Chicago’s Political Revolution

Social movements ousted Rahm Emanuel. Now they’re taking on the neoliberal machine.

Miles Kampf-Lassin

Grassroots progressive activism against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's policies may usher in a wave of progressive insurgents (Shutter Stock / Rachel Dooley)

On March 15, 2016, Chicago’s criminal justice system was flipped on its head. Four months after Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was defeated in the Democratic primary by Kim Foxx, an upstart reformer who campaigned on decarceration, transparency and police accountability.

"This job to me is nothing but a community organizer with money. You organize around what your community wants to see.”

At Foxx’s victory party, Ja’Mal Green took the stage wearing a shirt that read Adios Anita” and shouted, Two down, one to go!” — referring to McCarthy, Alvarez and Emanuel.

Alvarez, in office since 2008, had a reputation for recommending harsh sentences for civilians and lenient ones for police. But her role in the Laquan McDonald scandal is what did her in.

Alvarez, McCarthy and Emanuel were widely blamed for the decision to withhold a video showing Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer, shooting McDonald, a black teenager, 16 times — in stark contradiction to the official police narrative.

McDonald died in October 2014, just after the high-profile police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, and became a flashpoint in the growing Movement for Black Lives. When the Chicago video was finally released in November 2015, the city’s activist community, led by black youth, took to the streets in mass protests. McDonald’s murder became a referendum on Chicago’s political leadership.

Emanuel attempted to appease the protesters by firing McCarthy in December 2015, calling him a distraction.” In response, the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) — a group that had been on the forefront of the protests—released a statement calling for Alvarez, Emanuel and all top elected officials involved in the coverup” to resign immediately.”

Ahead of the March 2016 primary election, youth-led racial justice groups, including BYP100 and Assata’s Daughters, worked to defeat Alvarez through a campaign called #ByeAnita. The organizers of #ByeAnita declined to endorse Foxx, or any state’s attorney, on the grounds that the role of a prosecutor is inherently harmful, but instead sought to inspire people to feel their power to take down giants” by targeting Alvarez, as Page May of Assata’s Daughters put it in an op-ed for Truthout. Organizers conducted banner drops across the city, interrupted Alvarez campaign events and talked to community members about the importance of showing the embattled prosecutor the door. Meanwhile, social justice organizations People’s Action and Grassroots Collaborative made hundreds of thousands of calls and house visits on behalf of Foxx.

Alvarez was walloped, receiving only 29 percent of the vote. Only Emanuel was left. In September 2018, facing an uphill re-election battle partly because of the McDonald scandal, Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term.

That victory put wind in the sails of a larger political upheaval already underway in Chicago. Ahead of the city’s February 2019 aldermanic elections, a pack of left challengers with organizing backgrounds are putting movement demands front and center. Mayoral candidates are also responding to these demands — and running left of Emanuel.

The number one reason we have this electoral moment is absolutely the organizing of young black people in the city fighting in response to massive police brutality,” says Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Collaborative. That created an opening for other campaigns.”

Chicago is also benefiting from a national climate of impatience with corporate Democrats and an appetite for new blood. Since Bernie Sanders first called for a political revolution” during his 2016 presidential run, thousands of progressives across the country have heeded the call by running for office themselves, from local school council to the U.S. House. Despite victories around the country, these insurgents can often be lone voices among their colleagues, and no sizable bloc of left challengers has since upended the political establishment of any major U.S. city.

But in 2019, Chicago — a city notorious for its Democratic machine — may make history by delivering just such an upheaval of the old guard by movement-backed candidates hungry for change.

What we are seeing in Chicago is unique — an entire slate of movement candidates mounting credible challenges to establishment politics,” says George Goehl, director of People’s Action. If successful, the makeup of the Chicago City Council will be unlike anything in a generation.”

