- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Anthony Joel Quezada grew up in Logan Square, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side formerly comprised of a majority Latin American migrants and immigrants. After several years of working as Neighborhood Services Director for socialist city council member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and organizing around issues like affordable housing in the neighborhood, Quezada is running for a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Chicago has been one of the most successful electoral arenas for socialists in recent years, winning six different aldermanic districts. Quezada, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and a coalition of a number of the city’s progressive elected officials, community groups, and unions have set their sights on the 8th district of the Cook County Board. The seat is currently occupied by Luis Arroyo Jr, who has been the subject of a federal corruption investigation.
Quezada sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss his journey to democratic socialism, his work in Chicago’s 35th ward, and his campaign for county commissioner.
Can you start by telling me about your upbringing?
I’m the youngest child of four to two working-class immigrant parents from Mexico and Costa Rica. Growing up, I had a very loving family. I think when you come from an immigrant family, you’re taught that you have to look out and care for each other. Our community was a working-class immigrant one. A lot of my neighbors were immigrants from other countries like Guatemala or Puerto Rico or Ecuador.
That community informed a lot of the values that I have today, whether it’s thinking collectively or just helping one another out. My mom used to cook a lot of food for our family, and she would always create small to-go plates that I would have to deliver to my neighbors. Then there would be days where we would get a knock on the door from neighbors bringing food to us.
Fast forward to the late 2000s, we started seeing a lot of change in Logan Square. There had been rumblings of luxury developments being built in a neighborhood just southeast of us called Wicker Park. Not long after, we started seeing a bunch of new and ritzy condos being built in our neighborhood. This housing wasn’t for my family or our neighbors. At that time, I didn’t even know about displacement, gentrification, or modified housing, but I didn’t need to. It was very telling, just by looking at the buildings.
How did you become politicized?
Witnessing widespread displacement, rising rents, constant new luxury developments in Logan Square, as well as seeing the economic struggles that my parents went through as immigrants who worked minimum wage jobs — they all had a huge impact on me. My dad, an undocumented immigrant at the time, was constantly overworked and underpaid as a sous-chef. We lived paycheck to paycheck. There were times where we couldn’t pay our utility bills or my mom would have to put back items at the grocery store because we couldn’t cover the full cost.
The first political action I ever took was holding down the picket lines at my school when my teachers [in the Chicago Teachers Union] went on strike in 2012. I grew up going to neighborhood schools, and I always saw my teachers paying out of pocket for our classroom materials. Knowing how much they worked, only to be underpaid and disrespected by a mayor who was pushing school closures — I had to stand in solidarity with my teachers; they’ve always stood in solidarity with me. I remember learning to chant: “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” and “When they say cut backs, we say fight back!” marching through downtown. My teachers taught me how to chant.
Not long after that, I started interning for Logan Square alderman Joe Moreno. I wanted to find a way to make change through government, because that’s what we are raised to believe: government is the avenue for voices to be heard in our community and where we can practice representative democracy. Shortly after getting involved in that office, I was exposed to things that pulled the curtain back on corruption in government.
I’ll never forget being at a community meeting of about a hundred fifty people to discuss a new development in our neighborhood at the corner of Milwaukee and California, called the MiCA Towers. Two large, luxury housing developments that our community was adamantly opposed to. One of my neighbors got up during the meeting, and said, “Alderman Joe Mereno, I know that you took $10,000 from this developer, so you would approve this zoning change and build this building. I will cut you a check right now for $10,000 if you deny this permit, if you deny this zoning change.”
Everyone at the meeting started applauding. That was a really striking moment for me. I remember asking myself, “How did we reach a point where our constituents are so desperate, they would offer $10,000 of their own money just to be heard?”
After that meeting finished, the alderman turned to me and his chief of staff and basically admitted that they all but approved the permit already, and would announce the approval when it was more politically expedient. The community meeting was just window dressing.
Again, there were a hundred fifty people there who were completely opposed to this, but the alderman had already made up his mind because he was taking tens of thousands of dollars from developers. I went home and started crying. I told my mom, “I’m working for the wrong person.”
