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Organizing for Governing Power in Chicago

Chicago’s 2019 municipal elections delivered significant victories for socialists and progressives. These wins come after years of work by unions and community groups - may provide a model for organizers in other cities looking for progressive change

The People’s Lobby - Reclaim Chicago,

Recently, Organizing Upgrade’s Jacob Swenson-Lengyel sat down with Will Tanzman and Marta Popadiak from The People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago to talk about their work this election cycle and how it relates to the long-term project of building progressive infrastructure in the city.

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel: The 2019 elections in Chicago were pretty historic. Can you share a bit about the results?

Marta Popadiak: Yes, they were historic. Voters in Chicago sent a clear message: out with the old and in with the new. There were a lot of wins for progressives. In 2015, we participated in the first wave of progressive insurgent campaigns. This year, progressives in Chicago took it to the next level. After this past cycle super progressive electeds make up 20% of the council. At the mayoral level, many people agreed that whether Lori Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle won, we’d have a black woman for mayor, and that would be historic.

Will Tanzman: Yes, six open socialists were elected as were several candidates that are significantly to the left of even some of the more progressive folks that ran four years ago. So, we doubled the number of legitimate progressives and then some. And there was just a much more intense level of grassroots campaigning that won races in a bunch of parts of the city.

MP: There were even some candidates running for reelection that we wouldn’t have called progressive last cycle, but who took on progressive talking points. They realized that in order to get reelected they needed to start caring about the things that organizations like ours have been advocating for decades.

JSL: That’s exciting that the center of gravity is starting to shift. Tell us about the role that The People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago played in the election and how you’ve been partnering with other organizations in the city.

MP: We ran folks who are member leaders in our organization. In particular, I want to highlight Daniel La Spada who beat Joe Moreno in the 1st Ward and Andre Vasquez who beat the infamously bad Pat O’Connor in the 40th ward. Also, Colin Bird Martinez in the 31st ward didn’t win, but he made a really strong showing. For the last three and a half years, we have been building bases with these folks, working with them to lay the groundwork necessary to defeat the incumbents. The purpose is always to build permanent infrastructure. We use races as opportunities to knock doors and talk with voters in those specific areas so that we can build towards actual victories.

In terms of collaboration, Chicago is a really big city. There are a lot of grassroots organizations that have been doing grassroots organizing for years around issue campaigns just as we have. I live in the 33rd ward where Rossana Rodriguez beat incumbent Deb Mell. Rossana was organizing a local independent political organization called 33rd Ward Working Families. I talked a lot with their campaign manager Chris about what volunteer capacity we could throw down with them. We also did that with other candidates like Jeanette Taylor in the 20th ward who was recruited by United Working Families to run. Our focus was on adding capacity where we could and being in communication in a way that I did not see when I first came onto the scene to do electoral work in Chicago.

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WT: Yeah, there was a much higher level of mutual support among different parts of the left in this election than previous elections. Many organizations supported our member candidates, like Andre Vasquez. And we did significant work to support Jeanette Taylor, Rosana Rodriguez, and Maria Hadden. Those were three candidates that were not our members and campaigns that other organizations led on, but that we supported.

MP: We also worked with One People’s Campaign and Jane Addams Seniors in Action, two new 501c(4) organizations. We talked a lot about our field plans together. Supporting each other is really important because there are 50 wards and there is a lot of power that needs to be built to control city council.

JSL: A lot of organizations don’t necessarily run their own members, but you’ve made an intentional effort to do that. How do you find and prepare member leaders to run for office?

MP: Our vision is to find people in the neighborhoods where we work that we think would make bomb elected officials. For us, it’s a balance of doing recruitment and running our members as part of a strategic effort to take over the government. We find the people who already have a vision of running and those who don’t (yet) and we create a community with them–because ultimately, if you want to run for office, you need a power base. A lot of people have great values, great personalities, but they run for office and lose because they’re not thinking about building a movement. So that’s really the work. We’re building permanent infrastructure forever and everywhere.

JSL: The core organizers who created The People’s Lobby came out of a tradition of community organizing that focuses mostly on issue campaigns and direct action rather than elections. Creating The People’s Lobby was a shift. How has engaging in electoral work changed the way you organize? How has it impacted your ability to push for transformative change at the city and state level? 

