Electing Movement Leaders in Chicago

The wave of victories by a new generation of progressive leaders in Chicago’s Mayoral and City Council elections mark the most impressive results for movement candidates in the city since the 1980s. Candidates supported by grassroots organizing groups and unions won several important races outright, and have forced runoffs in additional wards.

These wins come none too soon for the people of our beleaguered city. The tragic death of Harold Washington in 1987 kicked off a 30-year era of corporate dominance in Chicago, with Mayor Richard M. Daley at the helm for 22 years, followed by 8 years of Rahm Emanuel.

For the past three decades, rubber-stamp city councils have supported the pro-corporate policies of these mayors, privatizing city assets and services and giving corporations huge tax breaks. This cost Chicago billions in revenue. They also increasingly sought out regressive sources of revenue, stripping money from pensions, attacking teachers, closing schools and mental health clinics in order to save money.

The People’s Lobby, Reclaim Chicago, and National Nurses United launched and supported volunteer-led campaigns in a number of wards. Our success shows how left candidates can effectively challenge much better resourced corporate and machine operations. In some machine-controlled wards, People’s Lobby and Reclaim members canvassed voters in support of successful candidates from other parts of the progressive movement, such Jeanette Taylor in the 20th Ward and Rossana Rodriguez in the 33rd Ward.

In three wards, we played a more central role. In the 1st Ward, TPL leader Daniel La Spata upset gentrifier extraordinaire Alderman Joe Moreno, who started the election cycle with more cash on hand than any other Alderman – more than $800,000 when petitioning began in August. In the 40th Ward, TPL & Reclaim leader Andre Vasquez successfully forced a runoff in his bid to unseat Pat O’Connor, who got his start in the 1980’s as part of the racist opposition to Mayor Harold Washington and most recently has served as Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader and successor to Ed Burke as Chair of the powerful Finance Committee.

Both of these candidates participated in a pipeline for grassroots candidates that TPL and Reclaim have been developing for the past three years. They participated in candidate trainings. They served as leaders in TPL and Reclaim organizing to raise the Cook County minimum wage, close corporate tax loopholes, fight for fair elections, and more. They testified at Cook County Board meetings and participated in lobbying in Springfield. They held intentional, one-on-one conversations with leaders in their communities and organized meetings and popular education workshops at their houses and local churches, bars, and restaurants. They were asked to participate in raising money for TPL & Reclaim in part to support the organizations’ work and in part as practice for raising money for their own campaigns.

As a result, Daniel and Andre were able to run electoral campaigns with a huge number of motivated volunteers talking with their neighbors, knocking doors, making calls, entering data, and more. They were also able to make sure that their principles left platforms of racial and economic justice, corporate accountability, environmental sustainability, and deep democracy were connected to the everyday issues and concerns of voters. This enabled Daniel to win outright and Andre to make it into a runoff with much less resources than their opponents, and less resources than many other progressive candidates who were successful on Election Day.

Chicago’s elections also demonstrate some of the limitations of these efforts in the short term, and the ways we need to improve our game and organize over a longer time frame in order to win at a larger scale. Colin Bird-Martinez, a third candidate who went through the same candidate pipeline, missed making it to a runoff by about 400 votes in the 31st Ward in a fight against two machine candidates (one connected to the Arroyo operation and one to Berrios). Colin’s campaign built an amazing base of leaders and ran an incredible voter contact program, but he ended up raising slightly less money than Daniel and Andre and was not able to back up door and phone contacts with as much mail and other supportive activities. However, Colin and his leadership team knew that this would likely be a longer-term fight and are committed to continuing to build towards future elections and use the power they’ve built already to fight for progressive policy wins.

We can learn a couple of important things from these three campaigns. First, progressive electoral organizing has to happen in an ongoing way during and in between election cycles and with a long enough time horizon that candidates have the opportunity to build real grassroots bases of support and leadership. It takes long-term leadership development to build large scale volunteer-based voter contact operations. And, if this is our orientation and practice, losing a single election can still be part of building longer-term power and winning future elections – for instance, what happened this week in the 1st and 40th wards built on 2015 campaigns in both of those places that did not succeed.

Second, the left has a responsibility to get more serious and effective in raising significant money from small individual donations in local elections. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have shown that this can be done in Presidential and Congressional elections, but too often our local efforts fall short. The progressive unions that fund many successful grassroots campaigns have limited resources, so we need to tap into the much larger pool of grassroots donors out there who share our values.

Public funding of elections would help address this challenge in a more structural way, so Chicago should explore creating a system modeled on cities like New York, where small-dollar donations are matched by the city 6-1, so leaders with large bases of people but not enough money can compete with much better-funded opponents.

Runoffs are now slated for April 2, and Chicago has a real opportunity  to convert the exciting momentum coming out of the Mayoral and City Council elections and begin to move policies that improve people’s lives in low-income and working-class communities. But we also need to be starting to think now about laying the groundwork for elections in 2022, 2023, 2024, and beyond in order to create a city and state with leadership that truly prioritizes racial, economic, and environmental justice and puts people over profit.

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