Could Chicago become a part of the ‘new era of liberal governance’?

The recent round of big-city elections seem to indicate a shifting political landscape. And, it appears to be heading leftward.

In Boston, Martin Walsh, a former labor leader in the city’s building trades, ran for mayor against a long-time city politician in what some called the first competitive race in three decades— and won. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant, a socialist activist backed by the socialist groups Socialist Alternative, raked in 35 percent of the vote in her bid for a City Council seat, and the race is still continuing with Sawant neck-to-neck with her opponent. Closer to home in Minneapolis, Ty Moore, also from Socialist Alternative won 38 percent of the vote for a seat on the City Council, only 3 percentage points less than the winner. 

And New York City’s election of Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat, ended two decades of Republican mayoral control, some hailing his victory as a “new era of liberal governance.” 

While not all were decisive wins, they show a support for liberal or left-leaning candidates in local elections that hasn’t been seen in years. On the other hand, Nancy Wade, a Green Party candidate running for the Illinois 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives only received 5.7 percent of the vote.

These results play out nationally as discontent grows within Chicago’s progressive quarters that are taking aim at policies like the Chicago Transit Authority’s Ventra deal and the largest mass school closure in American history that took place over the summer.

James Thindwa,  a longtime labor and community activist based in Chicago and formerly executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice,  sees the tide of election results as a signal for many in Chicago who had been looking for a sign of progress. “We see some real disconnect between Democratic politics writ large, and people on the ground,” he said. “Many people are more progressive than the Democrats themselves.”

There were several trends in how the elections played out that could also be instructive for anyone looking to build progressive leadership in Chicago, said Don Washington, the front man for Mayoral Tutorial, a research group that puts together a series of town hall meetings around elections.

First, the candidates were saying what people actually wanted to hear, Washington said. He pointed to Sawant’s push in Seattle for a $15 minimum wage. Her challengers quickly got behind  a living-wage ordinance after she announced it as part of her platform.

Washington also said it was important that local media cover alternative or independent candidates fairly. “When you compare apples to apples, some of the apples looked really bad,” he said. “It just changes the dynamic in a way that is closer to what people need.”

Washington said it’s unlikely an independent mayoral candidate could win in Chicago, considering Rahm Emanuel’s multi-million dollar war chest. But a strong, progressive candidate could push the conversation away from making [budget] cuts and toward other alternatives, he said.

Thindwa agrees there is now a space open for this kind of candidate, and that such a race could produce real results. He also looks to Seattle. Since the city council election, the city is on the verge of declaring a $15 minimum wage for all airport workers.

Higher pay is something Chicago’s airport workers, who say their wages are illegally low, have wanted for years.  

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