When the polls close in Chicago later this evening, residents of the country’s third largest city will at last know the answer to a question that has riveted their town for six manic weeks: whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel will win enough votes to stay in power for four more years, or whether his challenger, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, will succeed in knocking him out of City Hall.
The contest between the two candidates was set in motion on February 24, in the city’s first round of elections, when Emanuel failed to garner the 51 percent of the vote necessary to claim victory. Within days, political observers had cast the race as the latest chapter in the enduring battle for the soul of the Democratic Party—the same narrative that pits center- or right-leaning party figures like Hillary Clinton against progressive Democrats like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio or Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and asks which direction the party will choose to move.
In many ways, the narrative does fit: Emanuel is a key figure on the party’s right flank, with his first term characterized by austerity measures, attacks on workers and corporate-friendly governance; Garcia is an avowed member of its progressive wing, backed by a network of grassroots community groups and unions.
But the story of what’s happening in Chicago goes deeper than two men duking it out over the soul of a political party. Eighteen city council races are also up for grabs today, including a number of races in which incumbents are playing defense against progressive challengers. More than 142,300 voters cast early ballots, signaling a surge in turnout. And in the background, Chicago’s vibrant grassroots movements have been rewriting the city’s dog-eared political playbook, challenging the city’s fabled one-party, machine-style politics with a new, movement-focused approach. It is this, perhaps, that is the biggest story of the 2015 election.
One of the primary vehicles for this new politics has been United Working Families, a coalition spearheaded by the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana and a passel of other unions and grassroots community groups. The groups came together last year not only to back progressive candidates like Garcia, but also to attempt to forge a new pole for progressive politics in Chicago. What they have created in the ensuing months is a kind of political-movement hybrid that has not only carried out the tasks essential to any successful campaign operation—endorsing candidates, putting boots on the ground to knock on doors, coordinating phone banking, organizing candidate rallies—but has also recruited thousands of activists as members and trained atypical candidates like teachers and neighborhood activists to run for elected office.
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“This isn’t just about calculating how we can win the maximum number of races, or finding the least-bad candidate,” says Matthew Luskin, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer who serves on the UWF’s board. “It’s also about building space for movement politics—politics to the left of the Democrats—and trying to recruit people to those politics.”
As voters make their way to the polls today for the last leg of this year’s epic election cycle, UWF members are engaged in their own final push. Out of the seventeen candidates UWF initially backed for office, five are locked in runoff battles for City Council—and, of course, Garcia is still in the running for mayor. Yet, as much as today’s vote is a culmination of months of planning, strategy and door-knocking, it is also a jumping-off point, the start of the next phase of the UWF’s existence. What this new phase will look like is as much a matter of uncertainty as debate, but at least some member organizations are beginning to think big. Weary of Democrats like Emanuel, they are weighing a local break with his party. They are thinking of challenging Chicago’s old-line political establishment with their own party.
“You’ve got two major unions playing footsie with third-party politics; you’ve got community organizations rethinking their models of organizing,” Luskin summarizes. “You’ve got all of our groups thinking about whether there’s a way to start something that’s bigger than any of us.”
The 2012 teachers strike, helmed by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), is rightly seen as a watershed moment in Chicago politics. But the genesis of United Working Families stretches back further, says Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Illinois Action, the political arm of a union-community coalition and one of the major players in the city’s progressive politics.
Patel traces the UWF’s history back to 2006, under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, when the coalition led a fight over a living wage ordinance in the city council for “big box” stores moving into the city. Walmart had not yet penetrated Chicago, and labor and community groups wanted to ensure that if it did, the company would pay its workers a living wage.
After a strong living wage campaign in July 2006, a robust majority of council members passed the ordinance. But two months later, Mayor Daley vetoed the bill—the only veto of his entire career—and then strong-armed enough aldermen so that when an override of the veto was put to the council, the bill’s supporters fell just three votes shy.
The unions vowed to make the turncoat aldermen pay in the 2007 city council elections. And they succeeded: the unions backed nine pro-living wage city council candidates who were elected to office. “Our campaign for the big box living wage ordinance defined what the  campaign was about,” says Patel.
