Chicago voters made history Tuesday night — in more ways than one. While national headlines have understandably pointed to the election of Lori Lightfoot as the first black female mayor in Chicago history, the runoff elections saw another development that will transform the city’s political landscape: the victory of a bloc of democratic socialist city council members.
At least three open democratic socialists, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Jeanette Taylor and Andre Vazquez, won their elections. Another, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, is currently in first place in her race, though votes are still being counted. All of these candidates were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and are set to join two other democratic socialists — Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Daniel La Spata — elected to the city council during the first round of voting in February. This is no small feat.
With socialism rising in popularity across the country, as illustrated by the explosive growth of DSA in recent years, figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have pushed left-wing policies once considered fringe — such as Medicare-for-all and free college tuition — into the national spotlight. But never in modern U.S. history has a slate of democratic socialists taken power in a major American city.
As the Chicago Sun-Times recently reported, these victories will mark the most socialists elected to office in Chicago in more than a century. Once they take their seats, these new members are poised to have a dramatic impact on the city’s political future.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel held an iron grip over city government during his eight years in office, with the vast majority of aldermen serving as a rubber stamp for his corporate-friendly agenda. Save for a few lone voices on the city’s progressive caucus, Emanuel’s policies of privatization, giveaways to big businesses, tax increases on working families, cuts to public education, regressive fines and fees, and a bulging budget for a scandal-embroiled police department have sailed through city council with little opposition.
With Emanuel on his way out, and Lightfoot on her way in, all that is set to change. Emanuel was able to hold such enormous sway over city council in large part because of his vast Rolodex of wealthy donors, who funded his campaign as well as those of his allies. A longtime Democratic Party fixture, he held a reputation as a politician not to be crossed. Lightfoot enters office without such deep pockets or connections and is likely to face a far more empowered city council, including its new socialist members.
The democratic socialist candidates will hold at least 10 percent of the city council seats, and they’ve already boasted about creating an openly left-wing caucus. As Ramirez-Rosa said Tuesday night, “we now have a fighting socialist caucus ready to take on the corporate establishment.”
That socialist caucus will be able to push for policies that social movements have demanded for years without much success. And it’ll be backed by the local grass-roots organizations and unions that helped get its members elected, including United Working Families, the People’s Lobby and the militant Chicago Teachers Union.
While Chicago has long been known for its abuse-ridden police department — especially since the Laquan McDonald scandal in 2015 — all the DSA-backed candidates support instituting a Civilian Police Accountability Council, a radical reform that would put policing under democratic control. They also back lifting a statewide ban on rent control — enacted in the 1990s following intense lobbying from real estate interests — as a way to place regulations on housing costs, part of a larger effort to rein in the spread of luxury developments and the displacement of low-income residents.
This new socialist caucus could also have a profound effect on immigration, removing carve-outs in the city’s sanctuary city ordinance that allow local police to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. They’re also positioned to push for the elimination of the city’s gang database, which critics slam as arbitrary, overly punitive and riddled with errors.
On education, the caucus members all support implementing an elected school board rather than one appointed by the mayor. And they back placing a moratorium on charter schools in the city, as well as an end to the school privatization schemes that proliferated under Emanuel.
And when it comes to Chicago’s finances, an issue that will be paramount for a city in economic turmoil, the newly-elected socialists are very clear on their plan: Tax the rich. Policies such as a tax on financial transactions, a corporate head tax and reforming the city’s tax increment financing program to benefit poor communities of color will be front and center as the new caucus is seated.
Much as Ocasio-Cortez has been able to wield outsized influence in the House by proposing bold, transformative policies like a 70 percent marginal tax rate and the Green New Deal, this new socialist caucus will be well positioned to push movement demands into the center of the political debate in the third-largest city in the nation. And as Sanders has helped popularize democratic socialism through his presidential campaigns, these newly elected aldermen will be carrying out his call to lead a political revolution at all levels of government.
Vazquez and Rodriguez-Sanchez volunteered for Sanders in 2016, and they credit him with inspiring them to mount their insurgent campaigns, both of which took on machine-backed incumbents. Vazquez, a former rapper and a community organizer with Reclaim Chicago, ousted Pat O’Connor, a close ally of Emanuel who served on the council for 36 years. Rodriguez-Sanchez, an immigrant rights and affordable housing activist, took on Deb Mell, who was handed the seat by her father, Richard Mell, in 2013, when he stepped down after serving as alderman for 38 years.
Before Tuesday’s elections, the younger Mell attempted to red-bait her opponent by warning voters of Rodriguez-Sanchez’s “radical political agenda.” It’s a tactic that’s been used time and again against democratic socialist candidates, from Virginia state Rep. Lee Carter to Pennsylvania District Justice Mik Pappas. And while the final votes are still being tallied, it appears that, as in the cases of Carter and Pappas, Mell’s attempts to discredit Rodriguez-Sanchez over her left-wing political beliefs will fall flat.
After decades of neoliberal policies that have benefited the wealthy at the expense of the working poor, the results in Chicago show that voters aren’t scared off by socialism. Just the opposite: They’re ready for it.