WT: Before creating a 501c(4) and a political action committee, we were organizing people around things a living wage or the state budget or environmental justice and we would organize hundreds or even thousands of people for a big public meeting where we would demand an elected official commit to some kind of action. But sometimes those elected officials wouldn’t even feel the need to show up. At the end of the day, they knew that we couldn’t put them into office or take them out. Sure, we could make them look bad, which might indirectly impact their electoral prospects, but it was a couple steps removed. We realized that if we didn’t engage directly in the electoral process, we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.

A few years ago, I was having conversations with a county commissioner around our living wage campaign. At first, he was resistant to our efforts. Then we did a bunch of work to elect a state legislator and force a runoff for a city council seat in areas that overlapped with his district. This person went from being totally noncommittal–essentially an obstacle–to being a champion that helped move an ordinance that increased the minimum wage for tens of thousands of low-wage workers in suburban Cook County to $13 an hour. There’s no way we could have moved an elected official like that if we hadn’t been wielding real power in elections.

The transformative bail reform that happened in Cook County over the last few years is also an outgrowth of lots of different strands of work coming together. Kim Foxx won a landslide election over Anita Alvarez in part as a result of popular mobilization after Laquan MacDonald’s murder as well as popular mobilization in the streets during the election. But we also door knocked thousands of people to help Kim Foxx win against a “law and order” politician on an explicitly anti-incarceration platform. That helped change the politics around incarceration in ways that impacted a ruling by Chief Judge Tim Evans, who felt pressure from a growing coalition called the Coalition to End Money Bond. The result is that there are now 2000 less people in the Cook County jail then there were two years ago. It’s been exciting to see how these things come together, and to be a part of it.

JSL: That’s great. Will, in your post-election article for The Nation, you talk about door-to-door canvassing as a kind of political education where you connect people’s lived experiences to root causes. Why has The People’s Lobby focused on political education as a tool for leadership development? What impact has that had on your organizing and your ability to campaign for things like bail reform?

WT: Originally, our methodology was very influenced by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky said to create real social change, we don’t need to build a movement. We don’t need to change people’s ideology. We need to build people’s organizations that connect to people’s direct self-interests.

But after the banks crashed the economy in 2008, instead of nationalizing the banks, we bailed them out, let them continue making billions of dollars in profits, and kick millions of people out of their homes. The folks in our crew were very impacted by that set of losses for the movement. There was a lot of shame and not a lot of politicization around the fact that there was an organized, coordinated, and well-funded effort to defraud and exploit low-income communities, especially communities of color, by this huge sector of the corporate world and the 1-percent.

We also realized in conversations with elected officials that this wasn’t something we or they could solve on our own. We won a campaign at the state level that allocated millions of dollars for green home weatherization, but the state was broke. There was no money in the state budget for anything, so the weatherization program lost all this money. We started looking at that and asking: why is the state broke? That led us to focus on the fact that corporations and the 1-percent have been paying less and less taxes over the years.

In both cases, we found that we couldn’t actually organize effectively to meet people’s direct and material self-interests without having a conversation about ideology, worldview and root causes. That’s when we started doing political education. We decided to have intentional conversations about corporate power because that’s what we need to target to change things.

Over the years, we’ve also found that doing good political education helps people attack the real enemy, instead of just attacking the symptoms–or each other. Doing more intentional political education allows for a different kind of conversation: what are the root causes? People clearly want to deal with crime and violence, but when we have a deeper conversation, you can talk about how the solution is not actually more police and incarceration. The solution is more resources for schools, mental healthcare, and good living-wage jobs. And you can highlight the fact that policing and incarceration are not only are not solving the problem, they’re actually making it worse because they are undermining the health and safety of the community.

JSL: When The People’s Lobby was created in 2012, it was inspired by organizations like Take Action Minnesota and Maine People’s Alliance that were already doing electoral work from a “movement politics” lens. Now that you’ve been doing this work for several years and are producing really significant victories, what lessons would you share with people who are just starting to engage in electoral politics?

MP: It’s crucial to recognize there is always tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. There are deadlines and at the end of the day, you want to win. But there’s a tension about how to do that and remain true to your values. We’re getting better at it, but if there’s a lesson, it’s that you need to be brutally honest about those tensions.

