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It is not often that a serious contender for a US Senate seat announces her candidacy with talk of grassroots environmental activism, fighting for union jobs and “protecting women’s reproductive rights from Tea Party attacks,” or with a pledge to answer proposals to “compromise away Social Security and Medicare” with absolute opposition—“no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands,’ ‘buts’ or ‘willing to considers.’”
Then again, it is not often that Senate races feature candidates like Donna Edwards, the Maryland congresswoman who entered politics only after a long career as an activist on the outside demanding that Congress act on behalf of women, people of color, workers and abandoned communities.
When US Senator Barbara Mikulski decided not to seek a sixth term in 2016, one of the most prominent and powerful Democrats in Congress, US Representative Chris Van Hollen, moved immediately to claim the seat. A Capitol Hill veteran with a reasonably liberal record and a history of working closely with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, Van Hollen scored an early endorsement from Senator minority leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber who is working hard to reclaim the majority status that his party lost in 2014. He’s also secured important endorsements in Maryland, including that of former state Democratic Party chair Susan Turnbull, who hailed the congressman as an “incredibly effective fighter for progressive causes.”
Van Hollen’s opening gambit was strong, but not strong enough to shut down the competition. The race was always expected to attract a number of candidates, as Senate seats do not come open all that frequently in Maryland. And the prospect of a competitive Democratic primary caught the attention of activists who want the party’s Senate caucus to focus on economic and social justice fundamentals and on constitutional reform of a broken political process.
Progressive groups began last week to openly urge Edwards to consider a run. Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched campaigns to draft Maryland’s first African-American congresswoman into the contest. “Donna Edwards has proven time and again that she’s a bold progressive,” wrote PCCC’s Adam Green in a “Donna’s On Our Side” message.
“She’s not just an ally—she’s one of us,” declared Green.
Serious and issue-focused, Edwards has a record of getting out front on behalf of bold positions—even when her party is going slow. She got elected to Congress the hard way in 2008, by mounting a successful anti-war, economic-populist primary challenge to an entrenched Democratic incumbent.
But her entry into electoral politics came after years of grassroots and policy activism.
The first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which she co-founded, Edwards played an important role in advocating for passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. She also worked with Public Citizen and served as executive director of the Center for a New Democracy before becoming executive director of the progressive Arca Foundation, where she was a champion of media reform and efforts to clean up American politics.
It was her activist zeal, and her sense that the Democratic Party was insufficiently engaged at the grassroots, that led Edwards to run for Congress. Edwards said from the start that she was not just running against the conservative agenda; she was running to “push the limits” of the Democratic Party and American politics. “As Democrats, we’ve been too timid in terms of what our expectations are,” she explained. “I think a lot of us have come to realize that it’s important to be on the inside. Years ago, Paul Wellstone used to ask me to work in his Senate office. I would say, ‘No, no, I’m much more comfortable on the outside.’ Now, like a lot of progressives, I’ve realized that Paul was right. The work progressives do on the outside is essential, but more of us have to be on the inside if we’re going to make the Democratic Party the ally we need to change the Congress and the country.”
Since her election, Edwards has often made the connection between grassroots activism and congressional action. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, when most Democrats were talking about tepid reforms, Edwards proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of citizens and their elected representatives to enact meaningful campaign finance laws—and to prevent the bartering off of elections to the highest corporate bidder.
Now, five years after the Citizens United ruling, President Obama and most Democratic senators back some sort of constitutional amendment as a response to the Supreme Court majority’s political meddling on behalf of billionaires and corporate interests. When Edwards stepped up in February 2010, however, she was way ahead of her party. Yet the congresswoman was not cautious in her approach. She said at the time that an amendment was not a strategic option—it was a democratic necessity. “The ruling reached by the Roberts Court overturned decades of legal precedent by allowing corporations unfettered spending in our political campaigns,” explained Edwards. “Another law will not rectify this disastrous decision. A Constitutional Amendment is necessary to undo what this Court has done.”
That kind of talk won’t go down well with the billionaires and the corporate interests who have come to control so much of our politics. And Edwards acknowledges that, in her Senate race, “The corporate special interests are going to come at me with all their money…”
But Edwards has always had a clear sense of which side she is on in the equation proposed a century ago by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
“Justice Brandeis got it right: ‘We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,’” she said when she introduced her amendment. “It is time we remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens.”
Read Next: John Nichols on police reform in Wisconsin
President Obama spoke in Selma Sunday about the past and the present, making a link between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the contemporary movement to address the killings of unarmed African-American men by police officers in so many communities across this country. The president reminded the crowd that “citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago—the protection of the law.”
Unfortunately, the laws that are needed are not always in place; as a result, one of the first questions that arises after an officer-involved death is: “Are the police going to investigate the police?
This is a critical question—so much so that one of the chief recommendations of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was for independent investigations of police-involved deaths.
In Madison, Wisconsin, where a 19-year-old African-American man was shot and killed Friday night by a local police officer, there’s a better answer to the question than in most places, thanks to state Representative Chris Taylor.
Taylor was on Madison’s Williamson Street Friday night when Tony Robinson, who police acknowledge was unarmed, was killed. She was getting gas as a nearby station when the shots that took Robinson’s life were fired. She has been present as activists with groups such as the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition have demanded accountability and sweeping changes in police practices with a series of demonstrations that have filled the streets and, on Monday, the rotunda of the state Capitol.
But Taylor’s connection to what the legislator refers to as an “unspeakable tragedy,” and to the policing issues that have been raised, runs deeper.
Several years ago, after the shooting in the same neighborhood of a white unarmed young man, Paul Heenan, an internal investigation by the Madison Police Department determined that the officer involved had not violated department policies or procedures. That raised a community outcry; there were protests, petitions and calls for a better system of investigating shootings by police officers.
Their voices joined a broader chorus of Wisconsinites calling for independent reviews of police shootings—a chorus that included Michael Bell, whose son was killed in 2004 by police in Kenosha. No officer was charged with wrongdoing in the death of Michael Bell Jr., but the Bell family received nearly $1.75 million in a settlement with the city. Michael Bell became a prominent campaigner for an independent-review law. He did not portray it as a panacea, but he would suggest that such legislation could provide “a little more confidence” in the process.
