Progressives Have a Game Plan for Replacing the Chicago Machine

The March 20 Illinois primary saw big victories for progressive challengers taking on machine-backed candidates. It’s a model we can follow to transform Chicago politics.

Amisha Patel and Emma Tai

Together, our coalition of organizations was undefeated across four down-ballot races. (United Working Families / Facebook)

Chicago and Illinois are at a crossroads. In an era of unlimited money in politics, spiking income inequality and increasing attacks on organized labor, the wealthiest 1% have positioned themselves as the heirs apparent to the old Chicago machine. An uneasy alliance has formed between big-money Democrats like Rahm Emanuel and decades-old, ward-based political organizations.

If progressives are to seize this opportunity to win back our city and state from the 1%, we must build a viable, people-powered political alternative.

But on March 20, a rising progressive political force delivered big blows to this newly formed alliance. Grassroots Illinois Action (GIA), along with United Working Families (UWF), BlackRoots Resistance and other independent political organizations such as such as 22nd Ward IPO, Unite25, and 33rd Ward Working Families, got involved in a number of races that pit young, first time candidates of color against both the old Chicago Democratic machine and corporate political interests — and won.

Together, our coalition of organizations was undefeated across four down-ballot races. The winners of these races were Delia Ramirez, a lifelong resident of Chicago’s gentrifying Humboldt Park neighborhood, who beat three other candidates backed by incumbent elected officials and real estate developers in her race for state representtaive; Aaron Ortiz and Alma Anaya, who defeated the combined forces of the old Daley and Burke organizations on Chicago’s Southwest Side for state representative and Cook County board seats, respectively; and Brandon Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer backed by BlackRoots Resistance who beat a corporate-backed incumbent for a Cook County Board seat to represent the predominantly African-American West Side and western Chicago suburbs.

These victories are the result of sustained organizing efforts to win real governing power for our movements. They expose the tensions of the alliance between the old Democratic organizations, with their historical reliance on door-knocking, patronage, and segments of organized labor, and a new wave of donors and candidates, whose unlimited access to the transnational wealth of Wall Street and Silicon Valley can pay for a steady stream of mailers and TV ads.

But if progressives are to seize this opportunity to win back our city and state from the 1%, we must build a viable, people-powered political alternative. Our efforts in the 2018 Democratic primaries offer some key lessons in how we accomplish this feat:

1. People are hungry for change. In the face of violence, unemployment and displacement, it’s no surprise that working people are fed up with both the old political organizations and the corporate investors eager to take their place. But politics is dominated by figures like Bruce Rauner and Rahm Emanuel, who present us only with austerity’s false choices: close schools or slash wages; close mental health clinics or cut child care. It is our responsibility to push back against these false choices and instead build a base of support for an aspirational people’s agenda: living wage jobs for all, healthcare for all, housing for all and fully funded and free education for all. Through these demands, we can give working-class communities new motivations to engage in politics.

2. Our primary victories last week were years in the making. GIA began building year-round political infrastructure in the Humboldt Park area in 2014, and GIA’s former organizer recruited Delia Ramirez to run for state representative. Brandon Johnson’s campaign manager, volunteer coordinator, and campaign chair all came from the 2015 aldermanic campaign of Tara Stamps — another Black Chicago Teachers Union leader — and the political organization that was built after her campaign.

3. Electoral wins require real investments in a viable political alternative. This means organizing to win people over to a bold agenda, recruiting and training campaigners and candidates, and supporting our candidates early on so that they have the resources they need to be successful. In 2015, UWF interns — including future candidate Aaron Ortiz — were trained and placed on top-tier municipal races. In 2018, 75 people attended our weekend-long Movement Leadership Camp; 11 of them, all people of color, went on to work on our four endorsed races with support from experienced UWF members and staff and an explicit focus on recruiting volunteers to be a part of post-election organizing efforts.

Replacing the Chicago machine with a real progressive political infrastructure won’t happen overnight. We need a bold agenda, a deep bench of candidates and campaigners, a long-term commitment to organizing that recruits people to our politics, and a leadership dedicated to navigating the tensions between that commitment and the short-term necessities of winning elections. We need to continue to win down-ballot races so that we can run real progressives for wider office. The March 20 primary victories show that this is possible — and they are only the beginning.

Amisha Patel is the Executive Director of Grassroots Illinois Action and Emma Tai is the Executive Director of United Working Families.
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