This week on Next Left we’re in Chicago, city of big dreams and big politics. Historically, Chicago has been identified as America’s preeminent “machine town.” That had nothing to do with industry and everything to do with elections. Democratic bosses, often named Daley, maintained a network of political cronies with one mission: to ensure that candidates favored by the bosses (and their business associates) won. For decades the Chicago Democratic machine prevented reformers and radicals from getting anywhere near power. But the machine started sputtering decades ago, and suddenly Chicago is home to some of the most dynamic local politics in the country.

This year Chicagoans elected Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor making her first bid for elected office, as their new mayor. An African-American lesbian who ran on a promise to shake up City Hall, she beat one of the most established names in local politics by an almost 3-1 margin. And Lightfoot’s election wasn’t the only big change. Chicago voters elected a city council that is ready to push the boundaries of status-quo politics. How far? Ten percent of the new council members are democratic socialists.

This edition of Next Left focuses on one of these new council members, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, and she’s got a remarkable tale to tell. A native of Puerto Rico, she came to Chicago a decade ago as a teacher with a passion for getting young people engaged with the arts. She soon joined up with a group of grassroots reformers and radical activists who were working to change the politics of a historic “machine ward.” They lost four years ago but, this year, with Rodriguez Sanchez as their candidate, the reformers took the council seat from an incumbent whose family had held it for the better part of 50 years.

Rodriguez Sanchez spoke to us about her radical roots and her deep faith in democratic socialism. She also offers some advice to first-time candidates: sometimes you just have turn the volume up real loud and listen to A Tribe Called Quest.

Subscribe to Next Left on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Show Notes

How a Group of Unapologetic Progressives Won Big in Chicago’s Election, The Nation, Will Tanzman, April 5, 2019

Chicago’s Political Revolution, In These Times, Miles Kampf-Lassin, February 12, 2019

The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on Disaster Capitalists by Naomi Klein, 2018

Rossana’s favorite political songs:

We the People by A Tribe Called Quest
Police State by Dead Prez

This episode of Next Left was produced and edited by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our executive producers are Frank Reynolds, Erin O’Mara, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Recording help this week from Phoebe Petrovic and Jackson Roach. Our theme song is “Deli Run” by Ava Luna.

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Full Transcript

Introduction from John Nichols: This is John Nichols, National Affairs correspondent for The Nation. Welcome to Next Left. This week we’re in Chicago, city of big dreams and big politics. Historically, Chicago was a machine town. Democratic bosses prevented reformers and radicals from getting anywhere near power, but that’s changing fast. This year, Chicago elected a city council that is ready to push the boundaries of status quo politics, how far? 10% of the new council members are Democratic Socialists. We’ll talk today with one of them, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, who just beat an incumbent city council member whose family has held the same seat for the better part of 50 years. We talked to her just 45 minutes after the incumbent conceded.

John Nichols: Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, thanks for joining us on Next Left.

Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez: Thank you for having me.

JN: It’s great to have you. Let’s start by talking a little bit about Democratic Socialism. You were elected in Chicago with a number of other candidates who proudly identified as Democratic Socialists and from a national perspective, you really weren’t outliers. The fact of the matter is that in the last couple of years, Democratic Socialists have been winning local contests across the country. They’ve also been winning state legislative seats, there are two Democratic Socialists who are serving in Congress, and there’s a Democratic Socialist running for the presidency as a major contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020. What’s going on here?

RRS: Well it seems like socialism is not a bad word anymore, and I’m really happy about that. I think after 2016, having Bernie, popularize the idea of socialism and help people understand what that meant, right? ‘Cause I think that the wars on the socialist ideas, have been very successful and people associate socialism with authoritarianism and lack of democracy when we are trying to do exactly the opposite, right? We’re actually trying to be able to have a say on how our society is run and have access to resources. And I think that Bernie was successful in putting that out there, and then that opened the path for many of us to be able to run for office.

JN: But your roots go back a good deal further. You’ve told interviewers that you’ve been a Democratic Socialist all your life.

