In a race where almost a third of the city council has been vacated and left up for grabs, many view the 2023 elections as an unprecedented opening. With 39 of 50 seats contested and the United Working Families coalition endorsing eighteen city council candidates, organizers see an opportunity to expand the presence of “progressives” on city council, or even to expand the five-person socialist caucus. At the same time, the immense degree of uncertainty has created a disorganization of perspective for the ruling class, manifested both in business itself and in the Democratic Party.
To understand the stakes of this moment for Chicago, it is necessary to situate it within the national political landscape. Across the country, the far right has seized the post-uprising moment to carry out a political backlash. A radicalizing right-wing is now on the attack, banning books, stripping abortion and trans rights, and creating the breeding grounds of a new fascist nationalism in Florida and beyond. Police murdered people at a higher rate in 2022 than any year on record, and the first months of 2023 look like they are on track to exceed last years’ brutalities.
Liberal resistance to the violent and growing right has been tepid, useless, and self-congratulatory. Biden spent much of his State of the Union address celebrating superficial accomplishments, while more and more people cannot afford groceries, Covid continues to ravage the country with serious long-term consequences, and gigantic corporations obliterate the environment from East Palestine, OH to Atlanta. Meanwhile, the antiracist uprisings of summer 2020 have left an indelible imprint on the psyche of a generation, even while new organizational expressions on the left have only begun to take root.
The political climate of the next decade will be determined by the resolution of this precarious historical moment. At the opening of the coming clash, all eyes are on Chicago, where the uncertainties of the city elections are proving to be a laboratory and testing ground for Democratic Party national strategy, billionaires’ ability to dominate the political field, and the left’s efforts at building institutional power.
Political Crisis Creates an Opening
The opening of the current elections is a result of a political crisis with multiple roots. After serving as a longstanding anchor for business interests in city hall, the pinstripe-clad and notoriously corrupt alderman Ed Burke was finally compelled by corruption investigations to abandon his seat. Meanwhile, the lynchpin of the Democratic Party operation on a statewide level, Michael Madigan, finally succumbed to similar investigations by the feds. Almost every Democratic politician of any standing between Chicago and Springfield has been caught up in these messes, including Jesús “Chuy” García.
The political crisis for the ruling class began before Lightfoot and was triggered from below. Rahm Emanuel was defeated not by corruption or an electoral challenge, but by the powerful upsurge of youth and labor in response to the police murder of Laquan McDonald. Emanuel bowed out of seeking re-election less than a week before the trial of the cop who murdered Laquan McDonald. This gave rise to a chaotic mayoral election in 2019, an excellent anatomy of which is delivered by the 2020 documentary series City So Real.
Lori Lightfoot was the beneficiary of this situation and won the election largely based on her unfounded reputation as a political outsider as well as her illusory mantel of being a police reformer due to her previous position as chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force.
Compared to its operation under Emanuel, Chicago’s political machine is a mess under Lightfoot. To be sure, elements of the behind-the-scenes electoral networks continue to lash out, and are especially determined to bring down the best fighters for Chicago’s working class like Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez in the 33rd Ward. From the perspective of Chicago’s key financial players however, there is no longer a clear leadership structure or a serious system of patronage to rally the troops and deliver for big donors.
That’s why, on the one hand, viewing the dynamics of this electoral cycle through the lens of a contest between “progressives” and “the machine” has some validity, but in other ways it stunts our understanding of how city politics work. The term “progressive” is an empty signifier, unattached to platform or politics, and deployed with such wanton indiscrimination as to be analytically meaningless. Such a vocabulary is not only inaccurate, it helps to sabotage the political imagination of a new generation of working people aiming to shape this city. We can only benefit by openly naming our enemy: the business class, capital from Chicago and around the globe.
The previous function of the old machine was to act as a conduit between the ruling class and the masses of Chicago’s population, specifically the voting population. Business relies on such a conduit for the simple reason that no one will vote for a candidate on the basis that they will do the bidding of capital. During election season, their central challenge is to strike the right balance between voter suppression generally and finding some way of mobilizing people to vote for their candidates at all. Outside of election season, it’s back to business as usual.
