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Chicago's Democratic Socialists Promise Change as They Take Office

Democratic socialists now make up more than 10% of Chicago’s city council, potentially wielding considerable influence. It will need to build alliances in order to enact their agenda and their even more ambitious goal of reforming city government.

Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez, center, with supporters on election night. ‘There’s an opening for these ideas now.’,Photograph: Nicholas Burt/Courtesy People for Rossana // The Guardian

On a recent sunny evening, residents of Chicago’s 33rd ward packed a small office on the city’s north-west side to meet their new alderman: democratic socialist Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez.

She had narrowly defeated her opponent, an incumbent from one of Chicago’s most prominent political families, to become one of six democratic socialists on the 50-member city council. It was a remarkable showing in America’s third-largest city that paralleled the rise of socialist political figures nationally, such as the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now Rodriguez-Sanchez was opening her ward office to the community for the first time.

She was looking to introduce herself, but also – it seemed – to set the tone for her tenure as alderman, to model the kind of systemic change she had promised in her campaign. And, now making up more than 10% of the incoming city council, the socialist bloc would also potentially wield considerable influence.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates ran on a vow to upend a Chicago political establishment they said had not served everyone equally and challenge the infamous machine-style politics that have dominated Chicago for generations. They promised a more representative, responsive government – one that acts as a “power line”, Rodriguez-Sanchez likes to say – from the institutions of power to the grassroots movements in the neighborhoods. Now, it was time to show what that looked like in action.

About a hundred people crowded into the office, a small space on a corner of busy Irving Park Road, where a nearby storefront still displayed a sign bearing the name of her incumbent opponent: Deb Mell. It was ostensibly a political event – one in which the new alderman would introduce herself and her staff, and attendees could bring issues to her attention – but it had the feel of a neighborhood barbecue or community gathering.

Neighbors caught up over plates of homemade food while kids played and ate popsicles. Rodriguez-Sanchez had wanted the office to have the feel of a community oasis, a public forum where “neighbors” – she prefers the word over “constituents” – can share their concerns. It had been a long road to get here – a close campaign and runoff and now learning to navigate the city’s corridors of power.

“It’s been a lot,” she said. But it seemed it was all ready to pay off.

“I’m Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez,” she said, standing on a chair, flanked by her young staff. “And I’m your new alderman.

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“We’re really excited to serve you.

Rodriguez-Sanchez’s unlikely win here in April came as part of a broader reform election that lifted Lori Lightfoot to be Chicago’s first black woman and gay mayor with a progressive message of change.

But the wins by the DSA candidates seemed to represent an even more radical vision, one that reflected a constituency skeptical of even Lightfoot’s progressive bona fides. Rodriguez-Sanchez, Daniel La Spata, Jeanette Taylor, Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Andre Vasquez all won seats on the 50-member city council. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who had previously been the council’s lone democratic socialist, won re-election to retain the 35th ward seat he has held since 2015.

There are differences in philosophy and approach even among the small DSA caucus, but the candidates were united in calls for government transparency, progressive approaches to education, housing and labor, and social justice. That so many DSA candidates won, said Lucie Macias, co-chair of the Chicago DSA chapter, represented “small victories against the machine”.

“People were saying, ‘We’re done with the old way of Chicago politics and we’re looking for a transformative change,’” said Macias.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of those wins. The socialist label has long been used as a slur in mainstream US politics, an epithet that Republicans frequently leveled against Barack Obama. Donald Trump often invokes it to rile his base up against Democrats and appears likely to make it a mainstay of his 2020 campaign.

“America will never be a socialist country, ever,” Trump said at a Florida rally on 18 June that officially launched his re-election bid.

But the ideology has gained traction in the Trump era, both in response to the president’s push to the right and as a new political generation asserts itself; one that came of age in the shadow of recession, trapped under mountains of student debt, on the wrong end of rising income inequality and staring down a future less promising than that of the previous generation.

Sanders tapped into those frustrations during his insurgent run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. He came up short to Hillary Clinton, but his movement bore fruit in 2018 as young, self-identified democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez won national office in the midterm elections and powered a Democratic takeover of the US House of Representatives.

The mainstream success of Sanders, who is again running for president, and Ocasio-Cortez, who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the Democratic party, has seen the DSA recruit more than 60,000 members across the US, opening chapters in once unlikely places like North Dakota and Montana and Iowa.

“There’s an opening for these ideas now,” said Rodriguez-Sanchez.


Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez on her victory: ‘It was exhausting. We had worked so hard. My heart just got swollen. I was really excited.’ 

Photograph: Nicholas Burt/Courtesy People for Rossana  //  The Guardian

She continued organizing upon moving to Chicago, advocating for social justice and local progressive causes with 33rd Ward Working Families, an independent political organization on the north-west side where she had worked alongside several activists who later joined her campaign and aldermanic teams, including Chris Poulos, her campaign manager and current chief of staff.

“When I heard her first pitch about what she was thinking and how she was framing [her potential run for office] it just clicked,” Poulos said of Rodriguez-Sanchez. “Like, ‘Fuck yeah. She’d make a great elected official.’”

“I really went to bat for her at that point,” Poulos said.

Rodriguez-Sanchez and her staff of grassroots activists ran against Mell, a former Illinois state representative who had served the 33rd ward since 2013, when then mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to fill the vacant seat left by her retiring father, Richard Mell.