RRS: Yes. I don’t remember any time in my life, where the word socialist was not around me. I grew up in Humacao, a small town in the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. And my father was a community organizer, and most of the people that were around him, which were like five people in the neighborhood, they were always organizing and they identified as socialists. So socialist ideas were always around me, and to me it always in practice—because at that point I didn’t have, the possibility of understanding that much theory—but in practice what it looked like was people who organized in order to make things happen for the benefit of the majority of us. That is in practice what a socialist looked like to me, because that’s what I saw them do. The first time that I had to fight for something was for water, right? I was six years old and there was no water in my community, because the water from the river that served us was redirected to a Navy base, a US Navy base in a nearby town, the town of Ceiba. So we didn’t have water. And that’s outrageous, right? That a community wouldn’t have running water. We would have water for an hour or two a day, and that was the time when you would put, you know, you would fill plastic gallons with water or whatever containers you had, and then you would use that for the rest of the day. So, that was a really long struggle and we had to organize and we did a lot of community meetings and we had to protest in front of the waterworks authority a lot, and finally we got our water back. But it was my first lesson on access to resources. If you don’t get together with the people around you, if you don’t organize and, and you fight together to get access to those resources, they’re not going to be easily available to you. And later on, you know, like I was, I was a student activist in college. I had to organize, to prevent the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company, and then defending Vieques from the Navy. The navy was bombing Vieques for over 60 years. Vieques is an island town, it’s what if one of our small islands that is also a town, and the navy, the US Navy was bombing it for military practice for over 60 years, and they killed a civilian at some point when they missed a shot, they dropped the bomb and it fell in the wrong place. And the people in Vieques and in Puerto Rico had been fighting for a very long time to try to get the Navy out, but we hadn’t been been successful. And at that point when David Sanes was killed, then it became like a massive movement and we were able to get the Navy out of Vieques, but it took a lot of fights. So in my life, like living in Puerto Rico, coming from a colony, it was always a fight, to defend ourselves, to gain access to resources, to protect the things that were meant to be for us. So I would say that yes, I was always a socialist also because I always saw that the people that were leading the efforts a lot of times were socialists, it was always in practice that I saw this happen.

JN: It’s interesting that your stories from Puerto Rico are clearly stories of daunting challenges, of great struggles, and yet they often end in victory. Not every battle was won, but enough of them were one to give a signal that when people organize, when they get active, they really can prevail.

RRS: Yes, definitely. And, and, and interestingly, some of the fights, for example, one of the fights that I would say that shaped me the most in my life, was the fight against the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company. That was something, I was, I think I was 19 years old on that day that the workers at the Puerto Rico telephone company called for a strike to prevent the privatization. And we had already organized a United Student Front against privatization. So we were ready and on the day that the workers called a strike, I was in the University of Puerto Rico, in Río Piedras, and on that same day we shut down the university and we marched to the closest office of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company and we took over the gates there. And um, we stayed until the end of the strike and the day to day on, on those gates, I slept on those gates at points. I, you know, I lived close and sometimes, you know, if the police came with scabs and it was four in the morning, it was three in the morning, it was two in the morning. We would like run and defend the gates, because we knew that the Puerto Rico Telephone Company belonged to the people and it was just so crucial to defend that. We did not win that fight. That fight was brutal. We were beaten by cops. We, it was, it was really hard. It was a really hard fight. And, and we ended up losing, but the lessons that we learned on, on solidarity, on those gates, on what it looks like, you know, to, to come together to defend something that belongs to you. Those lessons came with me and I, and I treasure them and I, and they, they informed a lot of the work that I do.

JN: Those are powerful lessons, they give you strength to take on battles, on issues, but also political battles. When you came to the United States, you didn’t come as a child. The, you came about, if I’m correct, 10 years ago?

RRS: Yes. I was, I was about to be 30 when I moved to Chicago.

JN: One of the striking things about Chicago is that so many people come there from other places, from other parts of the United States, from around the world. Why did you choose Chicago?

