A new political player: Home-grown aldermen

A new breed of aldermanic candidate may be emerging in next year’s election.

Frustrated by the way policy initiatives from community organizations are repeatedly shot down in the City Council — and fired up by recent drives against school closings and for a living wage — one organization is taking steps to ensure the voice of the people is heard.

“We see year after year how elected officials forget what it means to be public servants,” said Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, at a recent political education forum held by the group’s Englewood chapter.

“Year after year, people elected to office to represent us end up selling out to the highest bidder; end up prioritizing corporations over communities, profits over people — and we’re not taking it anymore.”

Action Now members are discussing forming a political action committee that would cultivate and support candidates, including members of the organization, “that take direction from their constituents and remain accountable to communities instead of corporate interests,” Johnson said.

The group that helped develop the Grow Your Own Teachers program, which assists neighborhood school volunteers enter the teaching profession, is now talking about growing their own elected officials.

Among the dozens of Action Now members at the Englewood forum were several who are considering running for alderman, Johnson said. The organization’s neighborhood chapters, which stretch from Auburn-Gresham and Englewood to Lawndale and Austin, includes working groups in six wards.

The featured speakers, Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th Ward) and recent state legislative candidate Jay Travis, were asked to define the terms “movement” and “machine.”

The old machine was a patronage army. The new machine is “a political and financial structure that protects elected officials who promote corporate interests, not our interests — who do the bidding of people other than their constituents — and the corruption and clout that goes along with that structure,” Travis said.

The movement is “the power of the people that can shake that system up,” she said.

Travis, the former executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization — who came within a few hundred votes of defeating State Rep. Christian Mitchell in March, besting him in every black-majority ward in the district — was asked about running against well-funded opponents.

“Money matters, but it doesn’t have to be the determining factor,” she said. “It takes a strong on-the-ground presence and volunteer base to combat the power of money.”

One place to start is with the hundreds of union members and retirees who live in each ward, said Foulkes. “These are your foot soldiers,” she said, and they can provide the margin of victory.

Foulkes, one of three Progressive Caucus members who lost most of their wards in the 2012 remap, is running against Ald. JoAnn Thompson in the 16th Ward. Centered on Englewood, the new 16th contains much of the territory Foulkes has represented since 2007. Thompson is a dependable loyalist for Mayor Rahm Emanuel — though that association may not help her next year, with a recent poll showing just 8 percent of African Americans support the mayor.

A longtime Action Now member, Foulkes recalled being inspired to get involved when she was a teenager by a long talk with a community organizer who was out knocking on doors.

It’s that kind of approach that could benefit an aldermanic candidate. Action Now demonstrated its efficacy in the March primary, where 87 percent of voters in 103 precincts supported an advisory referendum to increase the minimum wage to $15-an-hour for employees of companies with more than $50 million in annual revenues.

Action Now is one of several community organizations whose members are considering more direct political involvement, said Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Illinois Action, a politically-oriented affiliate of Grassroots Collaborative.

“Interesting things are starting to bubble up; an interesting type of candidate is emerging, people who’ve been engaged in these issues for years,” she said. “I think you’re going to see teachers, parents, neighborhood leaders who have been on the front lines working for a better Chicago and greater equity for a long time, take the plunge and run for office.”

A large part of the motivation is frustration with an unresponsive city government, she said. “People are tired of having really great policy proposals introduced in the City Council and then buried in the Rules Committee — or when something is passed, it’s so watered down that you can’t recognize it,” she added.

Advocates fear that’s what Emanuel’s new minimum wage committee will do; Action Now and Grassroots Collaborative have spearheaded citywide organizing on the issue for over a decade.

“Instead of listening to the people who voted by an 87 percent margin for a $15 living wage, the mayor is standing in the way of what the voters are clearly saying,” said Johnson.

The first task of grassroots political organizing is to challenge the widespread disillusionment that such political games engender, she said.

As Travis said at the forum, the powers-that-be “are banking on us being disillusioned and giving up and letting them stay in office without representing our interests.”

A new group of candidates with real records of engagement on issues, the backbone to stand up for those issues, and relationships to help ensure their accountability could bring grassroots energy to the next election — and go a long way toward reinvigorating politics in this city.

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