From the Machine to Pinstripe Patronage

Chicago is infamous for its 150-year-old machine, known for most of the 20th century as a vast political patronage network of fraud, bribery and outright violence. The machine has proven adept at co-opting its opposition — even long-term Mayor Richard J. Daley, nicknamed the Boss,” originally ran as an anti-machine reformer.

A series of federal court orders in the 1970s and 1980s reined in the patronage system that provided city employment to those who delivered” votes to the party, but critics saw a new system evolve to take its place. Corruption under the first Mayor Daley relied on the unpaid labor of blue-collar city workers; under his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, unaccountable power was amassed by corporations, contractors and LaSalle Street lawyers through campaign contributions — what In These Times reporter David Moberg labeled pinstripe patronage.”

The most recent bright spot for progressivism in City Hall was the 1983 victory of Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, who narrowly defeated the machine with a coalition that brought together radicals, newly enfranchised black voters, white lakefront liberals” and growing Puerto Rican and Mexican populations.

Washington died in office a year into his second term. Ever since, Chicago’s Democratic machine has thrived by mastering the dark arts of pinstripe patronage through innovations like tax increment financing programs (TIFs) and the privatization of city services and infrastructure, and via disinvestment that drains the political power of communities of color.

When Richard M. Daley stepped down after 20 years in 2011, Rahm Emanuel seized the chance to make a graceful exit from the Obama administration — where his centrist politics and
bullying tactics were making him persona non grata — and ride Obama’s coattails to victory in the Chicago mayoral race. With close ties to Wall Street, Emanuel took pinstripe patronage to a new level, courting finance capital and pouring money into a glitzy downtown, while disdaining the needs of the city’s working class, especially the sorely underserved black and brown neighborhoods.

Emanuel’s first budget laid off public workers such as police and fire dispatchers, cut social services for domestic violence victims and the elderly, and increased fines and fees for everything from parking to vehicle stickers to water service. Public libraries were forced to reduce hours, and, infamously, half of Chicago’s public mental health clinics were closed.

The Mental Health Movement, a grassroots group, formed to protest the closures — including by occupying clinics. Activist N’Dana Carter summed up her views to Emanuel biographer Kari Lydersen this way: Emanuel is an enemy of people of color.”

Like Daley before him, Emanuel continued to privatize city services, such as school custodial services and public transit fare cards. Emanuel increased property taxes and fees on services such as garbage pickup and water delivery, all of which hit low-income residents the hardest, earning him the nickname Mayor 1%.” Meanwhile, the spread of high-end developments — private ventures often subsidized by TIFs — led to mass displacement of poor communities of color.

Chicago is one of the last major cities that you could possibly call working class,” says the Grassroots Collaborative’s Patel. And that label is certainly disintegrating quickly as prices are escalating across neighborhoods, from Woodlawn to Logan Square.”

For all their deficiencies, both Daleys were connected, if unevenly, to community organizations in all 50 wards. But when the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke won access to Emanuel’s private schedule through a Freedom of Information Act request, Chicagoans learned the mayor met with community representatives almost never — but with wealthy businessmen all the time.

Mayor 1% would soon face mass unrest. The first public outpouring came in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), under the new leadership of Karen Lewis of the militant Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, rebelled against concessions Emanuel was demanding in their next contract. Teachers went on strike for the first time in Chicago in 25 years.

Following seven raucous days on the picket lines, the union reached an agreement that was widely seen as a massive defeat for Emanuel. The victory would serve as a model for rising teacher militance nationwide, inspiring strikes from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona’s red state revolt” of 2018 to the successful 6‑day walkout by Los Angeles teachers in January.

In 2013, with the backing of his appointed Board of Education, Emanuel defied the teachers again by announcing the closure of 50 public schools, most of which were in impoverished black and brown neighborhoods, while continuing to expand nonunion charter schools. Despite widespread protests, Emanuel carried through with the plan.

In 2015, the CTU recruited Cook County Commissioner Jesus Chuy” Garcia, a longtime Chicago politician who had served in the Harold Washington administration, to challenge Emanuel. Garcia forced a mayoral runoff election — the first against an incumbent in Chicago’s history — but Emanuel, with the help of a bulging campaign war chest, came out on top.