“What this is about, too, is moving from internal affairs of a particular police department to outside the department,” Bell would explain. “[Opponents of the change] say [the status quo] is a good check and balance, and we’re saying it’s not. That’s why we’re moving it outside.”
Taylor heard the chorus. And she determined to make the change. It was not easy. She was serving her first full term as a state representative. She was a progressive Democrat in an overwhelmingly conservative and overwhelmingly Republican Assembly. But Taylor is not easily dissuaded.
The Madison attorney started looking for a Republican ally. She found one in Garey Bies, a former deputy sheriff from Sister Bay in Door County. Two years ago, the pair proposed Assembly Bill 409, which was written to require that investigations of officer-involved deaths be led by investigators from outside the police agencies with which the officers serve. The bill also proposed that families of shooting victims be informed of their legal rights and that the results of investigations that do not lead to criminal charges be made public.
“Law enforcement officers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and are confronted with life-threatening situations on a regular basis,” argued Taylor and Bies. “Yet their ability to do their jobs depends on the trust of their community. This bill reasonably balances these realities with a uniform statewide structure to ensure a better process when officer-involved deaths occur anywhere in Wisconsin. This improved process will strengthen trust between law enforcement and communities.”
The Republican state attorney general opposed the bill. Yet Taylor and Bies assembled a coalition of supporters that included the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Badger Sheriffs Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. And Taylor kept talking to Republican legislators with whom she frequently clashed on other issues.
Remarkably, in a time of so many partisan and ideological divisions, the bill advanced. In the spring of 2014, after securing unanimous support in the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate, this quite progressive piece of legislation was signed into law by the very conservative Governor Scott Walker.
Taylor and Bies said the governor would “make history by signing this critical bill, making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to require an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.”
Since that signing occurred in the spring of 2014, legislators in other states have begun looking for ways in which to get this piece of the criminal-justice equation right.
Just this past weekend, when so many gathered in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of a great turning point in the struggle for racial justice in America, an Alabama legislator was interviewed on MSNBC about where the struggle stands today. She spoke of fights over voting rights and so many other issues. Yet she also spoke, hopefully, of efforts to pass legislation to provide for independent review of officer-involved deaths.
When Alabama state Representative Merika Coleman-Evans began talking about the Alabama initiative in January, the Associated Press reported that “The proposal is part of a wave of legislation being introduced across the country in the wake of protests over police killings in Missouri and New York.”
Wisconsin’s law was on the books before the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City sparked protests that gained national attention.
Now, as news of a shooting in Madison draws national attention, Wisconsin’s law has provided at least a measure of breathing space in a difficult moment.
When the Robinson shooting occurred, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval announced, “Obviously in light of the fact that we are completely bound by state law, which indicates that an independent oversight and investigation should be conducted outside of the Madison Police Department, we respected that from the moment we took the scene, froze the scene, and waited for the DCI to arrive.”
That was an important statement, one that in a tense moment provided a framework for how Madisonians, and people beyond Madison, might consider the investigation. The law that Taylor and Bies crafted does not address every issue that emerges following an officer-involved shooting. It does not resolve every concern about policing and criminal justice. “The law that we passed is not perfect,” says Taylor. “It’s a first attempt to get a more open, transparent, independent process.” But the law does provide that framework, a potential for establishing some measure of confidence and trust.
This is what lawmakers can and must do, even in times of deep division and partisan wrangling. It matters that Chris Taylor did not simply complain. She did not merely talk about what could not be done. A progressive Democrat recognized a breach in the system and, with a Republican colleague, she set out to repair it. This does not make Taylor and Bies heroes. This is what we should expect of our elected officials.
Unfortunately, because our politics and our governance has become so disappointing, so frustrating, so frequently pointless, Taylor and Bies stood out as something rare in the Wisconsin Capitol: problem solvers. Like a number of senior Republicans, Bies decided not to seek re-election in 2014. But Taylor is still serving, still speaking up and still arguing that it is possible to bridge the chasms of political division to make those first attempts to get a more open, transparent, independent process.
Read Next: John Nichols says Elizabeth Warren should challenge Hillary Clinton
Former secretary of labor Robert Reich says Hillary Clinton should face “a tough primary challenger” and he knows who he would like to see mount a run against the presumed Democratic front-runner.
“I wish that challenger would be Elizabeth Warren,” Reich explained Friday, in a short statement that has energized supporters of a burgeoning movement to draft the senator from Massachusetts as a populist alternative to Clinton.
Battered in recent days by revelations about her use of a private e-mail account when she served as the Obama administration’s secretary of state, and by reports of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton has been scrambling to retain the presumption of inevitability that has framed her potential candidacy.
Reich is not suggesting that the controversies will necessarily derail Clinton, who is well ahead in the polls. Rather, as an ardent advocate for a progressive populist response to the crisis of income inequality, he is arguing affirmatively in a Facebook post for the logic of a Warren run.
Reich has always spoken well of Warren, with whom he shares many positions. They have worked together. And he has spoken about the prospect that she might might challenge Clinton. But this is more than just an expression of ideological sympathy, and more than punditry. This is a former Bill Clinton cabinet member saying, specifically, that he hopes Warren will run.
Coming as the current Clinton controversies are grabbing headlines, Reich’s move is going to garner attention.
Reich knows this. He is a savvy veteran of the political fights of the past four decades (who has campaigned for many Democrats, advised many more and once sought the Democratic nod for governor of Massachusetts). He is an important figure on the left of the Democratic Party. And he has a following—indeed, there has been soft speculation about the prospect that Reich, himself, might be a presidential prospect.
With all of this is mind, here’s how Reich frames his intervention in the current discussion about 2016:
I’ve been getting lots of calls from reporters wanting to know if Democrats should have a “plan B” if Hillary’s candidacy implodes. I tell them (1) it’s still way too early (there’s not even a plan A because she hasn’t yet declared, and it’s more than a year and a half before Election Day anyway), (2) if she runs the odds of her imploding are very low; she’s been through all this three times before (once as a candidate and twice as Bill Clinton’s de facto campaign manager) and will be a strong candidate, (3) but it would be good for the Democrats and the country—and good for her (it will make her an even stronger candidate)—to have a tough primary challenger, and (4) I wish that challenger would be Elizabeth Warren.
Reich’s statement was embraced by backers of the movement to draft Warren, with Erica Sagrans, the manager of the “Ready for Warren” draft campaign, suggested that “Having Robert Reich, a leading voice for working families, join our push to draft Elizabeth Warren could go a long way to getting Warren to consider a run.”