But after the shift to austerity and the rise of finance and real estate capital, and especially now with the loss of 217 years of accumulated “service” by outgoing alderpeople (which amounts to carefully practiced bootlicking experience), the rich have suddenly lost the relationships and institutional habits they used to be able to rely on to perpetuate their specific model of profit accumulation in Chicago.
The opening for “progressive” challengers in this election is thus a product of both movement advances and the partial disorientation of the business class’s prior governance models. Now, the ruling class is scrambling for a workable—if not reliable—vehicle to manage the population.
The Business Playground and Capital’s Man
Speaking on behalf of Chicago capital, an editorial from Crain’s put it bluntly: The drift toward a council that “favors progressive candidates” is “worrisome for a Chicago business community eager for viable answers to the problems that plague the local economy.”
Those profiting the most off of working Chicagoans are anxious, and the reasons are clear. The economic outlook for commercial real estate in the city is nowhere near as rosy as it used to be. Downtown office vacancies continued to climb after the onset of the pandemic, and are now at an all-time high of 21.4%. This kicked off with the remote work migration, but was sustained by high interest rates and fears of a coming recession in 2023.
The political goals of Chicago’s 1 percent include defeating any hope of the real estate transfer tax or “LaSalle Street Tax” on financial transactions, securing their near monopoly on TIF funds, and deepening City Hall’s deference to downtown at the expense of working people. They hope to enforce their gentrified dystopia and the high unemployment it relies on by means of a militarized, confident police force.
The main means by which real estate developers, wealthy corporate owners, and other business figures have set about this task is by firehosing money at the race to try to drown out the inklings of oppositional organization.
In 2019, Lori Lightfoot raised most of her funds from the professional class and herself, contributing a quarter million dollars to her own campaign. Throughout her tenure as mayor, Lightfoot has scaled up her donor base to include sports team and stadium owners as well as gambling moguls—a sign of what kind of Chicago to expect if she is re-elected mayor. Lightfoot has also received a slew of funds through her 77 Committee PAC from city contractor businesses. Carpenters and plumbers unions have also donated heavily to Lightfoot’s campaign, which reflects the “business union” alignment of these union leaderships who view their primary interests in the work that ever-expanding real estate development and construction will provide.
Capital’s real candidate is Paul Vallas. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial lauds Vallas for his deep ties to the police, gutting of public schools, and austerity proposals. For the WSJ, the mouthpiece of US capitalism, only Vallas the white knight can avert the “collapse of public order” and “save the city from its slow-motion demise.” The rich have clearly taken the cue: Vallas has amassed millions of dollars from financial firms, developers, prominent Republicans, and Democratic apparatchiks from the Daley and Emanuel eras. Currently, Vallas has momentum before the runoff, but business will happily settle for Lightfoot or Chuy García.
Despite his posturings to the contrary, Chuy García is in no sense a “progressive.” His purported movement-candidate bonafides seem to rest on his bygone association with Harold Washington and community organizer Rudy Lozano. But even in 2015, in the wake of the Ferguson uprisings, he called for 1,000 more cops, only to increase his pro-police demands to 1,600 new hires and more street patrols in the current election. Chuy’s entire campaign has been an appeal to the wealthy, presenting himself as a consensus candidate and caretaker of capital’s interests in the city. His late-breaking platform commits to “using the bully pulpit” of the mayor’s office—not to amplify grassroots movements or tax the rich to fund social programs, but to “advocate for Chicago as a place for investment.”
Chuy’s campaign is largely funded by the same dark money PACs backing Vallas and organized by machine figures tied to Rahm Emanuel. He backed Lightfoot against the endorsements of the CTU in 2019 and has renewed attempts to undermine the credibility of the CTU in this cycle. Most shamefully, he has come out directly as an enemy of the city’s left by endorsing the machine-backed aldermanic opponents of both Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. Although he puts forward a gentler image to the public, all of his strings are attached to capital, and there is no way around the conclusion that Chuy García represents Rahm 2.0.