Richard Mell had been one of the most powerful cogs in Chicago’s political machine for almost four decades and whose son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, had been the governor of the state until being impeached, removed from office and sent to prison on corruption charges.

Rodriguez-Sanchez won more votes than Mell in the February election, forcing another vote in the April runoff. When the dust settled after election night in April, the race between Rodriguez-Sanchez and Mell was still too close to call, leading to a two-week recount that eventually saw the political newcomer edge out the incumbent by a mere 13 votes – 50.1% to 49.9%.

“I cried a little bit,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said of her reaction after Mell finally conceded. “It was exhausting. We had worked so hard. My heart just got swollen. I was really excited.”

Her narrow victory, like the DSA wins across the city, represented a fragile mandate, but also gave her and the other democratic socialists who won seats something most hadn’t had access to before: institutional power. Most had been community activists, pushing for progressive ideals from the outside. Now, after being sworn in , they found themselves on the inside, with a chance to advocate for the causes they had spent years fighting for from within the city’s power structure.

“I feel that we have a really big opportunity,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

But being on the inside comes with challenges.

For one thing, while six DSA aldermen may be a notable minority, the group is a minority nonetheless. It will need to build alliances in order to enact their agenda and their even more ambitious stated goal of reforming city government. “I think for us it’s going to be a learning curve,” Poulos said.

In the case of democratic socialists, some of what they’re advocating may run counter to the interests of the city establishment. “They’re probably going to try to fight what we’re doing,” Macias said. “It’s in their best interest to bring us down.”

Beyond the ideological battles, the new council members will also have to contend with more prosaic duties – unsexy mechanical matters such as ensuring the garbage is picked up – which will command a significant portion of their time. “That’s going to take a lot of their efforts,” said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at University of Illinois Chicago and a former alderman.

Finally, there’s the baggage that the label democratic socialist still carries in mainstream politics. Vazquez said he’d already been asked about it by some of his new colleagues. “Initially folks might’ve had a little sticker shock,” Vasquez said. “Everyone knows the term, but not everyone knows what it means.”

But it didn’t take long, Vasquez said, to get his peers to understand. And that – growing familiarity – could be the big impact of the DSA’s success in Chicago’s elections this year.

“DSA’s newly developed interest in and skill at winning local seats is a very positive development for the organization, helping to attract new members and detoxify the label socialist,” Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College who has written about the American left, said in an email.

Chicago’s socialists see their 2019 victories as the potential beginning of momentum for more change going forward – and a warning shot at the city establishment. “The culture of city council has been one of go along to play along, and we are trying to change that,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “Some people might feel threatened.”

Whether that translates into legislative victories remains to be seen.

They have added additional weight to the city council’s progressive caucus which, with a new mayor in Lightfoot who has promised reform, could push the city in a more leftward direction. But that will depend on Lightfoot’s priorities and her ability to deliver on her own progressive campaign promises, which some activists and democratic socialists here view with skepticism. “No one’s really sure what to expect,” Macias said.

It will also depend on how the DSA members interact with Lightfoot, others on the city council, and even one another. “I think they can make some pretty significant strides, but they’re still going to be a minority bloc,” Simpson said. “It depends on how cohesive they are.”

“Change is always going to be a challenge,” Vasquez said.

For the new aldermen and their supporters, though, the most important work won’t take place on the city council – it will be in the neighborhoods, in the grassroots movements from which the candidates sprung.

“These new aldermen, that’s not where we’re going to find our ultimate power,” Macias said. “They need to feel the pressure from the community members.

“Without people, you just have an office.”

As she opened her ward office in June, Rodriguez-Sanchez made the voices of her “neighbors” the focus, addressing the crowd only briefly before stepping down from her chair to meet with residents one-on-one and listen to their concerns.

Sue Trees and Sherrill Slotnick, both longtime residents of the ward, had a range of worries about the state of the neighborhood. There were the practical matters, like pest problems in the alleys, and also broader issues. Albany Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in a city infamous for its segregation, but signs of gentrification have gradually begun to creep in, some of the district’s modest, but handsome bungalows already being replaced by new construction on larger homes. They hoped Rodriguez-Sanchez and her team could improve the neighborhood while maintaining its character.

“We hope they will be good,” said Trees, who has lived in the ward for 27 years.

When it was their turn to speak with Rodriguez-Sanchez, Trees was ready to talk.

“I’m small,” she joked, “but I’ve got a big mouth!”

“I like you,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said, laughing.

The new alderman listened intently, as Trees and Slotnick spoke nodding in concern.

“I’m with you,” she said.

By the end of the one-on-one, Trees and Slotnick seemed hopeful that Rodriguez-Sanchez would be “good” for the ward. But they had also been in the neighborhood long enough to have heard plenty of political promises go unkept.

“We will see what happens,” said Slotnick, a retired Chicago public schools teacher. “We shall see.”

[Eric Lutz is a freelance writer, whose work has been in The Guardian, Yahoo India, MSN Canada, Nature, Salon, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Yahoo, Popular Mechanics, Men's Health, Women's Health, Paste Magazine, The New Republic, RealClearPolitics, Prevention, Salt Lake Tribune, Deadspin, Woman's Day, Mic, The Progressive, and numerous other print and broadcast publications.]

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