Activists noted that, barely a month ago, Politico was reporting that Clinton aides were seeking Reich’s backing in an effort to increase her appeal among progressives. “One component of Hillary Clinton’s emerging strategy involves quietly but aggressively courting key endorsers from the left, who could help increase progressives’ comfort level and take the wind out of a potential challenge,” read the Politico report. “Two top targets: Robert Reich, the economist and former labor secretary in her husband’s administration, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon.”
Lewis said several years ago, when discussing the possibility of a Clinton 2016 run, “I won’t make an endorsement, but I will say this: If she makes a decision to run, I would be with her.” Of course, it can be noted that, in 2008, the Georgia congressman initially endorsed Hillary Clinton and then switched to Barack Obama.
Because of his long history with the Clintons, Reich has often been portrayed as a Clinton ally. But now he’s talking up Warren.
And “Draft Warren” campaigners say he is not alone.
Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, a group that has highlighted Reich’s work to address income inequality, noted Friday that “Reich’s comments are very much in line with what we’re hearing from many who are backing the Draft Warren effort.”
Sagrans says there’s a broad understanding at the grassroots of the points Reich and others have begun to make about the need for a competitive race. “Reich understands the system is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful and knows that having Warren in the race, speaking truth to that power, will ultimately strengthen the Democratic Party and our democracy,” she explained. “We hope that others will join Robert Reich, Van Jones and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have come forward to urge the Senator to run, so that voters have a real choice in this election.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the corporation hiding unions from children
The American trade union movement has achieved remarkable progress with its fights for fair wages and benefits, for an eight-hour day, for protections against child-labor abuses for pensions for retirees and workplace safety. And the movement’s accomplishments have extended beyond the workplace to the community and the nation as a whole, especially when it has marched on the front lines for civil rights and social justice. Those gains have required sacrifice and struggle, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained when he addressed the AFL-CIO national convention in 1961.
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” said King. “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed. And as we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both. Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century.”
So it really has never been easy.
There have always been haters and baiters.
But it does seem now—at a time when unions are under constant assault from bad trade policies, congressional initiatives to undermine the National Labor Relations Board and existing labor law, transparently irresponsible privatization schemes and the “right-to-work” sneak attacks of Republican governors—that the labor haters and labor baiters are upping the volume. And the anti-labor propaganda has gone over the top.
Consider this: In a matter of days, American unions have been reimagined as threats so menacing that simply responding to them prepares an otherwise inexperienced presidential contender to deal with the cruelest global threats. And unions are being blamed for… displacing the Junior Optimist Baseball League
First, there was the bluster and bombast of 2016 Republican presidential prospect Scott Walker, who responded to a question about what he would do as president to stop the advance of Islamic State (ISIS) by saying: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
The governor of Wisconsin got a lot of blowback for that remark at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Forget about the liberals, even conservative commentators allowed as how the challenges of responding to the teachers and librarians who marched on the state Capitol in 2011 might not have fully prepared Walker to see off threats posed by terrorists. But Walker doubled down on the anti-labor line two days after the CPAC gathering, telling a Club for Growth event that “the most significant foreign policy decision in my lifetime… was in August of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.”
Just to be clear, the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization were Americans who were exercising their right to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances, just like the teachers and librarians in Madison.
But, apparently, both were so intimidating—in Walker’s eyes—that thwarting the demands of union members provided preparation for tackling the toughest international challenges.
Walker’s critics are right when they suggest that all of this says more about the prospective candidate’s fragile worldview than it does about labor relations or foreign affairs.
Unfortunately, Walker is not alone in imagining that unions are super scary.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the corporation that owns a major refinery is blocking baseball players aged 4-to-14 from using fields on the edge of its property because the company fears children might be exposed to trade unionists.
Headlines in local papers last week announced that a strike by refinery workers had forced adolescent baseball players off the fields. The Contra Costa Times reported that ” Hundreds of displaced youth baseball players won’t get to play ball on their home fields until striking Tesoro steelworkers return to work, the refinery says.” The paper explained:
The 49 baseball and softball teams in the Junior Optimist Baseball League have been locked out of the 15 North Concord ball fields they rent from Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery since Feb. 2, when the United Steelworkers walked off the job at Tesoro and eight other refineries across the country to protest safety conditions, health care costs and the use of outside contractors for maintenance.
Initially, Tesoro said it closed the league’s fields—plus two soccer fields and another baseball field used by other youth sports groups—as a safety precaution because workers are picketing outside the refinery’s front gates…
Declaring that the gates won’t be opened until the strike is over, Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche told a local website that, “It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines. We just don’t want to expose them to any negative interactions.”
“Noting that demonstrators from the California Nurses Association, Communities for a Better Environment and the Occupy movement have swelled the ranks of the picketing refinery workers, Deutsche said the company believes the situation is unsafe,” reported the Contra Costa Times.
Calfornia Nurses Association spokesman Chuck Idelson was incredulous. “Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Idelson, who suggested that it was “disgraceful” for the energy conglomerate “to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”
It is worth noting here that the steelworkers are not targeting baseball. “There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” announced Tracy Scott, a staff representative with United Steelworkers Local 5. The striking workers, many of them parents and active members of the community, are focused on exceptionally serious issues, including health and safety concerns—which is one of the reasons why the nurses union has gotten engaged. “These refineries are notorious for blowing smoke,” says California Nurses Association/National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann De Moro. “The real danger to the young baseball players and the people in their community is the toxic pollution from refinery emissions and accidents. Central to the strike is the workers seeking to have a stronger voice on health and safety issues for themselves and their community.”
Unions work hard to present themselves as robust representatives for their members.
There are times when individual locals, international unions and the whole of the AFL-CIO must stand strong.
There are times when tensions on picket lines or in the corridors of power can rise.
But the notion that steelworkers or nurses pose a threat to Junior Optimist Baseball is as silly as the notion that being unreasonable with teachers and librarians in Wisconsin prepares a candidate to tackle terror in the Middle East.
Read Next: John Nichols on remembering Mr. Spock
The tributes to Leonard Nimoy that have filled newspaper front pages and television broadcasts since his death Friday have begun to reveal a measure of the man’s remarkable reach, which extended far beyond his development of perhaps the most enduring and beloved character in modern science fiction.
