Union-backed Sue Sadlowski Garza Claims Win Over Rahm Emanuel Ally in Southeast Chicago (Updated)

Kari Lydersen

Sue Sadlowski Garza (center) and her supporters at a post-election party last night. (Kari Lydersen)

Update: At 5:15 pm., the Sadlowski Garza campaign claimed victory against Alderman Pope by a margin of 54 votes. 

As Jesus Chuy” Garcia was conceding and Rahm Emanuel was claiming victory in the historic Chicago mayoral election Tuesday night, the dynamic at an election party for a progressive candidate on the Southeast Side was quite different.

In the 10th ward run-off race for City Council, Sue Sadlowski Garza, a Chicago Teachers Union leader and part of a legendary family of United Steelworkers union activists, was neck and neck with John Pope, the incumbent alderman backed by Emanuel and considered part of the entrenched Chicago machine.

Inside a tavern called Crow Bar, located practically under the Chicago Skyway toll road by the Indiana border, a diverse crowd of black, Latino and white residents nervously shared information about vote totals, the sense of excitement ratcheting up as new precincts reported. Finally there was only one precinct left to tally — and it was the one with polls at Jane Addams Elementary, where Sadlowski Garza is a school counselor.

By 11 p.m., the crowd was in full celebration mode, as Sadlowski Garza was seven votes ahead, 5,472 to 5,465. Provisional ballots have yet to be counted, however, and results could be challenged, leaving the election’s results still up in the air. A ballot box was driven to downtown election headquarters because of technical problems. Several campaign staffers are sleeping over at 64 W. Washington,” the Board of Elections, noted Sadlowski Garza’s son David Garza.

The race between Emanuel and Garcia received national attention as a symbol of rising discontent with inequality and with the prioritizing of corporations and the wealthy over working people and neighborhoods. While Emanuel solidly won, after spending more than $20 million on the race, the 10th ward was a smaller version of the same stand-off. And the results were much different.

Pope is a loyalist to Emanuel and previously to Daley — a recent University of Illinois-Chicago study found the alderman voted with the mayor 100 percent of the time from 2011 to 2014 — and local critics blast him for welcoming heavily polluting industries which give him significant campaign contributions, including the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals which stores petroleum coke (petcoke) in massive piles along the Calumet River.

Sadlowski Garza, on the other hand, is an area vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which squared off with Emanuel in an historic seven-day strike in 2012. Throughout her campaign she has stressed the importance of unions and the power of regular people and called for a new political order, or a political revolution” as socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said during a campaign rally for Sadlowski Garza and Chuy Garcia last week at an old Steelworkers union hall.

Almost everyone at the Crow Bar said they had grown up in the area and either still live or have kept close ties there. Many have deep family histories in the steel mills and the Steelworkers union. Scores of union members were in attendance, including building trades unions (whose leadership had endorsed Emanuel), police officers, elevator construction unionists, electrical workers, Boilermakers, Ironworkers and others.

Seemingly everyone knew Sadlowski Garza personally, as well. Many had grown up with her, a testament to the close-knit families and sense of history that still exist in the area even after the closing of the steel mills tore apart its economic and social fabric. Sadlowski Garza’s father and grandfather, both named Ed Sadlowski, are renowned Steelworkers union leaders, and people see Sue as following in their footsteps.

She’s dynamite, she’s got that passion,” says Ken Angotti, a landscaper and concrete contractor who grew up with Sadlowski Garza and remembers camping out at a Rolling Stones concert with her and other friends in 1978. Angotti described how his uncle came from Italy to work at Republic Steel, and died three months after the mill closed. And how his cousin, nicknamed Boomer,” died in a steel mill when he was hit by a crane. This is a depressed area and it’s been depressed for 30 years,” he continued. But she’s still here, she’s telling people, Come on!’”

When In These Times asks Garza how she will deal with Emanuel assuming she is seated in City Council, Sadlowski Garza says, Bring it on.”

Poor Rahm!” says Soila Silva, a teacher at nearby George Washington Elementary School, feigning sympathy for how the mayor will have to deal with Garza if she wins. She doesn’t back down. And she’ll get the other aldermen to speak up.”

Silva remembered bringing Sadlowski Garza to her first Chicago Teachers Union meeting years ago and watching her move quickly through the leadership ranks. She was the one who organized all our local schools during the strike,” Silva says.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey and other teachers union leaders came to celebrate with Sadlowski Garza. Sharkey says he sees the showings of both Sadlowski Garza and Garcia, who got more than 44 percent of the vote, as victories.

We had something we haven’t had in a long time in the city: an actual election,” he said. Rahm had to get off his high horse in the mud and blood with the rest of us peasants. … And there’s no finer educator and spokesperson for a movement than Sue. We’re very proud.”

Sadlowski Garza noted that critics have said she would be in the pocket of unions” in City Council.

Labor unions have always been on the side of the working class,” she says. Who doesn’t want to be in the pocket of the working class?”

Six candidates had run against Pope in the primary election on February 24. At least two of them then threw their efforts whole-heartedly into the Sadlowski Garza campaign. Olga Bautista and Rich Martinez, who both ran in the primary, are both leaders of the fight to ban petcoke from the city.

Critics see petcoke as a serious public health and quality of life issue. And, they say, it is a symbol of the way their neighborhood has been treated as a dumping ground” by city officials, who cooperate with companies opening polluting industries there without investing adequately in other types of jobs and education.

People feel like Pope is to blame” for polluting industries on the Southeast Side, said Anthony Martinez, whose video of a cloud of petcoke blowing over homes helped ignite the struggle. He’s supposed to be the gatekeeper of the community.”

People were apolitical and divided, but we broke that divide with petcoke a year and a half before the election,” says Bautista, adding that I don’t think I have any nails left” after biting them during the suspense of the close race. Petcoke united people. It was the wrench that broke the Machine.”

Three decades before Garcia and Emanuel were framed as representing the two different Chicagos,” the Southeast Side was ground zero of notorious socio-political polarization. It was home to Edward Vrodolyak, who stoked the Council Wars,” pitting white aldermen against legendary black mayor Harold Washington and his allies — including Chuy Garcia.

While there was much overlap between the Sadlowski Garza and Garcia camps, Sadlowski Garza also got the vote of residents aligned with Emanuel. Jeff Zupan, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134, has fond memories of going to Vrodolyak fundraisers as a kid growing up there. He now lives in Northwest Indiana but came to the Southeast Side for the evening. He supported Emanuel for mayor and thinks he is good for the city.” But in the 10th ward, he says, he is all for Sadlowski Garza.

Zupan’s friend Marty McHale, wearing his International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 2 jacket, described how several Popemobiles” plied the neighborhood with campaign workers handing out literature. He thinks Sadlowski Garza’s grassroots support won out, even though Pope has raised almost $3 million in campaign funds since taking office in 1999

Sue is a real person,” McHale says. She’s family-oriented, she’s union-oriented, she’s pro-Southeast Side.”

Even though voter turnout was low citywide in both the February primary and Tuesday’s election, the challenges to power brokers like Emanuel and long-entrenched incumbents like Pope are being seen as evidence that Chicagoans are fed up with the city’s political status quo and politicians who don’t listen to their constituents. 

We’re coming together for one cause — for victory, for a better neighborhood, for a better environment,” says Anthony Martinez. The people finally woke up.” 

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.