Features » May 1, 2014
One, Two, Many Sawants? Chicago Activists Announce Socialist Candidate for City Council
Long-time labor and immigration rights activist Jorge Mújica plans to run for alderman in Chicago’s 25th ward.
'Chicago electing a socialist alderman could mean a lot for Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Boston, many other places. Sawant originated the spark in Seattle, and we hope to help ignite a fire.'
Inspired by the victory of socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, the Chicago Socialist Campaign launched this winter with the goal of running a candidate for City Council in 2015. On May Day, the campaign announced who that candidate would be: Jorge Mújica, a long-time immigrant rights and labor organizer, who plans to seek election as the alderman for Chicago’s 25th ward.
The 25th ward encompasses the Pilsen neighborhood, as well as parts of Chinatown and the University of Illinois Chicago campus. The ward is a diverse one, home to a large Latino/a population, as well as students and urban transplants.
Before immigrating to the United States in 1987, Mújica, 58, was a journalist and community organizer in Mexico. He is now a staple in the Chicago activist community and is currently the strategic campaigners organizer for Arise Chicago, an interfaith labor organization fighting systemic poverty in the Chicagoland area.
Mujica talked with In These Times about his candidacy.
When did you start identifying a socialist, and how do you feel about running under this banner?
I have been a socialist for all of my life. I joined the Communist-Mexican Youth when I was 15 years old.
In the United States, it may sound like socialists are a thing of the past—the term is even an accusation many times. But many immigrants are used to thinking about Leftist political parties participating in the electoral arena.
So to immigrants, to the residents of this ward, it is not strange to look at someone who organizes and identify that person as a Leftist or socialist.
You are announcing your candidacy on May Day, a workers’ holiday that has deep roots in Chicago and the fight for an eight-hour workday.
Yes, this was intentional. But at the same time, we have to remember that May Day was an immigrants’ day. We brought back May Day in 2006 at the height of the immigration marches. We gave it back to the American workers. People who move from one country to another in order to work—that is an international worker.
How do you hope this campaign can advance the Fight For 15 movement and other labor goals?
Many labor unions have been at odds with the Democratic Party the last few years. The Democratic Party is [seen as] a representative of labor, but they have been getting further away from their real constituency.
[Unions must] stop supporting the “lesser-evil” strategy in elections. With this election, we are giving labor unions a real alternative. We are not just supporting someone who portrays himself or herself as a friend of labor; we are running a labor candidate.
We will also try to run a hands-on campaign. If your wages are being stolen today, come over to the campaign office, and we will help you fight your employer, we will help you file the claims with the Department of Labor.
You also ran in the Democratic primaries for U.S. Congress in 2009. What did that experience teach you?
The immigration movement decided that we needed to challenge the Democratic Party, and that I would be a good candidate to run against the Blue Dog Democrat, Dan Lipinski, for the 3rd congressional district in Illinois.
In some ways, the campaign was a success. We were not going to win, that was obvious. But we succeeded in pushing this Blue Dog Democrat to recognize the issue of immigration as an important issue within his ward.
This will be a very different campaign in terms of numbers, just in terms of the number of votes needed to win. [Incumbent Danny Solis] won with 3,970 votes in the 2011 elections. That’s amazing that 3,970 votes gets you into the City Council in some wards.
Aldermen in Chicago are also very interesting figures. They are both members of City Council, where they vote for the budget, then they go back to your district and you also administer your district. They have a say in how the budget is applied.
We are trying to show that things could be run very differently, from city services to capital investments [to] how taxes are implemented in districts.
The Chicago Socialist Campaign has cited the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council as an inspiration. What can we learn from Sawant’s victory?
The Left is widely known as a group of people who have an ideology, but often little else. They keep talking about the many abstract ideas that socialism is—or may be, or was—and never do anything practical.
I think Sawant’s message is that we are doing something practical. The campaign for a $15 minimum wage is incredibly concrete. That is something that socialists have many times talked about, but not acted upon.
Pilsen is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Do you think that will make it more or less receptive to the idea of a socialist alderman?
Half and half. Gentrification means displacement. So many people who would have been in favor of a socialist alderman are gone.
Gentrification has meant, under the sitting alderman, that development comes by allowing people on the outside to come in and build new housing. But, of course, if this new housing is not accessible to the current residents of the ward, then that displaces them. Many people have suffered the displacement of their families. They feel it. They resent it.
We would like to start a program that says: “Okay, you live in Pilsen? Then we will make sure you have the chance to buy the building that you are renting in now.”
Developers want condos. Okay, we’ll have condos. But those condos will be sold to the current residents of Pilsen, who have been renting there for years instead of selling to the highest bidder who comes from outside, rehabs the building and then rents for an outrageous amount of money. These are the kind of practical things I am talking about.
Even if you do win, there will still only be a handful of independents and socialists in local offices. How do you envision growing this influence?
Chicago electing a socialist alderman could mean a lot for Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Boston, many other places. Sawant originated the spark in Seattle, and we hope to help ignite a fire.
Andrew Mortazavi is a Spring 2014 editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewmortazavi.