It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early summer, and the 33 people gathered at the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm, a community garden in Chicago’s rapidly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood, are trying to decide whether they’re prepared to break the law. The atmosphere is festive—there are pizzas and watermelon slices spread out on makeshift tables, coolers full of bottled water, and small children playing hide-and-seek among the planters—but the speeches are serious.
Anthony Joel Quezada, a young activist wearing a Soy Queer Latin@ T-shirt, tells the group that since Donald Trump became president, the threat of deportation has brought fear to the city’s immigrant communities. Charles Rosentel, who lives in the neighborhood but teaches world history and coaches the debate team at a charter high school in Hermosa, a few blocks to the west, describes one of his students as “the most gifted debater I’ve ever coached.” “If she wants to go to Harvard, she’s got the talent,” he says, “but I can’t take her to the state championships because she’s afraid that if she leaves Chicago, even for a day, the aunt and uncle she lives with—her guardians—might not be there when she gets back.”
Several weeks earlier, Rosentel and his wife, also a teacher in Hermosa, attended an “Immigration 101” class organized by Quezada’s boss, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the alderman for Chicago’s 35th Ward. Aimed at educating potential allies, the sessions were held at the same time as a “Know Your Rights” class for immigrants and their families. “Today we have chosen to come together and keep each other safe,” Ramirez-Rosa tells the Logan Square crowd, which will break up into teams to leaflet the neighborhood with flyers advising residents what to do if officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knock on their door. At the same time, he and Quezada ask those who are willing to physically block attempted deportations—and get arrested while doing so—to identify themselves. The volunteers will be trained in nonviolent civil disobedience and organized into a phone tree covering the entire 35th Ward, with the whole campaign directed and funded out of Ramirez-Rosa’s office.
“This is what governing from the left looks like,” Quezada says.
In 2015, when Ramirez-Rosa, then just 26, defeated a three-term incumbent backed by Chicago Forward, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s super PAC, to become the youngest member of the City Council—and the first openly gay Latino ever elected to any position in Chicago—he made headlines. But very little of the coverage drilled down to what really makes Ramirez-Rosa stand out: his approach to politics. Using his district office and staff budget to organize community-defense committees is just one aspect of what he calls “being a movement elected official.”
Ramirez-Rosa is the chief sponsor of a bill to re-instate the corporate “head tax” on firms with more than 50 employees, the proceeds of which would go to fund Chicago’s cash-strapped public schools. The city had a similar tax from 1973 to 2014, when Emanuel abolished it. Ramirez-Rosa’s version would also encourage companies to hire from the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods by making their residents exempt from being counted under the head tax.
Ramirez-Rosa has also backed calls by local activists for a Civilian Police Accountability Council, a democratically elected body that would make civilian control over the police more than mere rhetoric. He’s been an important voice for the public financing of elections through a New York City–style small-donor matching system—a potentially transformative reform in a city where the mayor is a master of big-donor fund-raising. And he’s introduced a bill to divest city funds from companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I’m working on the legislative end and in the community garnering support,” he tells me when we sit down in his office. “To me, that is what movement politics looks like.”
Though Ramirez-Rosa talks knowledgeably about the “pink tide” of Latin American socialists and can quote Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, he also describes George Washington Plunkitt, the 19th-century head of New York’s Tammany Hall machine, as “a very smart man.” Which may explain why, despite his radical commitments, Ramirez-Rosa pays such close attention to the potholes and zoning issues that are a council member’s bread and butter. One of the community’s grievances with Ramirez-Rosa’s predecessor was his cozy relationship with a local developer. “This guy owns $74 million worth of property in this neighborhood alone,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “After the election, he came to me to try to cut a deal. When I turned him down, he went and bought this building. Luckily, I have a four-year lease.”
Local issues also offer him an opportunity for organizing through the use of participatory budgeting. “We do a yearlong process with community assemblies. Each alderman gets $1.3 million to spend. Basically we say, ‘What do you want to see built in your community? Do you want the streets resurfaced? Do you want to see new lighting? Do you want to see a soccer field built at a local school?’ We have one assembly in every neighborhood in the ward. People brainstorm ideas. We also go to block parties, churches, schools.”
The process generates a list of proposals that are put to a vote, and the top winners get funded. “In order to vote, you don’t have to be a US citizen,” Ramirez-Rosa adds. “You don’t have to be a registered voter. You just have to prove that you live in the community—and you have to be at least 14 years old.”
Ramirez-Rosa hopes that participatory budgeting can extend beyond funding neighborhood improvements to give residents democratic control over zoning and development. “What people have told me is that they want Logan Square to remain economically and racially diverse,” he says. This resistance to gentrification puts him on a collision course with City Hall.
“I was very explicit that I would be an organizing alderman,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “That I would work to build a base of people in my community who will hold me accountable and fight for progressive change—and who, when I pick fights with Rahm Emanuel, will have my back.”
