Despite Bernie’s Loss, Progressives Scored 3 Major Wins in Illinois. Here’s How.

Kim Foxx, Marie Newman and Robert Peters won much-watched races through sustained, longterm organizing.

Will Tanzman March 19, 2020

Marie Newman, a candidate for Congress, speaks to reporters in Washington after receiving the endorsement of Illinois Democratic Reps and Rep. Luis Gutierrez on Jan. 17, 2018.

Tues­day was a rough night for the Left at the top of the tick­et. Bernie Sanders lost to Joe Biden by size­able mar­gins in Illi­nois, Ari­zona, and Flori­da, adding to a string of loss­es that has essen­tial­ly closed off Bernie’s path to win the nom­i­na­tion. This is a loss for the pro­gres­sive move­ment, and a painful one for the orga­ni­za­tion where I serve as Exec­u­tive Direc­tor – The People’s Lob­by, a People’s Action affil­i­ate – which endorsed and has been orga­niz­ing to elect Bernie.

A core lesson from this week's Illinois primary is that it’s not enough for a candidate to have the right message if there is not sufficient organization on the ground.

For­tu­nate­ly, this week’s pri­ma­ry elec­tion in Illi­nois showed that the move­ment has a path to win gov­ern­ing pow­er — by orga­niz­ing to elect can­di­dates to a vari­ety of offices who share a broad pro­gres­sive plat­form. Despite an elec­tion day marked by low turnout amid the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, The People’s Lob­by and oth­er pro­gres­sive groups knocked out the most right-wing Demo­c­rat in the House, Dan Lip­in­s­ki. We re-elect­ed pro­gres­sive Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Kim Foxx in the face of vicious attacks by the forces of white suprema­cy, the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police and a pri­vate equi­ty bil­lion­aire. And we elect­ed to the Illi­nois Sen­ate Robert Peters, a can­di­date who came straight from the movement.

Com­mon to all three of these sto­ries is that they com­bined move­ment ener­gy from the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment with a longer-term his­to­ry of grass­roots pow­er build­ing. Dan Lip­in­s­ki has rep­re­sent­ed the 3rd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict since 2005, when he took over the seat from his father, who had held it since 1983. He has long been one of the most right-wing Democ­rats in Con­gress — he vot­ed against the Afford­able Care Act and has opposed the Dream Act, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and access to abortion.

Sub­ur­ban anti-bul­ly­ing activist Marie New­man chal­lenged Lip­in­s­ki in 2018 with a cam­paign that includ­ed all of the core ele­ments of the pro­gres­sive agen­da but in prac­tice began to seem to vot­ers like a sin­gle-issue cam­paign focused on repro­duc­tive rights. The People’s Lob­by had been orga­niz­ing in the Bridge­port neigh­bor­hood since 2011. We fought togeth­er with oth­er groups to close a coal pow­er plant, and we pushed the city to rein­state a bus line serv­ing low-income res­i­dents on 31st Street. In the 2018 elec­tion, we mobi­lized dozens of mem­bers and dialed and door­knocked thou­sands of vot­ers. We talked about our vision for uni­ver­sal health care and good jobs, and we asked vot­ers to share their issues and con­cerns, con­nect­ing our shared strug­gles to why we want­ed to ask them to vote for New­man and join our move­ment. That year, New­man lost by just 2,145 votes, 2.2% of the total votes cast.

Nei­ther New­man nor The People’s Lobby’s grass­roots base in the 3rd Dis­trict stopped orga­niz­ing after this loss. The People’s Lob­by con­tin­ued fight­ing in Bridge­port along­side our local mem­bers on var­i­ous issues includ­ing bail reform and a fair Cook Coun­ty bud­get that moves mon­ey out of the Cook Coun­ty Jail and into pub­lic ser­vices that address the root caus­es of crime and violence.

In this cycle, we learned from one of our mis­takes in 2018: Instead of focus­ing only on fre­quent pri­ma­ry vot­ers, who in the 3rd Dis­trict skew old­er, whiter, more con­ser­v­a­tive and more con­nect­ed to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine than the dis­tric­t’s pop­u­la­tion, we tar­get­ed a wider uni­verse of vot­ers with less exten­sive pri­ma­ry elec­tion vot­ing his­to­ry. This required nar­row­ing our geo­graph­ic focus to one ward so we could can­vass those vot­ers more deeply in per­son, by phone and through tex­ting. Newman’s cam­paign con­tin­ued to include repro­duc­tive rights as a core ele­ment but more inten­tion­al­ly embed­ded that with­in a broad­er agen­da focused on income inequal­i­ty and includ­ing sup­port for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, uni­ver­sal child care, and more. On March 17, New­man pre­vailed, with a lead of 2,700 votes. In the com­bined urban/​suburban dis­trict, the City of Chica­go wards had long served as Lipinski’s base. While he still won a major­i­ty of Chica­go vot­ers again this year, he lost to New­man by close to 1,000 votes in Chicago’s 11th Ward, where we focused our work.

