The Chicago election: the electoral revolution that didn’t happen

It was one helluva an election season on the shores of Lake Michigan. Last summer I was brimming with optimism. The Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) had people out canvassing the neighborhoods. CTU President Karen Lewis was polling well in a possible mayoral bid and it looked like Mayor Rahm Emanuel  was on the run.

I foresaw an electoral revolution in the works. As a veteran of the Harold Washington days, I imagined the charismatic Karen Lewis recruiting a working class army of supporters,  including the the working poor and the unemployed. Energetic reform candidates for City Council would emerge. Many of the largely Black and Brown non-voters would finally have something worth voting for—for a change.

A multi-racial rainbow coalition would sweep into power on election day and the day after election day, face the combined wrath of the LaSalle Street bankers and hedge fund bunco artists. But we would not only have people in office, we’d have a powerful movement for social and economic justice to back them up.

It didn’t happen. Karen announced that she was seriously ill with a brain tumor and could not run. She is now undergoing treatment. (BTW Chicagoans love to call their politicians by their first names).

The United Working Families organization is born

We did create a new independent fighting organization when CTU and SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana joined forces with two reform groups, Grassroots Collaborative and Action Now to create United Working Families (UWF). UWF funneled training, volunteers and money to independents and reform Democrats running for aldermanic seats, as well as to Karen’s anointed successor as a candidate, Chuy Garcia. Chicago municipal elections are technically non-partisan. 50%+1 and you avoid a runoff. If no one makes 50%+1 , the two top candidates go into a runoff.

The aldermanic elections were important because even though the mayor holds a lot of power, a City Council majority makes the mayor’s job a lot easier.

Chuy, who came to Chicago from Mexico as a child, was a third string choice in Chicago reform politics. Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle did not want the job. Toni’s mildly reformist politics are pretty close to those of Chuy (who was her floor leader on the Cook County Board), but she had better name recognition, she is African American  and I think could have won the election. Both came into politics as part of the Harold Washington movement in the 1980’s.

Whether or not the same coalition that backed Chuy would have backed her is unclear. Toni, like Chuy, is a Democrat who practices austerity-lite, attacking pensions and wages of public employees while also supporting some beneficial social programs. There is no love lost between Toni and Rahm, but like Chuy,  she is a career politician caught in a period of savage austerity capitalism, when once commonplace ideas  like progressive taxation, raising wages,  public education and social welfare programs are viewed as a Bolshevist plot by much of Corporate USA.

In a better world, both Chuy and Toni would be better at their jobs.

Karen’s politics are also reformist of course, but reflected a sharply defined class politics in a way that Chuy’s and Toni’s did not. I once heard her described by a socialist-minded CTU staffperson as a classic fighting liberal Democrat—like some of those who emerged from the 1930’s or 1960’s. She had name recognition and a strong team of smart people with her. I  think she could have topped Rahm and brought a bunch of independents and reform Democrats into City Council, maybe even a socialist or two. Anything seemed possible.

I join the Zerlina Smith campaign for City Council

I began working on Zerlina’s Smith’s independent aldermanic campaign on the far West Side of the city during that summer of possibilities in 2014. She had been asked to run by some of the same people who later helped found UWF. It was my first political campaign since the Harold Washington days. Zerlina is a rank and file leader in Action Now, a community group whose blue t-shirts, picket signs, bullhorn chants and acts of civil disobedience confront the  Chicago elite on a regular basis. She is also prominent parent leader in the education justice movement.

Like most Action Now members she is African American, describing herself as a “militant and a radical.” I’m also a member of Action Now (I’m white BTW), and a longtime socialist,  so when she asked me to join her campaign team I jumped at the chance. Both Zerlina and I were strong supporters of Karen and when her illness was announced it came as a personal blow. It was also a blow to the legion of independents and anti-Rahm Democrats who had emerged out of the heady days before Karen was forced to withdraw.

Money and resources promised to Zerlina by the organizations allied with United Working Families were late in coming  as money had to be be diverted to build Chuy’s name recognition and counter the blitzkrieg of anti-Chuy TV ads churned out by the Rahm forces. That combined with Zerlina’s inexperience as a political candidate and problems within her campaign organization helped contribute to a 4th place showing in a field 8 for her 29th ward aldermanic bid.

A few of the the insurgent aldermanic candidates did survive the grueling money-soaked Chicago election process and will take seats in the City Council, growing the Council’s modest-size Progressive Caucus. But there is no doubt in my mind that had Karen not become ill, more would have made it to City Hall, possibly even to a majority in Chicago’s 50 member council.

