Rahm Emanuel Won—But Chicago Progressives Actually Have Much to Be Happy About

Micah Uetricht April 8, 2015

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s loss to Rahm Emanuel in the Chicago mayoral election is a blow to progressives. But the city’s grassroots movements are hardly dead.

I walked into Jesus Chuy” Gar­ci­a’s post-elec­tion par­ty last night just after the announce­ment that Gar­cia had con­ced­ed in the may­oral race against Rahm Emanuel. Peo­ple appeared morose. But the DJ, sure­ly under strict orders from the cam­paign, would­n’t stop blast­ing upbeat music. As I walked past a union staffer with tears in her eyes, Chicago’s Does Any­body Real­ly Know What Time It Is?” began roar­ing out of the speakers.

A song pos­ing such a ques­tion was a fit­ting coda for the cam­paign of a can­di­date who nev­er real­ly seemed to know what time it was in Chica­go — or if he did, he did­n’t seem to care. The cam­paign is over, and we can now say it open­ly: Gar­cia was a mediocre can­di­date at best, and was far from the best for Chicago’s cur­rent moment. 

Chica­go has seen a mas­sive upsurge in social move­ments, anchored by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) in the wake of its 2012 strike. Those move­ments primed the city for an unabashed­ly pro­gres­sive and anti-aus­ter­i­ty may­oral can­di­date; such a can­di­date nev­er mate­ri­al­ized, although one came tan­ta­liz­ing­ly close in the form of CTU Pres­i­dent Karen Lewis (who was sig­nal­ing she would run before being side­lined by a brain tumor). 

Instead we got Gar­cia, who stead­fast­ly refused to draw up a bold pol­i­cy pro­gram, open­ing him­self up to easy crit­i­cisms by Emanuel that he had no real plan for the fis­cal cri­sis fac­ing the city. Even late in the cam­paign, he con­tin­ued to use phras­es like shared sac­ri­fice” (usu­al­ly code words for addi­tion­al aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures on the backs of work­ers) in describ­ing how he would solve the city’s bud­get woes. 

He refused to strong­ly endorse mea­sures like a finan­cial trans­ac­tions tax. He drew ire from the Left and oth­ers for his plan to hire one thou­sand new police offi­cers and for not denounc­ing the Chica­go Police Depart­men­t’s secret inter­ro­ga­tion site.”

True to cam­paign form, Garcia’s con­ces­sion speech was a tepid affair, hit­ting only a few pro­gres­sive notes, with a nod toward the tale of two cities” rhetoric about inequal­i­ty and a pass­ing denun­ci­a­tion of pri­va­ti­za­tion. He spoke at greater length about the need for pop­u­la­tion growth in the city to bring it back to fis­cal health, and how growth was more impor­tant to fix­ing the city’s finance than rais­ing anyone’s tax­es. A room full of a cou­ple thou­sand union mem­bers and pro­gres­sive activists des­per­ate for a part­ing shot at Rahm Emanuel’s pro-cor­po­rate, anti-work­er gov­er­nance, and Gar­cia launched into the begin­nings of an urban plan­ning lecture.

Despite his flaws, as Ben Lor­ber argued last week, Gar­ci­a’s cam­paign should not have been dis­missed by the Left. Mass­es of activists were put in motion by the cam­paign; to ignore them would have been fool­ish. Giv­en this, Gar­ci­a’s loss and Emanuel’s reelec­tion is a real blow to the city’s grass­roots move­ments, and we should­n’t pre­tend oth­er­wise. Those move­ments attempt­ed to unseat an incum­bent may­or and failed. 

That loss, cou­pled with the effects of what will like­ly be anoth­er four years of bru­tal neolib­er­al gov­er­nance — more pri­va­ti­za­tion, more attacks on unions, more defund­ing pub­lic insti­tu­tions while fun­nel­ing pub­lic resources to the already wealthy — may dis­cour­age and demo­bi­lize union and com­mu­ni­ty activists, some per­haps permanently. 

All that said, Chicago’s grass­roots move­ments may have more rea­son to be opti­mistic than ever before.

This isn’t just post-elec­tion spin to try to make pro­gres­sives and left­ists feel bet­ter: It’s unde­ni­able that Chica­go pro­gres­sives have made seri­ous head­way on mul­ti­ple fronts.

All eight mem­bers of the city coun­cil’s Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus up for re-elec­tion won, and at least two new cau­cus mem­bers were elect­ed. Three addi­tion­al can­di­dates who would join the cau­cus, Mil­ly San­ti­a­go, Tara Stamps, and Sue Sad­lows­ki-Garza — the lat­ter two both rank-and-file CTU mem­bers — were in races that were too close to call as of late Tues­day night. The cau­cus often sup­plies the lone no” votes to Emanuel’s agen­da in a sea of rub­ber­stamp alder­men. While the cau­cus’s mem­bers can some­times be unre­li­able, for any­one who does­n’t want to see the may­or’s neolib­er­al mea­sures glide through a 50-mem­ber city coun­cil com­plete­ly unchal­lenged, the results are heartening. 

What’s more, as I explained yes­ter­day in The Nation, those pro­gres­sive unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions have formed a new polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, Unit­ed Work­ing Fam­i­lies, that seeks to train and run long-term move­ment activists as can­di­dates and cre­ate a polit­i­cal home for them­selves out­side of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party. 

They are cur­rent­ly mulling whether to form a local third par­ty and have cre­at­ed sev­er­al neigh­bor­hood-lev­el inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions” that could exper­i­ment with what such a pol­i­tics might look like — one of which may come from the left­over cam­paign infra­struc­ture of Tim Mee­gan, anoth­er rank-and-file CTU teacher who ran for office, los­ing by less than 20 votes despite being a first-time can­di­date up against a leg­endary Chica­go polit­i­cal machine family.

Can­di­date short­falls aside, it’s also impor­tant to rec­og­nize that Chica­go has nev­er seen any­thing like this may­oral cam­paign. No incum­bent may­or has ever been forced into a runoff. Even com­pet­i­tive may­oral elec­tions are rar­i­ties. This is an achieve­ment for a polit­i­cal coali­tion that was vast­ly out­spent and test­ing out a move­ment-based elec­toral mod­el for the first time.

Yes, Chicago’s move­ments endorsed a mediocre can­di­date for may­or and failed to elect him. But that move­ment wasn’t rely­ing on a Gar­cia vic­to­ry: It focused on oth­er polit­i­cal offices that can shore up pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal pow­er in the short term, and laid the infra­struc­ture for a new inde­pen­dent pol­i­tics in the longer term.

Gar­cia could nev­er quite fig­ure out what time it was in Chica­go. But the city’s move­ments have oper­at­ed under a strong sense that the time is theirs. Tak­ing stock of those move­ments’ accom­plish­ments after last night’s elec­tions, it seems it still is.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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