Although the current balance of power on the City Council favors the mayor, the progressive coalition that forced him into a runoff in 2015 didn’t disappear with the defeat of challenger Jesús “Chuy” García. Indeed, the coalition’s efforts in down-ballot races, and in changing the terms of debate, led Crain’s Chicago Business to proclaim that “Emanuel won the mayor’s race, but progressives won the election.”
Ramirez-Rosa expects that trend to continue. “I’m a big believer that we can build socialism from below. We need to create these opportunities for working people to hold the reins of power and govern themselves,” he says.
If Ramirez-Rosa doesn’t talk like a typical big-city politician, that may be because he didn’t exactly follow the beaten path to political office. When we first met a year ago at a session at the People’s Summit, he talked about growing up believing that running for elected office was something other people did. When he finally decided to make a bid, “I had two suits and had saved up four months’ rent.”
He first went to his own family for financial support. “You’re going to have to ask a lot of people who you don’t even know, so if you can’t ask your family and your friends for money, how are you going to do that?” Though his relatives urged him to go to law school instead, once he laid out why he thought he could actually win, they agreed to help.
“I grew up in a very political household,” Ramirez-Rosa explains. “My father came from an area in Puerto Rico that was always the center of the independence movement. He grew up in dire poverty, and it was only because of [President Lyndon Johnson’s] Great Society that he was able to come to Chicago to study. My mother was the daughter of a Mexican coal-mine worker who brought his family to Chicago and got a job in a unionized steel mill.
“They came in at the sweet spot right before neoliberalism, where you still have the state playing a role in lifting people out of poverty. Also, you have the end of de jure racism: People like my parents—brown folks and black folks—were able to enter good-paying government jobs, institutions of higher education, and benefit from the social safety net and the hand up.”
Both of Ramirez-Rosa’s parents became bilingual educators. His mother, Margarita Ramirez-Rosa, told me she remembers taking Carlos along to the State Capitol in Springfield when he was 4 years old. “It was a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride. He asked why were we going, and I told him it was to get more money for the schools. Afterward he asked, ‘Where are we going now?’ I told him we were going home. He said, ‘But we didn’t get the money!’ Carlos has always had a conscience.”
Around the family dinner table, “we would talk about school reform,” Ramirez-Rosa recalls. “‘Voucher’ and ‘charter’ were always dirty words in my house.” He also had a front-row seat for the waves of gentrification that pushed many Mexican families out of Lincoln Park. “The Young Lords party started out in a church on Dayton and Armitage, just a few blocks from where my mom grew up. Now it’s one of the richest neighborhoods in Chicago.”
After attending the Inter-American Magnet School—founded in part through his parents’ efforts—Ramirez-Rosa graduated from Whitney Young High, another magnet school. “It’s one of the ways the city’s elite have been able to separate their own children,” he says, adding, “but it also has one of the highest percentages of students eligible for free lunches.” Going from there to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was, he confesses, a “culture shock.”
“I went from a grammar school that was very much a leftist bubble, to a high school that was very diverse, very cosmopolitan… to the cornfields.” At the same time, he was coming to terms with his own sexuality—the one blind spot in his progressive upbringing.
“My parents would take me to the Mexican Independence Parade, and they would dress me up in a charro suit. I would wave the Mexican flag. Then they would take me to the Puerto Rican Parade, and I would put on traditional Puerto Rican dress and wave a Puerto Rican flag. Despite growing up just blocks from Boystown [the center of Chicago’s LGBTQ community], I was never instilled with gay pride.
“We’d drive around Boystown with my father, may he rest in peace, and he’d be like, ‘Oh, look at that faggot there!’ Although I knew from a very young age that I was queer, it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I came out to my peers. I still didn’t come out to my family. I came out to my siblings in my freshman year. My parents divorced when I was in high school, and I was home for winter break, walking down the stairs, and my mother just stops me and goes, ‘Are you gay?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ She goes, ‘You know, I love you no matter what.’ That was a good experience.”
But his mother also asked him not to tell anyone else in the family. “She said, ‘Wait until your grandmother dies.’ My grandmother is extremely Catholic. I didn’t come out into my larger family until I started running for office. At that point, I had no choice, because my grandma is going to hear about this somewhere. It might as well be from me. I never came out to my father. He passed in 2015.”
After college, Ramirez-Rosa went to work for Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. “I’m young, I’m idealistic, thinking I’m going to go work for this member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the national champion of immigration reform. I quickly saw how he and his office were not connected to the grassroots movement led by undocumented people. I saw compromises I did not think were in the best interests of the progressive movement, like his support for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In many ways, I lost my belief in electoral politics.”
