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 April 4, 2018

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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