But the backlash over the school closures and the suppression of the McDonald video eventually caught up with the mayor. By spring 2018, Emanuel was polling at 36 percent favorability and losing by wide margins in head-to-head polls against potential challengers, causing pundits to declare the mayor unelectable.”

When Emanuel finally bowed out, he left a political vacuum in his wake. Fourteen mayoral hopefuls are competing in the February election to take his place. Many of the top contenders, such as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, and community organizer Amara Enyia, are running on movement demands such as reopening mental health clinics, investing in schools and reining in the police. The CTU has endorsed Preckwinkle, a former history teacher who signed onto many of the union’s priorities, including an elected (rather than mayor-appointed) school board and a moratorium on school closings, charter-school expansion and school privatization.

Other contenders, such as former Obama Chief of Staff Bill Daley (another son of Richard J. Daley), businessman Willie Wilson, and former public school heads Paul Vallas and Gery Chico, are running on more moderate platforms, though their campaigns also reflect the shifting political terrain as they refuse to support aspects of Emanuel’s agenda, such as further school closings or increasing regressive fees and fines.

Even State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, slammed by critics as running for Emanuel’s third term,” has taken positions to the left of Emanuel on education and immigration, advocating a hybrid” semi-elected school board and expanding Chicago’s sanctuary city ordinance — though not as fully as activists would like.

Chicago’s next mayor is likely to face a city council very different from the rubber stamp” backing Emanuel had. Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and a former alderman, explains that, in most election cycles, very few viable progressive City Council challengers run.

This year, he estimates, at least 10 stand a real chance of winning. The victors would join the 11-member progressive bloc already on the 50-member Council, where, Simpson says, they will have a wide-open opportunity to chart the future of the city.”

It’s really new for Chicago to have aldermen in the majority of wards run on something that looks like working-class policy and policy aimed at dealing with the racism that Chicagoans are experiencing,” says CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, who calls the 2019 election the most consequential since Harold Washington.”

Reigning In the Police

A number of aldermanic candidates are campaigning on support for a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), which would establish an elected civilian body to oversee
the CPD, tasked with the hiring and firing of the police superintendent and disciplining officers.

In October 2013, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression — founded in 1973released draft legislation to create CPAC. While the CPAC bill languished in City Council, opposed by Emanuel and his allies, the Black Lives Matter movement led a renewed effort to combat police violence.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, elected in 2015 on a progressive platform that included CPAC, re-introduced the bill in July 2016, but it was buried in committee. After a jury found Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who killed Laquan McDonald, guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, Ramirez-Rosa reintroduced CPAC again in October 2018. Its prospects may lie in how many police-accountability candidates win aldermanic office in February.

Among those campaigning on CPAC is Maria Hadden, 38, who, if elected, would become the first openly gay black woman on City Council. Hadden, who has worked around participatory budgeting efforts for a decade and serves on BYP100’s board, is running against 28-year incumbent and Emanuel ally Ald. Joe Moore in the 49th Ward. Nestled along Lake Michigan on the far North Side, the ward includes the diverse neighborhood of Rogers Park and is home to a vibrant progressive community.

Our government agencies and departments can’t be effective if people don’t trust them,” says Hadden, commenting on the need for CPAC. Another candidate supporting CPAC is Rafael Yañez, running in the South Side’s 15th Ward against incumbent Raymond Lopez, another Emanuel ally. Yañez, a former police officer, says his experience on the force taught him that CPD requires wide-ranging reform. We can have a more humane approach, and we owe it to the future of our kids,” Yañez recently told Block Club Chicago.

