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Can Socialists Win in Chicago?

Today’s election in Chicago is the most important the city has seen in a generation. After years of austerity, there's finally an opportunity to begin breaking with Rahm Emanuel's neoliberal status quo.

Chicago City Council candidate Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez at a campaign event last year. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez / Twitter

The only thing certain about today’s municipal elections in Chicago is that it will settle little to nothing. From the mayoral race to a score of aldermanic elections, few if any of the most contentious races will have an outright winner; they’ll be settled in an April runoff.

But today’s election is the most important Chicago has seen in a generation, with an opportunity to make significant progress in breaking from the neoliberal status quo that has dominated the city’s politics in recent years. Chicago’s 2019 municipal elections are a microcosm of our national politics. The political class is scrambling to cope with a population that is furious about inequality, manifesting everywhere in daily life from commuting to work to paying the rent, but also desperate to continue doing nothing about it.

The latest battle for Chicago began last September when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he was not running for a third term. After a mad scramble of twenty-one candidate vying to replace him, the final number of candidates on the ballot is fourteen. Yet despite the enormous number running, the differences between them range from slim to none.

But in December, the Ed Burke corruption scandal broke. Burke, a fifty-year veteran of the city council, is at the center of the biggest corruption scandal in years — one that has threatened much of the city’s political establishment.

The scandal soiled the two leading candidates at the time, Toni Preckwinkle, the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party and the current president of the Cook County Board, and Susana Mendoza, the Illinois comptroller, who both share extensive ties to Burke.

Things took a bizarre turn in January, when it was revealed that longtime Chicago alderman Danny Solis was wiring a wire for nearly two years for the FBI, recording the most private of political conversations with local and state leaders of the Democratic Party, including Burke. Solis hasn’t been seen in public since then.

The Burke-Solis scandals have pulled back the mask of the corrupt relationship between the real-estate goliath gentrifying Chicago and the political class that serves it. This not small change political corruption but involves millions in various and sundry payoffs to remold what Chicago will look like for the next century.

While the mayor’s race comes to an inconclusive end — none of the leading candidates break 20 percent in the most recent poll of likely voters, and a majority vote is required to win — the most important elections to keep an eye on are the aldermanic contests, where socialists are fighting for the largest number of seats on the city council in living memory.

Mayor 1% Collapses

What was so surprising about Mayor Emanuel’s fall was that everything appeared to be going his way.

His strongest and likely opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who forced Rahm into a run-off in 2015, was anointed the successor to retiring US representative Luis Gutierrez. Gutierrez, a longtime Rahm ally and national advocate for immigrant rights, orchestrated Garcia’s move into a safe congressional seat. With Garcia off to Washington, Rahm’s reelection appeared secure.

Rahm was also getting his signature projects passed with little opposition. In one week in late May 2018, he won two major votes on the city council for the Obama Presidential Library in Jackson Park and a new police academy, to be built to the tune of $95 million on the West Side.

In both cases, the city council voted 48-1 to approve both projects that would accelerate the rapid gentrification of working-class, black communities. The virtually unanimous vote demonstrated, once again, how much of a rubber stamp the city council was for Rahm. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was the sole dissenting vote on the cop academy.

And Emanuel was sitting on a mountain of cash for a third run. By late July 2018, his campaign war chest had swelled to $8 million, with the prospect of much more money coming his way. Few contenders could compete in the money race with him.

Emanuel was already a legend in the Democratic Party for his fundraising abilities, but there was little secret to his success. If you didn’t pay up, you didn’t get access or contracts. Much of his contributions were from the city’s hospitality and tourist businesses, which flourished under him, along with construction companies and investment companies.

Everyone I knew expected him to run again and win (including me). What happened? We may have to wait several years for a credible insider account of the decision-making that led to his withdrawal. But his pollsters must have warned him that his support was narrow and weak, and that the right sort of contender could defeat him. His own statements on withdrawing weren’t credible. The answer had to lay somewhere else.

