- Interview by
- Lillian Osborne
A former public school teacher and union organizer, Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson’s stunning defeat of charter school magnate Paul Vallas is a bellwether of the city’s ascendant progressive, socialist, and working-class movements. Alongside Johnson, the democratic socialist bloc on the Chicago City Council not only protected their five seats but also made new gains: organizer Angela Clay won a runoff race in a Northside ward, each of the original socialist alders are chairs of important city council committees, and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (the sole socialist on the council just years ago) is Johnson’s floor leader.
These victories come on the heels of another socialist win: in November, community organizer and former Ramirez-Rosa staffer Anthony Joel Quezada became the youngest-ever member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, representing some three hundred thousand people. Quezada, the first openly gay Latino elected from the county’s eighth district, also serves as a cochair on Johnson’s transition team’s subcommittee on human rights, equity, and inclusion.
Over coffee at Kosciuszko Park in the Northside neighborhood of Logan Square, Quezada and I discussed how socialist elected officials like him are thinking about keeping people mobilized during the Johnson administration in the face of business attacks, how the Johnson administration and electeds could foster more bottom-up participation in city governance, and his approach as a pro-worker legislator.
Could you say a bit about your role on Brandon Johnson’s transition team and what you’re advocating for?
Our organization on the northwest side, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, as well as our coalition, worked hard to elect Mayor Johnson. I was asked to serve as a cochair on his subcommittee that is working to strategize and implement the goals he set throughout his campaign around LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights, and disability rights.
He has a transformative vision to make sure that Chicago is fully investing in services and programs, like expanding access to health care and housing opportunities to LGBTQ people, to persons with disabilities, working to make sure that we are protecting the rights of LGBTQ people and trans people, and making sure Chicago is a sanctuary for people who need reproductive care and gender-affirming care. And so now our subcommittee members are working to provide guidance on the implementation and the timeline of those goals.
Historically, one goal of pro-worker elected officials has been to bring ordinary people into the political process so government isn’t just run by and for the wealthy. What kind of popular institutions can be built through your office and under the Johnson administration to ensure that working-class people are steering the course of Chicago politics?
In the 35th Ward we have implemented projects of participatory democracy, encouraging people to make decisions in their communities. We have implemented policies like participatory budgeting, where residents ages fourteen years and older, regardless of their immigration status, can decide how we spend $1.5 million in infrastructure improvement funds. Usually that responsibility is the alderman’s alone. But here in the 35th Ward, we encourage all residents to engage in that process.
We also have community-driven zoning and development. So when there are zoning change requests, it’s not just the alderman who’s making those decisions alone, it’s the surrounding community that comes together and makes those decisions collectively.
We need to explore how we can expand participatory democracy across the city.
When budget season comes around, why don’t we put out a survey to the people of Chicago asking, what would you like this budget to reflect? What kind of investment priorities? And then the mayor’s office, as well as the city council, should implement a lot of those recommendations. How are we bringing more people into the process so they don’t feel like decisions are being made behind closed doors or in the interests of only the ultrarich or the powerful?
I think the best way to secure, expand, and strengthen democracy and democratic socialism is to bring in people to the local decision-making process.
And it’s also strategically important for us to be doing that, because socialists in office can’t just rule from on high. They won’t be able to carry out their agenda if they don’t build a large enough base of support and engage people in the process.
People in our country have been so disillusioned by the failures of government. They’re not brought in, they’re not empowered or invited in to make decisions collectively. It is usually just elected officials and the people who fund their campaigns who make those decisions.
And they feel like government doesn’t work for them.
Exactly. It’s funny, because people don’t know what it looks like for themselves to co-govern with their elected officials, but I think we all have a clear understanding of how elected officials co-govern with the capitalist class.
So I think we need to flip the script. We’ve done that locally and in some of our democratic socialist and progressive wards, but I think now we have an opportunity to co-govern at the city level with Mayor Johnson’s administration.
I think what you’re speaking to is raising working-class expectations. And part of that is creating real substantive ways for people to have a say over how society is run.
A lot of people are so disenfranchised by the democratic process because they don’t see themselves in it. Everyone always says, well I vote and nothing ever changes. But our movement has proven here in Chicago that you can make that happen.