Capital has not neglected the makeup of the city council either. Realtors are making moves, pouring cash into nearly a dozen aldermanic races. Most notably, Rahm Emanuel’s former campaign managers have teamed up with Chicago’s richest people to create the ominous “Get Stuff Done” PAC. The group has funneled money into a variety of wards, at first targeting the 11th, 12th, 25th, and 48th in order to defeat what they see as challenges to capitalist interests, before moving on to several more, shoring up pro-business incumbents “who face progressive or socialist challengers.”
The interests and needs of working Chicagoans do not even factor into the decisions of these investors. As Sean Larson and Tyler Zimmer outlined in Rampant, “what residents see as a city with buildings and parks, schools and hospitals, investors view in terms of risk and return.” They demand that the city government do everything it can to shape Chicago into a favorable “business climate,” that “assuages their fears about risk and uncertainty and puts them at ease.”
The biggest threats to these plans in the coming elections are intransigent and disruptive unions fighting for working Chicagoans like the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The ground game of capital has been hollowing out for years, and paid mailers and TV ads can only make so much headway against the human conversations and relationships forged in struggle among working families in Chicago.
United Working Families
While there are many organizations in Chicago’s left-wing ecosystem, the focal point of the slew of challenges to established figures in this election cycle is United Working Families (UWF), which is the umbrella political organization for a wide range of Chicago unions, ward organizations, and nonprofits. To understand the political landscape in Chicago today, it is necessary to delve briefly into the history of this unique organization.
The UWF was founded in the summer of 2014 as the culmination of the SEIU-HCII1Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois & Indiana and the CTU’s efforts to develop independent political representation in the wake of Rahm Emanuel’s devastating 2013 closure of fifty schools. The organization convened in October of 2015 to establish its political platform, which included a wide spread of pro-working-class demands. These included support for independent political action, public education, jobs, community programs, racial justice, environmental justice, and wealth redistribution in the city. The program was debated and developed by members at the meeting before being approved by all in attendance.
In the course of these debates, two resolutions emerged on the coalition’s approach to “independent political action.” The first urged the UWF to openly declare its intention to form a new political party and run candidates against both Democrats and Republicans. A second resolution put forward a perspective for a long-term campaign around the idea of developing a third party, leaving any next steps undefined. Paradoxically, both resolutions were passed, with the assembled members even voting to block the replacement of the first resolution by the second. The contradiction (and sometimes the contest) between the two political visions continues to this day, even while the UWF has amassed more organizations under its umbrella and recruited many more candidates to run for office.
Chicago’s municipal elections are officially nonpartisan. That means that all candidates can present themselves as independents, a feature that has both pros and cons for the left. On the one hand, genuinely independent candidates can run in the races without being bureaucratically sidelined by arcane electoral rules designed to prop up the status quo. On the other hand, it allows some independent-in-name-only candidates to dodge the question of their affiliations while collaborating with the Democratic Party. Any left-wing candidate who aims to be accountable to movements and grassroots organizations cannot simultaneously be accountable to the Democratic Party, no matter how many favors, appointments, and backroom deals are on the table. Declaring independence openly is a clear initial way to raise the profile of a grassroots independent party formation and signal accountability to working people and social movements.
Since its founding, the UWF has continued developing as an active, democratic organization, with an emerging practice of building local chapters of the UWF itself, as in the 50th ward. Its 2018 membership convention issued a clarion call for what movement organizing in Chicago should aspire to:
We will use elections and seize opportunities to define the sides of the debate between us and our opponents, backing only those candidates who are unafraid to name the brutalities of our current political arrangement and offer bold, clear and aspirational alternatives, and hold those candidates accountable to us.
In 2022, the UWF made substantial revisions to its platform, committing to “abolitionist values,” adding a plank on disability justice, and reiterating the aim of building “our own political organizations” to challenge the racism and anti-worker program of “both major parties” dominated by the rich. Still, immediate or medium-term steps to extricate the political and organizational networks comprising the UWF from Democratic Party institutions and their influence (including ward-level Democratic committee positions and even campaign messaging) remain undefined. An underdeveloped coherence is also reflected in the fact that UWF alderpeople frequently fail to operate as a unified political block, with the 2021 budget vote serving as one prominent example.
