On Tuesday night, an earthquake hit Chicago’s political establishment. Across the city, left-wing challengers—including a number of open socialists—ousted longtime incumbents on the City Council or forced them into runoff elections in the city’s greatest showing of progressive electoral muscle in decades. And while the dust won’t settle on a number of races—including the battle for mayor—until the April 2 runoffs, one thing is clear: The left is winning while the old machine is on the run.
His name may not have been on the ballot, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel loomed large over Tuesday’s elections. During his eight years in office, Emanuel has become the face of neoliberal Democratic-machine politics in Chicago. Building on the legacy of his predecessor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel embraced a corporate-minded approach to governance, favoring privatization, austerity, and secrecy over policies that would actually benefit working-class residents.
From closing public schools and mental-health clinics to raising regressive taxes and fines, laying off unionized public workers, privatizing city services, and overseeing both rampant police abuse and tragic levels of gun violence, Emanuel’s tenure as mayor has been one of abject failure for low-income communities of color—and his legacy has been secured as one of political toxicity. As a result, candidates in races the city over ran as far away from his record as possible, and the results serve as a repudiation of his vision for Chicago.
One of Emanuel’s closest allies in City Council has been 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore. While Moore first ran in 1991 as a progressive and was a consistent critic of Mayor Daley, he voted with Emanuel nearly 100 percent of the time and even offered to help the current mayor spin the reports about black teenager Laquan McDonald’s 2014 murder by Chicago police to defend the administration.
When video showing McDonald being shot 16 times by white officer Jason Van Dyke was released in 2015, the city’s black population exploded in protest. The tragic killing was seen not as an isolated incident but as the latest example of a police department marked by brutality and a political leadership unwilling to enact systematic reform. In response, racial-justice organizers demanded the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez as well as Emanuel himself.
Four years later, all three of them are either gone or on their way out, McCarthy having been fired in 2015, Alvarez losing her 2016 Democratic primary to reformer Kim Foxx and Emanuel announcing last year that he wouldn’t seek a third term, facing dismal approval ratings in a city thirsty for change.
But the three public faces of the McDonald scandal haven’t been the only political causalities of Chicago’s progressive upsurge.
On Tuesday, Joe Moore lost his election to Maria Hadden, a longtime community organizer who ran on a bold progressive platform including police accountability, affordable housing, and a more democratic approach to the alderman’s office. Hadden was a first-time candidate who for a decade had worked around participatory budgeting and served as a board member of Black Youth Project (BYP) 100—a group at the forefront of the protests over Laquan McDonald’s death. Her victory over Moore sent a clear signal to the Chicago political establishment that the old guard is no longer in control.
Hadden wasn’t alone. In the 1st Ward, Daniel La Spata upset incumbent Proco “Joe” Moreno in a widely watched race that saw another once “progressive”-labeled candidate go down in defeat to a left challenger. Moreno took more campaign contributions from property-management companies than any other member of City Council while overseeing massive luxury development and displacement in the ward, which includes the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods Wicker Park and Logan Square. La Spata, meanwhile, ran on policies such as implementing rent control and demanding the construction of affordable-housing units—and he won convincingly.
La Spata will also become the second person to sit on City Council who is also a member of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—a new player in electoral politics. He will join Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the 35th Ward alderman and open democratic socialist who fended off a challenger, Amanda Yu Dieterich, whose campaign was funded largely by real-estate developers and donors to Rahm Emanuel. While Dieterich attempted to paint Ramirez-Rosa as too ambitious for the job of alderman, in the end he beat her by 20 points.
“After eight years of Rahm Emanuel and his neoliberal policies, Chicagoans are sick and tired of a rigged system that privileges a rich and powerful few at the expense of working people,” Ramirez-Rosa tells The Nation, adding, “In Chicago, DSA has served as a bridge between the organizing happening in workplaces and neighborhoods and in the political arena.”
While Ramirez-Rosa and La Spata were the only two DSA members to win outright, three other candidates endorsed by the group won the most votes in their races and are headed to runoff elections in April.
Rossana Rodriguez leads in the 33rd Ward on the city’s Northwest Side over incumbent Deb Mell. Deb took over the seat in 2013 from her father Richard Mell who had held it for over 38 years, and the Mells have long served as one of the most powerful political families in the city. By forcing a runoff election—the first in the ward since the 1930s—Rodriguez, a longtime educator and organizer, has illustrated the threat this new movement of younger, left-wing candidates poses to the forces that have run the city for decades.
“We just hammered the machine!” Rodriguez declared to a packed room at her campaign party Tuesday night, continuing “this campaign is an example of what we can do if the Left comes together.”
On the South Side, two other DSA-endorsed candidates, Jeanette Taylor in the 20th Ward and Byron Sigcho-Lopez in the 25th, also are leading ahead of the April runoffs. Taylor has organized around protecting public education for years and in 2015 helped lead a hunger strike to prevent the closure of Walter H. Dyett High School. She had previously been part of a successful campaign to bring a trauma center to provide care for gun shot victims on the South Side. Sigcho-Lopez, meanwhile, serves as executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a group dedicated to expanding affordable housing and providing protection to immigrants.
And in the 40th ward, Andre Vazquez—a DSA member and organizer with the social-justice group Reclaim Chicago—forced a runoff against 35-year incumbent Pat O’Connor.
As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, having five DSA members in office would represent the most socialists on the City Council in over a century. That’s about as far away from Rahm Emanuel’s centrist political vision as you could get.
These successes didn’t happen in a vacuum. As I reported for In These Times, all of these candidates come out of organizing backgrounds and the groundwork for their runs was laid by years of work by community groups and movement organizers—including those in United Working Families, Grassroots Collaborative, the BlackRoots Alliance, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)—as well as the activism of groups like Assata’s Daughters and BYP 100 that erupted following the release of the McDonald video.
And the national political climate played a critical role in setting the stage for this left-wing upheaval. The victories of candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan provided proof that you can win by running on uncompromising, progressive agendas—and these contenders in Chicago did just that, following the 2016 call from Bernie Sanders for organizers to jump into the electoral fray.
As Ramirez-Rosa says, “The political revolution is alive and thriving. Working people now know that, whether at the national level or local level, there is an alternative to the austerity and state violence offered by both right-wing and neoliberal politicians.”
It’s not just the City Council that will be moving left. At the mayoral level, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Chicago Police Board president Lori Lightfoot are headed for a runoff election after beating out far more conservative candidates such as Bill Daley, the brother of Richard, and Gery Chico, each who likely would have been much closer to the city’s business elite.
While critics have questioned the progressive credentials of both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot, either of them would mark a sharp break from the corporate-dominated politics of the Emanuel administration. And regardless of who wins, Chicago is set to have its first black woman mayor in history.
Lightfoot has been slammed by police-accountability activists for her role under Emanuel and her timidity around enacting reform. But she has embraced popular policies such as instituting an elected school board and reopening public mental-health clinics.
Preckwinkle, meanwhile, has taken heat for her connections to some unsavory political figures such as Alderman Ed Burke. However, she is backed by progressive unions such as the CTU and SEIU-HCII, and is running on a platform informed by movement demands, including ending school privatization, enacting strong criminal-justice reform and instituting a progressive tax system.
Since Tuesday’s election, both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have continued to jockey for the progressive mantle, proving that in 2019, the left lane is the most favored.
Four years ago, Rahm Emanuel won reelection in Chicago, and it seemed to many that a progressive horizon for the city was moving farther off into the distance. After Tuesday night, that horizon appears closer than it’s been in a generation. What a difference a political revolution can make.