxes, you can win. We turned that logic upside down — not just in my ward, but in wards across Chicago, where we saw corporate Democrats spending big and losing. At the end of the day, if you reach the voters door to door with a compelling message and a political vision that speaks to their needs, they’re going to go with you every time.
You took a number of bold stances not just at the neighborhood level, but in favor of demands like the “No Cop Academy” campaign that turned Rahm Emanuel and much of the city’s political class against you. Can you explain that campaign and what happened when you backed it?
My practice is to stand with workers’ movements and movements for social and economic justice. I believe people need to lead their own liberation, so if I’m going to be an ally to the movement for black lives, I need to listen to black folks in that movement who have been directly impacted by police violence. That has put me at odds many times with the establishment at City Hall.
So when activists with a group called Assata’s Daughters came to my ward office and said . . . Actually, no, it started before then. I’m very much online, so I’m on Twitter and scrolling through my feed . . .
For good or ill, you are very much online.
I see a tweet about young people taking over a train on the Chicago Transit Authority and doing a teach-in about the cop academy. I like it, I retweet it, and shortly after, the activists reach out to me and come to my office.
They explained they were leading a campaign against this new police academy, because they’re prison abolitionists and think that instead of the police getting tens of millions dollars for a new shooting range and a new swimming pool, we should invest that money in after-school programs and education.
And that was for a new academy that would be used to train police officers on the West Side of Chicago.
Yes, on the far western edge of the city. Chicago has historically used its public institutions as engines of gentrification. So when the University of Illinois–Chicago was built, they tore down tens of thousands of working poor people’s homes to clear out an area just west of the loop and got ready what they called “urban renewal,” which of course we now call “gentrification.”
The area right around UIC is now very affluent. When they built the existing police academy, they built it by Jackson Avenue, one mile west of the Sears Tower. When they built it, that area was known as the “West Side.” Now it’s called the West Loop. Chicago has a history of placing these institutions in that pave the way for development, gentrification, and displacement in that neighborhood.
The new title “West Loop” would be kind of like “West Downtown.” It’s a designation that makes the area sound more desirable for real estate development.
Yes, precisely. So now, they’re going to sell the existing police academy, which sits on what is now a very valuable piece of land to a very wealthy, connected developer. They’re going to move that police academy even further west to an area that is overwhelmingly black and working poor. They expect that an occupying force, that police academy, will play the same role it did before.
I would hear some of my colleagues that supported the new academy say, “This is going to bring development. A sandwich shop is going to open up across the street, because the new police academy is there.” It’s just so sad that’s the only investment the city of Chicago can bring to that community. West of Chicago, the suburb that borders us is a very affluent place called Oak Park; I think the concept is by placing this police academy here, we can have some of that development and wealth that exists in Oak Park spill over eastward into the West Side and continue to displace working poor people from the city.
It was a demand being put forward by social movements, but it was not taken up by many city council members. You were the only alderman to vote against it three times.
Right. Prior to the first time a vote came up, I had spoken to a number of aldermen. Seven told me they were going to vote no.
When we started going down the vote roll call, it became very clear I was casting the only “no” vote. And I did. I made a commitment to our social movements who had made a demand. So I cast that no vote. I have a lot of friends in Chicago’s social movements, but I also have friends that are political hacks and corporate Democrats. And they were immediately texting me “your career is over.” Some of my colleagues were looking at me like a dead man walking.
It’s because there is a narrative about gun violence on the West Side and the South Side. People are scared about issues of public safety, and here I was casting a vote against the police academy which is being painted as an investment on the West Side, an investment in public safety.
But my thinking was, rather than investing this money in policing, let’s invest more money in addressing the root causes of crime and poverty in our communities.
You must have felt pretty isolated during that time. You were even kicked off the Latino Caucus.
That very evening! But I’m once again a member; after a public outcry, they reinstated me.
I had been pushing the Latino Caucus to take stances around affordability, because it’s our neighbors being gentrified. I push the Latino Caucus to take stances on public education and to stand with the Chicago Teachers Union, because Latino students actually make up a plurality in CPS. I pushed the Latino Caucus to stand with undocumented immigrants and say we need to become a true sanctuary city — no collaboration with ICE.
The majority of the caucus’s membership, many of which are now gone, had no interest in those issues whatsoever. But the same day I cast the sole no vote against the police academy, a meeting is held without any prior notice to me and without any due process I am kicked out of the Latino Caucus.
[Since this interview, Rosa is back in the Latino Caucus and has been named its vice chair.]
I would find it very hard to be texted by my friends, “Your career is over.” Did that feel like a crisis moment for you?
I was trying to explain to them that this is a movement. While we may not have support in the city council and the corporate establishment, there are tens of thousands of people across Chicago that believe strongly in the stance I took. I saw that reflected in social media, I saw that reflected in the street walking down the block.
When you understand your role as an elected official is to stand with movements, that provides you with so much clarity and in fact makes your job so much easier. While it’s true that in many ways, being one out of fifty in City Hall this past term was often like swimming against the current, I understood there was something bigger that I was connected to. That was our grassroots movements.