He was a dedicated artist who acted on stage and screen, directed plays and films, wrote poetry and earned praise for his photography; a generous donor to the arts and many causes; a proud Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) member; and an early champion of diversity and pay equity—as was revealed in recent reports on how Mr. Spock advocated for equal pay for Lt. Uhura (actress Nichelle Nichols).
So perhaps it will not come as a surprise that, at the height of his initial fame, Nimoy was an ardent McGovern man.
George McGovern’s anti-war candidacy for the presidency in 1972 attracted a good deal of celebrity support. But few Hollywood figures worked as hard as Nimoy to advance the cause of the Democratic presidential contender.
Beginning in January of 1972, when he trekked to New Hampshire on behalf of what was then considered to be McGovern’s uphill battle for the nomination, Nimoy traveled to thirty-five states on the South Dakota senator’s behalf. Grainy photos and news reports from more than four decades ago tell the story of a young Nimoy campaigning in the southwest with Latinos, in urban centers with African-Americans, in rural Oregon and even in Alaska.
Nimoy did not mind trading on his Star Trek celebrity to appeal for McGovern. He even joked at campaign stops that “I’m at a disadvantage. I’ve spent most of my previous life on Vulcan, so I don’t know too much about the people in this country,”
But, of course, he did know a lot about the country and its politics. Referencing infant mortality rates and poverty issues in a land of plenty, he declared, “We don’t need another campaign that avoids these issues, another nice-guy campaign.”
On the campaign trail, Nimoy spoke against not just the war in Vietnam but against bloated Department of Defense budgets and misguided priorities. He decried the influence of Henry Kissinger on the Nixon administration and fretted that it was undermining traditional diplomacy. He condemned the Watergate break-in and complained about win-at-any-cost politics.
Nimoy drew crowds, and attention, for the campaign—even if, as he explained to an interviewer years later, some McGovern aides might have thought of Mr. Spock as a slightly “alien” surrogate. Part of what made Nimoy effective as a campaigner was his steadfast refusal to play the star. In Wyoming, McGovern campaign organizer Barbara McKenzie recalled, “Leonard Nimoy went out to the caucus and helped set up chairs.”
Asked by an Alaskan television interviewer if he thought it was fair to use his celebrity status to “boost” McGovern, Nimoy replied, “I think it’s about as fair as Ronald Reagan running for governor of California based on the fact that he’s done some movies…. I try very hard to avoid asking people to vote for George McGovern simply because they like me. I try to present some specific information, I try to be very much in touch with the issues so that I can give an intelligent accounting of the candidate—rather than to just do it on a celebrity basis.”
While McGovern won the Democratic nomination—helped along by delegates won in a number of Western states where Nimoy was an ardent campaigner—he was soundly defeated in that fall by Richard Nixon. Nimoy headed back to LA and his acting career. There are old pictures of him holding “Mr. Spock for President” bumper stickers. But, unlike another Star Trek veteran who was politically active in 1972, George Takei (Lt. Sulu)—who narrowly lost a 1973 Los Angeles city council race and later considered seeking a seat in the California legislature—Nimoy steered clear of electoral politics.
As campaign slogans go, it would be hard to top “Live Long and Prosper.”
Read Next: John Nichols on why Scott Walker isn’t presidential material
I have known Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker since he was a young state legislator. We used to talk a good deal about our differing views on how to reform things: campaign finance rules, ethics regulations, social-welfare programs.
We seldom reached agreement. But I gave him credit for respecting the search for common ground. And for understanding that a disagreement on a particular matter is never an excuse for ending the search—or for disregarding others who are engaged in it.
But that was long ago. Scott Walker has changed a great deal—and not, I fear, for the better.
He is deep into a political career that has seen plenty of ups and downs; and, now, he is grasping for a top rung on the ladder: the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016.
On Thursday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Walker was asked how he would respond to ISIS, and the “radical Islamic terrorism” he had condemned in his speech to the group. Walker told the crowd: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.”
That was an unsettling statement. Even conservative commentators who are inclined to praise Walker acknowledged that it was “a terrible response.” National Review’s Jim Geraghty explained that “taking on a bunch of protesters is not comparably difficult to taking on a Caliphate with sympathizers and terrorists around the globe, and saying so suggests Walker doesn’t quite understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups.”
Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who knows a thing or two about making mistakes on the campaign trail, said, “I think, you know, some of the statements that he’s made are obviously problematic for him.”
“You are talking about, in the case of ISIS, people who are beheading individuals and committing heinous crimes, who are the face of evil,” Perry continued. “To try to make the relationship between them and the unions is inappropriate.”
Walker is “walking back” as quickly as he can, and griping once more that the media will “misconstrue” his message. Unfortunately, this is not the first time he has suggested that his “experience” with Wisconsinites who disagreed with his assault on workers and public education and public services has somehow prepared him to stand strong on the global stage.
The trouble with this calculus is that the protesters in Wisconsin were teachers and nurses and librarians. They were the parents of ailing children. They were seniors who were worried about access to healthcare and the security of their pensions. They did not threaten Scott Walker. They asked him to listen, to care, to simply respect them.
Scott Walker refused to do so in 2011. He is still refusing to do so.
This is not a “mistake.” This is the political path Scott Walker has chosen. When citizens assembled and petitioned their government for the redress of grievances in 2011, Walker chose as their governor to disrespect and disregard them.
At times, he did so in the soft language of a political careerist, mouthing talking points prepared to soften the blows. At times, he did so in the malicious language of the hyper-partisan, trading notes with a caller he thought was billionaire campaign donor David Koch about deceiving legislators, thwarting prospects for compromise, and how he and his aides “thought about” using what the caller described as “troublemakers” to disrupt demonstrations by nursing home aides and teaching assistants and Head Start educators. But the default position was always the same: disrespect and disregard.
Now, as an all-but-announced presidential candidate bidding for the favor of his party’s fiercest partisans, Walker continues to choose to disregard and disrespect those who dared to defend their livelihoods, their communities and their state.
I know there will be critics of the governor who say that this is who he has always been. I have a different view. I believe this is what he has become. After all these years of aspiring to higher office, this is what the experience has made Scott Walker
That prospect ought to cause even Walker’s most ardent advocates to pause and consider whether this man is ready for presidential politics.