I think the other big lesson for me is that organizing is about relationships. We have to remember that in the context of elections because candidates are people, too. They fuck up sometimes and they face real pressure when it comes to raising money, particularly in Chicago where millions of dollars are spent on elections.

Now that we’re actually winning, there’s a related set of questions about co-governing. Sometimes, we still treat our elected officials like targets, even if they are members of our organization. That’s a culture that must be unlearned. We need to strategize with people who are in the lion’s den.

JSL:What’s in store for your inside/outside strategy and how do you plan to co-govern with newly elected officials? How will this election change the way you move your agenda at the municipal level?

WT: We’ve already seen examples of how this works in Springfield. One of the first candidates we elected to the state legislature started a progressive caucus in the House with 16 members. Now, before we decide on a strategy to move legislation in Springfield, we can have a frank conversation about which way the winds are blowing at the state capitol. I think the situation with the Chicago City Council will be similar. Instead of just having a few people inside, electeds will be able to cover different niches and committees and we’ll have a really good lay of the land as we’re thinking through our outside strategy. We also know that while we want folks to act on principle, occasionally someone is going to have to vote for something we don’t agree with. We’re going to have to be in the kind of relationship where they can come to us and we can have the conversation: is this going to be a big problem or can we let this one go?

I think we’ve got to be willing to continue with our outside strategy, too. After Barack Obama was elected president, a lot of folks said: we just elected a community organizer from the South Side of Chicago, let’s go home and let him do his job. I think that illusion has been completely shattered, but it shows that we need to use our outside game in a more strategic way. We can’t just disappear, and we need to maintain our ability to shut it down.

MP: To give a concrete example of how this has already worked for us at the state capitol, there’s a really toxic bill that’s been moving at the state level right now and it even has support from a labor union. So, I called a few elected allies. Right away, one of them offered a brilliant insight about how defeating the bill requires moving it from one committee into another. There’s a lot to know about how a bill becomes law and that conversation really demonstrated the importance of having an inside game for me.

JSL: Given that you played a big role in the bail bond reform victory and have done a lot of work around criminal justice reform more broadly, I wanted to ask about the mayoral race and how you’ll approach that issue campaign with Mayor Lori Lightfoot in office.

WT: The left went really hard at Lightfoot during the election for good reason. That said, her record is mixed. There have been moments when she’s done horrible things on criminal justice reform and moments when she’s done things that some people in the police accountability world have actually appreciated. She has a complicated ideological profile and her base included both some progressives and the city’s corporate elite. But it’s worth noting that she was not the corporate elite’s first choice–and she wasn’t the Fraternal Order of Police’s first choice, either.

I think it’s going to take some time to see how she actually governs. She probably recognizes that she won on a wave of opposition to the status quo. That wave was blowing as a result of both a lot of work being done by the movement over the last 10 years and because of some of the broad anti-establishment public anger that even played a role in Donald Trump’s victory. So, we can take some credit for that wave and for our wins, but we also have to remember that some of these forces are outside of our control. If we want to grapple with the new political moment, we’ve got to grapple with the fact that some of the same people who voted for our candidates because they didn’t like the incumbent voted for Lori Lightfoot for the same reason. Lightfoot did a good job of painting herself as an outsider, and Toni Preckwinkle, who was actually the more progressive candidate, as an insider.

Those dynamics have implications for how Lightfoot may need to govern in order to maintain her coalition and her image. We need to use our left alderpeople as a base in city council and use our movement, leaders, and outside game to articulate the most expansive vision of what the city can be. Then we have to put a set of demands out there and give Mayor Lightfoot a chance to say yes or no.

JSL: That makes a lot of sense. Thanks so much for joining Organizing Upgrade to talk about some of the lessons you’ve learned from the last election and your work more broadly over the last couple years.

[Will Tanzman serves as Executive Director of The People’s Lobby and The People’s Lobby Education Institute in Chicago. Will grew up in Chicago and began organizing as a high school student in the Chicago Public Schools.

Marta Popadiak is the Organizing Director for The People's Lobby and Reclaim Chicago. She grew up in a Polish immigrant family on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel is an organizer and writer who lives in Chicago.]