The orga­niz­ing that led to the re-elec­tion of Kim Foxx as Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney has a sim­i­lar­ly long his­to­ry, start­ing in the years lead­ing up to her first win in 2016. Ani­ta Alvarez had been a tar­get for years of grass­roots orga­niz­ing by Project NIA, SOUL, and oth­ers for her tough on crime” approach to pros­e­cu­tion. When the video of a police offi­cer mur­der­ing Black 17-year-old Laquan McDon­ald was released after an attempt­ed cov­er-up that was abet­ted by Alvarez, a con­flu­ence of move­ment orga­ni­za­tions made sure she felt the con­se­quences in the 2016 elec­tion. Young, Black women con­nect­ed to the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment coined the hash­tag #ByeAni­ta, which quick­ly went viral, and The People’s Lob­by, Reclaim Chica­go and oth­er elec­toral groups dialed and door­knocked hun­dreds of thou­sands of vot­ers, lead­ing to Foxx’s first land­slide win in 2016. Foxx then used her office’s dis­cre­tion in charg­ing and plea bar­gain­ing deci­sions to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce incar­cer­a­tion of Black and Lat­inx peo­ple and sup­port­ed bail reform efforts demand­ed by the Coali­tion to End Mon­ey Bond that result­ed in thou­sands few­er peo­ple locked up before trial.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the forces of white suprema­cy regrouped and began fight­ing back. The noto­ri­ous­ly racist Fra­ter­nal Order of Police — whose Chica­go lodge endorsed Don­ald Trump — stoked a firestorm of pub­lic back­lash to Foxx’s deci­sion to drop charges against the actor Jussie Smol­lett, who was accused of fil­ing a false police report after he claimed to have suf­fered a racist, homo­pho­bic attack while vis­it­ing Chicago.

In August, bil­lion­aire Bill Con­way III announced his can­di­da­cy against Foxx. His cam­paign was bankrolled by his father, a co-founder of the Car­lyle Group pri­vate equi­ty firm that prof­it­ed from the sec­ond Iraq war, sold tear gas to the Fer­gu­son police, and man­ages the Chica­go police pen­sion fund.

In fight­ing off attacks on Foxx by white suprema­cists and faux pro­gres­sives, the con­tin­u­ing grass­roots orga­niz­ing by the People’s Lob­by, SOUL in Action, the Mass Lib­er­a­tion Project, Vote Lib­er­a­tion, and a vari­ety of oth­er groups was cru­cial in ensur­ing that vot­ers saw through the racist dog whis­tles of Foxx’s oppo­nents. Grass­roots lead­ers and activists had con­ver­sa­tions with thou­sands of vot­ers about the kind of crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that would cre­ate real com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty by address­ing the root caus­es of vio­lence instead of dou­bling down on a racist incar­cer­a­tion system.

A third vic­to­ry from this Illi­nois pri­ma­ry elec­tion, Robert Peters win in the Illi­nois Sen­ate, was con­nect­ed to the sto­ries lead­ing up to the oth­er two. Robert Peters served as Polit­i­cal Direc­tor for The People’s Lob­by and Reclaim Chica­go, where he fought as an orga­niz­er to end mon­ey bail and trained left can­di­dates for Chica­go City Coun­cil and oth­er offices, work that helped lay the ground­work for the New­man and Foxx wins. In Jan­u­ary 2019 he was appoint­ed to an Illi­nois Sen­ate vacan­cy, where he cham­pi­oned bail reform. This year, he had to run for his Sen­ate seat, so he launched a move­ment-ori­ent­ed cam­paign. He shared his sto­ry of being born to a moth­er suf­fer­ing from sub­stance use dis­or­der in the years when the war on drugs” was esca­lat­ing, and talked about the fact that schools in the dis­trict all have police offi­cers but few have social work­ers. He and his team had real con­ver­sa­tions with thou­sands of vot­ers about the kinds of pub­lic ser­vices that would be need­ed to cre­ate safe and healthy neigh­bor­hoods. Vot­ers over­whelm­ing­ly agreed that 40+ years of tough on crime” polic­ing and mass incar­cer­a­tion have not made them safe, but have led to mil­lions of Black and Lat­inx peo­ple being locked up. He won a con­test­ed pri­ma­ry elec­tion this week and will run unop­posed in the gen­er­al election.

The cur­rent polit­i­cal land­scape is com­pli­cat­ed and chal­leng­ing, with the Bernie cam­paign sub­sid­ing and Biden like­ly to win the pri­ma­ry just as the world heads into a new cri­sis trig­gered by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. As the pro­gres­sive move­ment charts its course, a core les­son from the Illi­nois pri­ma­ry is that it’s not enough for a can­di­date to have the right mes­sage if there is not suf­fi­cient orga­ni­za­tion on the ground. A suc­cess­ful pro­gres­sive cam­paign needs to have the right mes­sage and agen­da and the right rela­tion­ship between a can­di­date with vision and cred­i­bil­i­ty and longer-term pro­gres­sive infra­struc­ture. The People’s Lob­by (part­ner­ing with Vote Lib­er­a­tion for our Kim Foxx vot­er con­tact) was able to draw on the orga­ni­za­tion we had built over the past nine years to make 150,000 dials and door­knocks, send 85,000 texts, engage 11,000 con­ver­sa­tions with vot­ers, and dis­trib­ute social media ads watched by more than 100,000 vot­ers in this elec­tion cycle. Draw­ing on short-term bursts of move­ment ener­gy can be incred­i­bly pow­er­ful, but it’s not enough, and the infra­struc­ture that is need­ed can­not be built in just one elec­tion. For­tu­nate­ly, we know that when we do that work and bring togeth­er those ele­ments, we can win both impor­tant elec­tions today and the fight for a bet­ter future.

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