Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
The Chicago Mayor secured a second term Tuesday, but grassroots progressives in the Windy City still see opportunity. Are they right?
Progressive challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia failed in his bid to defeat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Tuesday's election. But Chicago progressives are not admitting defeat. Indeed, they have things to celebrate. In February, Garcia upset Emanuel's forgone-coronation and forced an unprecedented runoff. The left in Chicago, it's now clear, doesn't need the mayor's office to flex its muscle.
"The victory in many ways happened on February 24," says April Verrett, executive vice-president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, a powerful union that threw its weight behind Garcia. "Of course we want the cherry on top. Of course we want real change in our city. [But] the fact that the grassroots in Chicago took on the core of the Democratic Party is a victory ... Rahm Emanuel pushed through an increase in the minimum wage. He would not have done that had there not been a grassroots movement to pull him to the left."
What's more, numerous progressive challengers appeared set to defeat Emanuel-aligned aldermen, and one of the mayor's outspoken critics on the city council fended off a serious opponent.
"A much more likely scenario six months ago was that Rahm would have no viable challenger and millions and millions of dollars, and try to eliminate the relatively small group of progressive members of the city council that are incumbents," says Jon Green, national deputy director of Working Families, the national umbrella organization of state Working Families Parties, speaking from Chicago.
Garcia's tale-of-two-cities campaign echoed the populist rhetoric that suffused that of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected out of a movement fueled by progressive anger over centrist Democratic hostility to public school teachers and favoritism toward high-end developers. Garcia's strong showing is also a reminder that education politics has become a defining feature of intra-Democratic Party warfare, particularly at the city level, pitting well-financed charter school backers against teachers unions.
In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, angry over bread-and-butter issues but also Emanuel's support for charter school expansion, high-stakes testing, and perhaps most critically, a plan to close dozens of public schools. Though the CTU failed to block school closings, their militant new leadership team did win community support. The union's charismatic president, Karen Lewis, had been expected to run for mayor but dropped out after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. CTU has emerged as the clear leader of the city's activist and electoral left, and it was Lewis who recruited Garcia to run for office.
The question remains whether Lewis might have achieved what Garcia did not.
"Her charisma and her popularity-slash-notoriety in Chicago would have made this a different race," says Chicago Reader politics reporter Mick Dumke. "I have no doubt about that."
Dumke thinks Lewis's blunt populism might have turned off some key middle-class voters, but "all that said, she's very well known, she's very well respected, and she would have had an ability to create a coalition of liberal whites, African-Americans and Hispanics, especially those whose kids are in the school system," or who are school system or city employees.
Lewis is also one of Chicago's most high-profile black leaders, and a lack of black support appears to have played a role in Garcia's loss.
"She would have gotten a stronger vote in the African American community than Garcia did," says Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a former alderman.
Simpson says that Obama's endorsement of his former chief of staff swayed some black votes (it's not exactly common for a sitting president of the United States to get involved in an intra-party mayoral contest), though not as many as it did in the mayor's first election. But Garcia, he says, benefited from a leftist electoral movement the likes of which has mostly been missing in action in Chicago since it brought progressive black Mayor Harold Washington to power in 1983.
"It appears that the Harold Washington mobilization was more substantial," says Simpson, but that Garcia did a good job with his "get out the vote effort, and recreating the rainbow coalition across racial and ethnic groups."
The rainbow coalition community divided after Washington, says Simpson, with the black community splitting between civil rights activists and machine acolytes, "and Latinos for the most part supported Mayor Daley," along with some white liberals. "So you had a complete reshuffling after Harold Washington."
In this election, the left benefited from the human and financial resources brought together by years of grassroots action—most importantly the teachers strike. They were playing with a brand new deck of cards.
There has still been speculation, however, that the fact that Garcia is Mexican-American may have hurt him with some black voters.
"Why hasn't Chuy been able to do better in African American neighborhoods?" asks Dumke. "A lot of people are talking about a historic tension between the Mexican-American community here and the African American community," particularly over jobs. But "fundamentally, Chuy's main problem is that he got into the race very late and, even though he's been in public life" for years, had low name recognition.
Money also played a large role. Simpson says that Mayor Richard M. Daley was able to fight off challenges from the left by attracting large contributions to his campaigns—a playbook Emanuel has copied. Rahm raised more than $30 million, including large donations from extraordinarily wealthy sources, compared to just about $5.2 million for Garcia, according to a March 30 analysis in the Chicago Tribune.
Tuesday's vote is being closely parsed not just in Chicago but by political analysts nationwide ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic frontrunner, is viewed suspiciously by progressives angry over financial deregulation and hawkish foreign policy, but currently faces no viable challenger. Just how much clout does the party's Elizabeth Warren wing wield?
Dumke cautions against drawing too many big-picture lessons from Chicago. For one, he says that "pressure from the left alone would not have pushed Rahm Emanuel into a runoff."
"A lot of what's going on here is very particular to Rahm Emanuel," he says. "There has been a lot of dissatisfaction with his style and with his policies from people who wouldn't consider themselves lefties or progressives. Just people who live in Chicago who don't like the way he runs the place."
Style always matters of course, and Emanuel has long been described as extremely off-putting in a way that for many is not endearing.
"It's no secret that Rahm is often abrasive," says Dumke, "and Rahm can frankly just be a jerk. But we've had jerk mayors here before, most recently Rich Daley, the mayor here for 22 years. It's not like he wasn't tyrannical," but people still backed him. "He was seen as a guy who was one of theirs, who came from the neighborhoods ... and Rahm Emanuel doesn't have those same connections."
The campaign also pivoted around local issues that may not have as much national resonance. Gun violence, which mayors are often blamed for but sometimes have little power to control, has been a major campaign issue, though police misconduct and brutality have not. Chicago's woefully underfunded pensions have also been a major subject of debate, with Emanuel skewering Garcia as unwilling to offer concrete solutions.
A Garcia win, obviously, would have been a major victory for the left wing of the party. But it's important to put campaigns like these in context. In 2008, Bill de Blasio and the Working Families Party fought to stop then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg from changing the term limit rule and seeking a third term—and they lost. But the Working Families Party would soon build a large progressive caucus within the New York City Council, and de Blasio went on to win campaigns to become public advocate and, ultimately, mayor. Progressive groups and unions have been focusing on big cities as achievable places to seize power. Victories in New York and elsewhere could still be replicated in Chicago.
Micah Uetricht, writing at The Nation, says that "Chicago’s vibrant grassroots movements have been rewriting the city’s dog-eared political playbook, challenging Chicago’s fabled one-party, machine-style politics with a new, movement-focused approach. It is this, perhaps, that is the biggest story of the 2015 election."
The question going forward for Chicago is whether labor and community groups can continue to grow as a local political force. Institution building will be the Chicago left's true challenge. Any movement that relies too heavily on a single high-profile leader is vulnerable, and Garcia, an almost accidental candidate, was no celebrity. In the long term, that he achieved what he did despite his shortcomings as a candidate reflects the fact that he was the creature of a movement that seems to be growing in strength.
"I think we're just getting started," says Verrett, of SEIU. "People know that change is possible. We've seen it. There is so much energy and excitement throughout this city. ... This isn't just about one man. This isn't just about one election."