Socialists Leave Rahm Emanuel Legacy in Tatters in Chicago Elections

On Tuesday, Chicago voters elected at least three socialists to city council, crumbling the neoliberal Democratic machine of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Voters cast their ballots at the polling place in downtown Chicago, Illinois on April 2, 2019. - Chicago residents went to the polls in a runoff election Tuesday to elect the US city's first black female mayor in a historic vote centered on issues of economic equality, race and gun violence. Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, both African-American women, are competing for the top elected post in the city. (Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Voters cast their ballots at a polling place in downtown Chicago on April 2, 2019. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, Chicago voters elected at least three socialists to City Council, crumbling the neoliberal Democratic machine of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Three members of the Democratic Socialists of America won their runoff races, joining two others who won outright last month — adding up to the highest number of socialists City Council has seen in more than a century.

Jeanette Taylor, a community organizer known for leading a monthlong hunger strike in 2015 to reopen a South Side high school, won in the 20th Ward. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, another longtime community organizer, defeated Alex Acevedo to replace Danny Solis, who held the aldermanic seat for the 25th Ward for more than two decades. In the 40th Ward, Andre Vasquez toppled one of the most powerful members of City Council and an Emanuel ally: Pat O’Connor, who held the seat for nearly four decades.

There will potentially be a fourth democratic socialist victor: The race in the 33rd Ward is still too close to call, but DSA member Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez holds a narrow lead over Deborah Mell, whose prominent family has represented the ward for more than 40 years. As of Wednesday morning, Rodriguez-Sanchez was ahead by 24 votes, but mail-in ballots and a recount may still prove decisive.

In February, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a democratic socialist, won his re-election race, and Daniel La Spata, another DSA member, ousted scandal-plagued incumbent Joe Moreno. Ramirez-Rosa noted that there are now enough members to form a socialist caucus within City Hall.

“These wins wouldn’t be possible without the organizers & volunteers from many different orgs across the city,” Chicago DSA said in a tweet. “We’re ready to get to work & fight against corporate greed, gentrification & austerity politics that have hurt Chicago’s working class, while benefiting a wealthy few.”

In the mayoral race,  former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who identified as a progressive but whose record has been called into question, was elected to replace Emanuel, making Chicago the largest city to elect a black woman and openly gay woman as its mayor. Lightfoot defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also a black woman, by a large margin. Both candidates sought to distance themselves from the outgoing mayor, running against school privatization.

Lori Lightfoot celebrates at her election night rally at the Hilton Chicago after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral election, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Lori Lightfoot celebrates her mayoral win during election night at the Hilton Chicago on April 2, 2019.

Photo: Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Lightfoot has never served in an elected seat, but in the first round of voting, she led in a field of 14 candidates. Despite pitching herself as a police reformer, however, Lightfoot has been criticized by criminal justice reform advocates and activists for her mixed record as a federal prosecutor.

Still, her politics are a sharp departure from those of Emanuel, who has consistently fought progressive policy at every step of his career. Before running for mayor, Emanuel served in the White House for years, as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton and as Barack Obama’s chief of staff in 2009. He sought to push the presidents to the right on a number of issues, including LGBT rights, immigration, and economic policy, and entered the Obama administration as a corporate, pro-Iraq War Democrat.

Activists in the city celebrated Emanuel’s departure and said they are hopeful about the slate of progressives who were elected. Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families, said that what Emanuel “has done in Chicago for the past eight years has raised troubling questions about whose interests the mainstream Democratic Party represents.” But this wave of insurgents, Tai said, is building an infrastructure for progressives that serves as an alternative to a Democratic Party, governed “by white men, the corporate class” — which has dominated politics in Chicago for years, “to the detriment of black and brown working class communities.”

Even unsuccessful campaigns help develop progressive power, Tai noted. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s unsuccessful mayoral run against Emanuel in 2015, for example, helped plant the seeds for future victories. “This is the center of the struggle to keep cities and keep the Midwest in a place where it’s possible for working-class black and Latinx folks to make a living and raise their children,” she said. “That’s what this election is about,” and black and brown candidates are leading the charge. Lightfoot will work with a City Council that is the most diverse in history, most noticeably with increased Latino representation.

Tai cited Emanuel’s handling of the murder of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by a white police officer in 2014; his shuttering of public schools and teacher layoffs; and his cozy relationship with the real estate industry as some of the “signature ways he has failed communities of color.”

“After, like, eight years of this Democratic Party leader telling communities of color that there was not money to keep their schools open, that there was not money to keep health centers open, that there was not money for retirement, then it’s like, ‘Well, actually, there is money, and I’m gonna give it to luxury real estate developers’ is like a slap in the face,” Tai said.

“And we’re slapping back, shut the door on your way out. There’s going to be a black woman mayor and there’s going to be a fighting City Council that is building a legislative body for the many and not the few.”

In addition to the socialists who ran for office, there were a handful of candidates who have significant ties to the labor left and other political movements that predate the rise of DSA, like the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike. Many of the candidates have organizing backgrounds and ran movement-based campaigns centered on issues where much of the progressive energy currently lies: affordable housing, immigrant rights and protections, and police reform. United Working Families staff managed the runoff campaigns of Taylor, Rodriguez-Sanchez, and Rafa Yanez in the 15th Ward.

DSA emerged as a real political force in the wake of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s first presidential bid in 2016. His call for a mass, working-class movement reinvigorated American interest in democratic socialism and largely contributed to the dramatic growth of DSA, whose membership has increased to more than 55,000 since the election of Donald Trump. The election of House Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, two DSA members, also gave the group a significant boost.

“Chicago belongs to the people,” Tai said in a Tuesday statement. “Tonight, voters rejected Rahm Emanuel’s legacy of crumbling schools, skyrocketing violence and gentrification, and crushing inequality. Years of work by the women of color at the helm of United Working Families made this sea change possible. We’re building a progressive, multi-racial alternative to the Democratic machine. Tonight’s victories are the biggest expression yet of our power, and we’re just getting started.”

Correction: April 3, 2019, 9:15 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misstated the opponent whom Byron Sigcho-Lopez defeated. It has been updated. 

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