Here in Chicago, our beloved City by the Lake, the People’s Wave is gaining momentum. What began in Philadelphia and New York last November continues in Chicago, as more machine politicians fall by the wayside and voters choose an unprecedented number of progressive champions, especially women of color, as their new generation of leaders.
Chicago continues this trend, unseating Democratic insiders and forcing centrist and pro-corporate stooges into retirement. It’s not just about shifting our municipal-level policies to the left: it’s about how we win. We are practicing politics differently: not as a cynical tool of the wealthy, but as a way for people - especially poor and people of color - to find richer meaning in their lives and fight for their own liberation.
Most national headlines on Tuesday’s Chicago vote focus on the fact that no matter what, our next Mayor will be an African-American woman, and not from the Daley dynasty.
Both of these facts are important steps forward for our beautiful but flawed city. Yet beyond the marquee battle for the mayor's office lie even more interesting races - and these are where people’s organizations truly shine, and play a decisive role.
Of the many City Council races up for a vote on Tuesday night, the sweetest victory may have come in the 49th Ward, where incumbent Alderman Joe Moore went down in a decisive defeat to Maria Hadden. Moore, who started out as a progressive in the 1990s under Mayor Richard M. Daley, later used his position as chair of the city-wide Housing Committee to block any meaningful piece of affordable housing legislation.
All four member groups of People’s Action - and plenty of allied organizations - threw down for Hadden, a fellow organizer and a national expert on participatory budgeting. Jane Addams Seniors in Action organized 25 door-knocking and phone bank days among their grassroots leaders. ONE People’s Campaign volunteers braved knee-deep snow, the infamous Chicago wind and icy sidewalks to knock on 3,810 doors. Reclaim Chicago and The People’s Lobby joined in as well.
Hundreds of grassroots leaders, volunteering through these organizations, braved knee-deep snow, the polar vortex and the infamous “Chicago hawk” of 35 mile-an-hour winds to push their endorsed candidates across the finish line. Their feet may have been cold, but their hearts were warm and set on freedom.
Hadden will become the first black queer woman on the City Council and has committed to “co-governing” with the organizations.
The People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago (a partnership with National Nurses United) don’t just get out the vote: they recruit, train, run and are now electing their own home-grown candidates.
In the 1st Ward, Daniel LaSpata, a community leader recruited by the organizations, won outright over corrupt incumbent Joe Moreno. Alderman-elect LaSpata said that The People’s Lobby “taught me to run on a vision, not just a list of policy priorities, and to build a campaign driven by community leaders.”
Andre Vasquez is another great example. This son of immigrants and former hip-hop artist turned community activist did the unthinkable on Tuesday night: he forced one of Chicago’s most entrenched aldermen, Pat O’Connor, into a runoff election.
O’Connor was elected 1983 - at the age of 28 - and has held office for the last twenty-five years. Up til this week, O’Connor seemed unbeatable. He’s a primary ally of Mayor Rahm Emanue, who easily solicits campaign contributions from wealthy downtown interests.
Reclaim Chicago and The People’s Lobby played a major role in identifying Vasquez as a community leader. Their staff played central roles in Vasquez’s operation. Vasquez himself had to build a base of committed leaders and ready himself for a tough campaign. That work came to a partial fruition this week.
The Opening Shot
Tuesday night was just the first salvo by Chicago voters to reclaim their city government: on April 2nd, there will be runoff elections for mayor and for other City Council Wards. The One Percent and Big Finance have suffered some setbacks, but they won't give up easily.
Chicago now faces a historic contest, and it’s clear that the next Mayor will be a Black woman: either Toni Preckwinkle or Lori Lightfoot. All four of People's Action's member organizations will be ready. In the coming weeks, they will make their endorsement decisions; consolidate and fine-tune their operations; continue to organize money and people; and fight for the Chicago that we know we deserve.
There’s a famous proverb in our city: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.” But rather than take that as a fact that is etched in stone, people’s organizations throughout Chicago are reforming our city from the ground up.
We're proud of how People's Action member groups are doing courageous work, and helping re-make our famously corrupt City Council, election by election and ward by ward, door to door, conversation by conversation, and neighbor to neighbor.
I have lived in Chicago for over 20 years and this is the most open political period I have witnessed in the city. This is democracy in action, and I’m proud that our member organizations - and many, many allies - are playing such big roles at this pivotal moment.