The Democratic party establishment is struggling to keep control of its message. In last year’s congressional elections, a number of left candidates gained office, including Ilyan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have been speaking out against Trump’s anti-immigration policies and facing hostility and attacks from Republicans and the media.
Former president Barack Obama joined the fray on Saturday, accusing the left of enforcing standards of political “purity” by suggesting that rightwing Democrats could become targets for reselection in the party primaries. He was responding to Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of 26 Democrats who joined a Republican vote for undocumented immigrants to be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they attempted to buy guns.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic party strategists believe that centrist policies are needed to unseat Trump, and have sidelined left positions such as the abolition of ICE, Medicare for all, free public higher education, a $15 minimum wage, and action on climate change – all of which are now part of mainstream discourse, thanks to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for presidential nomination. However, the evidence from last week’s municipal elections in Chicago indicate shifts in both the party and the electorate.
On April 2, Chicago voters elected Lori Lightfoot by a landslide as the city’s first African American woman and openly gay mayor. But they also elected at least five socialists to the city council, fragmenting the Democratic party machine controlled by outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Intercept reported that three members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won runoff races, joining two others who won outright last month. Jeanette Taylor, a community activist who led a month-long hunger strike to reopen Dyett high school in Bronzeville, won the 20th Ward. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, another well-known community organizer, replaced an incumbent in the 25th Ward who had held the seat 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 forty years. In addition, “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.”
Chicago has long been ruled by a monolithic Democratic party machine, with close ties to the Clintons and Obama. Rahm Emanuel served as Obama’s chief of staff before running for mayor. His decision not to seek a third term enabled a host of challenges to incumbent aldermen with strong connections to the machine. According to In These Times, the challengers ran on demands raised by social movements in the city, including instituting an elected, representative school board and creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council to oversee the Chicago Police Department. “They also built on the work of community organizers who have opposed large-scale tax increment funding (TIF) projects that often fund luxury developments. One of the most controversial TIF projects is a proposed $95-million West Side police and fire academy, a priority of the outgoing Emanuel administration. Local residents and activists argue that this funding could be better invested in schools, mental health facilities and other resources.”
The election was hard fought, with Emanuel’s allies spending heavily on television and digital advertising to support candidates aligned with the political establishment. But candidates from the left were able to break through the patronage system and created a city council more representative of the city’s diversity. “In the largely Hispanic 33rd Ward, democratic socialist Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez ended the night ahead of incumbent Deb Mell, who was appointed by Emanuel after her father and former Ald. Richard Mell stepped down in 2013. The Mells have long served as a powerful political family in the city, and Rodríguez-Sanchez’s potential victory stands as a shot across the bow to the machine.”
Emanuel’s grip on the party was loosened after he suppressed police video of the shooting of African American teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 17 times while walking away from officers. Emanuel’s refusal to take any serious action against the notoriously corrupt and violent Chicago police department lost him the support of the Democratic party’s base. According to University of Illinois history professor Barbara Ransby, “The Laquan McDonald case was really the pivot of this election in a lot of ways. It was the issue that Rahm Emanuel couldn’t run away from. And he couldn’t run away from it because of the relentless pressure by a whole network and coalition of organizations, from Black Lives Matter Chicago to Assata’s Daughters to #LetUsBreathe Collective to Black Youth Project 100. So, putting the pressure on Rahm not to run, or letting him know that this was going to be the fight of his life if he did run, was part of what shaped the election as it unfolded.”
The newly-elected mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is a former prosecutor and also has questions to answer about her role as chair of the police board and reluctance to prosecute police, despite promises for police accountability and reform. Aislinn Pulley, lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago, commented: “We should view this election cycle as the beginning of a seismic shift against the neoliberal project that has resulted in privatization, militarized policing and destruction of many of our community institutions and resources.”
Ransby writes about the new cohort of activists like Pulley in The Nation, where she explains that many of them gained their first experiences of organizing in campaigns to oust State Attorney Anita Alvarez and Police Chief Garry McCarthy for their roles in the Laquan McDonald case. Another critical issue was “the 2015 City Council Reparations Ordinance for survivors of police torture, which was the culmination of a five-year struggle for accountability in the Jon Burge torture scandal. And it is impossible to escape the shaping influence of the Black Lives Matter Movement (now a part of the larger national coalition, the Movement for Black Lives), which not only birthed a new political ethos—one that goes beyond simplistic notions of representational race politics—but also emboldened a new grassroots force of powerful leaders, many of them women.”
While the old guard still clings to power in Chicago, in certain areas it was decisively defeated. The key to this success was activists’ grassroots mobilizing on issues important to citizens, incorporating left solutions to the city’s urgent social and economic problems. Decades of political corruption won’t be overturned in one election cycle, but last week’s results indicate that voters are moving away from identity politics and responding positively to a new generation of activists with a bottom-up, left agenda. Obama and the Democratic leadership are out of touch with the changes in the party and the electorate. Bernie Sanders is still the candidate who has the most appeal to the overwhelming desire for change.