Black Progressive Women Are Repudiating Rahm Emanuel’s Legacy on His Way Out of Office

Rahm Emanuel spent his career in the Democratic Party punching left. Last week, the left hit back.

Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle speaks at her election night event in Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Cook County Board President Preckwinkle will face former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot in a runoff to become Chicago's next mayor. The race will guarantee the nation's third-largest city will be led the next four years by an African-American woman. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle speaks at her election night event in Chicago, Ill., on Feb. 26, 2019. Photo: Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the very embodiment of triangulating, neoliberal politics going back multiple generations, is leaving office with the political movement he rode to power in tatters. Last week, Chicago voters dealt both him and his political ideology a searing rebuke, as progressive women of color swept key local elections, unseated a city council member with close ties to the mayor, and sent two progressive black women into the runoff to replace Emanuel.

Eight candidates backed by United Working Families of Illinois, a group dedicated to running populist, progressive candidates, sought seats on the Chicago City Council. Two insurgents won outright, two defended their incumbent status, and four pushed races into April runoffs. UWF also managed a number of their campaigns and recruited at least three of them.

Emanuel himself will be replaced by one of two black women: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot or Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Lightfoot is a progressive who’s the first openly gay woman to make a mayoral bid. Preckwinkle is a longtime political insider with union backing and progressive stances on criminal justice. Her biggest liability is her ties to establishment Democrats, from whom she’s worked to distance herself. Both ran against the creation of new charter schools and pushed for a democratically elected school board — two signature Emanuel proposals. And they each made Emanuel’s handling of the murder of Laquan McDonald major pieces of their bids. The two beat William Daley, of the city’s famed political dynasty, who finished third, short of the runoff.

The insurgent candidates reflect something of a new model for progressives in the contemporary era, as the left recruited and organized around black and brown candidates, and particularly around black women. It wasn’t a strategy of identity politics, UWF said, but an embrace of leftist candidates who could speak from direct experience to the needs of voters in their communities. It echoed the revolutionary campaign of Harold Washington in 1983 and drew on many of the same forces. Washington, backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and a coalition of progressive and civil rights groups, rallied black, Hispanic, and progressive white voters to beat the Daley machine, a campaign that was an inspiration for the left around the country.

Last week’s wins chart a course for future electoral victories for the left, said Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families of Illinois. “We had a historic night,” Tai told The Intercept. “There’s a huge sea change coming to Chicago,” she said.

“If you’re an incumbent who voted to cover up the police killing of Laquan McDonald, you should be pretty scared right now,” Tai said. “If you’re an incumbent who’s considering a vote to give almost a billion dollars in public education funding away to a luxury real estate developer to build condos on the North Side, you should be pretty concerned right now,” she said. “And I think that folks are.”

Maria Hadden, a queer black activist and board member of the Black Youth Project 100, received 64 percent of the vote in her ward to unseat 28-year incumbent Joe Moore, a white man. Moore, once a progressive stalwart, had fallen out of favor among activists as he became increasingly aligned with Emanuel. Hadden criticized him for taking campaign contributions from real estate developers and landlords in a way that mirrored Emanuel’s cozy relationship with industry. She will be the city’s first queer and black alderperson.

Jeanette Taylor, a black female community organizer known for leading a 2015 hunger strike to protest the closure of a South Side high school, took the top seat in the Ward 20 council race. Taylor, who UWF recruited and whose campaign they managed, knocked Democratic Committee Member Kevin Bailey into third place. Bailey drew criticism for what some saw as engaging in “machine politics,” the Chicago Crusader reported when he challenged the petition signatures of 13 of his 14 opponents ahead of the race. Taylor will face former teacher and activist Nicole Johnson in a runoff on April 2.

In addition to the victories by Hadden and Taylor, UWF counted another win with Michael D. Rodríguez’s election to a council seat representing Ward 22. Rodríguez will fill the seat vacated by Ricardo Muñoz, who co-founded the council’s Progressive Reform Caucus. Muñoz announced that he would not seek re-election after facing calls to resign following news that he had hit his wife on New Year’s Eve. Rodríguez is a longtime youth mentor known for his work in community organizing.