All our democratic socialist incumbents won their elections outright — nobody went to a runoff. That was proof that what we’re doing is a successful model of co-governance. We are a prime example of starting the process of restoring trust in democracy and in elected officials. Our movement is doing that.
Business interests in the city have threatened to sabotage Brandon Johnson’s agenda and his tax plan by pulling investment and relocating. Traditionally, socialists and working-class reformers have argued that you have to counter these threats from business by explaining to the public who’s behind the attacks and mobilizing ordinary people behind your agenda. How do you see this playing out in the coming months?
We cannot demobilize, that’s for sure. Our movement needs to quadruple its efforts in base-building, in political education, in coalition building. We have a lot of work to do to make sure we have a coalition of people across the city that are ready and clear around the agenda that we need to implement.
I believe that the best safeguard is always a mass movement of people, of workers, of poor people. Brandon is the best that we’ve probably ever had to represent the interests of the working class [in the mayor’s office]. In order for him to implement our agenda, we need to be there with him. And he needs to be there with us.
I think we can have a collaborative approach, but at the same time, there are going to be times when we do need to fight back.
We need to tax the rich to implement the policies that we need. We can’t have fully funded schools, affordable housing, good public parks for everyone if we just nickel-and-dime poor and working-class people. The ultrarich and the wealthiest people and corporations in our city need to pay their fair share.
So I think this administration and the city council need to be clear around what their agenda is, and then make sure that we go to people in business, people in the community, people in labor — everyone needs to come together and say, this is what we’re going to do. I think we can have a collaborative approach, but at the same time, there are going to be times when we do need to fight back.
I don’t have all those answers fully, but I do know that we have to be very intentional about our approach.
There are some powerful ways that you can operate in local government, but capital flight is a real risk and partly why we need a broader national movement.
We need to have a social, political, and economic order where all of humanity’s needs can be met. That’s a very big task. We have many steps to get there. So we need to find a sustainable pace in which we take those steps, but also there needs to be international solidarity around the power that multinational corporations have over many things.
When I was running for office, I said this all the time. I said we need to tax corporations, because we can’t just keep nickel-and-diming poor and working-class people. And people would say well, what are you going to do if those corporations leave? Instead of asking, why do corporations have the right to do that? Why do they get to dictate the terms when we hold them accountable? Why do we accept that and not say, hey, it’s wrong when corporations leave and destroy entire communities?
And to that end, what is your thinking about how we keep people engaged and organized around that threat toward Johnson’s policy agenda when an election isn’t happening?
It is consistent organizing. We cannot organize just when there are elections. We need to be constantly engaging poor and working-class people across our city. There are multiple ways we do that. There is labor organizing, there is community and political organizing, and there is political education.
So people who are working in labor organizing should understand, know, respect, and build solidarity with people who are doing ward-level organizing. And they should in turn have relationships and shared goals with the people who are doing mutual aid organizing.
We have a unique and powerful political ecosystem in Chicago. I believe we have the building blocks of a broader mass movement here, but we have just not consolidated that and identified our shared goals. Many people across the city want to see, for example, our mental health care clinics reopen, want to have universal health care, want to see fully funded schools, or public housing or affordable housing. Many of us are doing that same work from all sorts of angles. But we’re not doing it strategically together.
And that is hard to achieve. But we need to be aspirational around how we are building a broader class-conscious movement in our city.
What do you think gets in the way of that?
It can be egos, it can be personalities, or it also can be historical problems. Turf is sometimes a word we use, where people are like, this is our area where we organize and we organize these people alone. So there’s a sense of needing control.
And then I think we’re not taking the time to listen to each other. We do not have the luxury to cross our arms and ignore one another. We need to be very intentional about how we solve these problems. We need to learn how to work together. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree on everything. But we need to come together and identify shared goals, and we need to develop a strategy around how we achieve those things.
Right now, we have an opportunity where our movement can deliver for working-class people across the city. And it is our responsibility to do so because this is an opportunity that we have not had probably ever. People make comparisons to Harold Washington’s administration in the 1980s, but Washington did not have as strong of a progressive and left-wing city council or this broader ecosystem of organizations like Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), United Working Families, the People’s Lobby, and neighborhood independent political organizations.
We are in a unique moment in our city’s history — and we need to learn how to do the best we can with what we have right now.