Chuy did make it to the mayoral run-off. However  Chuy proved unwilling to directly confront the corporate elite’s austerity agenda by taxing the rich, had little name recognition outside of his base in the largely Latino Near Southwest Side neighborhoods and was thrust into a campaign he never expected. Then there was Chicago’s traditional ethnic and racial rivalries which worked against him as well. Carpetbombed by Rahm’s inexhaustible campaign funds, he did poorly in largely white wards and not much better in largely African American wards.

Socialists were very active in the election

I see Chuy as being an example of desperation politics practiced by a relatively new social movement. As a member of United Working Families and Action Now,  both of whom who backed Chuy,  I talked to people who were very aware of Chuy’s shortcomings and privately quite critical of him, but saw him as their only electoral hope.

I also belong to the International Socialist Organization(ISO) which has a policy of not supporting Democrats in elections. The ISO wants to see an independent working class party emerge, though how that might happen is a source of much speculation.The organization published several well researched articles critical of Chuy and the Democratic party and did not endorse his candidacy. The ISO came under scathing criticism from some leftist Chuy supporters. There were other socialist groups active during in election along with a number of unaffiliated socialists.

There were ISO members  who gave Chuy some limited support through their UWF affiliations. I was one of them. For example, late in the campaign United Working Families produced doorhangers which featured Chuy’s picture on one side and the UWF endorsed aldermanic candidate on the other. Zerlina was a UWF endorsed candidate so I helped sort and pass out doorhangers with Chuy’s picture on one side and Zerlina’s on the other.

A few days earlier Zerlina and I had encountered Chuy after a photo shoot. She asked him to walk the 29th Ward with her. The 29th is on the far West Side Side of the city; is majority African American and home to serious poverty-driven social problems. Three  years ago, the Austin neighborhood of the 29th Ward led the city in murders. Chuy declined by saying it was a little far for his staff to go. Wow.

According to this article by veteran labor reporter Dave Moberg:

Some black leaders complained that the Garcia campaign did not give their neighborhoods any special attention or promises. Indeed, some members of the Garcia campaign who ask not to be identified agreed that top campaign strategists decided not to mount a special campaign appeal to the black community, but instead hoped to win with Latino and white ethnic votes.

Chuy’s reluctance to  seriously engage with Black voters might have cost him the election. We’ll never know for sure.

The majority of Chicagoans sat out the election

The working class social movement that came together around Chuy and the insurgent aldermanic candidates is the strongest I have seen in Chicago for decades. But it is still relatively weak compared to the power of our corporate enemies. Let’s remember that many  working class people stayed home in droves, having come to believe that that there are no political solutions to their problems.

Only 38% of the registered voters voted in the run-off, even fewer in the general election. And don’t forget the people who are not registered to vote as well as the immigrants who can’t vote. I ran into considerable hostility while door knocking in Austin for Zerlina. Not to me personally, people were generally polite about it, but to politicians and politics in general.

I see most American elections as a chance to choose which politician we get to fight with for the term of their office. Seen from that point of view, I would have preferred to fight with Chuy Garcia rather than Rahm Emanuel even knowing his many shortcomings. I also knew that some of the coalition members with Chuy would have joined his administration and we’d have ended up fighting with them too.

So despite being pretty burned out by months of intense campaign work during the general election, I gave Chuy some half hearted support in the run-off by quietly attending a few fundraisers and rallies. But I did this more to show solidarity with the legions of working class Chicagoans who had volunteered for his campaign. They were desperate for change in a city where the financial elite keeps increasing the misery index of their neighborhoods.

The 2015 election also pointed up other serious weaknesses of the Chicago working class movement. The unions  were deeply divided with some of them even supporting Rahm in the hope of gaining political favors. In addition, too much expectation rested on two individuals: Karen Lewis and Chuy Garcia. This reliance on  single leaders demonstrates a form of political immaturity that has been all too common in US history. We need to stop thinking that a mommy or daddy is going to rescue us from the dangers of the world.

Then there are the simmering tensions between independents and reform Democrats.

We need to break from the corporate domination of political parties

United Working Families supported both independent candidates and reform Democrats. I’m  a socialist who thinks being in the same room with a reform Democrat doesn’t mean I’ll get sucked into the jaws of the corporate dominated money-machine that the Democratic Party has become.  Some reform Democrats believe they can transform the Democratic Party into a genuine progressive force.I doubt that’s possible under present social conditions. Other reform Democrats would be happy to a join a progressive political party with a working class agenda, if such a thing existed.