Yañez is also opposing the construction of a massive $95 million police academy in the West Side neighborhood of West Garfield Park. Emanuel and his allies, including Lopez, say the new facility is necessary to meet the demands of a 2017 Department of Justice investigation that found rampant abuse within the CPD. But opponents of the project, such as Assata’s Daughters, BYP100 and the People’s Response Team, campaigning under the banner of No Cop Academy,” say the funds should instead be invested in jobs, education and afterschool programming. The No Cop Academy coalition argues that a scathing critique of Chicago Police Department violence should not be used to justify funneling more resources into a proven violent institution.”

Lopez’s support for the academy has made him the target of a Fuera Lopez!” (Lopez Out!) campaign inspired by #ByeAnita.

Another opponent of the academy is Tara Stamps, a longtime CPS teacher and community organizer running in the 37th Ward, which includes the site of the proposed project. Stamps’ opponent, incumbent Emma Mitts, has been a high-profile supporter of the construction. Mitts claims the project will reduce crime and increase public safety,” but Stamps echoes movement organizers, saying in a campaign video, Adding police alone is not the solution.”

Page May, of Assata’s Daughters, says she can hear the impact of activism even in the candidates’ use of the phrase No Cop Academy”: That’s not the name of the facility; that’s our talking point.”

She adds, They’re also emphasizing the points we’re trying to make about what is needed to get at some of the root causes of the violence and the problems in our communities — the demand for a living wage, the demand for the reopening of the mental healthcare facilities, the demand for quality schools.”

Real Sanctuary

Six days after Donald Trump was elected president, Emanuel organized a press conference to reassure immigrants in Chicago that they should feel safe, pointing to a Welcoming City ordinance that helps protect undocumented residents from being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Luis Gomez, one of the undocumented speakers at the event, was not buying it. Standing next to Emanuel, he told the mayor, You need to stop categorizing and separating the undocumented community. … I demand that you stand for all immigrants.”

Gomez was referring in part to carve-outs in the Welcoming City ordinance for people deemed criminals by the city. The carve-outs make Chicago’s sanctuary city status far weaker than that of its peers, like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. If immigrants have criminal records or appear in the city’s gang database — a list that critics describe as arbitrary — Chicago police can
turn suspects over to ICE for deportation. Immigrant justice groups Organized Communities Against Deportations and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) have joined with BYP100 to demand that candidates support strengthening the sanctuary city ordinance and ending the gang database.

One of the aldermanic challengers supporting these proposals is Byron Sigcho-Lopez, running in the 25th Ward, which includes the heavily immigrant South Side neighborhoods of Pilsen and Chinatown. Sigcho-Lopez, born in Ecuador, serves as executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots group that organizes for affordable housing, fully funded public education and immigrant protections.

This isn’t just an issue of justice for undocumented people, it is also an issue of public safety,” says Sigcho-Lopez, who also supports CPAC. Undocumented people are often unwilling to seek recourse from law enforcement even upon witnessing a crime for fear of retribution, from ICE or otherwise.”

Ramirez-Rosa, whose district includes a large Latinx community, has also made enshrining immigrant protections and ending the carve-outs a major issue in his re-election campaign. His office has held a number of immigrant defense trainings, working with groups such as ICIRR. In 2017 he introduced a bill (with 26 co-sponsors) to remove the carve-outs but says Emanuel maneuvered to keep it from a vote.

Teaching Democracy

Walter H. Dyett High School sits at the edge of sprawling Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. The public school is lauded as an arts and technology incubator but only exists thanks to community struggle.

In August 2015, a dozen parents and school activists began a hunger strike to save Dyett from closing. Initially ignored by the school district, the 34-day hunger strike led to the reopening of Dyett for the 2016 – 17 school year with 10 times as many students.

One of those strikers was Jeanette Taylor, a community activist who is now running for alderman in the 20th Ward’s crowded field. Previously, Taylor was part of a successful effort to bring a trauma center to the South Side to treat victims of gun violence. She was first encouraged to run by People United for Action, an affiliate of United Working Families (UWF), a grassroots coalition led by the CTU and SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana.