Shortly after that I quit that office, and I started searching for a political home that could actually help me fight against the displacement and gentrification that was taking place in our community and the power that luxury developers had over local decision making.
That’s around the time I began exploring socialism. It helped me process what was happening around me. At this same time, all of the experiences that I had growing up were converging into a single moment. My mom was unemployed, my dad was breaking his back with eighty-hour work weeks trying to support our family while we were still living paycheck to paycheck. People in my community were getting priced out.
All of these lessons and experiences were flooding into my brain, and what gave me a lot of clarity was learning about the power that corporations and the ruling class has over our government, economy, and democracy — the importance of capital over the needs of people and our planet.
By the end of high school, I identified as a socialist because that made most sense to me. I knew which side I was on. I’m on the side of the poor and working people, which is what I am. That is the family that I grew up in. Those are the neighbors that I have. That is the community that I live in. That is where my solidarity lies. It is not with corporations. It is not with the billionaire class. It’s with my people.
And my people deserve housing. My people deserve health care. My people deserve good quality schools. And the only way that we can get those things is if we unite against our exploiters, and organize for our economic rights and social rights.
You talked about interning because you were taught that’s the way change is made. Then you became disillusioned with that theory of change. What’s your theory of change now?
It happens through many different avenues, but I think that the main goal is to help people understand at a fundamental level that working people have more in common than they have differences. The only way we can help people understand that is by organizing them in their neighborhoods, in their schools, in their workplaces, and at the ballot box.
Most people want the same thing. They want predictability in their lives. They want to have good housing. They want to have quality health care. They want to have economic stability.
We need to organize both locally and nationally to create unity between working people across the country — a mass movement of millions of people fighting for a just and democratic economy and government. Only through a collective multiracial, working-class movement, can we break the power that corporations have over our day-to-day lives.
We need to reclaim our rightful power, so that we can have control over our own destiny, so that we can mitigate the effects of climate change, so that we can address the injustices of poverty and systemic racism and xenophobia.
Tell us about what you’ve done in the community as an organizer.
My organizing started with United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35). Shortly after leaving my internship at the first ward, I got involved in [Jesus] “Chuy” Garcia’s mayoral campaign, then Bernie’s 2016 presidential run. That’s where I first met Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
Carlos asked me why I was in Iowa canvassing for Bernie, and I told him what I told you: my family had experienced so much hardship, I saw my neighborhood changing for the worse, and I witnessed the unadulterated power that money had in politics — the pay-to-play tradition that Chicago politicians are too familiar with. That was why I wanted to elect Bernie. His campaign was an avenue for working-class people to unite and take back our country.
I got back to Chicago a couple days after that, and I met up with the executive director of UN35. She brought me into the organization, and the first event I attended was a deep canvassing. We went door to door saying: we’re an independent political organization here in the 35th ward organizing to secure the resources our communities need, and to also act as a counterbalance to the political and economic entrenched powers of our city.
We didn’t come with an agenda or with a specific ask. We would just talk to people in the neighborhood and identify leaders in our neighborhood through those conversations. That was a really important experience for me, and it helped me to understand more about what our community was experiencing, but then to also identify people who aligned with our values or who also wanted to organize and build power, to fight for the resources and services that we need and deserve.
Not long after, I got involved in a statewide campaign called the People and Planet First Budget. At the time we had a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who was completely gutting our state. The People and Planet First Budget for Illinois was a way of talking about the inequities in our state’s tax code system, and called for the rich and corporations to pay their fair share by closing corporate tax loopholes and enacting a progressive income tax. (In Illinois, we have a flat tax.) And we wanted to enact a LaSalle Street Tax on Chicago’s stock exchanges and all its revenue, which was estimated to be about $23 billion; that tax would have gone to fund education from preschool to twelfth grade, to provide universal health care, to convert to all green energy, and more.
It was a way of flipping the script on the dominant narrative in the state of Illinois at the time that we were broke. We didn’t have money to spend on public goods. We were saying no, we do have that money, but it currently sits in the pockets of the rich. The wealthiest people and corporations in our state are not paying their fair share of taxes. Some of the demands like closing tax loopholes were met after Governor J. B. Pritzker was elected, but that campaign is likely to be renewed in the future.
