Chicago progressive Jesus “Chuy” Garcia made political history in February, when he forced Rahm “Mayor 1%” Emanuel into an unprecedented runoff election. For the first time since the nation’s third-largest city established a nonpartisan system for choosing local officials, a mayor fell short of 50 percent of the vote and had to face a challenger in a second election.
But Garcia did not make history twice. He fell short in the April 7 Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff vote that mirrored the broader struggle for the future of the party—in Chicago and nationally—by pitting a populist challenger against a corporatist incumbent. Despite a remarkable grassroots campaign, which changed political equations across the city, the challenger and the labor-backed coalition that supported him could not overcome the advantages Emanuel enjoyed: incumbency, support from remnants of the Chicago Democratic machine, the steady support of the city’s two major newspapers, an endorsement from President Obama, and a campaign bankroll of more than $23.6 million (almost four times what Garcia raised). The incumbent’s spending spree was augmented by millions more in spending by a separate campaign fund and an Emanuel-aligned “Super PAC.”
“Emanuel’s overwhelming financial advantage ultimately helped save the mayor as he fought for his political life,” acknowledged The Chicago Tribune in its Wednesday morning assessment of the results.
Yet, Garcia won more than 250,000 votes (44 percent of the total) and the city-wide coalition that supported him beat a number of city council candidates allied with Emanuel. The challenger conceded Tuesday night, but he did not sound defeated. “We didn’t lose today. We tried today. We fought hard for what we believe in,” Garcia told a cheering crowd of supporters. “You don’t succeed at this or anything else unless you try. So keep trying. “
Labor unions and activist groups that campaigned for Garcia and the progressive council candidates signaled that they would, indeed, keep trying. “Rahm’s wealthy donors bought him another term but they couldn’t buy him love,” declared the Working Families Party’s Jon Green. “A progressive movement is growing in Chicago and it’s capturing hearts and minds. Three months ago, Rahm thought he was untouchable. He survived the political fight of his life, but he had to move on important issues like the minimum wage and affordable housing. Rahm is still the mayor, but he’s no longer the king.”
Garcia’s finish was better than even optimistic allies predicted when he entered the mayoral race last fall, as a county commissioner with a solid record of progressive activism but little name recognition—and less money.
Garcia’s finish was also better than the one Harold Washington secured in his first run for mayor.
That’s right: the hero of Chicago progressive history who beat the money and the machine in 1983 to become the city’s first African-American mayor did not simply appear on the scene to upset incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard Daley, the son of the city’s longtime mayor and legendary political boss.
Six years earlier, when the senior Daley’s death forced a special election for the mayoralty. Washington mounted an insurgent primary campaign against the machine and the downtown money power. On paper, Washington’s 1977 run sounded like a great idea. With more than a dozen years of experience as a state legislator, with a network of supporters in the African-American community, and with three white candidates dividing the base of a political machine that looked to be in decline, Washington simply had to pull together a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and liberal reformers. But it didn’t happen. He won just over 10 percent of the vote—a “dismal” finish, in the words of The New York Times.
Washington learned from the experience. He built on the independent base he had begun to develop in 1977, got himself elected to Congress and developed a strategy for winning in 1983. His plan was to lead “anti-greed and anti-corruption” coalition rooted in a faith that would eventually define his mayoralty: “We are a multiethnic, multiracial, multi-language city and that is a source of stability and strength.” It was not easy. The opposition was crude and divisive. Even after Washington won his primary victory, many Democrats backed the Republican in what was then a partisan runoff. But Washington prevailed—by a 52-48 margin—because of the city-wide coalition he and his supporters had built over not weeks or months but years.
That’s the lesson that ought to be taken away from the 2015 results. The coalition that backed Garcia and progressive council contenders this year is young and dynamic. It is still evolving. But it is real.
Garcia had not planned to challenge Emanuel this spring. He only entered the race after Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who had been preparing to take on the mayor, was sidelined by illness. Yet Garcia and the coalition that backed him forced a mayoral runoff and a real debate about the city and its future. They also shook up city council races to such an extent that, as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin noted Wednesday morning, “a meaningful number of Emanuel-backed candidates went down in flames.”
It may not be that Garcia will run again. That is not the point.
The point is that someone, many someones, will run against the money power in the elections to come. And they will run from a position of greater strength than existed before.
Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery got it right Tuesday night when he said that forcing a runoff and opening up the process “made an undeniable impact in Chicago.” This city has been changed by this campaign. The city council will have a larger progressive caucus and Emanuel will face steady opposition—inside City Hall and on the streets—to his pay-to-play politics, privatization schemes and assaults on public education.
The labor organizations that helped to forge this coalition (the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois State Council of the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 308 and 241 and others) have challenged a powerful Democratic mayor. And they have done so by objected, bluntly, to the Democratic party’s penchant for selling out its base; as the ATU locals did when they declared, “Mayor Emanuel is at the heart of the frustration working Americans have had with the continuing economic inequality and corporatism in both the Republican and Democratic parties.”
The unions are not going away or backing down. Neither are the local activists associated with the National People’s Action Campaign (through its Reclaim Chicago affiliate), Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party. The United Working Families organization provided an early endorsement for Garcia and progressive council candidates and worked with union activists in wards across the city to build grassroots networks that will continue to be a force in local politics.
When backers of Garcia and city council candidate Susan Sadlowski Garza (who held a narrow lead in Tuesday’s results) gathered a few days before the election at an old United Steelworkers hall on the city’s southeast side, CTU President Karen Lewis took the long view. “This has got to be the start of a movement,” she told the crowd. “This can’t be about one election, one election cycle.”
If that movement builds, Lewis promised, “Things will change.”
Garcia’s strong finish—along with victories by progressive council candidates—makes that change seem possible. The progressive movement of 2015 has a much bigger base upon which to build than did Harold Washington had after his first mayoral bid of 1977.
Neither this year’s election results, nor the history that points to what might be, provides a guarantee of change.
They merely raise the prospect.
But in a town as slow to change as Chicago, that prospect is a big deal.
Chicago did not elect a new mayor this year. But it has shaken things up for an old mayor. And it has held out hope for a new politics not just in one city but nationwide.
“Today was just the beginning. While Mayor Emanuel bought this election hand over fist, we’re seeing a new left pole emerge in American politics,” said National People’s Action Campaign executive director George Goehl, a Chicagoan who was active with the Reclaim Chicago effort. “In cities across the country, progressive populists are taking on corporate politicians and running on an agenda that puts people and planet before excessive profits. As discontent with a system that’s rigged in favor of corporations and the super-wealthy continues to grow, so too will a new political movement.”