If elected, Taylor plans to prioritize what has become a unifying policy position among progressive challengers — the creation of an elected school board. The appointed school board makes decisions based on who they’re connected to,” says Taylor. They have no accountability to the public.” Taylor, like many candidates, also calls for ending both school closings and charter school expansion.

Erika Wozniak is a CPS fifth-grade teacher running in the 46th Ward against two-term incumbent and friend of Emanuel, James Cappleman. One of the 50 schools Emanuel closed in 2013 was Graeme Stewart Elementary in the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side. After the closure, Cappleman helped broker a deal to turn the shuttered school into luxury apartments. Wozniak responded on Twitter, I’m disgusted.”

We need a council that is going to advocate for fully funded, well-resourced neighborhood public schools,” Wozniak says.

Housing For All

When Rossana Rodríguez was pregnant with her now 4‑year-old son Marcel in 2014, she and her partner were priced out of their Albany Park apartment after the landlord increased the rent by $200 a month. A few months later, Rodríguez was forced out of another apartment after her new landlord sold the building. That time, she had to move with a newborn.

Rodríguez says she has seen her neighbors in the 33rd Ward systematically pushed out by rising rents over the nine years she’s lived there. Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican native and longtime educator, joined the Lift the Ban coalition — a group of over 20 organizations working to lift Illinois’ ban on rent control. The coalition’s ultimate goal is to ease the impact of housing costs and keep people in their homes. According to a study by National Equity Atlas, 51 percent of households in Chicago are cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Meanwhile, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless released a survey in May 2018 showing that the city is home to over 80,000 homeless residents, including nearly 18,000 homeless public school students. 

We need to move away from the idea that housing needs to be driven by profit,” says Rodríguez, who decided run through her work with 33rd Ward Working Families, another affiliate of UWF. Housing is a basic need and it can’t be left to the forces of the free market.”

Rodríguez, who has refused to take donations from developers, is taking on Ald. Deb Mell. Mell replaced her father, Richard Mell, when he retired from City Council in 2013. Over 38 years as an alderman, Richard benefited from donations from the real estate industry, which he joined as a lobbyist after leaving office. Deb has also received campaign contributions from major developers, including Silver Properties, a group protested by the Autonomous Tenants Union (a housing justice group Rodríguez has worked closely with) for evicting longtime Albany Park residents.

In the 1st Ward, which includes sections of Logan Square and gentrifying Wicker Park, Daniel La Spata is taking on Ald. Proco Joe” Moreno who, according to an analysis by Reclaim Fair Elections, receives the highest percentage of campaign funding from property
management companies of any alderman. La Spata has worked with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association for 13 years and says that protecting residents from displacement is a critical task. The fight for housing is inextricably linked to the displacement of families, the under-enrollment of local schools and the deepening segregation of our communities,” La Spata says.

Vivien Tsou, a housing organizer with the grassroots group ONE Northside, sees this election as elevating the demands that she and her fellow organizers have spent years fighting for. The fact that politicians feel that they need to show that they’re good on housing means that housing is definitely one of the big electoral issues this year,” Tsou says. That has been exciting to see.”

The Edge of a New Wave

Chicago’s newly elected council members will still have to deal with the remnants of the Chicago machine. A number of the aldermen from the Richard M. Daley administration still hold their seats. With the exception of a few progressive members, Chicago aldermen tend to be risk averse, more inclined to curry favors for their wards by falling in line with the mayor than to advance bold progressive proposals.

But the machine is taking blows. In January, news broke that 50-year incumbent Ald. Ed Burke of the 14th Ward is under investigation by the FBI. Many mayoral candidates and sitting aldermen are tainted by association with Burke, a longtime Daley ally. Twenty-three-year incumbent Danny Solis of the 25th Ward is reportedly also under investigation, which led him to secretly wear a wire to record Burke. Solis has announced his retirement while Burke is running in what’s being called his stiffest re-election race yet, another sign of upheaval.