UWF’s September 2022 decision to put forward one of its own, Brandon Johnson, for mayor represents a step forward toward independence from its 2015 campaign for Chuy García. In its endorsement resolution for Johnson, the UWF declared that it “must make power-building as important as the win and to use this election cycle to contest in the narrative arena.”
It is significant that UWF is putting forward a union militant like Johnson for mayor. Johnson, who has been a Democratic-affiliated Cook County Commissioner since 2018, can draw on the support of a significant left-labor coalition. His platform is a strong and wide-ranging package of reforms that working Chicagoans desperately need. At the same time, Johnson’s tenure as Commissioner has been politically inconsistent. He supported striking SEIU 73 workers, but he also voted to raise his own pay even while nurses at Cook County hospital still struggle with underfunding during the pandemic. He also voted to close the Emergency Room at Provident Hospital (the first prominent Black hospital in the US) in 2020 during the COVID lockdowns.
The UWF has achieved a tremendous amount by bringing together a cross-section of the city’s organized left and working-class organizations. The present election, in which the UWF is fielding eighteen candidates for city council as well as the mayor, represents a milestone in the development of this organization. At the same time, its stated political commitments and values are being put to the test in the narrative arena of the mayoral and aldermanic debate stages.
So far in 2023, those debates have been dominated by a single issue.
The Police Problem
A specter is haunting Chicago—the specter of defunding the police. All the powers of the old machine have entered into a holy alliance to exorcize this specter: Preckwinkle and the mayor, media organizations and real estate capital, the fascist FOP and community nonprofits. Where is the challenger who has not been derided as a “defunder” by their opponents? Where is the “progressive” who has not hurled back the branding reproach of Defund against their adversaries?
Two-and-a-half-years ago, working Chicagoans of all ages, genders, and races experienced a political awakening while protesting police brutality alongside people nationwide in unprecedented numbers. Today, every mayoral debate and every aldermanic campaign is dominated by a single question: “public safety” and the question of the police. Despite its third-railification within almost all electoral races, Defund and the abolitionist critique of the police behind it remain a determining force in the ideological landscape.
And yet, “tough on crime” rhetoric still figures centrally in the mayoral race and alderpeople like Gardiner, Lopez, and Napolitano froth at the mouth with Blue Lives Matter rage. Why, in this historical moment, do almost all of the “progressives,” running for office—Johnson included—twist into knots to distance themselves from the need to defund the police?
It bears noting that distancing from Defund—and the identification of the police as the source of the violence—has figured centrally to the strategy of the Democratic Party nationally since 2020. After the 2020 elections, leading Democrats drew the conclusion that the notion of defunding the police was a political liability. “That’s how [Republicans] beat the living hell out of us across the country” Biden scolded a meeting of civil rights leaders shortly after his election. In a full-court ideological press, Obama too took to the media to deride it as a “snappy slogan” that loses votes. This context partially explains the aversion to forthright expression of abolition.
The other factor is that, according to most polls, “crime” is one of the major concerns of Chicago voters. Gun violence does indeed plague the city, even while ruling class media seize this tragic fact to stoke crime panic to their own ends. More policing serves as the stand-in solution offered by politicians grasping toward low-hanging, poisonous, fruit.
Even so, there has been widespread public support for the idea of social workers and other nonviolent personnel taking over many functions currently performed by police. The broad appeal of such proposals can be attributed to the sea change of public opinion fueled by the George Floyd rebellion. One early February poll showed that 82 percent of Chicagoans support relying on mental health professionals instead of police when responding to mental health emergencies. In the same poll, 74 percent of respondents favored further reassigning other police duties (related to homelessness and substance use) to unarmed professionals.
Even notorious tough-on-crime candidates such as Lightfoot and García have paid lip service to the notion of limited alternatives to how the police currently function while also advocating hiring more cops and “fully funding” the CPD.