This has very little to do with liberalism versus conservatism, Democrats versus Republicans. This goes much deeper, to the question of how a potential contender for a powerful position views himself, his experiences and the responsibility that he proposes to embrace.
If Scott Walker really believes that the experience of disregarding the concerns of Wisconsinites has prepared him to deal with global threats, then he misconstrues his own strengths, he misconstrues threats that are as complex as they are serious, and, above all, he misconstrues the duty of respect that every governor (and every president) owes to citizens with whom he agrees—and to citizens with whom he disagrees.
Read Next: John Nichols on activists needing to protect net neutrality
The Federal Communications Commission has finally taken the necessary steps to preserve a free and open Internet by guaranteeing net neutrality.
With the commission’s 3-2 vote on Thursday, the issue is settled.
Then it will rise again. No, there will not be a mass outcry against net neutrality, the premise that all Internet communications should be treated equally. There will be no popular demand for ending net neutrality protections against the development of a two-tier Internet, where “paying” content (from multinational corporations and powerful special interests) moves on an information superhighway, while “non-paying” content (from grassroots groups and dissenting citizens) is diverted onto a digital dirt road.
But there will be campaign donations, lobbying and spin from telephone and cable companies that have too much at stake to give up on the fight for an end to rules that prevent them from subdividing the Internet for profit. Telecommunications conglomerates stand to make a lot more money if they can charge extra to move some communications more quickly—creating a circumstance where corporations and politicians with the right connections can pay for commercial and political advantages in the digital age.
The telecom giants cannot establish a pay-to-play Internet if the FCC enforces strict net neutrality protections. That’s why it was so vital that media reform, civil-rights and community groups first made net neutrality an issue and then succeeded in building a mass movement on behalf of basing new net-neutrality rules on Title II of the Communications Act—a step that would allow regulation in the public interest rather. That’s why it mattered so much that President Obama embraced net neutrality and urged his appointees to the FCC to do the same. And that’s why the FCC’s embrace of net neutrality is such a big deal for communications and democracy.
There is much to celebrate. In an era when corporations so frequently get so very much of what they ask for, it is both good and hopeful that a federal agency is acting on behalf of the public interest. “Today’s vote is the biggest win for the public interest in the FCC’s history,” says Free Press president Craig Aaron. “It’s the culmination of a decade of dedicated grassroots organizing and advocacy. Millions of people came to the defense of the open Internet to tell Washington, in no uncertain terms, that the Internet belongs to all of us and not just a few greedy phone and cable companies.”
This is, in particular, a win for social and economic justice advocates, who rely on a free and open Internet to communicate and to organize. “The open Internet is the platform that allows ordinary people to speak with an unfiltered voice, and net neutrality is what protects that,” explains Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org. “A new civil rights movement is now flourishing in this country in response to tragic and unjust police violence in Ferguson, Staten Island, and many other communities. But without net neutrality, the voices of everyday people wouldn’t have a chance. Today the FCC has taken crucial steps toward protecting a vital tool in the fight for equality and justice. This victory shows that people power can sometimes triumph over corporate dollars.”
Robinson is right. A remarkable coalition of media reform, civil-rights and community activists made the win possible, with crucial roles played by Common Cause, the Future of Music Coalition, the Center for Media Justice, Presente.org, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Consumers Union and dozens of other groups. But when today’s celebrations are done, it will be important to recognize that this is not, necessarily, the end of the story.
Even as the FCC was preparing to act—with three Democratic appointees voting for net neutrality and two Republican appointees voting against—Republicans on Capitol Hill were busy setting up a new front in the long battle. Key House committees were scrambling this week to hold “hearings” that were designed to amplify the anti–net neutrality talking points of the telecom industry and its lobbyists.
Dismissed as “political theater” by supporters of the FCC move, a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing featured “phone and cable industry-funded spokespeople and pundits enlisted by their congressional allies to spread fear about net neutrality.”
This was “political theater,” designed to provide a platform for the telecommunications companies and their allies. But it was also a reminder that the telephone and cable companies will keep looking for ways to chip away at net neutrality.
There will be legal challenges, as there have been before.
Republicans in the House and Senate could enact anti–net neutrality legislation. But it would, in all certainty, be blocked by President Obama, who has been ardent in his support of net neutrality and who says, “For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access into and out of your home or business. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call or a packet of data.”
So net neutrality is real for now. But what happens when Obama is gone? What happens with the next president and the next Congress?
The presumed front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, appears to be reasonably supportive of net neutrality. She says that if she were on the FCC she would back the move to reclassify broadband as a utility—identifying Internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. But she also says, “It’s not just net neutrality standing alone, end of debate. And that should be part of a really smart legislative endeavor, but I don’t think people believe that could happen in the short term.”
The “short term” finishes in 2016. Then a new president will appoint new members of the FCC and will work with a new Congress—in which Democrats might control the Senate, or might not. Clinton says that what’s happened now is “not the end of the discussion.”
She’s right. And that’s why net neutrality will be an issue in the 2016 presidential election.
Clinton needs to be pressed on what she means when she talks about “a really smart legislative endeavor” and “a modern twenty-first-century telecom act.” This should be an issue in Democratic debates. That would be likely if Senator Elizabeth Warren is drafted into the race. And it would certainly happen if Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders mounts a primary challenge to Clinton. Sanders has championed media reform and media justice issues since coming to Congress in 1991. Few on Capitol Hill understand media issues so well as Sanders. And he is a stalwart for net neutrality, speaking frequently on the why it is necessary to “ensure that the Internet remains a space for the open exchange of ideas and information, free of discrimination and corporate control.”
If a Republican is elected president, however, all net neutrality bets could be off. The GOP, which once was more supportive of competition and at least somewhat more interested in the public interest, has become reliably pro-corporate in its approach to the regulation of the telecommunications industry. The party’s platform explicitly rejects net neutrality, complaining that regulation in the public interest is an attempt “to micromanage telecom.” Despite the fact that many of the most innovative Internet firms were ardent backers of net neutrality, congressional Republicans specifically urged the FCC not to act as it has because doing so “would threaten the jobs and investments made possible by the broadband industry.”
Republican presidential prospects who have spoken on the issue are even more ardent than the platform of their party’s congressional leadership. Texas Senator Ted Cruz says net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet” and claims that “the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s father and brother appointed industry allies to the FCC, and no one expects Jeb to reject the family tradition. And it would be a bad bet, indeed, to imagine that candidates who have slathered themselves in special-interest money such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would look to the public-interest community for advice and counsel.
