Populist Movement’s “Ground Zero”: The Effort To Reclaim Chicago

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel

Reclaim Chicago video

Since the midterm elections, the media has been buzzing about the growing schism between Wall Street Democrats and the populist wing of the party. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent victories give evidence for the idea that the populists are rising. With their eyes fixed on 2016, many are asking how we can stop a coronation and nominate a populist alternative to former Sen. Hillary Clinton for president.

For populists to truly prevail, however, it won’t be enough to elect a populist president alone. We must affect a sea change in American political life by building a movement to challenge Wall Street Democrats at every level of government, from school boards and water commissioners all the way to the top of the ticket.

In this broader struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, Chicago is ground zero. There, populists – led by Reclaim Chicago – are working to build a lasting independent political movement to upend the corporate rule of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his rubber-stamp city council.

Mayor 1 Percent and His Rubber-Stamp City Council

Rahm Emanuel, a one-time investment banker dubbed “Mayor 1 Percent” by progressive Chicagoans, is a worthy target for populist ire. During his tenure as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel has shown himself to be the poster boy for the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party. He has imposed a harsh austerity agenda on everyday people, closing 50 neighborhood schools in mostly African-American and Latino areas, shuttering mental health clinics across the city, cutting library hours and slashing worker pensions.

At the same time, Emanuel has preserved a slush fund with more than $1.7 billion in taxpayer cash, diverted from public schools through the tax increment financing system, that he has lavished on wealthy private companies downtown, while letting the rest of the city languish, starved of investment.

When Emanuel isn’t extracting money from working taxpayers to give to private companies, he’s continuing the grand Chicago tradition of selling off billions of dollars worth of public assets to them. While these privatization schemes have been disastrous for the public, they’ve been a big boon to Emanuel’s rich friends. (For an extremely thorough account of the woes of privatization under Emanuel, see Rick Perlstein’s excellent article, “How to Sell Off a City.”)

Through it all, Mayor Emanuel’s actions have been aided and abetted by all but a few progressive aldermen. While Chicago’s city council has a great deal of political power to oppose the mayor, they’ve voted in lockstep with him on the vast majority of issues. Indeed, the rubber-stamp city council is as much to fault for “two Chicagos” that Emanuel’s mayoral opponents are now talking about as the mayor himself.

People Power versus Corporate Power

As with many Wall Street Democrats, Mayor Emanuel and his rubber-stamp aldermen are not easy targets in the upcoming municipal election on February 24. Emanuel’s system of corporate patronage has helped him amass a war chest of more than $30 million to ensure that he and his cronies on the city council are re-elected.

The good news is that populists across Chicago are gearing up for the fight. Reclaim Chicago – a partnership between National Nurses United and The People’s Lobby – is waging a massive grassroots effort to take back the city council so that it works for the people of Chicago, instead of simply for Emanuel and his wealthy friends.

The Reclaim operation is strikingly different from what happened in the midterms. Unlike many of the vacuous and milquetoast Democratic campaigns, Reclaim has a bold platform focusing on the creation of family-sustaining jobs, high-quality public education, an end to privatization and the policies that drive mass incarceration. Reclaim Chicago is also committed to attacking structural racism head on, talking not only about the disparate impact the mayor’s policies have had on people of color, but also about the way that dividing white working-class voters from Chicagoans of color serves corporate Chicago.

Finally, instead of simply bombarding Chicagoans with focus-grouped television ads, Reclaim Chicago has mobilized hundreds of grassroots activists to have person-to-person conversations with their neighbors. The starting point is a simple question: “What issues are you and your family facing today?”

A New Kind of Politics, Populist-style

Bold talking points and neighbor-to-neighbor conversations are just the beginning. Reclaim Chicago is rethinking what it means to run a political campaign.

For starters, the campaign is moving from a candidate-centric model to a movement-centric model. While Reclaim has endorsed a slate of 18 aldermanic candidates and is working to elect them, the focus is on the movement that the candidates are a part of rather than on the candidates themselves. And Reclaim candidates have fostered this new way of doing things by expanding their campaigning beyond candidate debates and campaign stops to participating in joint actions and rallies that focus on the core issues in the Reclaim Chicago platform.

The move from candidate-centric politics to movement-centric politics not only helps us avoid treating political heroes as saviors, it can also help us create a kind of politics where everyone can be a leader and have a role. With Reclaim Chicago, whether you’re the candidate or the canvasser, you’re doing your part to take back the city for everyday Chicagoans.

Furthermore, unlike with most political campaigns, Reclaim Chicago is aiming to engage voters beyond the election cycle. Rather than coming to people every two years to ask for their vote, Reclaim is seeking to engage Chicagoans in a year-round political movement that will continue working after the municipal election has come and gone on issues like good jobs, quality education, and ending mass incarceration. The aim is to build a permanent progressive majority that can not only elect progressive officials, but support them and hold them accountable.

The First of Many Fights

Chicago’s municipal election is just the first of many fights between now and the 2016 presidential elections. These municipal-level elections are crucial not only because they will shape the political context in the years to come, but because millions of lives will be affected by their outcomes.

In order to build the independent political power needed to reshape both the Democratic Party and the country as a whole, populists must win fights that convince the broader public that progressive policies can improve their lives. With the federal outlook bleak for the next two years, progressive populists’ best chance of doing that lies at the local level.

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel serves as communications leader for National People’s Action.

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