But the groups soon found out that just because the unions had elected these aldermen didn’t mean they felt any sense of loyalty to a progressive agenda. Some of the newly elected council members quickly realized that life was much easier on the mayor’s side—and progressive forces had neither carrot nor stick to convince them otherwise.
A similar dynamic played out in 2011. Under the umbrella of Grassroots Illinois Action, both unions and community groups took aim at city councilors opposed to a progressive citywide agenda, and succeeded in three races. But two of the three candidates now “act like they don’t even remember us,” says Patel. “So we started asking, ‘How do we build our own infrastructure, separate from the candidates? How do we hold these people accountable? And how do we really build longer-term power?’”
The conversation began in earnest after the CTU prevailed during its historic 2012 strike, only to watch Emanuel go ahead and close 49 schools anyway. Unions and community groups had moved heaven and earth to try to stop the closures, marching and staging civil disobedience actions and packing public hearings to oppose them. But no expressions of public displeasure could sway Emanuel and his handpicked school board from carrying out these austerity measures. The school closures, among other setbacks, convinced many that a progressive electoral strategy was desperately needed.
CTU organizer Matthew Luskin remembers the conversation beginning informally, with an invitation from an SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana staffer inviting CTU to a discussion about independent politics. HCII is one of the city’s most progressive union locals and a close partner with the CTU. Discussion of the possibility that CTU President Karen Lewis might run for mayor had begun circulating, and organizers were beginning to contemplate wading into the electoral thicket.
Soon, the CTU, HCII, the Grassroots Illinois Action, and the community group Action Now entered into regular discussions about the possibility of creating a political organization. “We wanted to think about what it would look like if the movement was winning? Not just individual organizations, but the whole movement,” Luskin says.
In early 2014—just months after discussions first began—an organization began to coalesce. Representatives from the four groups established a basic platform and dues structure, creating a budget and hiring staff, including Kristen Crowell who had headed labor’s attempted recall of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2011, as executive director.
“All of the organizing” done by the city’s unions and community organizations “led us to an environment that was ripe for training and recruiting candidates,” Crowell says.
The UWF soon began seeking potential city council candidates to train and support. The aim was not simply to find candidates who were already running and cajole them into signing onto a progressive agenda (and then praying they would stay true to it), but to help mold and make longtime members of the city’s movements into viable candidates. Eventually, after several dozen candidates completed a rigorous 40-hour training program, the UWF endorsed 16.
In addition to backing all seven incumbent members of the city council’s Progressive Caucus, who often provide the lone “no” votes on the “rubber stamp” city council, the group endorsed nine additional candidates. Two won their elections outright, four lost outright, and three face a runoff on Tuesday (along with two members of the Progressive Caucus).
Protecting the Progressive Caucus was no small feat: Emanuel’s Super PAC, Chicago Forward, raised over $30 million (much of it from the city’s wealthiest residents like hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin), and much of it went to backing Emanuel’s incumbent allies or targeting progressive incumbents.
Results in the first round of elections varied widely. Carlos Rosa, a 26-year-old who will be the city’s first openly gay Latino city council member, trounced his incumbent opponent by a two-to-one margin. Others, like Zerlina Smith, an Action Now member and parent activist in the school closure struggle, took less than 5 percent.
There were also some surprising results. Tim Meegan, a social studies teacher, ran in a heavily Latino-, Asian-, and Middle Eastern-immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Meegan had never run for office before, but had been radicalized by the CTU strike and school closure fight and came out of the CTU’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.
He went up against Deb Mell, daughter of the legendary Dick Mell, who as alderman for almost four decades served as a stalwart ally of Mayors Daley and Emanuel and a fierce opponent of Mayor Harold Washington. Emanuel appointed Deb Mell to her father’s seat in 2013 after he retired.
Meegan ran his campaign on a shoestring budget. (During a visit to his campaign office, I watched Meegan pound the top of his laptop with a closed fist—the only way to get the screen on, he explained.) Yet despite his scant resources, his unapologetically radical campaign rhetoric, his earnest but largely inexperienced staff, Meegan came seventeen votes shy of forcing Mell into a runoff. For a first-time left-wing candidate up against a member of a legendary Chicago political family, it was a startling result.