Against this backdrop, the efforts of some left-wing alderpeople, chief among them Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, toward building alternatives to policing like the Treatment Not Trauma initiative are all the more admirable. Brandon Johnson’s expansive plan to address the social problem of crime is an omnibus package of reforms that includes many movement demands, such as ending of the gang database, closing the Homan Square “black site,” ending the ShotSpotter contract, and ending no-knock warrants as proposed by the Anjanette Young Ordinance. While this list is impressive and welcome, it also includes proposals such as training 200 police detectives, and Johnson has been reluctant to commit to not filling CPD vacancies despite the bloated police budget. The effect is a message focused more on trimming excesses and creating efficiency, rather than identifying the central issue of police brutality.
We still need to defund the Chicago police. Chicago’s police budget is the highest on record, comprising 40 percent of the city’s overall budget. Social goods like the CTA, public schools, and more have been deliberately starved while more and more of our taxes are funneled to the death-making institution. To speak only of the need to fund more violence prevention services without reducing the record high police budget, as candidates from Chuy García to some UWF-endorsed contenders have done, is to obscure the issue in the name of a dubious political expediency. Even on fiscal grounds, defunding the police is an obvious necessity.
But more to the point: policing is inherently violent. It is, by design, a central means of enforcing favorable business climates for capital accumulation and suppressing potential challenges from below. Racist practices—both everyday indignities and violent encounters and murders—serve to maintain Chicago’s segregated labor market, reducing opportunities for jobs for people of color and creating downward pressure on the labor pools for companies like Amazon.
Police lie. They regularly murder people in cold blood. One in twenty homicides are committed by cops. They physically and sexually assault us, our neighbors, and family members. The responsibility of those seeking to build a Chicago for the many is to amplify these facts, to speak to the brutalities committed by the police every day, as well as the brutality of families separated by prisons and “soft-policing.”
Police are an irreducible problem standing in the way of a healthy Chicago where people can live their lives, strengthen the bonds within communities, and work toward their dreams. Necessary as alternatives are, millions of people did not pour into the streets while burning down police stations for more counselors. You can’t make an argument against more police unless you make an argument against police. We do not need “community policing,” nor “community control,” nor “better training,” and certainly not further increases in funding. The only solution to the problem of policing is to reduce contact between police and the public. We need, therefore, to defund the police, and ultimately we need to be rid of policing altogether.
Abolition is not a private confession of faith, a performance to garner clout, or a secret ritual divorced from the cities we all live in. Abolition is a vision and a strategy based in love to change the world. Our political practices should be measured against this goal.
The Limits of Municipalism
In the last ten years, socialists in the US have won impressive victories at the municipal level. It’s no small feat to get elected to any office in this country if you self-identify as a socialist or abolitionist, so these local victories are significant. But US capitalism remains an inhospitable place for radical politics. Our government institutions—whether federal, state, or municipal—simply weren’t created to empower the masses or facilitate social transformation.
Indeed, daunting obstacles await any municipal official committed to making even small changes to the status quo that threaten the interests of the wealthy.
The first structural limitations are economic: City government can accomplish little without tax revenue, and tax revenue depends in crucial ways upon there being favorable conditions for capitalists to make profit. If capitalists suddenly close up shop en masse and withhold investment across the board, the devastating impact this can have on a city is well-documented. Starved of tax revenue, city governments struggle to deliver even the most basic services.
Thus, city governments in capitalist societies—no matter who is in office—are always incentivized to carefully avoid any action that might alienate profit-hungry ruling class investors and raise the specter of capital flight. Although the risks of capital flight have been exaggerated, the effect this has on the entire process of governance cannot be understated. This puts enormous pressure on even the most reform-minded city officials to avoid reforms that upset the rich. It also strongly encourages officials to devote time to thinking about how to lure new capitalist investors and otherwise sustain a “positive business climate.”
When working people and the left grapple with how to implement our side’s vision of a future built around human needs and flourishing livelihoods, we should not lose sight of the fact that even a socialist mayor with a majority socialist city council would be subject to these (and other) constraints. That fact doesn’t mean, however, that there is nothing social movements can do in an electoral cycle. In order to change these powerful dynamics, we have to be clear about the purpose of electoral participation for the left.
