OPINION: As a new Chicago City Council prepares to be sworn in, “new progressives” take hold

Elections in Chicago never fail to be interesting and those in 2019 were no exception. That included a mayoral race that began with nearly 20 candidates to the aldermanic incumbents who saw their reigns tested. Amidst the usual electoral battles, came something unexpected: the strong and unapologetic presence of socialism.

Socialism has appeared many times in history, in many different forms, but now, in the U.S. and specifically in Chicago, it has taken on a young and relatable modern face.

On their website, the Democratic Socialists of America state:

“Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.”

The DSA does not run on an exclusively anti-capitalist platform but instead on a people-powered one, and contrary to popular belief, “people-power” is not communism. In fact, Democratic Socialists have been among the harshest critics of communism since the presence of the USSR.

Sarah Hurd has been a member of Chicago’s chapter of the DSA since 2017. Now, as co-chair of the DSA electoral working group, she works to identify candidates who share the same goals and values as the DSA.

“The candidates came to us with different issues on a city level and then on an international level,” said Hurd, the communication liaison for the group. “We called them in and had an in-person interview to try and get a feel for if they would be a good representative of their ward and us.”

The process of endorsement for the DSA is lengthy and wasn’t made easier in the past election. With the presence of multiple socialist-identifying aldermanic candidates, the DSA was kept busy fielding possible endorsements.

After the run-off on Feb. 26, the DSA had five endorsees: 35th Ward Alderman-incumbent Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 33rd Ward Alderman-elect Rossana Rodriguez,  40th Ward Alderman-elect Andre Vasquez, 20th Ward Alderman-elect Jeanette Taylor and 25th Ward Alderman-elect Byron Sigcho-Lopez.

1st Ward Alderman-elect Daniel La Spata, a long-standing member of the DSA, was not endorsed but was strongly backed by Reclaim Chicago.

Together, they decided on a unified platform of “Chicago for all,” which included sanctuary for all, housing for all and education for all, achieving this by increasing taxation of the ruling class.

Will Bloom, a workers rights lawyer with the Community Active Law Alliance, serves on the executive committee of the DSA. He spoke to the political structure of Chicago and how he believes the new alderman will impact it.

“Technically, as a matter of structure, Chicago is a weak-mayor city, but Harold Washington is the only one that lived that out,” Bloom said. “We are moving into a period of politics in Chicago where that’s changing, Mayor-elect Lightfoot doesn’t have the same support and won’t have the historical power.”

According to Bloom, this may aid the new aldermen in their fight to pass legislation.

This is something that has been on the mind of 40th Ward Alderman-elect Vasquez since his win on April 2.

Within his first few weeks as alderman-elect, Vasquez reached out to all 49 of his fellow city council members in hopes of initiating productive conversation before inauguration takes place.

Vasquez’s goal is not to create a council where 26 members identify as socialist, nor to have the six DSA alderman sway the other 44. Quite the contrary: To him, city council can be compared to that of a tool box.

“Think about it strategically,” Vasquez said. “We need to have [a] tool box that is filled with more than one tool, such as a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench, instead of six hammers.”

City council is not the only place where Vasquez is looking to harness differences to create change. He is looking to do so in his own community of the 40th Ward.

“The way I view it is, being a Democrat or anything, most folk don’t really know what they are. People want to lump into a category; it’s a team aspect,” Vasquez said. “What’s important is identifying a value set without category on it, that’s why we refer to everyone as a neighbor, we should all be thinking in that manner, not trying to convert and change someone.”

A prominent aspect of the DSA candidates’ campaigns was the camaraderie felt through the campaign process, and this was certainly true with Rodriguez’s campaign in the 33rd.

Chief of Staff and Campaign Manager Chris Poulos highlighted how Rodriguez’s socialist values and community focus drove her campaign from the start.

“[Rodriguez] is able to provide both a broad, sweeping political analysis with an intimate feel; it always blows my mind,” Poulos said. “Because of this, we wanted a space with childcare where people can drop off their kids. We wanted to foster a community space where we organized but also offered support.”

Despite this community engagement and camaraderie that has powered the socialist wave in Chicago, many across the country are skeptical of not only the values it is based on, but also its practicality.

Jose Oliva, co-director of Food Chain Workers Alliance, described what socialism looks like in active form.

“Socialism is, in general, a vision where people are included and come first,” Oliva said. “There isn’t this sense of profits, or the desire to get at profits at whatever cost, even if it means sacrificing individual human rights for it.”

Oliva went on to discuss how socialism has aided his movements with workers’ rights, but he also touched on the analysis that must be made of socialist movements.

“That analysis has to go through race and gender,” Oliva said. “If you want to build power, you need to be able to band together with other co-workers that often don’t look like you. If you can’t build solidarity, you’ll never gain power and you’ll never win.”

In Oliva’s experience, most successful campaigns take place when there is authentic cross-racial and cross-gender solidarity and when the goal is to fight for those who are affected most.

For these socialists, their goal is not to rid Chicago of the free market, nor to impose harmful policy. Rather, it is to create a space where everyone, regardless of background, zip code or circumstance has an equal chance at opportunity and success.

When Bloom was canvassing outside a polling place alongside Rodriguez during the first round of elections on Feb. 26, he overheard a supporter of Katie Sieracki, 33rd Ward aldermanic candidate, say something he found interesting: “Vote for Katie Sieracki, the only true independent candidate!”

To him, Rodriguez’s response embodied the most important values of socialism.

“Independent of what?” Rodriguez asked. “I am dependent of the working people in this ward, and that’s how it should be.”