Bernie Sanders came to Chicago in between the first round of city elections in February and the runoff in April, and started his rally both with anti-gentrification activists from your neighborhood, but also a No Cop Academy activist. You had been this lone voice on the city council to vote against the academy twice, then here’s Bernie on the presidential campaign trail, starting his rally with a No Cop Academy activist.
It was vindicating to see Bernie Sanders use his campaign to lend strength to No Cop Academy. It was also powerful to see how investments in public safety and the cop academy became a focus point of the mayoral campaign.
I’ve faced backlash from the corporate establishment at city hall for voting against the cop academy, but it pales in comparison to what black youth and activists have faced in Chicago, in terms of police violence. But it’s an example of what is possible with elected officials using whatever bully pulpit we have to amplify the voice of the grassroots towards a broader project for social change.
You must also feel vindicated that five other members of the Democratic Socialists of America are joining you on city council. How do you feel about this wave of socialist elected officials and what’s the plan?
It’s a beautiful day! There’s a lot of opportunity, but I recognize we’ve felt like we’ve been here before. Most recently that was 2007. That year, [there was a proposal] called the “Big Box” living wage ordinance that would have established a living wage in the city, applied to stores like Target or Walmart that had a billion or more in revenue. The ordinance passed, but it was repealed by Mayor Richard M. Daley after he got a call from Walmart.
Walmart moved into the city, and in response the Chicago Federation of Labor and progressive unions led a massive effort to ensure that a number of incumbents lost. We saw a similar amount of turnover in the city council and a whole new crop of quote on quote “progressives” were elected, and immediately after they were co-opted by Daley.
So you’re looking out for fake friends?
No! But what I’m saying is, they are going to try to divide us. When I entered the city council I reached out to all fifty of my colleagues and was able to sit down with thirty-one aldermen. One of them actually told me, “You seem like a winner. You seem like you like to win. And you know these folks that you’re allying yourself with” — groups like the Grassroots Collaborative, the CTU — “they’re not going to take you where you want to go.” He basically called them fake friends. “They are going to applaud you when you speak, but the moment you do something they don’t like you’re going to be dead to them. They’re going to throw you under the bus and so you need to make real friends.”
He wasn’t the only alderman who essentially said “Join us!” A similar thing is going to be attempted with our new friends elected to the city council. And we also have to understand it’s not just the six democratic socialists. We also had some very progressive Democrats elected. The challenge ahead of us is keeping together — let’s build a fighting force on the city council, whether that is six of us, ten of us, however many people we can get together to stand with the grassroots and act strategically and act collectively to expand our struggle.
What will be on the agenda of that group of progressives?
A big priority is addressing police brutality, police misconduct, making sure there is civilian oversight. We support the Chicago Police Accountability Council, a grassroots demand that wants to create a fully elected civilian body to oversee the police and institute community control.
We also want to fight for progressive revenue. We want to be able to tax the rich to fix our public schools, to fix the potholes, to provide all the things our city should be providing. One [policy] is the commercial lease tax. Right now the city leads the nation in corporate relocations, so we want to make sure that new wealth is leveraged and redistributed to help the West Side and South Side. The commercial lease tax in New York City brings in $800 million a year for city services.
[After this interview, the newly elected socialist and progressive city council members announced their proposed agenda in a press conference at Chicago’s city hall.]
Can you talk about how you approach local governance in your ward?
In the thirty-fifth ward we have what we call “people-power initiatives.” To date, those are three programs that we run through my office. They seek to show people’s ability to govern themselves and collectively come to together and make decisions. We don’t need the Donald Trumps of the world, the Jeff Bezoses of the world, the Bruce Rauners of the world —
The Mark Fishmans of the world.
The Mark Fishmans of the world — we don’t need them telling us what our communities should look like or how we should live our lives. We collectively, from the grassroots, from below, can determine our own destiny.
So any zoning change requiring my support must go through a community process where first, resident organizations that are made up of residents of the district review the zoning change and work with the developer to make recommendations. After that, it goes to a community assembly that is bilingual with free childcare and accessible to working people. We recently had a community assembly attended by over five hundred people. It was to discuss the development of a city-owned parking lot into one hundred units of 100 percent affordable housing, and the community overwhelmingly approved.
It’s an underutilized parking lot, and Rahm Emanuel’s administration wanted to sell it for $6 million to a private developer. But the community marched, canvassed, organized, and said we want the lot used for affordable housing, so I supported them. We worked with a nonprofit affordable housing developer to put together the financing necessary to make this possible. People said there’s no way you can have a meeting around bringing in affordable housing to an overwhelmingly affluent, white community and have it go well. But we showed an organized community is a powerful community.
Our community process doesn’t just impact developments like that. For instance, with a boutique hotel being built across the street. The community process led to the developers signing a community benefits agreement that required them to hire locally and every job will pay a minimum of fifteen dollars an hour, a majority paying seventeen dollars an hour. That was made possible through the community-driven zoning process. That concession the developer made to the community is a stark contrast to what happened just down Milwaukee Avenue in another ward, where an incumbent alderman, Joe Moreno, would take tens of thousands of dollars from big developers in exchange for giving them whatever zoning change they wanted. As a result we saw the election of a DSA member Daniel Espata to replace him.
Those are ways I use the powers I have as alderman to build socialism from the bottom and show we have the ability to govern ourselves.