So Ramirez-Rosa began working for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). “I was running their deportation defense effort. Again, I kept coming up against elected officials who just didn’t get it. We were down in Springfield lobbying for a bill that would protect immigrants from deportation and make sure that Illinois wasn’t collaborating with ICE. We would run into progressive Democrats from Chicago, many of whom were also Latino, who just didn’t understand. I started to think, ‘OK, what would a politician connected to a movement look like?’”
In the summer of 2014, ICIRR sent him on a training run by National People’s Action. Now known simply as People’s Action, the Chicago-based organization has a long history of using direct action to confront corporate power. But in 2014, the group sensed an electoral opening. “What really pushed me,” Ramirez-Rosa says, “was the notion that we had to take risks. They said, ‘You know, billionaires don’t question themselves.’ They never question their ability to govern, to lead—but queer people, people of color, women, they question themselves all the time. Poor people say, ‘I’m not smart. I’m not good enough.’ We’re fed these messages.”
By the end of the week, Ramirez-Rosa had decided to run. “I started out with a core group of 30, mostly family and friends. My closest friends are all poor millennials, just like me.” He got a big boost early on when he was endorsed by Reclaim Chicago, a new effort by the People’s Lobby, a People’s Action affiliate, and National Nurses United (NNU), suddenly doubling the number of organizers. Although the group was formed partly to back a challenger to Emanuel, its main impact has been in down-ballot races. For example, it played a crucial role in replacing Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney who bungled the investigation into the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, with Kim Foxx.
“Reclaim Chicago is a model for movement electoral politics,” Michael Lighty, NNU’s director of policy, told me in 2016. “What Reclaim does is target specific wards where existing community groups have a base, identify people who are angry, disenchanted with politics as usual, and tell them, ‘There’s something you can do about it.’”
To anyone with a sense of history, there is something both ironic and poignant about the revival of radical politics in Chicago—a city known not only for a brutal police riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but also as the home of Saul Alinsky, the legendary organizer whose Rules for Radicals is shot through with disdain for electoral politics.
“We realized the limitations of doing Alinsky-style organizing—only picking goals winnable in the short term. That’s not a thing we agree with anymore,” says Kristi Sanford, a spokesperson for Reclaim Chicago. “We believe that you won’t be taken seriously if you can’t pose an electoral threat, endorse candidates, and take out people who impede you at every turn.”
Strategy aside, Sanford says, “people don’t always understand what issue organizing is about. People get elections—there’s a very clear ladder of engagement with elections.”
In 2015, Reclaim Chicago–backed candidates won seven seats on the City Council and forced three Emanuel-backed incumbents into runoffs. The next year, the group endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders, who won 61 percent of the vote in the 35th Ward in the Democratic primary. It also helped elect five progressives to the Illinois State Legislature.
“Bernie Sanders woke a sleeping giant,” says Amanda Weaver, Reclaim Chicago’s executive director. “We can’t just keep fighting for our neighborhoods in our neighborhoods.” The ability to connect local issues to larger struggles is one thing that sets Reclaim Chicago—and activists like Weaver and Ramirez-Rosa—apart from traditional community organizers. Another is the ease with which they also braid together the personal and the political.
When I first heard Weaver speak, she introduced herself as “a survivor of sexual assault, a daughter of low-income parents, and a sister who lost a brother to the opioid epidemic.” I asked her why she did that.
“It’s important to stand up, say my story, be vulnerable,” she replied. “I think if we’re fighting for our lives together, we have to know each other. It’s important that our relationships are not just transactional.”
In the end, though, what makes spending time with Ramirez-Rosa and the folks at Reclaim Chicago so exciting, especially in the Trump era, is their confidence—and their absolute refusal to downsize their dreams. “We can’t be the movement that keeps losing,” Weaver says.
“One of the things we’ve learned in Chicago is that in order to win, you have to build coalitions,” says Clem Balanoff, a longtime labor activist who ran the Sanders campaign in Illinois. While Reclaim Chicago has yet to make an endorsement in the 2018 gubernatorial race, many of its members are behind State Senator Daniel Biss, the anti-corporate candidate challenging billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“We’re going to build a different kind of power,” Ramirez-Rosa vows. And Reclaim Chicago is just the beginning, says Tobita Chow, chair of the People’s Lobby. The new movement-backed politics shaking Chicago is a model that Chow wants to see exported as widely as possible: “Because it’s not enough to lobby the government, not enough to appeal to the government. It’s time for us to be the government.”
Governing from the left—it’s certainly a radical idea. But Chow argues that if it can happen in the 35th Ward, it can happen anywhere. “We absolutely have to globalize this movement,” says Chow, whose next big idea is a global minimum wage. “You can’t control multinational capital without multinational organizing.”
“It’s a long game,” says Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a young man in a hurry.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that Reclaim Chicago was “at the heart of the coalition behind State Senator Daniel Biss,” which could be read as describing an endorsement. The group has not yet endorsed in that race.