UWF member and incumbent Susan Sadlowski Garza defended her seat representing the 10th Ward, as did Carlos Ramirez-Rosa — another UWF member — in the 35th. Both have served on the organization’s board. Garza is a union activist, and Ramirez-Rosa is a former immigrant rights organizer.

Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez and Rafael Yanez, both of whom UWF recruited and managed campaigns for, will compete in the April runoffs for the 33rd and 15th wards, respectively. As will UFW-endorsed civil rights attorney Matt Martin, who’s running to represent Ward 47. Rodríguez-Sánchez is an immigrant and tenants’ rights organizer from Puerto Rico. Yanez is a former Chicago police officer known for organizing youth violence prevention activities. Martin ran a campaign heavily focused on police reform.

Taylor, Rodríguez-Sánchez, and Ramirez-Rosa were also endorsed by DSA. Emanuel, meanwhile, served as a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton for much of his administration, counseling him against taking progressive positions on everything from LGBT issues and gun rights to economic policy and immigration. He was elected to Congress in 2002 as a pro-Iraq War candidate and ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, recruiting conservative candidates across the country. He became Barack Obama’s chief of staff in 2009, again counseling moderation and doing battle with progressives. He was elected Chicago mayor in 2011.

While Tai said she was surprised by the group’s success, the groundwork has been in the works for years, she told The Intercept. “The victories that happened on Tuesday were born from losses,” she said. “I think that we’ve just tried really hard to learn the right lessons from the previous cycle,” she said, recalling current Illinois Rep. Chuy García’s failed 2015 mayoral challenge against Emanuel.

Tuesday’s wins “would not have been possible without the races we ran and the risks that we took in 2015 with Chuy García, in 2014 with the state representative primary,” Tai said. “Those losses laid the foundation for sustained organizing to win governing power that we’re just now starting to reap the harvest.”

After García’s loss, critics pointed to his failure to secure the trust of black voters. Others suggested that perhaps he was just too far left. But Tuesday’s elections debunked that myth, activists say.

“It’s untrue,” Maurice Mitchell, the Working Families Party’s national director, told The Intercept. “When you do the proper organizing, and you don’t take black votes for granted, and you’re intentional, then, like with any community, you can win. It’s really that simple,” he said.

But Mitchell was clear that the wins weren’t a function of race or ethnicity.

“It’s not simply about identity. And I want people to understand that,” he said. “But these are black women, a black queer woman, who are operating with a different set of political instincts and a different set of beliefs. These are people who for years have been on the periphery of power,” he explained.

“Not only do they occupy those identities, they’re also running on a platform that addresses concerns of our communities in a way that is very, very different than some of the transactional leaders that tend to provide marginal reforms. But marginal reforms that are staked for the more established and monied interests that they have to deal with.”

The formula for success “is finding somebody who’s been on the periphery of power and providing them a pathway to actually run in a serious way. Have them run in an authentic way, with their authentic self,” Mitchell said. “And then they’re speaking to the issues that would ultimately transform the lives of people like them and people in their communities.” The final piece of that puzzle is running “in a way that’s people-centered,” he said.

“That’s a winning formula. And that’s how folks have been able to unseat incumbents with fundraising advantages,” Mitchell explained. “When you operate using a different rulebook, and when you center who’ve been marginalized, you’re unlocking all of this energy.”

The wins, Tai said, also speak to “the tremendous amount of organizing that has been happening in Chicago for years and years that has been searching for a political home and a political party to call its own, and has found it in United Working Families.”

“There’s been amazing organizing to issues like school closings and rent control and the shuttering of mental health clinics and the mayor’s slush fund for rich developers,” Tai said, “that we’re only now starting to translate into electoral victories and governing power.”

A major part of that has been the work of black women, Tai said. “I see a real through-line of the work of black women in particular to make this moment a reality,” she said. “Just as black women’s health and trauma is underreported, so is black women’s work. And that feels like a really important story to tell about this moment.”

The progressive momentum is not a phenomenon limited to Chicago, WFP pointed out. WFP-recruited tenant organizer Jumaane Williams last week won New York City’s race for public advocate, a position that is often a stepping stone to mayor. Williams has been criticized for his religious opposition to LGBT causes and abortion, but has defended his legislative track record as a marker of his commitment to progressive causes.

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