Chicago progressives hope to capitalize on April runoff results

Kierra Ford, 10, holds a Rafael Yanez sign at a rally held for progressive candidates and Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia in the west side of the city, on April 5, 2015 — two days before the runoff election.

By William Camargo

Kierra Ford, 10, holds a Rafael Yanez sign at a rally held for progressive candidates and Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia in the west side of the city, on April 5, 2015 — two days before the runoff election.

Across the city, activists are meeting and discussing ways to sustain the grass-roots energy generated in the recent election.

Progressives rallied enthusiastically to Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, though many felt that the contest would have been stronger had Garcia taken more assertive positions on finances and other issues.

But in addition to forcing Emanuel into a runoff — and into somewhat more progressive positions on a range of issues — the status quo of the “rubber-stamp” City Council was shaken with an unprecedented number of aldermanic runoffs. When the dust settled, every member of the Progressive Caucus was reelected, and the caucus membership expanded.

Now the people who powered those campaigns are meeting to explore creating ongoing independent precinct organizations. Whether (and where) those efforts will take root and flourish remains to be seen, though some of the challenges the organizations face are already clear.

There’s some history here: In the 1950s and ’60s middle-class reformers in Hyde Park and civil rights activists on the South and West sides mounted successful anti-machine campaigns. And in the late 1960s and ’70s these developed into ongoing precinct organizations, particularly on the North and South Lakefront and the West and Southwest sides. But Hyde Park and the North Side are no longer independent bastions, and the only organization remaining from the previous generation is the 22nd Ward Independent Precinct Organization, Garcia’s home base.

So the ground now being plowed by labor-community coalitions like Grassroots Illinois Action and United Working Families has lain fallow for the past couple decades.

Last Saturday, members of GIA in the 15th and 26th Wards who worked in unsuccessful aldermanic campaigns but turned out big votes for Garcia — met to discuss forming ward organizations.

In the 15th Ward, a couple dozen people — most of them Latinas, young and old – participated in a debriefing on the recent campaign at the Brighton Park Library, going around a circle to share their experiences and conclusions. Speaker after speaker described how energized she was by the campaign and how enthusiastic she was about continuing the work.

Unsuccessful aldermanic candidate Rafael Yañez (interviewed here in January) called for “an action-driven committee” aimed at giving people a sense of their power and “tearing down walls of division.”

Participants made lists of issues that need addressing and established four subcommittees to begin working on them, including one on political action.

West Englewood, the African-American section of the ward, was barely represented at the meeting. One challenge facing the new ward group is how it will relate to community organizations in Englewood, which tend to extend beyond ward boundaries. Yañez’s campaign had a strong core of Englewood supporters, but he lost the area to Alderman-elect Raymond Lopez. Organizers said they will hold meetings in locations around the ward to encourage diverse participation.

United Working Families is said to be exploring establishing IPOs in several wards, including some where Chicago Teachers Union members ran strongly. And Alderman-elect Carlos Rodriguez-Rosa has said he would create an IPO in the 35th Ward.

In the 12th Ward, which includes McKinley Park and the northern portion of Brighton Park, activists are discussing creating an IPO on their own. Building on the McKinley Park Progressive Alliance, which began work around charter school proliferation a couple years ago, residents came together after aldermanic candidate Pete DeMay failed to get on the ballot and organized support for Garcia’s candidacy. By Election Day they had virtually every precinct covered by someone who lived there, and Garcia carried the ward handily, despite Ald. George Cardenas’s support for Mayor Emanuel.

If enough of these groups take off, they could make a big difference in four years. And with a new City Council — following an election in which Emanuel’s coattails were not very impressive — their organizing and advocacy could make a difference in the interim, too.