On Chicago's Northwest Side, Socialists Are Wielding Power in a Whole New Way

For city council members Rossana Rodríguez Sanchez and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, “co-governance” is key.

Jacqui Germain

United Neighbors of the 35th Ward and 33rd Ward Working Families march in support of creating an elected police oversight council in Chicago on Aug. 9, 2020. PHOTO BY JONATHAN NAGY

CHICAGO — The crowd at the 33rd Ward Working Families office is packed and overflowing onto the sidewalk. Anticipating the deportation raids threatened by the Trump administration during the summer of 2019, several community groups sent out calls for volunteers. Dozens showed up; the city’s northwest neighborhoods would protect themselves. 

Caitlin Brady, a member of the independent political organization 33rd Ward Working Families, recalls how volunteers learned to identify Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, then divided into precincts and took shifts scouring the streets by bike or on foot, looking out for them. Along the way, they informed residents of what to do if ICE did show up.

The effort was a little helter-skelter, to be frank,” says Kenneth Barrios, another member of 33rd Ward Working Families, who participated in two shifts. No one stumbled across any ICE raids, Brady says, but the fact that neighbors created a visible line of defense with such short notice spoke to the community’s collective rapid-response capacity.

33rd Ward Working Families found its footing in 2015, after public school teacher Tim Meegan lost his bid to unseat Alderwoman Deb Mell. The Meegan campaign put its remaining funds toward officially launching the 33rd Ward Working Families, in the Chicago tradition of independent political organizations, or IPOs. The group voted to affiliate with the larger United Working Families in Illinois, itself an offshoot of the national Working Families Party.

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Through canvassing and grassroots efforts, 33rd Ward Working Families had developed strong positions on issues like rent control (pro) and charter schools (against) ahead of the 2019 aldermanic elections. They nominated one of their most active members, Rossana Rodríguez Sanchez, for the 33rd Ward seat. Member Kate Barthelme says more than 800 people volunteered for the campaign, with about 100 routinely gathering for Saturday canvasses in the dead of winter — and a Chicago winter, at that. After a runoff and a month-long recount, Rodríguez Sanchez won by 13 votes.

Four years later, Rodríguez Sanchez won her reelection outright. 

Both times, she ran openly as a socialist. Today, she is part of the Chicago City Council Democratic Socialist Caucus alongside five other members: Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward); Daniel La Spata (1st Ward); Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward); Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward); and Angela Clay (46th Ward). 

While 33rd Ward Working Families has no ideological requirements for membership, Barthelme says many members are socialists or have socialist values. Since then, in collaboration with their socialist alderperson, the ward has won 100% affordable housing policies, introduced participatory budgeting, established a community-driven zoning process and helped evolve Treatment Not Trauma (Rodríguez Sanchez’s alternatives-to-policing ordinance) into a citywide initiative with the approval of Mayor Brandon Johnson.

As a socialist, Rodríguez Sanchez says government should address people’s basic needs, including mental healthcare and housing, and it should be guided by the people, a principle called co-governance.”

When you have co-governance,” Rodríguez Sanchez says, the people who are the most impacted and at the center of the issues that government is supposed to address are going to be having a voice, are going to be coming up with solutions, are going to advise and are going to advocate so that we can implement the changes that are needed in order to serve the public.”

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, alderman for the neighboring 35th Ward and a member of United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35), has identified as a leftist since reading The Communist Manifesto in sixth grade. It was on the recommendation of Young Communist League high schoolers who visited his classroom. Ramirez-Rosa’s socialist values weren’t highly publicized in 2015 when he beat a 12-year incumbent for his seat, but they’re certainly known now.

UN35 was established as an IPO after Ramirez-Rosa’s campaign win. He views his city council seat as an extension of a base-building project in the community.” Similar to 33rd Ward Working Families, UN35 has no ideological requirements for membership. Both emphasize working-class power, collectivism and democratic decision-making — all socialist values.

Leaning on these shared values, the alderpeople and their respective neighborhood groups are learning co-governance as they go. Barrios and Brady agree the process is still developing, but add that being able to trust Rodríguez Sanchez to run the 33rd in a principled way has been a huge relief.

The majority, if not all, of [Rodríguez Sanchez’s] staff are members of the IPO,” Brady says. We like to view it as, that’s our seat,’ you know what I mean? Rossana is our representative, but it’s our seat.”

Unsurprisingly, the feeling is mutual. Throughout Rodríguez Sanchez’s interview with In These Times, she refers to the 33rd Ward organization as my IPO,” a nod to her political roots.

She speaks about things in a much more collective way; it’s not just, I’ll take care of this,’ says Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, who isn’t a member but serves on Rodríguez Sanchez’s participatory budgeting committee. It just makes you feel like things are possible to change. We actually help each other and care for each other and check in on each other.”

“As socialists, we need cadre, we need organization, we need comrades that we work closely with. And as leftists, we’re so familiar with electing someone, sending them into the belly of the beast, and then either they’re co-opted by the system or they feel isolated. They become jaded [or] they get worn out.” - Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, alderman for the 35th Ward, Chicago

Ramirez-Rosa says co-governance builds power and fosters commitment. I know that, as an elected official, I cannot do this alone,” he says. As socialists, we need cadre, we need organization, we need comrades that we work closely with. And as leftists, we’re so familiar with electing someone, sending them into the belly of the beast, and then either they’re coopted by the system or they feel isolated. They become jaded [or] they get worn out.”

In the 35th Ward, expanding co-governance looks like democratizing aldermanic decision-making, for example, or relying on UN35’s extensive reach for participation in community-driven zoning processes. To get Ramirez-Rosa’s sign-off, a developer must first propose plans to the community, enabling residents to set requirements and make demands before the plans can get approval. This strategy has won living-wage requirements for workers, along with community benefits agreements and 100% affordable housing policies. 

We are in these seats and we have institutional power,” says Rodríguez Sanchez, but that institutional power — we make sure that we are passing that on to our communities and bringing them to the table and bringing them with us to City Council, so that we can realize those dreams — that we have had for a very long time — of a government that actually takes care of us.”

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JACQUI GERMAIN is a journalist and poet living in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s the author of Bittering the Wound, her debut poetry collection about the Ferguson Uprising.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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