Another foundational campaign I worked on was to lift the statewide ban on rent control, which has allowed landlords to have free reign to raise the rents on their tenants and fast-track displacement. Developers in Logan Square would purchase a building and increase the rent by a thousand dollars, which is completely legal.
UN35 went door to door collecting petitions to have a nonbinding referendum on the ballot in 2018. It was a widely popular campaign. We won the referendum in November of 2018 with 72 percent approval. Seventy-two percent of 35th ward resident voters allowed us to have a conversation around giving power back to renters, to create and maintain affordability in our communities, and about who actually has power in our communities and in our state.
Is it going to be the developers and their lobbyists? Or is it going to be working people and their neighborhoods? We struck a really deep contrast in our neighborhoods.
At the same time we were doing rent control canvassing, and a couple years prior, we were also canvassing around the need for affordable housing in Logan Square, in particular around an underused city parking lot that was next to one of our train line stations. For years, community members and organizations, like the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, had been calling for an affordable housing development to be built there.
The residents of the 35th ward and the surrounding neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly in favor of this new development for one hundred units of affordable housing. It was a massive victory for our community after experiencing years and years of displacement and gentrification; where we had only seen these large luxury developments approved, but the community rallied for a hundred-unit affordable housing development in our neighborhood. And we won it despite the opposition of developers, landlords, and reactionaries, who didn’t want to see poor and working-class people, predominantly people of color, remain in the neighborhood.
We just cut the ribbon on it, and people have already started moving in. It’s officially called the Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Apartments.
Can you tell me a bit more about UN35?
UN35 is a ward-based membership organization that started after Alderman Rosa won his election with the purpose of organizing ward residents for ward-level democracy and other issues in the community. We also want to model “co-governing” with Alderman Rosa. Carlos listens to us, and that informs his city council agenda. And vice versa.
We are in conversation, working together, and building power collectively in the 35th ward. UN35 is often connecting working-class people into the political process for the first time, not just through campaigns, but to the broader people’s movement. We connect people from the grassroots to national actions, while engaging in political education.
Why are you running for Cook County Commissioner?
For the past six years, I’ve worked for the people of the 35th ward in the office of Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as the neighborhood services director. I mainly connected constituents to city and social services that help people get new garbage cans or get a pothole filled, but it also entails more fundamental assistance navigating the bureaucracy of government. People often need help finding resources for their family, maybe they are experiencing homelessness or domestic violence, and they need to find out what to do next.
Our office always went above and beyond. We have this reputation of helping people from other wards. We don’t turn people away no matter where they come from. But over the past two years, the trauma of COVID-19 has been intense.
Early on in the pandemic, people were calling the office crying: I lost my job, I can’t pay my rent, I lost my loved one. There was not much that we could do at the time. The resources to help people out just didn’t exist. Every day when we clocked into work, we heard people crying in desperation. It was all so depressing. It really brought to light the failures of capitalism and everything it encompasses, from the failures of wage labor to our completely divested social safety net in our country that allows so many people to fall into poverty.
It deepened my resolve to actually help realize socialism in our country, to actually make sure that everyone has what they need and that we can better guarantee stability and predictability in people’s lives.
During this time, the current commissioner, Luis Arroyo Jr, was being investigated by the feds for corruption and lobbying violations in Illinois. Luis Arroyo Jr has been completely absent in all that. He is the chair of the labor committee in Cook County, and they haven’t had a meeting since 2018. All the while health care workers at Cook County hospitals went on strike. Why wasn’t he holding hearings about what the workers were experiencing or what they were demanding?
His donations are littered with money from corporations, the same corporations he also represents as a lobbyist. I decided that enough was enough. We needed new leadership at the county board, because the county plays such a huge role in the day-to-day lives of people in Chicago and in the surrounding municipalities in Cook County. We need elected leadership that is actually going to fight to keep people in their homes, to fight for workers’ rights. We need active leaders who are calling to transform our broken system.
