"We Just Broke a Thick-Ass Glass Ceiling": Progressive Candidates Rack Up Some Big Wins

In Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, left-wing challengers in Illinois made history, while in New York, progressive incumbents held onto their seats.

Nick Vachon

Paul Goyette via Facebook

This week brought some very welcome news for progressives in Illinois, while left candidates in New York saw more of a mixed bag. 

In Tuesday night’s Democratic primary, state Rep. Delia Ramirez, co-chair of the elected officials chapter of United Working Families (UWF), defeated Gilbert Villegas in the newly redrawn 3rd Congressional District by capturing nearly 66 percent of the vote, capping off a night of victories for left-wing groups including UWF, the Illinois partner of the national progressive organization Working Families Party (WFP).

Ramirez, who was endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with national progressive groups including WFP, the House Progressive Caucus and People’s Action, will face Republican Justin Burau, who ran unopposed in his party’s primary, in the November general election. She would be the first Latina congresswoman elected from the Midwest, and is almost certain to win in the deep-blue district, which stretches from Chicago’s West Side deep into the city suburbs. 

We just broke a thick-ass glass ceiling,” Ramirez said at a victory party Tuesday night, continuing, the entire state of Illinois has made it loud and clear: it’s time for progressive, authentic good government.” 

Villegas, her opponent, benefited from major outside spending from a now-familiar player: Democratic Majority for Israel, which has used its financial heft against progressives in races across the country and spent $157,000 against Ramirez. Villegas also was supported by a charter school committee, the National Association of Realtors, and Mainstream Democrats — a Super PAC founded by venture capitalist and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

At a June 18 rally, Sen. Sanders said Ramirez, has been a champion of working families in Illinois. As a state legislator, she has expanded Medicaid for all seniors regardless of legal status, has secured millions of dollars for affordable housing, and defended reproductive rights by codifying Roe v. Wade in Illinois.” Ramirez had previously co-sponsored the Reproductive Health Act, which guarantees abortion rights to Illinois residents, and ran on a platform of Medicare for All, cancelling student loan debt, union rights and other progressive priorities. 

Ramirez rejected all corporate donations, and was heavily outraised by her opponent. But outside groups like WFP spent big in her favor.

This was unquestionably a good night for United Working Families,” Emma Tai, UWF’s executive director, told In These Times. With only one exception, all of our contested candidates triumphed and beat their primary challengers.”

Further down the ballot, Anthony Joel Quezada, a UWF-endorsed member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), won his race for the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and will join two other UWF-affiliated commissioners, Brandon Johnson and Alma Anaya. The board, composed of 17 commissioners serving four-year terms, approves the county’s budget and controls laws governing issues ranging from parks to public health and safety. 

For too long we’ve had absent leadership in the 8th district,” Quezada said Tuesday night. Right now, in the midst of Covid, a housing crisis, growing wealth inequality, and the threat of climate change, we said that we need to elect leadership that actually reflects our progressive values and is ready to fight for us.” Quezada will be the first open democratic socialist to serve on the Cook County Board. 

Lilian Jimenez, who ran for Ramirez’s statehouse seat, won the Democratic nomination for the 4th House District with nearly 80 percent of the vote in a three-person primary. Jimenez was endorsed by Ramirez, unions including the Chicago Teachers Union and Illinois SEIU, as well as the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, and she previously worked as a labor and immigration lawyer, directing the legislative fight to pass county-wide minimum wage and sick leave laws.

We’re in a much more serious and rigorous phase of what it means to contest political power electorally,” Tai noted. The upside of not having the element of surprise is that we have a much deeper bench of people who know what it takes to contest seriously for power.”

It wasn’t all good news for Illinois progressives, however. Kina Collins, the Justice Democrats-endorsed progressive who challenged longtime Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), lost her race in Illinois’ 7th district. Davis received last-minute support from powerful establishment Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who endorsed Davis last Sunday. Yet, despite the loss, Collins came far closer this round, claiming 45 percent of the vote as compared to the 14 percent she won in 2020

And incumbent progressive Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) similarly lost her race to Sean Casten, after redistricting forced her into a contest with a fellow sitting member of Congress. Newman also faced a flood of outside money which funded attacks on her campaign, as did Ramirez and other left-wing candidates. 

In New York, meanwhile, progressives saw both setbacks and victories in Tuesday’s primaries. A slate of seven insurgent challengers backed by the Working Families Party of New York and the New York Chapter of the DSA who ran against establishment incumbents in the New York State Assembly were mostly defeated, but no progressive incumbent lost their reelection campaign.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) endorsed the challengers, while New York Mayor Eric Adams lent his support to the incumbents. Sarahana Shrestha was the one candidate on the WFP’s slate who won their race. The first-time candidate beat 13-term incumbent Assembly-member Kevin Cahill, who represented the Hudson Valley town of Kingston. Shrestha, a first-generation Nepalese-American graphic designer, ran on a platform that prioritized climate justice.

When I announced my run for the State Assembly last year, I asked the people of District 103 to choose hope over fear, to put our collective imagination into what we stand to gain, and not just what we stand to lose,” Shrestha said in a statement. This is just the beginning. Next, we must build on our common ground and bring people into the right direction we need not just for the Hudson Valley, and not just for New York, but for the whole country.”

Outside spending from corporate interests was, as has become typical in the Democratic Party’s fight between progressives and moderates, a major factor. Shrestha alone faced at least $80,000 in attack ads funded in part by real estate interests channeled through a pair of Super PACs, Common Sense New Yorkers and Voters of New York. In total, the two PACs raised at least $1 million from corporate donors, and spent heavily on mailers attacking the WFP slate over their alleged support for defunding the police. One mailer described Jonathan Soto, who once worked for Ocasio-Cortez and ran against 10-term incumbent Michael Benedetto in the Bronx, as a dangerous, reckless, socialist” who was too extreme for the Bronx.”

A mailer targeting Samy Nemir Olivares, who challenged incumbent Erik Dilan — the son of state Sen. Martin Dilan, who DSA member and State Sen. Julia Salazar ousted in her tumultuous insurgent 2018 campaign — accused Olivares of threatening public safety.”

And Jeff Coltin, a political reporter for City & State NY, noted on Twitter that a real estate investment firm appeared to be pouring money into targeted Instagram ads supporting the incumbents against their progressive challengers. Committee for a Fair New York, funded by Arel Capital, spent at least $50,000 shoring up moderates — a sizable sum in local races where candidates rarely raise more than one or two hundred thousand dollars.

The reason they’re pouring money into these races is because they’re afraid, because they know that we can win. We can seize the reins of these institutions and direct them to more just and redistributive ends, and they are very scared of that happening,” Tai said. That’s the story behind the money pouring into our opposition.”

The outcome of Tuesday’s races show both the challenges faced by the progressive electoral movement, with corporate money flowing into the coffers of centrist Democratic incumbents, as well as the potential of a multiracial working-class politics to triumph in a turbulent political environment. 

That’s how the aphorism goes, right? First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Tai. I think we’re definitely at the then they fight you’ phase — and we are, increasingly, in the then you win’ phase.” 

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Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York. 

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