Rahm was never a popular mayor either politically or personally, despite winning two elections. His famously thuggish personality — which he confessed to in a 2015 election commercial — combined with his ruthless pursuit of a political agenda that made the ultra-rich richer led him to be tagged as “Mayor 1%” early in his administration.

His failed effort during the last two years of his administration to lure Amazon to Chicago to build its new “HQ2” reinforced this image. He and former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner offered Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over $2.2 billion in tax breaks and the choicest land in the city for his new headquarters.

But it was the historic 2012 Chicago Teachers strike, led by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), that permanently tarnished him as an opponent of progressive unions and community groups fighting educational apartheid. The strike and the CTU’s continued role in city politics has elevated other working-class struggles in the city, from housing rights to fighting police racism.

The CTU endorsed a Black Friday 2015 protest march on Chicago’s famed shopping district the “Magnificent Mile” — a magnet for tourists — in response to the city releasing the long-suppressed dash cam video of the murder of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. CTU members even voted to call on him to resign in the wake of the scandal.

McDonald was shot sixteen times by Van Dyke on October 20, 2014. The video was considered so politically explosive and detrimental to Rahm’s reelection that his administration suppressed it. Emails later released under court order revealed a panicked administration doing everything it could to keep it out of the public eye.

The city even settled with the McDonald family for $5 million, even though they hadn’t filed a lawsuit. Rahm’s fears about the political impact of the video were confirmed in December 2015, when 51 percent of likely voters said they believed he should have resigned, and 67 percent disapproved of his job performance for handling of the case.

Despite the unified support that Rahm had from business and the city council, the prospect of seeking reelection to a third term was uncertain at best with the trial of Jason Van Dyke on the horizon. He chose to bow out rather than face defeat and humiliation.

The Contenders

The contenders to replace Rahm are mostly old and familiar faces, overwhelmingly drawn from the existing political class in Chicago. They are career politicians, many of whom have worked for or are related to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Rahm’s predecessor, or Rahm himself. All, of course, are running as “outsiders” or “independents.”

The top fundraiser so far is Bill Daley, the son and brother of two former mayors, the infamous Richard J. Daley (1955–1976), and his son Richard M. Daley, Rahm’s immediate predecessor. Bill Daley rose to high-level positions by appointments and has the most extensive corporate connections. He was Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary and Obama’s chief of staff, a fact his extensive television ads play up.

For those who thought that the Daley dynasty was done and another couldn’t be elected mayor, Bill Daley — a former Goldman Sachs executive — might prove them wrong. In such a large field of candidates drawing narrow support from likely voters, he could squeak by and land in the April runoff. We know from two recent campaign contributions of a million dollars each from Ken Griffin, a Republican and the richest man in Illinois, that Daley is the favorite of the billionaire hedge fund crowd.

The rest of the pack are local and state political figures, businessmen, or products of the NGO milieu. Most are creatures of the Cook County Democratic Party, or what is referred to locally as the “machine.”

Paul Vallas is a union-buster and privatizer of public schools who got his start as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Gery Chico was Daley’s chief of staff and was later appointed by him to be school board president.

Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, has held a variety jobs under the Daley and Rahm administrations. Her last position was president of the Chicago Police Board, the civilian body that oversees disciplinary cases for Chicago police officers.

Garry McCarthy, the Chicago police chief fired by Rahm as part of his attempt to distance himself from the Laquan McDonald case, has tried to appeal to the largely white backlash voters, mostly cops and firemen, who are heavily concentrated in the residential neighborhoods on the Northwest and Southwest fringes of the city.

Several precincts in these neighborhoods went for Trump in 2016, and two precincts in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood on the Southwest Side actually gave the Nazi Art Jones, running on the Republican ballot line, nearly 40 percent of the vote in the November election for Congress.

Jerry Joyce, a member of an old political family, is also courting the backlash vote, playing as the other law-and-order candidate.

Amara Enyia is one of few candidates that could surprise political pundits. Her funding largely comes from two Chicago rappers, Chance the Rapper and Kanye West — the latter of which is Trump’s best-known musician supporter. This gives her an appeal, especially to younger people, but it conceals much.

