Chicago’s formal political scene is often a small one, aldermanic candidate Tim Meegan will tell you.
Take the positions of alderman for the 33rd Ward on the city’s northwest side. It’s a classic example of Chicago political nepotism, says Meegan, a high school social studies teacher who’s running for alderman in that particular ward.
Until this past spring, the alderman for the 33rd ward was Dick Mell, who had achieved some degree of infamy in his 38 years on the City Council. Mell played a key role in the “Council Wars” led by white aldermen against the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. During the struggle over who would succeed Washington after his untimely death, Mell had gone so far as to stand on a table and yell to be heard.
When Dick Mell retired, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed the longtime alderman’s daughter Deb Mell to her father’s former seat. Present at Mell’s swearing-in at City Council was her sister, Patti Blagojevich — wife of the former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is currently behind bars for corruption charges related to an attempt to sell President Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
Similarly, when Rahm Emanuel left the Obama White House to become Chicago’s mayor in 2011, the brother of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, William M. Daley, replaced Emanuel as the president’s chief of staff.
But that was then. A recent wave of discontent aimed at Mayor Emanuel’s policies of closing schools and mental health clinics while his donors make millions from development deals that will benefit relatively few Chicagoans has rubbed much of the city the wrong way. Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is out of the city’s mayoral race, but politicos in the city are closely watching the city’s aldermanic races.
A group of candidates coming out of Chicago’s grassroots movements, including teachers, labor activists and an environmental organizer, are challenging incumbents in next year’s election. And unlike many of the candidates jumping on an anti-Rahm ticket, they are emphasizing their campaigns are independent and unaffiliated with the Democratic Party.
Tim Meegan is one of them.
Meegan has worked as a social studies teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, a heavily immigrant neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, for the past ten years. He came to politics through the city’s education justice movement, first becoming active in the Chicago Teachers Union around the layoffs of more than 700 tenured teachers in 2010.
As the movement grew, so did his involvement. By 2012, Meegan was elected to the CTU executive board on the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) slate, and is one of two union delegates in his building to the union’s governing body, the House of Delegates.
The success of the strike, he said, increased his sense of confidence in his and his coworkers’ ability to affect education policy in the city. “We had full turn-out for the strike from Roosevelt,” he says proudly.
But it was actually a union loss that helped spur him into electoral politics. When Chicago Public Schools announced in spring 2013 that it would close 49 public schools in majority African-American and Latino neighborhoods, Meegan joined marches, wrote letters and made countless calls attempting to convince the Board of Education and local politicians that closing the schools would be detrimental to the surrounding communities. In the end, the schools were closed.
Meegan says the experience taught him that the education justice movement needed to go beyond lobbying the city’s power brokers and start running for office.
“We failed to convince our politicians that they needed to listen on school closures, failed to convince our politicians that they should not cut our budgets,” says Meegan, who is currently collecting signatures to get on the ballot. “It seems to me the next logical step is to take power from them by running [for office] ourselves.”
Education in Chicago has long been a microcosm of the city’s divisions and discontents. The 2012 teachers strike was widely seen as one of the boldest, most successful attempts to stand up to Mayor Emanuel since he assumed office. The picketing teachers illuminated a city increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots — particularly in education, where the lowest performing schools are often over 90 percent low-income.
The Democratic Party is dominant in Chicago— 49 of its 50 city council members belong to the party. But the Democrats, according to Meegan, are on the wrong side of this divide.
“We’ve got a one party system in this town,” said Meegan. “The Democrats are moving more and more toward corporate interests — they’re no longer really representing working people. Rahm Emanuel is a textbook example of that.”
Though the Chicago teachers were only able to go on strike around a specific set of job-related demands, teachers on the ground pointed a finger at education reform policies supported by Emanuel and other members of the Democratic Party as creating and maintaining an unequal school system.
This was one of the key reasons Meegan chose to run as an independent.
“I believe a third party is necessary, and one of the goals of this campaign is to prove that an independent candidate can beat a big-time Democratic incumbent,” he said. “People are sick and tired of the Democratic machine.”
The campaign runs on the volunteer efforts of a core group of organizers from the 33rd Ward, many of whom have not been involved in electoral politics otherwise. Christopher Poulos, a sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is campaign manager.
Poulos says he joined the campaign because Meegan “represents exactly what needs to happen in electoral politics in Chicago: rank-and-file union activists using their organizing skills and networks to run independent campaigns. Tim was about putting the ‘social movement unionism’ model of organizing to work in politics.” Poulos says Meegan’s platform extends beyond education justice — and beyond a single election — to include a wide swath of progressive reforms.
“For people who are not able to vote, such as undocumented residents, promoting policies like a $15 minimum wage” offer a reason to support the campaign, he says.
Meegan also supports issues that have been increasingly popular in Chicago. A 2011 Chicago Tribune poll found 77 percent of Chicagoans support an elected school board. Voters in a select number of wards throughout the city overwhelmingly supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a non-binding referendum in March. Even Mayor Emanuel, who styles himself as the candidate of big business, jumped on the bandwagon by calling on all state agencies to pay their workers $13 an hour and laying out a plan to eventually raise the city’s minimum wage for all workers to $13.
Without publicly available neighborhood polling, Meegan’s chances at winning election to the City Council are difficult to assess. But a robust signature collecting operation in recent months will almost certainly put him on next year’s ballot.
If Meegan does become alderman, he will be a member of a body in which the vast majority of members vote with the mayor 90 percent of the time.
What this means for putting his ideals into practice as a candidate remains to be seen. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, which take tax money meant for schools and other public services and place them in a discretionary fund controlled by the mayor, are administered in part by a ward’s alderman. Though the TIF program was originally designed to reduce blight in poor areas, the money has instead gone to build office buildings and hotels in wealthy neighborhoods. The funds have become a target of progressive groups in Chicago, who argue that TIFs — currently adding up to about $1.7 billion—take much-needed funding away from schools and act as the mayor’s slush fund.
If elected, Meegan would administer a system that he and the movement he comes from have been adamantly against.
“I’m in favor of abolishing TIFs,” said Meegan. But “as long as TIFs still exist, I would like to use the TIF money to improve the community, as they should be used.”
Poulos said that running the campaign much like an activist campaign will help keep Meegan accountable. Regardless of the election’s outcome, Poulos expects electioneering will help build an organization in the ward to keep pushing for change around issues like education and affordable housing. And Meegan has said that he will hold monthly open meetings in different parts of the ward to make sure he listens to his constituents.
“Electoral politics provide a really good political venue to bring together all these different groups,” said Poulos, “but that’s not the end of it.”
The news that Karen Lewis will not be running for mayor because she is ill with brain cancer was met by Chicago’s progressive community with sadness — including by Meegan, who penned a message about what her possible campaign meant to the city.
But Meegan also feels that the progressive electoral battle in Chicago lies even more heavily on the shoulders of his campaign and the many others pitting themselves against the mayor and his allies.
“We hear this challenge. And we are ready for it,” said a post on the Meegan campaign’s Facebook wall. “We will miss having Karen Lewis’s voice in this election. But, in this historic moment, we will keep this movement going strong.”