In 2016, candidates of both parties will be questioned, challenged and asked to get specific about net neutrality. The issue will arise in 2016, at the cocktail parties and closed-door dinners where candidates collect campaign contributions. The question is whether activists will provoke an open and honest debate that will let every American know where the candidates stand—and what is at stake.
“There’s no doubt that the cable and telecom monopolies and their hired guns will ramp up their lies and lobbying in an attempt to take this victory away from Internet users,” warns Aaron, who says activists who have won net neutrality must be ready to “defend this historic win.”
That defense will need to be mounted in 2016. Activists must be prepared to prod and pressure candidates of both parties to reject corporate spin and corporate cash in favor of the public interest and net neutrality.
John Nichols is (with Robert W. McChesney) a co-founder of Free Press, and a co-author of several books that consider the net neutrality issue, including The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and Dollarocracy (Nation Books).
Read Next: John Nichols on Rahm Emanuel’s run-off challenger
Rahm Emanuel had everything going for him in his race for a second term as mayor of Chicago.
He was the incumbent in a city that tends to keep its mayors—sometimes for decades.
He had a twelve-to-one fundraising advantage against his closest competitor—and his campaign treasury was constantly being refueled by wealthy out-of-town donors and corporate special-interest groups.
He had the endorsement of his former boss, President Obama, who recorded campaign commercials for Emanuel and who jetted into Chicago just days before Tuesday’s election and appeared at the mayor’s side.
Emanuel had everything—except a sufficient number of votes to avoid an April 7 runoff election that will now become a referendum on policies that have been so friendly to corporate elites that the incumbent has been dubbed “Mayor 1%.”
Emanuel needed another percentage to avoid the runoff—50 percent plus one vote. Under Chicago’s system, all candidates for mayor and for aldermanic seats run on a nonpartisan ballot. If any candidate gets more than 50 percent, she or he is elected outright. If no one gets over 50 percent, the top two finishers in the initial election face one another in a runoff.
A lot of the betting in Chicago was that Emanuel would get his 50-plus-one.
But when the votes were counted, all bets were off.
Emanuel finished first, with 45 percent. But that was far short of the “50-plus-1” mark, so far that the Chicago Sun Times termed the result “a huge embarrassment” for the former White House aide and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair who many see as the most politically-connected mayor in the United States.
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the candidate of progressive labor groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union and the defender of public education and public services that have been threatened by Emanuel’s “pay-to-play” politics and municipal neoliberalism, finished a solid second with 34 percent. And the rest of the vote went to critics of the mayor: progressive Alderman Bob Fioretti, businessman Willie Wilson and William “Dock” Walls III, a former aide to the late progressive Mayor Harold Washington.
“Political dynamics change as Emanuel, Garcia move into runoff campaign,” Wednesday morning’s Chicago Tribune headline declared. The featured photo was not of a triumphant Rahm running a victory lap but of “Chuy” Garcia surrounded by a multiracial, multi-ethnic circle of activists raising clenched fists of labor and community solidarity.
Though his is still an uphill run, it was Garcia who took the victory lap.
“So, nobody thought we’d be here tonight. They wrote us off. They said we didn’t have a chance,” he told the cheering crowd on election night. “They said we didn’t have any money while they spent millions attacking us. Well, we’re still standing. We’re still running and we’re gonna win.”
Garcia explained his unexpectedly strong showing—with numbers well above what polls had predicted—in the progressive populist language of his campaign. “Today, we the people have spoken.” he declared. “Not the people with the money and the power and the connections. Not the giant corporations. The big-money special interests. The hedge funds and Hollywood celebrities who poured tens of millions of dollars into the mayor’s campaign. They all had their say. They’ve had their say for too long. But today, the rest of us had something to say.”
Across the country, progressives rook notice, and started talking about Chicago in the way they did New York during the early stages of that city’s 2013 mayoral race—when it started to look like Bill de Blasio might have a chance.
“The next six weeks in Chicago will be the biggest fight of 2015 between the power of people and the power of big money,” declared Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party. “The good guys won round one. Forcing Mayor 1% into a run-off is a remarkable achievement. Along with the run-off, the progressive caucus on the Council is poised to make gains. Chicago is showing signs of the progressive wave that has washed over cities across America.”
How did it happen?
How did Rahm Emanuel, who was elected without a runoff four years ago, win too few votes to avoid one this year?
No Chicago election is ever simple. The city has a famously arcane politics that mingles factors of personality and power, race and ethnicity, old-school ward machines and new-money media. Emanuel practiced it with big elbows, facing frequent charges of rewarding political allies and punishing those who dared to challenge him. But he neglected the neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods that needed the city most during a first term where the city was rocked by violence and economic uncertainty.
If it is possible to point to one miscalculation by the mayor, it is surely his decision to close 50 schools and to provoke a fight with the teachers union, which struck for the first time in decades in 2012. The anger at Emanuel’s policies and his approach grew so intense that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis began in 2013 to prepare a challenge to Emanuel, and polls showed she might beat him. When Lewis fell ill last fall and announced she would not run, the “smart money” said Emanuel was safe. But Lewis and others prevailed upon Garcia—a former alderman and state legislator with close ties to labor—to make the race. Though Garcia had a classic Chicago story of immigration (from northern Mexico, arriving in Chicago at age 10), hard work and political success, he was not well-known citywide, he started late and he never began to rival Emanuel’s money power.
But Garcia had an issue. He promised to fight for public education, to work to keep schools open and to respect teachers rather than pick fights with them. He even argued for reducing the mayor’s authority over the schools and giving power to the people: supporting an elected school board.
Calling for the city to “change course dramatically from the so-called ‘reforms’ offered by Mayor Emanuel,” Garcia constantly reminded voters that the schools closing and cuts under Emanuel were enabled by an appointed-rather-than-elected school board.
“We are the only school district in the state with an appointed, not an elected, school board, thanks to state legislation passed in 1995—which I voted against as state legislator. This is the board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders. Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?” the candidate explained. “This raises the question of constitutional rights and civil liberties: the right to elect those who govern an institution so vital to our city. School systems are perhaps the main governmental bodies touching the lives of a majority of our citizens. That’s why I believe an elected school board is a constitutional right.”