Why is that an important thing for working-class people to care about? What’s the opportunity for the socialist movement in the Cook County Commissioner?
We have the third-largest public health system in the nation, with two major hospitals and dozens of health centers. It’s also home to one of the largest health care providers to low income people through the Medicaid county care program, serving roughly five hundred thousand people annually. As a socialist I’m thinking about how we can protect this public resource: How are we fighting against privatization in our hospital system? How are we moving toward universal health care? How are we using the county health care system as a model to provide universal health care? How are we building more neighborhood mental health care clinics? How are we supporting health care workers? That’s an important role that the county plays.
We also have the Cook County forest preserve district, which contains about seventy thousand acres of forests, prairies, wetlands, and lakes. It’s a huge natural resource in the Midwest. How are we preserving and expanding these natural resources, especially under the growing threat of climate change? How are we fighting for a Green New Deal through the Cook County forest preserve district? How are we preserving and expanding these natural resources while also creating good paying union jobs? Union jobs to go plant trees, to protect the waterways, to tend to the land, and to modernize infrastructure in and around the forest preserve district. How are we connecting public transportation and more bike paths to this wonderful natural resource in our county?
Those are the things that are on my platform. Those are things that I’m talking about with people at the doors. I’m also talking about what role the county can play in addressing homelessness and poverty, because there’s a huge number of people experiencing homelessness in Chicago. There’s also data that shows that there has been a huge increase in poverty in the surrounding suburbs and municipalities of Chicago. So how is the county playing a role in expanding programs, for long-term affordable housing and for homeless services? How are we coordinating those services with our city and our state?
Bernie championed a unique style of grassroots campaigning in American politics — funded by the small dollar and aiming to build coalitions — which is something that voters in our country don’t often see. What is your style of campaigning? What is the type of movement you’re building?
We have built a very powerful coalition of labor unions, elected officials, and independent political organizations. Our campaign has earned the endorsements of citywide political organizations like the United Working Families and Chicago DSA, unions like the Illinois Nurses Association and the Cook County College Teachers Union, as well as national organizations like People’s Action and Run for Something. We also have the endorsements of elected officials like the five alderpeople in the Chicago Democratic Socialist Caucus, in addition to Alderman Andre Vasquez, state representatives, state senators, and Congressman Chuy Garcia.
Our campaign is bringing people together to win housing as a human right, to expand health care, and to combat climate change. That isn’t going to happen by one person and one vote. It’s going to happen through mobilizing masses of people in the streets and in the halls of power. Our campaign is the only campaign that is actually bringing people together to not only unseat the incumbent commissioner, but to advance a broader, universal politics.
One way that’s translating into the field is that these organizations and elected officials have knocked on tons of doors for us. Chicago DSA is organizing an “All in for Anthony” campaign where they want to knock on five thousand doors throughout the district in five weeks. Then there are elected officials, who are connecting me to other longtime community leaders and members, to build more support.
We’ve built a really strong relationship with Delia Ramirez, who is a state representative running for Congress right now. We just had a rally with Bernie Sanders last weekend including the Northwest Side Progressives.
Do you feel hopeful? Not just about your campaign, but the Left’s broader prospects?
One of the things that I have really thought about when deciding to run was how easy it is to fall into the trap of hopelessness, to believe that there’s nothing that we can do. It’s weighed heavily on me, especially after the past two years where there’s been a lot of turmoil, a lot of lost hope, and a lot of people don’t know what to do. I’ve always believed that organized people and the power of movements is humanity’s best hope. My campaign is talking about the issues in our neighborhoods, about what we deserve, what we need. And just because we’re operating within the 8th district of Cook County doesn’t make it any different from everywhere else.
Democratic socialists need to strike hope into people, and we need to inspire people to take control over the situation that we’re living in. That means building political power at the ballot box, but also in our neighborhoods.
When we talk to people, we don’t say, “Oh, we just need to elect Anthony and everything’s going to be better.” We need to elect someone who’s actually going to fight with us for the things that we need. It’s a call to action. We’re going into our neighborhoods and saying we have a lot of work to do, and the only way we can get this done is together.