RRS: I chose Chicago because I was able to find a job here. I never thought that I was going to leave Puerto Rico. I love Puerto Rico. I love living in Puerto Rico. All my family is in Puerto Rico. And, if you know anything about Puerto Ricans is that we tend to be on top of each other all the time, like we don’t have personal space that doesn’t exist. We are always together. We’re always outside. We, every, everything is a party, you know, and um, so it was really hard to leave Puerto Rico and I never thought that I would, but austerity forced me, forced me to leave. I was a teacher in Puerto Rico, was making $1,500 a month, and I was buying all of my supplies. There was nothing in my classroom that was given to me ever. It was really hard. But then in 2008 there was a set of austerity measures that were passed under a law called Law Seven, and at that point they removed the cap on the amount of students that you could have in a classroom. So I was already buying all of my materials with my own money, Puerto Rico, gets really hot in the summer, and I was teaching in a coastal town that was incredibly hot and there was not even a fan in my classroom. So I had to bring my fans from my home. And then the kids would like, argue about who was going to sit in front of the fan. You know, it was, everything was made so much harder. Um, and then at some point when, when they removed the cap on the amount of students that I, that I could have in my classroom, I didn’t even have chairs for all my students. So some students would have to sit on my desk or on the floor. There was no intention or expectation that I should be teaching at that point. Right? Like the intention was and the expectation was that I would keep these children contained in a space until it was time to go home, because I don’t think that you can actually teach under those conditions. So I started thinking I was going to become a bad teacher, you cannot be successful in that kind of environment, it’s really hard. So, I started looking for work in Puerto Rico, but there, at that point, under Law Seven, there was about 20,000 government employees that were laid off. So it was a really hard time to find a job in Puerto Rico. So I started looking outside thinking I will leave for a year, wait until things get a little bit better and then I’ll come back home. But that, that’s not how it works most of the time. So I found a job with a company called Albany Park Theater Project, my background is in theater, I have, I have a bachelor’s degree in theater education and a master’s degree in applied theater, which is the doing of theater and non-theatrical settings. So I looked at the job, I applied on the last day, the deadline, I didn’t want to leave. I was like, you know what, I’m just going to give it a shot. And then out of 120 people that applied, they hired me. And then, I came for an interview and I, it took me a month to like quit my job in Puerto Rico and fly to Chicago.

JN: All right, let’s talk about how you ended up on the Chicago City Council. Yours is an interesting story because you didn’t just decide to run a few months ago or a year ago. You’ve really been at it on the ground in this ward, in this district of the city for the better part of five years.

RRS: Yes.

JN: In fact, you were involved in a previous campaign for this seat, not your own campaign, but that of another contender who really laid a lot of the groundwork.

RRS: Yes.

JN: So in many senses you come to this as part of a longterm movement on the ground in your ward and also throughout the city of Chicago.

RRS: Yes, definitely, this campaign has its roots on a lot of different movements, right? So five years ago, my dear friend team, Tim Meegan, he was a history teacher at Roosevelt High School, our neighborhood high school, decided to run for Alderman of the 33rd ward. And a few of us decided to support him and help him build the campaign. And at that point, we, none of us had any experience building an electoral campaign. We have all been parts of lots of different movements. We were organizers, we have fought for housing, we have fought for immigrant rights, we have fought for education. Um, but, but we, but we did not have any experience making an electoral campaign.

JN: One of the things that make some politics so daunting, particularly for people making their first race is that in many parts of America, in many parts of Chicago especially, there are political dynasties. There are families that have held power for a very long time. Uh, that was certainly the case in your ward.

RRS: For 44 years. Well for at that point for 40 years. Yes.

JN: I think this is a really significant part of your story because in addition to doing all the traditional work of a campaign, pulling together the movements you’ve been involved in, working with your friends and neighbors, working with your supporters, you were also taking on what was in many senses, the embodiment of the Chicago political machine, the democratic machine that in many senses is one of the most well known and frankly historically feared political organizations in the United States.

RRS: That is exactly what was happening. We were taking on an incumbent that was appointed by her father after he spent 38 years in city council. And you can look up Richard Mell or Dick Mell, and find out about his history, it’s not pretty, in the city council. From the council wars for example, against, you know, Harold Washington. So we were not okay with knowing that he had appointed his daughter to his seat, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Deb Mell to the seat at his request and we wanted so much more than what we were getting. So we decided to support Tim, and we built his campaign, and we did a hell off a job. Like, we did not know anything about how to run an electoral campaign and we got 17 votes away from a runoff with Deb Mell. And um, and that was pretty, that was an incredible feat.

JN: It was. Just so folks who are listening in understand, the way the Chicago system works is there’s a primary initially and if one candidate gets 50% that person goes into the city council right there. But if no one gets 50% the two top finishers go into a runoff. And that’s the situation where you found yourself in a runoff against an incumbent city council member with deep roots in the district. So in many senses you are up against everything.