Even with some machine Democrats out, the powerful interests they answered to will remain. Demands for police accountability will be opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) — the powerful union representing CPD officers. Perhaps the most daunting obstacle will be the dominant role of finance capital in Chicago government. Chicago’s finance markets, the Chicago
Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade, are run by the CME Group, a global financial power that holds enormous sway over Chicago’s financial decisions. By threatening to move jobs and business out of the city, the CME Group, a major Emanuel donor, has been able
to secure significant tax breaks, starving the city of financial resources.

This lopsided relationship is unlikely to end with a new mayor. The corporate establishment, including the global financial businesses, will still have a big voice in determining the policies of the city going forward,” predicts UIC’s Simpson. Wealthy campaign contributors such as Michael Sacks, vice chair of World Business Chicago and a major Emanuel donor, will continue to steer the city’s political leadership away from regulations or new taxes on the super-rich.

Emanuel has also left the city in debt. With Chicago mired in a deep pension crisis, he borrowed extensively, putting creditors first in line for new city revenue. Funding for policies that benefit residents will be stalled unless the city overturns these arrangements — a move that a number of left aldermanic challengers support.

Mirroring national progressive leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her proposed 70 percent top marginal tax rate, movement candidates in Chicago also embrace policies to raise revenue from corporations and the super-rich. Ideas like a financial transaction tax (known locally as a LaSalle Street tax), a corporate head tax and reforming the city’s TIF program have been floated by grassroots groups for years but were never taken seriously by the city’s political elite. Now these ideas are being championed by an array of aldermanic challengers. Rodríguez, Sigcho-Lopez and Taylor have all made taxing the rich a centerpiece of their platforms. One penny of the LaSalle Street tax on every transaction will put more money in our communities,” says Taylor.

The threat of Trump’s reactionary agenda has also motivated challengers. The Grassroots Collaborative’s Patel puts it this way: A big factor in 2019 is that there’s pressure to come out in a place like Chicago in the context of a Trump presidency to say, Look, we want to be on the offense. We want a bold, transformative agenda, in particular because of what’s happening at the federal level.’”

Rodríguez sees a connection between bold local and national policies. At a city level, we are talking about rent control, we are talking about No Cop Academy, we are talking about police accountability, we are talking about sanctuary for all. At a national level, we are talking about Medicare for All and taxing the rich. People are reimagining what is possible.”

Many of these aldermanic candidates are linked by both their movement organizing and their endorsements from citywide progressive organizations. UWF has endorsed Hadden, Stamps, Wozniak, Rodríguez, Taylor, Yañez and Ramirez-Rosa. The CTU has endorsed all of those candidates along with Sigcho-Lopez. Reclaim Chicago, a local arm of People’s Action, backs Ramirez-Rosa, Rodríguez and Hadden. La Spata has the support of Grassroots Illinois Action, the sister organization of Grassroots Collaborative.

A new player in the electoral arena this year is the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has endorsed Rodríguez, Ramirez-Rosa, Sigcho-Lopez and Taylor, along with Ugo Okere, a challenger running against 35-year incumbent Pat O’Conner in the 40th Ward. Other than Taylor, the group’s endorsees are all card-carrying DSA members.

In contrast to the typical electoral model of most advocacy PACs and unions — i.e., making calculated endorsements based on a candidate’s viability in exchange for future influence — the left electoral infrastructure of United Working Families, Reclaim Chicago, Grassroots Illinois Action and DSA is different. These organizing and community groups are recruiting candidates from their own ranks, who seek office to carry out movement work. This job to me is nothing but a community organizer with money,” says Taylor. You organize around what your community wants to see.”

Electing a bloc of these movement candidates to office would give newfound leverage to communities typically locked out of the halls of power.

The CTU’s Davis Gates sees even longer-term change afoot: If I’m looking in a crystal ball, 2023 will actually be even more transformative because of the momentum that we’ll be gaining from both the challenges and the victories we see.”

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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin

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