What’s behind the election of socialists in Chicago

WW Commentary

April 8 — Chicago is the third most populous U.S. city today, after New York and Los Angeles, and is viewed as the main financial hub of the Midwest. In 2016, Chicago, with its suburbs, was also considered the second most segregated city in the U.S., with whites constituting 32.6 percent of the population, Latinx people at 29.7 percent and Black people at 29.3 percent. (24/7 Wall St., Aug. 1, 2017)  Most of the segregation takes place neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

While Illinois in 2017 had the highest U.S. state unemployment rate for Black people at 11.3 percent, following the disappearance of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, this unemployment reached a crisis level in Chicago. (tinyurl.com/yybw6u9o)

The Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that more than 40 percent of 20-to-24-year-old Black youth and men in Chicago were out of work and out of school in 2018.

And, according to the Chicago Tribune, the poverty rates for the South and West sides of the city, which are predominantly African American, hovered around a devastating 60 percent. (March 15, 2017)

Meanwhile, the impact of police brutality on Chicago’s Black neighborhoods was brought home by the recent conviction of a white cop for the 16-shot murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014.

All these factors must be taken into account in considering the results of Chicago’s April 2 municipal elections. These results were both historic and illuminating.

Chicago has been politically dominated by a deeply corrupt Democratic Party machine for many decades, first anchored by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who held that office from 1955 until his death in 1976, and then by his son, Richard M. Daley, mayor from 1989 to 2011.

In the recent Chicago municipal run-off elections, three left-wing candidates who ran openly as members of the Democratic Socialists of America, won City Council seats representing their wards. Two of them, Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Andre Vasquez, are Latinx, and the third, Jeannette Taylor, is Black. Another Latinx DSA candidate, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, has the potential to win her ward seat once the vote count is completed. Two other DSA candidates, Daniel La Spata and Carlos Rosa, had already won City Council elections during the first round of voting in February.  

These five — and perhaps six — members of DSA, the majority of them people of color, have just won the largest socialist electoral victory in modern U.S. history.

In the belly of the imperialist beast, where just over 60 years ago the Cold War, anti-communist, McCarthyite era paralyzed the progressive movement, the unions and the masses, the horrific veil of red-baiting is finally being lifted. This shift has been underway since the anti-Wall Street Occupy Movement in 2011. Then Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign helped further popularize socialist ideas, despite Sanders’ limited “let’s reform capitalism” program.

Another significant victory in Chicago was the election of Lori Lightfoot as the city’s first Black, openly lesbian mayor. Lightfoot, who is a former corporate lawyer and prosecutor, immediately called for reopening the acquittals of the three white police officers charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy and misconduct in Laquan McDonald’s death.    

Focus on class issues was decisive

The program that appeared to resonate most with voters who favored the DSA candidates were bread-and-butter issues emerging from the global economic crisis.  Some of these included growing gentrification and loss of housing, privatization of public services including schools, attacks on immigrant rights and police repression. The demand for rent control by the candidates was especially popular among voters.

An electoral group, Reclaim Chicago, was instrumental in organizing door-to-door canvassing and mass phone banking to support two of the DSA members. Taylor, an education activist, participated in a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to demand the reopening of Walter H. Dyett High School on the South Side, where she is from.   

The tradition of community activism runs deep in Chicago, carried forth today by the Chicago Teachers Union, which conducted a 2012 political strike in solidarity with oppressed communities to defend and fund public education. Chicago is also where the labor movement for the 8-hour day was spearheaded in 1886, led and won by immigrant workers mainly from Europe, and resulting in the birth of May Day as International Workers Day.

Notwithstanding the recent victories of DSA candidates rooted in their communities, these members will be a minority on the 50-seat City Council. To what extent their political influence will be a factor or be compromised during their tenure remains to be seen.  

Nevertheless, the electoral victories reflect a growing trend of workers and oppressed who not only hate pro-Wall Street candidates, but are questioning the capitalist system those candidates stand on.

As the global economic crisis deepens, the masses will come to understand and embrace that only revolutionary socialism, not a gentler, kinder capitalism, is the road to take in making their class interests — and their dreams — a reality.

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