In response to Enyia’s appeal for the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s endorsement, Micah Uetricht wrote in Midwest Socialist, “she actually worked in Daley’s office as a policy analyst in 2009. Daley’s tenure was fundamentally characterized by his embrace of widespread privatization, attacks on public schools, and a broadly neoliberal, anti-working class agenda.” She is a product of the consulting/NGO industrial complex that easily combines neoliberal policies with radical-sounding lingo.

Until Bill Daley’s improbable campaign pushed him towards the front of the pack, the two most likely candidates to replace Rahm were Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois state comptroller Susana Mendoza. Both are career politicians.

Preckwinkle, a former teacher and a twenty-year alderman from Hyde Park, the home of the University of Chicago, has been Cook County Board president since 2010. A liberal technocrat and former reformer, Preckwinkle has been part of the city’s political establishment for a very long time. Preckwinkle had to return over $110,000 in campaign contributions from Burke. But while she has dumped Burke’s money, her ties to developers go back a long way.

Curtis Black recently wrote about Preckwinkle:

But back in her ward she relied heavily on campaign donations from developers. Search the archives of the Hyde Park Herald and you’ll find repeated references to Preckwinkle “com[ing] under fire for accepting donations from representatives of the development community currently at work in her ward.” The notorious Tony Rezko, later convicted on corruption charges, was a major donor for many years.

Preckwinkle isn’t particularly well positioned to lead the charge for reform. In her IVI-IPO questionnaire, she declined to support a ban on political contributions from city contractors, parties seeking permits or zoning changes, or lobbyists. She said she supports public financing of political campaigns — the best option currently out there for cleaning up “pay-to-play” politics — “in theory” but not as a priority.

Susana Mendoza, the Illinois state comptroller, has tried to cast herself as a feminist hero and someone who understands the street violence in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. Mendoza is a product of Mike Madigan’s political machine. He is the longest-serving speaker of the Illinois House and rules over the state Democrats with an iron fist.

Preckwinkle and Mendoza initially polled well, but both have been severely tarnished by the Burke corruption scandal. Burke had a federal criminal complaint filed against him for extortion in early January. Until recently, Burke was spoken of reverentially as the “dean” of the city council, a mentor or a role model. Ironically, he was.

Most of Burke’s extortion charge is related to denying permits to a company if they didn’t give his tax law firm their business. Not only is this common practice for aldermen in Chicago, for whom being an alderman is a “part-time job” paying over $100,000, with a lucrative pension. His wife is also an Illinois Supreme Court justice.

Incredibly, Burke was Donald Trump’s tax lawyer for years and saved Trump millions of dollars at the same time that working-class homeowners’ taxes have skyrocketed. Mendoza also received large contributions from Burke and was actually married at Burke’s home.

Despite the pretense of being a progressive and wanting to break up the “old boys club,” Preckwinkle has been revealed to be deeply part of it. She was initially hurt far more than Mendoza by her past association with Burke. But over the last few weeks that has shifted, and Mendoza has struggled to stay in a position to be in the runoff.

No matter who ends up winning, Chicago’s new mayor is unlikely to differ significantly from past practice. Preckwinkle stands out if for no other reason than the fact that she has won the support of the CTU. But she also has her own history of instituting austerity in and around Chicago. The other candidates would likely do the same in office, with some at least taking progressive stands on social issues while others hewing a more out-and-out reactionary line.

The Socialist Challenge

The Burke-Solis corruption scandals have revealed the political-real-estate-financial complex that is at the heart of the rapid gentrification of Chicago. Working-class Chicago is disappearing from the city under the crushing weight of neoliberalism.

“Chicago is one of the last major cities that you could possibly call working class,” Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative told In These Times. “And that label is certainly disintegrating quickly as prices are escalating across neighborhoods, from Woodlawn to Logan Square.”

Rahm is using his final months in office to push through mega-development projects such as Lincoln Yards, where a billion dollars in tax money will subsidize a mega-real-estate development that will not simply change the Chicago skyline but massively accelerate gentrification on the city’s North Side.

