Socialists on Chicago City Council Fight for Affordable Housing, Immigrant Rights

Democratic socialists now make up 12 percent of the City Council, the highest number that any major American city has seen in more than a century.

From left, Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union; Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Chicago alderperson for the 35th Ward; Alyxandra Goodwin, co-chair of the Chicago chapter of the Black Youth Project 100; Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, Chicago alderperson for the 33rd Ward; Jeanette Taylor, Chicago alderperson for the 20th Ward; and Kevin Coval, poet and activist, at the Socialism 2019 Conference in Chicago in July. Photo: Aida Chavez/The Intercept

In an interview with CNN that aired Friday morning, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden slammed progressive Democrats and their “way left” policies, suggesting that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, isn’t representative of the Democratic Party’s base or its path to victory in 2020. Meanwhile, in Chicago, where thousands of socialists from all over the world gathered for the four-day Socialism Conference, there was plenty to celebrate.

Over the past two years, there’s been a resurgence of socialist politics across the U.S., from Ocasio-Cortez’s toppling of 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley — the most consequential political upset in recent times — to the six democratic socialists elected to Chicago City Council — a repudiation of ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago machine. And most recently, Tiffany Cabán, a public defender backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, challenged the establishment-backed candidate in the Queens, New York, district attorney race. While the outcome of the race is now disputed, Cabán’s insurgent campaign stunned Queens leadership.


Socialists Leave Rahm Emanuel Legacy in Tatters in Chicago Elections

These candidates, who have embedded in social movements and community organizing, have invigorated the desire for a left-wing alternative to the Democratic Party. “We know it is barbarism or socialism — and we choose the latter,” Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said to a roaring audience on Friday. “You are going to be part of the fight to build a better future — welcome to Red Chicago!” The conference, which included workshops and panel discussions, was sponsored by DSA, Jacobin magazine, and Haymarket Books.

Nowhere is the excitement clearer than in Chicago, where democratic socialists now make up 12 percent of its city council, the highest number that any major American city has seen in more than a century, bolstering the progressive caucus. The victories were the result of working-class political movements, years of grassroots organizing, and the progressive coalitions formed in response to key battles like the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike. Candidates emerged from social movements fighting for police reform, affordable housing, increased funding for public education, and immigrant rights and protections.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” said Jeanette Taylor, a community organizer best known for leading a monthlong hunger strike in 2015 to reopen a South Side high school, and alderperson of the 20th Ward. “I was a teen mother; by the time I was 19, I had three kids. … I worked at a bar and my mother was a clerk at my neighborhood school.”

They’ve already started to make a difference. Ramirez-Rosa, a DSA member and the first openly gay Latinx candidate elected to the city council, re-elected this year in the 35th Ward, ran on a platform influenced by DSA’s effort in taking on big real estate developers and the affordable housing crisis. Ramirez-Rosa beat his establishment-backed opponent by nearly 20 percentage points despite being outspent 2-to-1. Alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Ramirez-Rosa was one of the first socialists in the U.S. to win re-election in the past two decades.

“I’m under no illusion, like Lucy Parsons said, that the rich will allow us to vote away their wealth,” Ramirez-Rosa said. In response, his approach to governance aims to fuel mass movements. Because Chicago’s alderpeople have an unusual amount of power over what’s done in their ward, especially when it comes to zoning, Ramirez-Rosa said that “one of the things I sought to do immediately was to figure out how I could devolve the power that I have unilaterally, to the people.”

“One of the things I sought to do immediately was to figure out how I could devolve the power that I have unilaterally, to the people.”

It will take a lot of work to undo the legacy left by Emanuel and decades of the Chicago machine before him. During his time as mayor, Emanuel closed down half of the city’s mental health clinics, shuttered dozens of public schools serving mostly black neighborhoods, and presided over the privatization of public services. One of the biggest crises of his tenure was his handling of the murder of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer in 2014. The former mayor, who raked in around $18 million as an investment banker, also worked for years in the White House, as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton and as Barack Obama’s chief of staff in 2009. Emanuel went back to Wall Street, joining an investment banking firm, in addition to a side gig as a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where he writes op-eds telling Democrats not to be socialists.

To date, Ramirez-Rosa’s office runs three programs, called “people-powered initiatives,” which were developed with the goal of empowering working people to “build socialism from the left and from below.”

One of those programs, a deportation rapid-response network, was created in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Since its inception, the Community Defense Committee has knocked on thousands of doors, distributed thousands of know-your-rights cards to residents in case of confrontation with police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and even led civil disobedience trainings.

In the 33rd Ward — which covers parts of Ravenswood Manor, Avondale, Albany Park, and Irving Park — DSA member Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez defeated Deborah Mell, whose prominent family had represented the ward for more than 40 years. The race was initially too close to call, but after a two-week recount, Rodriguez-Sanchez led by 13 votes. Since her win in late April, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s office has been organizing a network of volunteer mental health care providers to stay on-call in case of ICE raids or sudden deportations, in order to take care of families going through the trauma of separation. “Being in office now means that we can redefine what aldermanic services are,” she said.

“So far, people are used to the fact that an aldermanic office is where you get your garbage can and call for potholes, or because your neighbor is being loud and you want somebody to go yell at them,” she said.

And the four other members are also prioritizing the fight against luxury developers, which are largely responsible for driving out black and Latinx families. Daniel La Spata, another DSA member, ousted incumbent Joe Moreno with 61 percent of the vote in the 1st Ward. In the 40th Ward, Andre Vasquez toppled Emanuel’s floor leader, Pat O’Connor, one of the most powerful members of city council who held the seat for nearly four decades. 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.

DSA, which played a key role in rocking the Democratic establishment in Chicago, is an increasingly potent political force at the national level.

DSA, which played a key role in rocking the Democratic establishment in Chicago, is an increasingly potent political force at the national level. Interest in democratic socialism surged in the wake of Sanders’s first presidential bid in 2016. His call for a working-class mass movement contributed to the dramatic growth of the organization, whose membership has ballooned to more than 60,000 since Trump’s election. Two of the most prominent members of Congress, Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, are also affiliated with DSA.

In a panel discussion called “Using Elections to Build Class Power,” Lillian Osborne, field director of Ramirez-Rosa’s campaign, explained that DSA’s organizing for the movement to lift the statewide ban on rent control, one of the city’s most pressing issues, set the stage for the rest of the election.

“We started talking to people about rent control and finding that they actually really supported it, which lifted our own confidence, but I think was a part of this effort to show people this is not only a desirable policy, it’s actually possible when working-class people fight for it,” Osborne said. “So our ward had a 72 percent support rate for that referendum in November.”

Much of the discussion at the conference focused on strategies for future organizing and how socialists in other places can build the groundwork necessary to replicate Chicago’s successes. While the socialist alderpeople are, at the end of the day, a minority in the Chicago City Council, they remain committed to using their influence how they can. “But in the midst of all this joy, of all the victories we have experienced together,” Ramirez-Rosa said, “we see so much sorrow and pain, caused by the greatest manmade disaster to ever befall mankind: capitalism.”

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