Movement Strength through Political Clarity
There is a real dilemma confronting leftists engaged in the electoral arena. Is the goal merely to spread left-wing ideas and propaganda? Or is the goal to govern? If the former, voters may not understand the point of voting for you. After all, there are pressing needs to address and ideas do not fill bellies. If the goal is instead to govern in a city structurally dependent on serving capital, then there’s a good chance your left-wing platform will be (formally or informally) blocked, and you will not deliver on your promises. Instead of wallowing in the dead ends of this dilemma, what if we began to measure our success by different metrics?
Angela Davis and the authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now. have spoken to some key conclusions in a large part through an examination of Chicago’s political struggles. “Winning a campaign is not the only measure of success” they argued, “how we struggle, how our work enables future struggles, and how we stay clear about what we are fighting for matters.”
While the goal of the wealthy is to secure their business climate, the goal of our side has to be harnessing the energy, hopes, and activity of working people toward cohering our own organizations, media institutions, unions, and political networks. The UWF’s achievement in building a multiracial coalition with a radical vision rooted in communities should be cherished and respected. Any hope of implementing the vision for a workers’ Chicago will rely upon the very people—teachers, nurses, grassroots organizers—among the ranks of the UWF today, as well as the thousands of unorganized youth and working people radicalized by the experiences of 2020.
Developing organizational capacity and politics increases our power to fight independently for ourselves regardless of who is in office, but it also puts our side on better footing for future elections as well. Without strong organizational and political anchors outside of the electoral arena, elections under capitalism become a trap for working people and the left. As Marxist sociologist and theorist Stuart Hall argued, “To take office in the name of structural change and reform without an accompanying consciousness and a popular mandate is to become the prisoner of the system.” 2Stuart Hall, On Political Commitment, 1966
In Chicago, socialist alderpeople currently in office have faced an uphill battle, with key legislation like Treatment Not Trauma suppressed in committee by the centrists and the right. Any pro-worker legislation will face similar sabotage, unless it is watered down so much as to be completely unrecognizable, as occurred with the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance in 2021. Even a basic reform platform will not be won behind closed doors, but will necessitate an open struggle that draws more and more people into political life. Forcing through legislation for working people will require both political clarity and powerful independent organization outside the government.
Political clarity means entering the electoral field (and eventually, the government) with a mission defined from the beginning by its antagonism to business interests and the Democratic Party that serves them. Even outside the electoral arena, the experience since 2012 demonstrates that our grassroots networks and organizations will only gain ground and credibility among working people by adherence to a truly liberatory vision. Creating alternatives to the boss’s party will require being clear that all our organizing efforts, grassroots house parties, and direct actions are practically contributing to developing our own structures with our own goals and accountabilities, rather than integrating into and renewing the Democratic Party.
These open and independent methods are the strength of working-class politics. Indeed, that is why the most powerful working-class organizations have not simply consisted of an army of door-knockers, but have established deep roots and the capacity to flex working-class power for political ends, as the CTU did when they mobilized people to protest the murder of Laquan McDonald and subsequent coverup in 2015.
The politics we need our organizations, campaigns, and elected officials to embody are the politics of class struggle. That means taxing the rich, investing in Black and brown neighborhoods, and fully funding all social services including transit, housing and clinics. But it also means municipalizing the energy companies, expropriating the landlords, returning Indigenous land along the lakefront, and defunding the police. We cannot cede the precious political ground won by the largest uprising in living memory.
By shaping consciousness and its organizational expression in the sense elaborated by Stuart Hall, political principles play an indispensable role in the struggle for a new city and a new world. Such a framework encourages us to take the long view, including on the nationwide reverberations of how Chicago’s left conducts itself and the lasting consequences of compromising historic advances for abolition.
We will make no headway by redefining revolutionary ideas to be something acceptable to capitalist politics. If centering the needs of working Black and brown people, trans people, and Palestinians jeopardize an electoral race, then so be it—that is not the only measure of our movement’s success. In this electoral cycle and the next, and all to come, we must have the courage and the will to confront the bosses and their capitalist “common sense” head on. We must say what we mean and conduct our struggle on that basis: Defund and abolish the police. Drive out the predatory landlords. For workers’ control of Chicago.