Taking on the real-estate developers and the political class that serves it will determine much of the future of working-class Chicago, and is at the heart of socialist challenges in key aldermanic races, especially in wards targeted for gentrification. Currently, one DSA member, Ramirez-Rosa, sits on the city council. If he is joined by one or two others, it will be the largest socialist presence at City Hall in one hundred years.

Byron Sigcho Lopez is running to replace the disgraced Solis in the Twenty-Fifth Ward. The heart of the ward is Pilsen, a community ravaged by gentrification. Over ten thousand Latinos from the historically Mexican-American community have left since 2000. The Eighteenth Street retail district that runs through the heart of Pilsen is unrecognizable from a few years ago, now dotted with expensive shops and restaurants with valet parking.

Ramirez-Rosa, a nationally known DSA member, is running for reelection in the Thirty-Fifth Ward. The heart of the ward is Logan Square, where “between 2000 and 2014, about 19,200 Hispanic residents moved out, a 35.6 percent decrease.” Four years ago, Rosa defeated then-alderman Rey Colon, a frontman for the Logan Square real-estate mogul Mark Fishman, who was recently described as “the face of gentrification in the neighborhood.” Fishman is supporting Ramirez-Rosa’s opponent in this election, Amanda Yu Dieterich, but few believe she has a chance at defeating him.

In the Thirty-Third Ward, another DSA member, Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez, is challenging Alderman Deb Mell, of the infamous Mell political dynasty. Her brother-in-law is former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a fourteen-year prison sentence for public corruption. The heart of the Thirty-Third Ward is Albany Park, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city and whose long-term residents are facing mass evictions as the neighborhood gentrifies. Like Yu Dieterich’s, Deb Mell’s campaign is heavily financed by real-estate developers. Like Rosa’s, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s campaign has widespread support from progressive unions, community groups, and socialists.

In the Fortieth Ward, DSA members Ugo Okere (who is endorsed by DSA) and Andre Vasquez are challenging incumbent Alderman Pat O’Connor, Rahm’s floor leader on the city council. O’Connor has now been appointed to replace Ed Burke as chair of the city council’s finance committee, making him one of the most powerful politicians in Chicago. Historian Rick Perlstein, who moderated the first aldermanic debate in the Fortieth Ward, called O’Connor “a racist troll” on Facebook after he made blatantly bigoted comments about Okere’s Nigerian heritage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, O’Connor’s wife Barbara is a major player in real estate.

In the Twentieth Ward, where Toni Preckwinkle was alderman for two decades, DSA-endorsed candidate Jeanette Taylor, a mother of five and former Dyett High School hunger striker, is running against eight other candidates for alderman. In a recent interview in Jacobin, she said, referring to the Obama presidential library pushed hard by Emanuel:

The ward as a whole is in jeopardy from the Obama library. All of a sudden, parts of the ward are getting clean, there are lights, they’re making it pretty. That’s not for us. That’s for selling it. They’re going to say you’re fifteen minutes away from the Obama center. Move in. The entire ward will be a victim of this placement if we don’t get an elected official who is willing to stand up and fight for this community.

Meanwhile, DSA member Pete DeMay is making his second attempt to unseat Twelfth Ward alderman George Cardenas, a major ally of Rahm. Cardenas recently received a $20,000 campaign donation from Rahm’s super PAC.

Beyond the DSA is another layer of challengers to the status quo politicians endorsed by the United Working Families of Illinois, including Erika Wozniak Francis, a CTU delegate running in the Forty-Sixth Ward and Maria Hadden in the Forty-Ninth.

Last Chance

The next mayor of Chicago will likely continue the four-decades-long project to gentrify the city. Yet there is also the potential to create an organized socialist presence on the city council that can mobilize opposition to that project in a way that the current Progressive Caucus has failed to do.

We are the tipping point for the class and racial makeup of the major cities of the United States. This may be Chicago’s last chance to stay a working-class city for working-class people. Gentrification is moving at rapid speed. Much of the city has been privatized.

Chicago desperately needs a political bloc that opposes neoliberalism in the city. The next mayor of Chicago probably won’t be part of that bloc, but Chicagoans could take steps towards building it in the city council today.