Voters shared Garcia’s view. In addition to putting him in the runoff, they backed referendums in thirty-seven of the city’s fifty wards calling for an elected school board. After efforts to get a city-wide vote on the issue were blocked, the Campaign for an Elected Representative School Board and its allies got referendums on the ballots in most of the city’s wards. They won by overwhelming margins—in some wards taking over 90 percent of the vote. In addition, teachers and education advocates challenged Emanuel’s allies, and a number of them secured April 7 runoff spots.
So the runoff will not just be for mayor but for council seats—opening up a city-wide debate about the direction the city will take with regard to public education, public services and the needs of the 99 percent of Chicagoans who are not donors to the campaign of “Mayor 1%.”
“In Chicago, this election showed a real yearning for a mayor who listens to working families. They want good jobs and safe neighborhoods with thriving, not closed, public schools,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten “And Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia—as well as landslide support for an elected school board—became the standard-bearer for this aspiration.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Scott Walker’s “right to work” (for less) legislation
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2016 presidential race.
Scott Walker suddenly remembered how enthusiastic he is about “right to work” laws.
When Walker was running for re-election as governor of Wisconsin in 2014, he was frequently asked if he would sign so-called “right to work” legislation, which is designed to weaken unions and undermine the voices of workers on the job and in public life. Despite his reputation as an anti-labor zealot, Walker dodged the question again and again and again.
A month before the 2014 election, at a point when the polls were close and Walker was running for his political life, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Walker “won’t say if he would veto right-to-work legislation barring private-sector workers from having to join a union as part of their job.”
The Associated Press reported three weeks before the election that “Walker says he won’t push to make Wisconsin a right to work state or expand the Act 10 collective bargaining law if elected to a second term.”
As Election Day approached, Walker went further. He claimed he had told Republican legislators not to send him that legislation. Recalling the historic protests that arose four years ago when he attacked the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, Walker warned that raising the “right to work” issue would “bring the whole firestorm back.”
“Those aren’t the sorts of debates that are helpful for us to take the next step forward,” said the governor, as he made his case for re-election. “It’s about the tenor and the tone of the Legislature and what it means to the state as a whole.”
Every indication from Walker suggested that he wanted the issue to go away. “Right-to-work,” the governor declared, was “not something that’s part of my agenda.”
“My point is I’m not pushing for it,” he said. “I’m not supporting it in this session.”
Plenty of Walker critics in the labor movement and the legislature expressed skepticism about the governor’s temperate statements. After all, when one of his wealthiest supporters, Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks, had asked in 2011 about making Wisconsin a “right to work” state, Walker was caught on tape replying: “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” That did not sound like a man who had any qualms about signing anti-labor legislation.
Yet, throughout the high-stakes 2014 campaign, the governor stuck to his newly moderate line, presenting himself as a smart manager who wanted to get things right rather than the rigid ideologue of the 2011 conflict.
That was then. This is now.
Walker’s not worrying about Wisconsin these days. He’s in a new race—scrambling to win the support of 2016 Republican presidential caucus-goers and primary voters who like their candidates to take a hard line on social and economic issues.
So Walker’s line just got a whole lot harder.
On Friday, two of the governor’s closest legislative allies, state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and state Assembly speaker Robin Vos, announced that they will call a rare “extraordinary session” to rush through a “right to work” bill with limited public input and debate. With solid Republican majorities in both chambers, they say they aim to pass the measure—which mirrors “model legislation” language peddled by the corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council —in a matter of days.
This development took most Wisconsinites by surprise. Republicans and Democrats had thought that the issue was on the legislative back-burner—not just because of Walker’s pre-election and post-election talk about wanting to avoid distractions, but also because some legislative Republicans had griped about the wisdom of advancing “right to work” legislation.
“It is absurd that Republicans would fast-track legislation to interfere with private business contracts and lower wages for all Wisconsin workers at a time when our state is facing a massive $2.2 billion budget crisis,” Wisconsin Senate Democratic leader Jennifer Shilling said after the announcement that the “right-to-work” fight was on.
“Objective polling clearly shows that the vast majority of Wisconsin residents view this issue as a distraction,” added Shilling, using the precise language that Walker had employed in dismissing discussions about advancing “right to work” initiatives. “Rather than creating economic uncertainty for Wisconsin families and small businesses, Republicans should focus their attention on boosting family wages, closing the skills gap and fixing the $2.2 billion budget crisis they created.”
But what does Walker say? Now that the issue has come to a head, is he wrestling with it, as he seemed to be during the campaign? Is he still asserting that “right to work” is a distraction? Does he worry that the proposed legislation would make it a Class A misdemeanor to maintain a traditional union shop in Wisconsin? Is he explaining that this move isn’t “helpful for us to take the next step forward”?
Walker, who is busily preparing a 2016 Republican presidential run that highlights his anti-labor stance, is now all in for “right to work.”
His office announced Friday that: “Governor Walker continues to focus on budget priorities to grow our economy and to streamline state government. With that said, Governor Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a lawmaker and supports the policy. If this bill makes it to his desk, Governor Walker will sign it into law.”
Why didn’t Governor Walker say that during last year’s gubernatorial campaign?
It’s not like he is suggesting that he has come to some new conclusion with regard to anti-labor legislation of this sort, which the Economic Policy Institute warns “is associated with lower wages and benefits for both union and nonunion workers.” In fact, Wisconsinites have heard plenty of warnings in recent months that “right to work” legislation could do real harm to the state’s workers and communities. In a recent opinion piece written for the Journal Sentinel, Marquette University economics professor Abdur Chowdhury explained that “right-to-work legislation would provide no discernible overall economic advantage to Wisconsin, but it does impose significant social costs.”
What the statement from Walker’s office reveals is what the governor would not say when he was running for re-election in 2014 but what he will say as a 2016 Republican presidential prospect. He was just fooling some of the people some of the time when he feigned uncertainty on last year’s gubernatorial campaign trail. Walker is what he has always been: a longtime supporter of this agenda “who co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a lawmaker and supports the policy.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral election
In Chicago, the democracy equation is “50-plus-1.”
If Rahm Emanuel wins the majority of the vote in a five-way mayoral contest on February 24, the Democrat who always seems to be at odds with his party’s base will secure a second term as mayor of the nation’s third-most-populous city. That, in turn, would position the corporate-friendly Emanuel—“Mayor 1%”—an even more influential figure in the “Not Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party.”
