Illinois progressives turn attention to down-ballot races

Photo courtesy of United Working Families

United Working Families held their annual convention on Nov. 4, 2017, to map out their plan for upcoming elections.

With state and county elections looming next year and city elections the year after, some 200 progressive activists met last weekend for the annual convention of United Working Families, an independent political organization. Their aim: to chart a course redirecting the political process toward the interests of working people.

They face daunting challenges. The state’s Democratic establishment seems intent on doubling down on insider politics to nominate a gubernatorial candidate, giving an unpopular incumbent Republican a clear shot at reelection despite no real record of accomplishment, a troubling far-right agenda, and no apparent interest in actually governing. Locally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is maneuvering masterfully to prepare for the 2019 election.

And despite a wave of Democratic Party gains in other states on Tuesday, activists warn of limiting the party’s appeal to opposing Trumpism and Republican attacks on health care. UWF argues that progressive candidates who promote a positive agenda are needed.

UWF, whose members include progressive unions and small, ward-based IPOs, wants to recruit “young people, working people, and people of color” from within its coalition to run for office on issues that draw “bright lines” with establishment candidates, said executive director Emma Tai.

Ultimately, the aim is to challenge “the corporate dominance of the two-party system” and score wins on policies that benefit “the many, not the few,” Tai added.

“We are up against a bipartisan consensus that appeases and enriches the wealthiest while the rest of us suffer,” she said in opening remarks at the convention. She cited support from Gov. Bruce Rauner and Emanuel for a $2 billion “tax giveaway” to Amazon for its proposed second corporate headquarters, while Chicago public schools were closed in record numbers and massive unemployment is endemic in black communities. Hundreds of thousands of residents, mainly African Americans, are moving out.

“These things aren’t inevitable facts of nature,” she said. “Those who wield political power are clearing the city for Amazon and their rich friends.”

The prospective “battle of the billionaires” shaping up in the governor’s race doesn’t reflect UWF’s values, said Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, one of UWF’s constituent organizations. (Rauner is likely to face either Chris Kennedy or J.B. Pritzker, both wealthy, in the 2018 election). So UWF will focus on recruiting and supporting movement candidates for down-ballot races, building grassroots leadership that is “sorely lacking in this state’s Democratic Party, she said.

Local races can serve to “educate and energize the electorate,” she said. Seeing candidates who speak forthrightly on real issues can give voters a sense of possibility and purpose, she added, and turnout will help the entire ticket, particularly the effort to defeat Rauner.

Many people UWF talks to when going door-to-door “are so frustrated with the political process that they don’t want to vote at all,” Johnson said.  “That’s a dangerous situation.”

UWF will also participate in issue campaigns to put elected officials on record about the concerns of working-class voters, Tai said.  On Saturday, following large breakout sessions with lots of debate over issues and strategy, the convention endorsed three main issues for a pared-down agenda: a “massive public sector jobs program” to curb violence in low-income neighborhoods; rent control; and free education from birth to college.

Long-term, UWF wants to “take elections out of the hands of the consultant class and put them in the hands of the people,” said Tai.  Next year’s elections are part of that building process, and Tai said a progressive slate of down-ballot candidates in 2018 will help “build a foundation for a robust challenge to the status quo [in Chicago] in 2019.”

That’s likely to mean supporting challengers to Emanuel, but also focusing on expanding the Progressive Caucus in the City Council.  “At the city level, our goal is to operate as an opposition party that can challenge this monolithic political establishment,” Tai said. “If we had less of a one-party system in Chicago, things would be a lot better.”