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.