RRS: Yes, yes. So we organized the campaign and we were 17 votes away from a runoff. And after that process was over and we realized that we did not win, we decided to start an independent political organization. Like we knew that we needed something outside of the Democratic Party that was going to allow us to organize independently. So we created our IPO or independent political organization called 33rd Ward Working Families, and we joined with a United Working Families, which is a sister organization of the Working Families Party. And we started organizing and we spent the last four years organizing around different issues: housing, immigration, and education mostly. We were able to put the item to lift the ban on rent control on the ballot as a non-binding referendum. We knocked on doors for that and we got 70% of the vote in every precinct where we were able to put it. We also put the moratorium on charter schools on a ballot. And we also knocked on doors for that, and we were able to win with the majority of votes as well. So people started knowing us, people started recognizing our faces at the doors, as people who were engaged with what was happening in the community. We also started collaborating with an organization called Autonomous Tenants Union. So tenant organization was important.

And then, we created the Albany Park Defense Network in 2016 after Trump won to make sure that our undocumented neighbors were safe in the community. So we were doing all of this work, you know, like going down to immigration court and standing with our neighbors that had immigration issues, making sure that we were fundraising for people who had lost somebody to a deportation, holding a lot of know your rights workshops so people knew what to do if ICE knocked on their door. It was nonstop, you know, every weekend, all the time. We were having a lot of things happening, organizing and letting people know that we were here, we are organizing.

So after the election, after the February 26 election, something really funny happened. Deb Mell, the incumbent, was interviewed by a paper and they asked her, why did she think that she was locked in such a tight race? And she said, “They haven’t stopped running in these four years. They have been running for four years,” and we got a kick out of that because she’s totally right. We didn’t know who we were going to run. I was not, I was definitely not running for four years, but we were organizing the hell out of our community. We were making sure that we were building power, that we were empowering people to come out and, and, and fight for the things that they need it, you know. The first time I was asked to run, I was asked to run by one of my neighbors that also organized with me, out of the blue. He, you know, he, I was coming out of a job and he said, “You should run for Alderman.” And I was like, “No.” And then, and then it seems like those conversations continued to happen and I started like popping up on people’s radars, right? Like as a possible person that they could ask this. And I said no many times, because I just didn’t feel like that was a space for me. You know, when people told me that they have my back and that they were going to build this with me and that I was not alone, I believed them because I saw them do it before. So, so I wanted a progressive, a radical, woman of color in that seat, because I knew that if we didn’t run our own people, those other people are going to be on the seats. They are the ones that are going to continue to have the access. Right? The well-connected, the people who have access to money.

So somebody had to do it. I knew that somebody from our camp needed to do it. Somebody that came from the movement and that was committed to continue to fight and I ended up being the person that was asked to do it. So I did it, and it was scary and it was scary for a very long time. And I actually have no problem saying that I was really scared, but I did it anyways. I did it feeling scared. I did it feeling sometimes like I was going to pass out when I had to go and speak to a group of people, you know? I continued to do it, and we were able to win because of all the people that can, not just because of me, right? Like I became the face and the voice of this movement, but I am, I was only amplifying the work and the voices, you know, that have been fighting for a very long time. The people who organized this campaign are people that have fought for immigration rights, for immigrant rights. There are people in this campaign, at the core of this campaign, that were fundamental organizers in this campaign that were part of starting the Dreamer movement in Chicago. There were people in this campaign that were on strike in 2012 with the Teachers Union. There are people in this campaign that have fought during the housing crisis against foreclosures and evictions. There’s people in this campaign that fought to keep the Olympics out of Chicago during the Olympic bid. There’s people in this campaign that have fought so hard, and most of them are actually socialist, because socialists tend to be, you know, like immersed in all of these struggles, and at the leadership of them as well. So this campaign happen and was possible because of all that fight. It’s over, you know, decades of really hard organizing work around labor, around so many things. Um, so that, that’s how this campaign happened.

JN: Well, you already had some very beautiful organizing, right? Because the campaign you ran was such a high profile campaign in such a significant campaign, not just for your ward, but for the city of Chicago. And frankly for people well beyond it. The way that you put that campaign together matters. What you did to win, but also what you did to build an organization over a period of time is significant. What do you think made it all work?