Since Meegan’s loss, he and members of his campaign have wasted little time in taking steps to turn their operation into an independent political organization (IPO) in the 33rd Ward. The first meeting of Working Families of the 33rd Ward is on April 11, and members of the group are in talks with UWF (who provided staffers and directed volunteers to his campaign) about affiliation.
“We can’t sit around and wait for our Superman,” he told me during a break from canvassing at his campaign office in early March, when he believed he was in a runoff. “There’s an appetite out there for the social and economic justice issues we stand for.”
If Meegan can get such an organization off the ground, the group won’t be alone. Patel says Grassroots Illinois Action has formed two IPOs, in the 26th and 15th wards. (UWF endorsed candidates in both wards, and one, Rafael Yanez in the 15th, faces a runoff Tuesday). What those organizations will look like is currently unclear, but Patel hopes they will engage neighborhood-level campaigns and recruit new members throughout the year.
“We want to build yearlong political infrastructure centered on issues our members care about—that don’t just come alive around elections,” Patel says.
There aren’t many similar efforts by which to measure UWF, but the most obvious comparison is the Working Families Party. The two groups have a similar organizational makeup (unions and grassroots community groups), and both say they aim to push Democrats to the left. Even the names of the two groups are similar. While the groups have no formal affiliation, the two are working closely together: the WFP has supported UWF since its inception, and members of UWF have participated in the WFP’s national advisory committee. Jon Green, the WFP’s deputy director, says the two groups are “cut from the same cloth.”
The WFP in New York drew scathing criticism recently for its endorsement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo—supposedly the kind of Democrat the WFP was created to do battle with. But the party has also explored running political candidates outside the Democratic party: a recent Connecticut State Senate election saw Ed Gomes run and win on the Working Families Party line, not as a fusion vote with the Democrats but as an independent party.
Green has almost nothing but praise for what he’s seen in Chicago. “We see this race as a high water mark for independent progressive politics in the country,” he says. He came to the city along with 18 other WFP staff to work on various campaigns through UWF; the WFP also recently hosted Garcia in New York for a fundraiser.
Green has been impressed with the depth of candidate development he has seen from the UWF. Reflecting on the speeches UWF candidates gave at a March 26 rally with all the organization’s endorsees, including Chuy Garcia, he says, “These were not just good candidates who skewed a little bit to the left and got on board with the UWF because it gave them resources to mount a credible campaign. These candidates were deeply ideologically aligned with the movement organizations that make up its base.”
WFP leaders in other states have also been impressed by the impact UWF has had in less than a year, and the kind of uncompromisingly progressive politics it has pushed, Green says. “UWF is embracing a bigger and bolder approach to politics. They’re pushing the envelope in ways that progressives across the country will want to emulate.”
What’s most unclear about the future of that approach is the question of whether the group will form a third party in Chicago. While organizers are explicit about their exhaustion with the Democrats, they don’t yet have a plan to make that happen. And not everyone involved in UWF sees creating a new party as a priority.
“If [UWF] pushes the Democrats to the left, that’s great,” says Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, one of the UWF founding organizations. “If it produces a third party, that’s great, too.”
But other organizers are more strongly committed to building a new party. They say the ward-level IPOs that Grassroots Illinois Action and the Meegan campaign are building could help form the beginnings of such a party.
Luskin acknowledges the vagueness of these plans: “This is something that stretches way outside of our comfort zone.” Still, he says that within the UWF and its member organizations, “There’s some real clarity that we need a political home for progressive movements that doesn’t exist in either party.”
Whatever their big-picture analysis of their current accomplishments and future aims, the organizers and candidates in and around the UWF are focused on Tuesday’s runoff elections. Yet, even if Mayor Emanuel maintains his position and the majority of runoff candidates lose, the UWF has laid some of the groundwork for a different kind of urban politics. The challenge will be to figure out how to turn the momentum from this election—the hundreds of thousands of doors knocked and thousands of new members—into an independent political organization that can carry out the kind of agenda organizers and activists have outlined.
Such a transformation will be far from automatic. And no one really knows what building a third party might look like in Chicago. But organizers feel they’re in a good place to give it a try.
“To me the question is, what would it mean for us to act like a third party? I don’t know.” Patel says. “But I think we’ve built a good foundation to create something bigger.”