If you could get people unified around three priorities, what would those three things be?
Housing, health care, and poverty and economic justice as a whole. That’s very broad, but I think it’s about working to eliminate systemic disinvestment in communities and making sure people have guaranteed housing, like ending homelessness. We can also provide quality health care to people and mental health care especially.
I would say jobs, too.
Yeah. The bread and butter. As Mayor Johnson has said, the safest communities in the United States are the most invested communities; invested communities are healthy communities — they’re happy communities. Why is this such a radical idea?
What do you think can realistically be won over the next few years, and what challenges do you see ahead?
It’s funny, because I feel like what was once a really high goal has now become the floor. We’ve been working for Treatment Not Trauma, Bring Chicago Home, and youth employment programs and services for a long time. And it’s very possible that we are going to pass these things within a very short amount of time.
So now our movement is actually coming back together and reflecting. We have to push our imagination and push what we thought was possible. So that’s really exciting.
I think that’s the product of grassroots progressive organizations, unions, and socialists expanding what’s politically possible.
I think the thing that might get in the way is fracturing within our coalition, things like not communicating or not working well together. We could be our own barrier to what we’re trying to achieve.
But then also there could be forces within the real estate lobby or within larger corporations or status quo party members that might start interjecting themselves into what we’re trying to achieve. So I think we just need to be really cognizant and constantly aware of the dynamics that we’re in.
This past week you voted no on an important measure. Can you tell us more about that?
We have been contracting with outside agencies to fill some of the vacancies in the Cook County Health system. On Thursday, there was a contract renewal for one of these agencies, for $48 million to hire people to make sure we are fully staffed. I voted no because I was not properly briefed on this proposal, and I have not been presented with a longer-term strategic plan on how we’re moving away from outsourcing.
I was hearing a lot of concerns from workers in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 — that the agencies we are paying are headquartered in Florida and Texas and are funding right-wing campaigns and PACs in these states and across the country. And I don’t think we can continue this trend of overreliance on contracting out to agencies, which is undercutting public sector unions.
My personal philosophy is that workers know best. Workers know what they need in their workplaces. They know what they need to protect their patients. And so, if there are workers who are telling me we need to have adequate retention bonuses or hiring bonuses, or we need to move away from these agencies because these agency workers don’t know how to navigate the hospitals, they’re not being properly trained, we’re having to train them ourselves, or they’re not doing as much work as we need them to do, those are very real concerns.
I’m very committed to working with my colleagues, the Cook County Health system and with our partners in labor to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to move away from outsourcing and to make sure we are investing in the workers that are here and the workers that we want to start attracting.
You’re sitting on the county board that Toni Preckwinkle runs. She’s also the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party and arguably one of the most powerful politicians in the state of Illinois. Historically, the Cook County Democratic Party was a major political machine run by the Daleys. Have you experienced any political pressure from Preckwinkle or the party yet?
Some of the pressure comes from within, from my own insecurities. My first couple board meetings, I was sitting there, and it felt so surreal. I’m the youngest person in the room. I was like, what am I doing here? [laughs] I went from cleaning tables and washing dishes a few years ago to now being a legislator at the county board.
I’ve been needing to ground myself in my work and remember that I was elected for a reason. As an organizer, I’ve been very committed to fighting for social, racial, and economic justice in my community for a long time. I have built those relationships with trust. So I have to remember that I have the support of many thousands of people who sent me here for a reason.
The other pressure I feel is conformity. I have taken a couple no votes here and there, and I remember the first no vote that I took my heart sank to my feet. I was like, oh my God, I’m so afraid right now because I’m voting no while a majority of my colleagues have voted yes on something. So it made me feel like a black sheep and made me wonder, am I just being oppositional for no reason? But no, I think when you’re an elected official and you’re a legislator, you have the right to vote the way you need to vote.
Toward your larger question, I don’t feel like I’ve been pressured yet by outside forces, like the Democratic Party. If someone has a problem with the way I’m governing or legislating, they can call me. And Madam Preckwinkle has respected me. She doesn’t treat me like a child or as a puppet or anything.
When I need to make votes and decisions, I’m responsible to my constituents and my communities. That’s front and center. I feel very secure and confident and supported by the fact that I work in coalition with social movements across the city that are with me. So I don’t feel alone.