RRS: There’s so many things. I mean, we learned a lot of lessons from last time like we had, we definitely had the experience of running Tim Meegan’s campaign. So, having that expertise was fundamental. We also had the trust of a lot of people and organizations and unions, that saw what we did with the Tim Meegan campaign, like they knew that if we did that with nothing, if we did that while not knowing exactly how to run an electoral campaign, then they could trust us. They knew that we were going to come through. The fact that I was a Latina running for office for the first time in the history of this ward, for ward that is the 52% Latinx, made a difference, it made a huge difference for a lot of people that finally they were seeing representation. I also had these ties to the community because of the organizing, but also because of my work with the Albany Park Theater Project. I had been working there for seven years. I have mentored so many young people in the community that all came from immigrant families. I had built a lot of trust with different organizations and communities around the ward and the city of Chicago because I was an ethnographer and theater director with that company, and I was always interviewing people in the community to get stories for our plays. And all of our plays were about the issues that I ran on, right? Like education, immigration, food insecurity, all of these things. I had already connected with so many individuals and so many organizations around the city and they knew who I was and they knew the quality of my work. So I had the trust of a lot of people and organizations when I decided to run.

JN: I’m so glad you mentioned your background in the arts. I think a lot of political and media elites discount the strength that someone who comes from the arts brings to politics. And that is that,particularly if you’ve been working to communicate with people in all sorts of different mediums and frankly to help people to communicate their own truths, you have a different way of looking at organizing and, and really at the political process. My sense is that was one of your real strengths in this race. It’s part of what helped you to win.

RRS: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. And, and because my background is in social theater, the fact that I have worked in so many different spaces, with so many different people from prisons, to psychiatric hospitals, to refugee organisations, to sexual health education. I have worked with young people, I have worked with old people, I have worked with almost everybody and every time that I have engaged with one of these processes is all about listening. It’s all about listening to what people have to say and what their experiences are. I felt like it was very easy for me to connect with almost anybody that you would put in front of me, because it is natural for me. So I would say that I ended up being a perfect fit. I didn’t always believe that, and I think that one thing that I am very grateful for is the fact that even when I doubted myself, even when I was like, “Are you sure that that I should be doing this, that I should be the right person doing this?” The people around me built me up. And a lot of times you are going to need that if you want leadership that is working class, that is people of color that is mothers and women. A lot of times because of the way that we have been socialized and the ways that we have been marginalized we are going to need people to come around us and remind us that we’re powerful, and remind us that we’re capable, because we have a lot to offer and a lot of times we can’t see it ourselves, right? So, it was incredibly powerful to have people around me just rooting for me and reminding me the things that I have done in life and why I was the perfect person to do this, and checking in on me and helping me take care of my child. So all of those things were incredibly important, so that I could be a successful candidate.

JN: So you’ve run this incredible race, your opponent has conceded, and now you’re on the Chicago City Council, one of the most powerful municipal governance bodies in the United States. And I’m wondering, you know, with so many things to deal with, so many challenges, is it exciting? Is it daunting?

RRS: Well, yes and no. Yes. I, I have been organizing for a very long time and I see the role, the aldermanic role as somebody that should be an organizer. In order to pass anything, any ordinance in city council, you’re going to have to organize. You’re going to have to build bridges with everybody that is there and make your case, right? And now we have more people that are on our side at City Council, which is exciting because we’re going to be able to have some leverage. But then also I have so many organizations that are behind me and, and with me, you know, holding my hand as well, like we are going to do this together, right? So I am sure that he’s going to be really challenging, but as an activist here in Chicago, I heard her, said the other day, “We are community organizers, we specialize in the impossible.” So that’s what we’re gonna go do.

JN: Rossana it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

RRS: Aw thank you, same.

JN: I wanna close off here by taking you back to the arts, do you have a favorite political song?

RRS: A favorite political song? Oh, you’re killing me. Let me see. I have a lot of songs. I went to a school yesterday and a student, I went to talk to these students in the South Side and this student asked me what was my jam and, and I looked at the teacher and I was like, “I don’t know if I can say,” and the teacher, and the teacher looked at me and said, “Oh, they have heard everything. You can tell them.” And I said, “Okay, Dead Prez, Police State is what I listen to before knocking on doors.” And they were all looking at me like they didn’t know what that is. And I was like, “Look it up. Look it up.” Um, I’m gonna say, I listened to Dead Prez a lot while I was on the campaign trail. But I’m going to say A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People.”

JN: Chicago city council member Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez. Congratulations on your victory and thanks so much for joining us on Next Left.

RRS: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.