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Soon after Chicago’s 33rd Ward alderwoman, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, took office in 2019, she helped create the Democratic Socialist Caucus on City Council, joining five other representatives endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Democratic socialists now account for 10 percent of the Chicago council, and the caucus has led the charge to protect immigrants, prevent privatization efforts and reallocate police funds to public services.
Halfway through her first term, In These Times spoke with Rodriguez Sanchez about her radically practical vision for public safety and the challenges faced by socialist legislators.
What has surprised you about being a legislator?
In the day-to-day work in the ward, you see how privileged some communities are and the expectations they have of government. People who have been disenfranchised don’t even reach out because they don’t even know how.
The other thing that just blows my mind: The power Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has. She appoints the chairs of the committees in the legislative branch, so we don’t really have much independence.
In 2019, you ran on reallocating funding from police to public services. How have you continued that fight while in office, especially since the BLM resurgence?
My main legislative project has been Treatment not Trauma, to prevent police from responding to mental health emergencies and nonviolent situations. Chicago had a public mental healthcare system but because of neoliberal policies, now we have only five functioning clinics. We are trying to invest in those clinics and use them to provide continuous crisis response and care.
Lightfoot’s administration has tried to block it at every turn. They ended up trying to do their own non-police response alternative this summer, but nothing has really happened yet.
What role did socialists play in the fight for Chicago’s new civilian police oversight board?
Carlos [Ramirez-Rosa, Ward 35] introduced the first ordinance, which was the CPAC [Civilian Police Accountability Council] one, and then the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability had something similar.
It was a brutal process, because the mayor did not want to pass what was being proposed. At some point, the two coalitions joined together to create a hybrid that watered down the original proposal. Finally, the mayor saw that she didn’t have any other option.
Some of my colleagues were scared to seem like they are not tough enough on crime. The mayor appoints the chairs of legislative committees, so a lot of people didn’t want to go against her. But the reality is that civilian police oversight was wildly popular, and something that the mayor ran on.
What have you accomplished outside of the legislative process?
To counter the idea that public safety requires more policing, we have been holding events at “hot spots” where there have been violent incidents. Research shows this works to prevent other incidents. We organize neighbors to do sort of “positive loitering.” We do cleanups, evening events, barbecues. We have also been working with outreach workers to do violence interruptions, and making sure we’re reaching out to the people most likely to cause harm or be harmed.
As a socialist, what sets you apart on the City Council?
My campaign was very intentional that we didn’t want any support from developers or big corporations. The main power of an alderman is zoning — so the danger of a conflict of interest is really high. And a lot of developers are gentrifying our communities and displacing the most vulnerable people.
We have a participatory budgeting process and a community zoning process. We are trying to be as democratic and transparent as possible. We support workers every time workers go on strike.
During the pandemic, we have taken public pantries everywhere with basic stuff like hygiene products, food, diapers. It was a lot of work, this pandemic. But we did the work. And I do know of many of my colleagues that did absolutely nothing.
Right now, I’m arguing with the Chicago Park District because they allowed Amazon to put a bunch of lockers on Park District property. It’s crazy. Amazon doesn’t pay taxes. And they use our public spaces to make profit?
How do DSA members on the council relate to DSA?
We work closely with the executive committee of the Chicago DSA chapter. We plan together. We try to maintain very close communication.
You are the only member of the Democratic Socialist Caucus who did not run as a Democrat. Why go independent?
I understand, strategically, why it makes sense to identify with the Democrats. For me, I’m from Puerto Rico. And my experiences under both Democrats and Republicans living in a colony have been very similar. It would be really hard for me to say, “Oh, I belong to a party that has been OK with the way in which the United States has mistreated Puerto Rico, and also the way in which the U.S. empire has destroyed Latin America, the Middle East.”
As a minority bloc of five socialists, how do you build power?
There are at least nine of us socialists/left/progressives that do the work and are able to stand up to the mayor, no problem. There has been friction at times, for sure, because we all come from very different organizing backgrounds. And then there are some others in the [18-member] Progressive Caucus we have been able to count on for specific things.
Most of all, we have the support of the grassroots. A lot of times, shifting public opinion is what it takes.
Do you see your role on the City Council as part of laying the groundwork for an independent party?
Ultimately, we want a socialist society, and the only way to do that is to have a party that is organized and run by working people. At this moment, when the world is burning, people are running out of patience with the capitalist system. The only thing that we can do is ensure that we put forward alternatives.