To avoid an April 7 general election race with the second-place finisher in the multi-candidate field, Emanuel needs his “50-plus-one”: a total vote that is at least one above the 50 percent line. The same goes for city council races, where labor unions and progressive groups are challenging Emanuel’s allies.
It is expected that a number of council races will go to April 7 runoffs—and the competition could be intense, as Emanuel and his allies seek to knock off members of the council’s Progressive Caucus, while labor groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United make the case for electing more progressives. National groups such as Democracy for America have weighed in on behalf of progressive alders such as John Arena, with DFA national chair Jim Dean declaring, “Each successfully re-elected progressive Alderman will send a strong message to Rahm Emanuel and leaders across America that progressives reject the agenda of privatization, public school closings, and stagnant wages for working families. We will demonstrate that progressives are ready to fight for an economy that works for everyone—and that we will defend those elected officials who stand with us.”
The unsettled question is whether the mayoral race will go to a runoff, and in so doing provide a marquee contest that frames the debate and drives turnout up and down the ballot on April 7.
Emanuel is doing everything in his power to avert that prospect. And he has a lot in his power. The mayor has millions in the bank—the Chicago Sun Times recently reported on “the nearly $30 million amassed (in recent years) by: the mayor’s campaign committee; a second campaign fund he controls; and a super PAC that supports Emanuel and aldermanic candidates he backs.” His financial advantage is so enormous that it easily trumps the combined resources of his many rivals and their allies. All that money from financial interests, law firms and developers has paid for Emanuel’s omnipresent campaign commercials, which cost a fortune in one of the nation’s most expensive media markets, and are, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “dominating the TV airwaves.”
Emanuel also has a muscular electoral operation and a reputation for bare-knuckles political brawling that frightens foes into submission. He has close ties with national Democratic leaders, including President Obama, who was set to appear at Emanuel’s side in Chicago just days before the election.
As the current campaign took shape, Emanuel’s poll numbers were weak. But all that spending and all those connections count for something. A new Tribune poll puts the incumbent at 45 percent “just shy of the 50 percent-plus-one-vote benchmark.”
In second-place is Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who seems to be emerging as the candidate best positioned to face the mayor in an April runoff. With enthusiastic backing from the Chicago Teachers Union and a number of other labor and progressive groups, Garcia has moved ahead of Emanuel’s other challengers to position at 20 percent. Businessman Willie Wilson is at 7 percent in the poll, as is Chicago Alderman Robert Fioretti. William “Dock” Walls III, a former aide to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, trails with 2 percent. Eighteen percent of prospective voters were undecided.
The mayor just needs a small portion of the undecided to get above 50 percent.
As for Garcia, he needs to finish second. But he also needs the rest of the pack to get enough votes so that Emanuel doesn’t get his “50-plus-1.” Chicago Reader writer Ben Joravsky summed things up well in a pre-election piece—“An editorial endorsement for… anyone but Rahm!”—in which he explained: “Think about this, people. Every vote against Mayor Rahm increases the number of votes he needs to get more than 50 percent.”
For months, Garcia and Fioretti have pitched themselves as the strongest potential challengers to Emanuel. Both have records as allies of organized labor—siding with unions that have frequently battled the mayor on behalf of public education, public services and protections for workers. Fioretti, a lawyer, has been among the loudest progressive critics of Emanuel on the council; and his current campaign has highlighted support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and impressive proposals for promoting worker-owned cooperatives as a tool for urban revitalization.
But Garcia has secured key endorsements from prominent progressives in a city where activists are always on the watch for candidates who can pull together diverse coalitions to take on entrenched political and economic interests.
Cook County Clerk David Orr, a key ally of former Mayor Washington in the great political struggles of the 1980s between reformers and the old Democratic political machine, was an early and ardent Garcia backer. “If you’re going to have a real democracy, or at least a representative form of government, you’ve got to bring the stakeholders in.… [Garcia] believes in that,” says Orr. “No offense to Rahm, but Rahm doesn’t believe in that. Rahm believes in telling everyone what to do and [yelling] at them when they don’t do it.”
Garcia also has the backing of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, a high-profile critic of the mayor who has earned broad recognition and support as she and the CTU have battled school cuts and closures. Lewis explored a mayoral bid last year, before she was hospitalized with a brain tumor. That took her out of the running last fall and she quickly endorsed Garcia. Now, after surgery and chemotherapy, Lewis has returned to the fray as an outspoken backer of the challenger.
“We need a change, and it couldn’t be me, so I talked to Chuy and I had to twist his arm a little bit but he was ready for it,” says the union leader, who refers to Garcia as “a consensus builder and a man of the people [who] will work for all of our citizens—not just the corporate elites and special interests who seek to privatize our public assets.”
Garcia is running on a broadly progressive program—as are several of the other challengers. For his part, the county commissioner is ready to pick a fight with Emanuel on education and democracy issues.
“We are the only school district in the state with an appointed, not an elected, school board, thanks to state legislation passed in 1995—which I voted against as state legislator,” says Garcia, a former state senator. “It is that same appointed board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders. Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?”
Garcia frames the issue as “a question of constitutional rights and civil liberties: the right to elect those who govern an institution so vital to our city. School systems are perhaps the main governmental bodies touching the lives of a majority of our citizens. That’s why I believe an elected school board is a constitutional right.”
As one of his first acts as mayor, Garcia says he would ask the legislature to revoke mayoral control and allow for an elected school board. “Lacking action in the legislature,” he adds, “I will file a federal voting-rights lawsuit based on the Constitution and civil rights laws.”
Those are bold promises that excite CTU members and community activists, and that would instantly make Garcia a leader in the struggle to renew urban schools after years of assaults by Emanuel and others—including wealthy backers of cuts, closures, rigid standardized-testing schemes, vouchers, so-called “choice” initiatives and privatization.
Simply to have the debate would be dramatic for Chicago, which has not seen a mayoral runoff since it shifted to the nonpartisan system in the 1990s. Emanuel won it all in February, 2011. He’s spending heavily—nearly $1 million for TV ads in the last week of the campaign—to win it all once more in February, 2015. That would shut the debate down at the mayoral level and free Emanuel up to steer his considerable energies and considerable resources into securing a City Council super-majority that would rubber-stamp his every demand.
Read Next: John Nichols on Barbara Lee’s opposition to war