I firmly believe that we need a major party realignment that breaks with the corporate domination  of the electoral process and bases itself on this nation’s working class majority. United Working Families, armed with a strong working class agenda, could make that happen on a local level. I think their strategy of backing both independents and reform Democrats makes sense. The main thing is to have a working class alliance to hold candidates accountable to a working class agenda once they are in office.

The future of UWF is unclear. It is supposed to hold a membership convention and build upon what it has accomplished so far. The date of that convention has not yet been set. Whether its model, as it evolves, will have any relevance elsewhere is an unknown. What its impact might have on national elections is also impossible to predict. No one really knows how to break with corporate domination of elections or what a 21st century party realignment might look like.

One thing is clear though, past party realignments have taken place as a result of extreme social crisis. And one of things that capitalism manufactures best is social crisis.

During the election I met progressive-minded people whom I had worked with in the education justice movement, the low wage workers movement, the environmental movement and the feminist movement. A wide variety of political points of view are represented in Chicago’s social movements.

 Whatever our differences over parties and electoral strategy, we need to work together to further our social movements.While elections and voting have their place, social movements are what drive major social change. That was how slavery was abolished. That was how women gained the right to vote. That was how  segregation by law was overcome. Change through the voting and electoral process comes in the final stages of a major social transformation.

Is there a real alternative to austerity capitalism?

The CTU came out with a report in February 0f 2015 that  challenges the dominant narrative of today; the narrative  that there is no alternative to  austerity capitalism, that begging for a few more of its stale crumbs is the best we  can hope for. The report, entitled A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve is introduced with these words:

Institutional racism, poverty, systematic underfunding of education and their effects lie at the heart of problems in education. Yet, there is a complete lack of political will to even discuss, much less begin to solve, these fundamental issues. Instead, city leaders continue to privilege a small select group while ignoring community voice and needs.

Institutional racism and poverty lie at the very heart of US capitalism. I don’t think its even possible to eliminate those evils within the structure of capitalism, which is based on domination of the economy by a tiny wealthy minority. It would take a society based on democratic cooperative ownership of a sustainable economy to have any hope of eliminating racism and poverty. No such society exists on this planet today.

But by seriously addressing these long term goals now, we can move closer to that kind of society, whether you call it socialism or some other term. A rose…is… a… rose by any other name etc.

Although the CTU was a major backer of Chuy Garcia, I doubt he even read the report and he certainly did not campaign on its contents. That’s why we need socialists in this town, to take the boldest and most visionary ideas about the future and transform them into practical reform strategies that even people who don’t consider themselves socialists (who are the majority BTW) will sign on to.

The number of people who are socialists or at least hold socialistic ideas is much larger than the tiny membership rolls of existing socialist organizations. Opinion polls suggest that  young people are especially open to socialist ideas. Socialists need to do a  much better job of organizing themselves.

Electoral politics in Chicago can feel like walking through a sewer without protective gear and without a map. That’s the way it is in a city where both illegal and legal corruption tower over even its tallest buildings. I felt very conflicted throughout the election, faced with many difficult choices. Today I am left with more questions than answers. I’m thankful we have 4 years to think about that kind of complexity before we have do it all over again.

All photographs by Bob “BobboSphere” Simpson

Sources consulted

An alternative to Mayor 1 Percent? by Brian Bean, Melissa Rakestraw and Lee Sustar

What Has Jesus “Chuy” Garcia Actually Accomplished in Office? A Lot, It Turns Out. by Rick Perlstein

Rahm Emanuel Is a Union-buster. So Why Are Chicago Unions Backing Him? by Dave Moberg

A pro-labor mayor for Chicago? by Lee Sustar

Emanuel won the mayor’s race, but progressives won the election by Amisha Patel

Be critical, but be for Chuy by Ben

Chicago Progressives’ Mixed Results Against the ‘Money Machine’ by Dave Moberg

With Chicago Tired of “Mayor 1%,” Chuy García Could Actually Win His Runoff with Rahm Emanuel by Kari Lydersen

What Progressives Around the Country Can Learn from Chicago’s Mayoral Election by David Hatch

1 comment

  1. avatar
    MusicCityMollie May 8, 2015 8:02 am 

    Thank you for this excellent and informative essay.

    I was very puzzled when I heard on XM Radio that all 11 majority African-American precincts went for Emanuel.

    (One of the program hosts claimed to be from Chicago–I have no idea if this information was reliable.)

    He also claimed that the majority of unions, with several exceptions, went with Emanuel.

    I’ve seen your name mentioned by a labor writer at another major progressive blog–you come highly recommended.

    I look forward to reading your work, now that I’ve become a member of this community.

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