Chicago’s Elections Brought a Lot of Good News for Progressives—and Democratic Socialists

Rahm Emanuel is gone, and a new crop of left-wing city council members is coming to power.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

Democratic socialist Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is currently in the lead in her city council race. (Kelly Viselman)

On Tuesday night, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot won Chicago’s run-off election, becoming the city’s first openly gay black female mayor. She beat out Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in a landslide, and ran on a broadly progressive platform, though she faced opposition from some grassroots activists who questioned Lightfoot’s commitment to police reform.

At the city council level, a wave of insurgent democratic socialists and progressive candidates surged to victory.

At the city council level, a wave of democratic socialists and progressive candidates surged to victory. While it’s unclear whether Lightfoot will rush to follow through on her ambitious campaign promises of cleaning up city government and enacting reform, the new incoming class of aldermen are slated to push forward on a host of progressive priorities, from ending corporate subsidies to working to enact rent control.

Outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision in September 2018 not to seek a third term didn’t just inspire a diverse pool of candidates to run to replace him, it also empowered a swath of challenges to Emanuel-allied incumbent aldermen. Despite record low turnout, at least five aldermanic candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were elected this year, and another holds the lead, though the race is still too close to call. Following the 15 run-off races, democratic socialists will now make up at least 10 percent of the city council.

In addition, many contenders supported by other grassroots community groups and progressive unions ousted members of the city’s notorious political machine, such as council floor leader Ald. Pat O’Connor, defeated by Andre Vazquez, and 28-year incumbent Ald. Joe Moore, beat by Maria Hadden. While incumbent members of the old guard are still holding on in some wards, Chicago’s new city council could forge a more transparent and equitable legislative model for local governments around the country.

These challengers ran on a host of demands put forward by social movements in the city, including instituting an elected, representative school board and creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) to oversee the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

They also built on the work of community organizers who have opposed large-scale tax increment funding (TIF) projects that often fund luxury developments. One of the most controversial TIF projects is a proposed $95-million West Side police and fire academy, a priority of the outgoing Emanuel administration. Local residents and activists argue that this funding could be better invested in schools, mental health facilities and other resources.

On the North Side, the proposed mixed-used Lincoln Yards development would drastically alter the area’s industrial landscape, potentially accelerating gentrification and threatening small businesses, such as the historic Hideout music venue. Lincoln Yards is also in line to receive public TIF funds.

Across the platforms of progressive challengers, the needs of the city’s most marginalized residents were central, from creating a community benefits agreement for the area surrounding the Obama Presidential Center to eliminating the city’s gang database, which ProPublica Illinois found unfairly targets people of color.

In the first round of voting on February 26, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle received the most votes out of a crowded mayoral field and moved on to Tuesday’s runoff. While Lightfoot has never before held public office, she gained the support of a number of longstanding figures in Chicago’s progressive community, including David Orr and Timuel Black. Throughout the runoff, however, her tenure as the Emanuel-appointed president of the Chicago Police Board came under scrutiny. In the days leading up to the election, the hashtag #StopLightfoot spread on social media by largely young, queer, organizers of color, and it’s clear police accountability activists will continue to demand that Lightfoot enact meaningful police reform.

Preckwinkle, meanwhile, was criticized for her connections to the infamous Democratic machine in Chicago, as well as her problematic record around issues of pensions and taxes. But both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle were seen as far more progressive than Emanuel. They promised major changes to public education, policing and a host of other issues. Now organizers, and an active city council, are set to hold Mayor-elect Lightfoot to her promises.

In the first round of voting, progressive city council candidates won a number races, including DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in the 35th Ward. On the city’s far North Side, 49th Ward Ald.-elect Maria Hadden made history becoming the first openly gay African-American city council member, ousting Emanuel ally Joe Moore.

But the corrupt system of corporate and political heavyweights gaining political sway through campaign donations is not going down without a fight. In the weeks leading up to the run-off, the Chicago Forward PAC, which was created by Emanuel’s allies in 2015, spent $50,000 on television and digital ads supporting city council candidates aligned with Mayor Emanuel. This money came in addition to the at least $620,000 that Chicago for Rahm Emanuel, the mayor’s campaign fund, donated to 28 sitting aldermen, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Being vastly outspent didn’t stop challengers like DSA-backed Vasquez in the 40th Ward. An AT&T manager with a background in the city’s hip-hop community as well as community organizing with Reclaim Chicago, Vasquez beat 36-year incumbent Pat O’Connor. Last week alone, O’Connor received $74,826 from Chicago Forward, according to the Chicago Tribune. With the city council’s second longest tenure, O’Connor’s history of opposing progressive changes, most notably under Mayor Harold Washington, came under fire. O’Connor has also been accused of enacting zoning changes that favor his wife’s real estate business.

Elsewhere in the city, other candidates of color busted seemingly unbreakable political dynasties, creating a historically diverse city council. In the largely Hispanic 33rd Ward, democratic socialist Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez ended the night ahead of incumbent Deb Mell, who was appointed by Emanuel after her father and former Ald. Richard Mell stepped down in 2013. The Mells have long served as a powerful political family in the city, and Rodríguez-Sanchez’s potential victory stands as a shot across the bow to the machine.

Embattled 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke won re-election in February despite facing federal corruption charges for using his city council seat to spur business for his private law firm. In contrast, Ald. Willie Cochran left his 20th ward seat open for the first time in over 10 years after he was arraigned with federal criminal charges in December 2016. As the future location of the Obama Presidential Center, the ward’s race was crowded, but community organizer and teacher Jeanette Taylor claimed victory in Tuesday’s run-off election. The DSA-endorsed Taylor has history galvanizing her community, whether it be leading a hunger strike to prevent the closing of Walter H. Dyett High School or protesting to demand a South Side trauma center for victims of gun violence.

Ald. Danny Solis in the 25th Ward was himself embroiled in the Burke scandal, and has been missing in action since reports came out in January showing that he wore an FBI wire to record the 14th Ward alderman. Solis will be replaced by Byron Sigcho-Lopez, another DSA-endorsed candidate who beat out the Chicago Forward-backed Alex Acevedo. An anti-gentrification activist, Sigcho-Lopez and other progressive candidates spoke at City Hall last week about Chicago Forward’s last-ditch spending effort. As quoted in the Chicago Tribune, Sigcho-Lopez said, We’re going to move forward. Let’s not pretend these politicians are progressives.”

Not all progressive newcomers were successful, often losing to incumbents who supported Emanuel’s vision for the police department. On the February ballot, 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts scored a reelection bid despite strong resistance, including from her opponent Tara Stamps, a Chicago Public Schools teacher and community organizer. Mitts represents the area where the proposed police academy would be located and has been a vocal supporter of the project despite local pushback. In the 15th Ward, former CPD officer Rafael Yañez ran on a police reform platform, but failed to oust incumbent and Emanuel ally Raymond Lopez. In the 30th Ward, Jessica Gutierrez, daughter of former Rep. Luis Gutierrez, lost to incumbent Ariel Reboyras, who as the chair of the Public Safety Committee spearheaded the Emanuel administration’s contentious police reform.

Still, the 2019 elections prove that Chicagoans want elected officials who not only represent their communities, but also intend to tackle the city’s most pressing social, economic and environmental issues. While it will take more than a four-year term to reverse decades of backdoor deals favoring the city’s most privileged residents at the expense of its most disenfranchised, this new left-wing political wave provides hope for progressive — and democratic socialist — candidates, both locally and nationally.

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Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.
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