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Lessons from the Chicago budget battle

Don’t repackage crumbs as cake

Four social movement-backed alderpeople voted to support an austerity budget in Chicago last month. Alex Schmaus and brian bean interviewed three Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) members to put this in context.

Caitlin Brady is a union organizer with Cook County College Teachers Union Local 1600 and a community organizer with 33rd Ward Working Families. Jasson Perez is a member of the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus and a volunteer with Defund CPD. Tyler Zimmer sits on the editorial collective of Rampant Magazine. The interview has been lightly edited. Anything in brackets ([ ]) was added by the editors for readability.

Alex Schmaus: CDSA censured Alderman Andre Vasquez for his vote to support the budget proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Can you explain the significance of this to a broader audience?

Jasson Perez: Regarding the budget, it was austerity, but also it was regressive when it came to revenue, taxing working class people more than the rich. On the abolition and defund end, it didn’t do any meaningful cut to police. [There was] no meaningful investment in institutions that keep us safe from the pandemic like social housing, income supports, rent and food supports, violence interrupters, at home funding support for the internet, for school and afterschool programs, free COVID-19 testing and tracing, [and] universal public health.

I think it was good CDSA went to hold [Vasquez] accountable. It sends a clear message [that you] can’t talk both ways and expect to have door knockers, donors, and all the things you need to win city council races.

Caitlin Brady: In 2019, we elected a slate of ten alderpeople through United Working Families (UWF), a coalition of left-aligned unions and grassroots organizations. Six of those [alderpeople] were endorsed by CDSA. The 2020 budget had been framed through the lens of austerity before the first words had been written. Chicago relies on entertainment and travel taxes that were dried up due to COVID-19. On top of that, Chicago Police Department (CPD) overtime due to the uprisings had ballooned beyond its usual obnoxious and abusive levels.

The message from Lightfoot’s administration was clear: there is no money and this will be painful. They were prepping us to accept more cuts to public services and more regressive taxation. Chicago’s left-wing dug in for a fight. After a summer of unprecedented uprisings against police brutality that were met with the violence and repression typical of CPD, we would not accept a budget that did not make significant cuts to the police. We would not accept a budget that did not include progressive revenue sources, such as an Amazon head tax. [And] we would not accept a budget that relied on regressive fees and fines that disproportionately affect Chicago’s already struggling Black and Brown communities.

Chicago’s socialist [alderpeople] had an opportunity to stand united against austerity, police violence, and regressive, racist taxes. While five of our champions listened to the movement, [Vasquez] chose to break ranks and vote yes on this anti-working class budget. What makes this so infuriating is how close this vote was, 29-21. That hasn’t happened since the Council Wars of the 1980s. [Vasquez] voted against the movement. I am proud that CDSA drew a line in the sand and said no, you can’t do that.

Protesters gather at Chicago City Hall to demand a just budget.

Tyler Zimmer:The process of passing a budget has for decades been completely dominated by the mayor. So, for example, when I first moved here in 2007, Mayor Richard M. Daley and, later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel would propose a budget and it would usually pass unanimously without any debate whatsoever. The fact that Lightfoot’s budget almost didn’t pass is therefore a big deal, that basically never happens. It signals that the political situation has more cracks and fissures than has been the case for some time. Typically, mayors propose budgets that include a mixture of austerity, regressive tax hikes, and giveaways to corporations and developers. For many years running, about 40 percent of the city’s operating budget has gone to a notoriously violent and corrupt police force. This most recent budget is no exception.

So, Vasquez’s vote in favor of this is more or less a public declaration that he approves of the status quo power structure in Chicago and has no wish to overturn it. Indeed, it’s hard to read this as anything but a signalling maneuver to the ruling class that “I’m not like the other socialists, I’m willing to discard principles and do the bidding of the wealthy.” Predictably, Vasquez has sought to downplay the significance of his vote and make it sound like childish political purism lies behind the criticisms of his conduct. But this was a very obvious showdown between the mayor, who wishes to indefinitely extend the pro-austerity status quo, and a group of socialist alderpeople who want to challenge it. In future fights against the mayor, we should expect Vasquez to position himself as someone willing to give left cover to austerity, a bloated police budget, and so on.

AS: There are other alderpeople who were elected with the support of independent political organizations like United Working Families (UWF) and Reclaim Chicago that also broke ranks with the social movements to support Lightfoot’s budget. Does this have something to do with the way social movements and the Left select candidates for office? The general practice in the United States seems to be that volunteer candidates work to recruit our organizations to their campaigns, rather than the other way around.

CB: Absolutely, yes. If you look at who broke ranks and who stood with the movement, that becomes clear. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Jeanette Taylor, and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa [are alderpeople] who came out of the movement. They were recruited directly by their communities to run for office. I am a member of 33rd Ward Working Families, an independent political organization which formed in opposition to the local Democratic Party machine. We have [been active] around immigration protection, rent control, and fighting for a left-wing party in Chicago. We recruited [Rodriguez-Sanchez] to run in 2017, and the beauty of it is she said no at first; we had to convince her. [Sigcho-Lopez] was on the board of Pilsen Alliance. [Taylor] had done some legendary work on the South and West Side. [She] was a Dyett Hunger Striker recruited directly from the community. [Ramirez-Rosa’s] candidacy and seat are rooted in United Neighbors of the 35th Ward.

We are working with people who did not wake up one day and decide that they were so great and smart that they should have power over the people in their communities. They are directly accountable to the movement that put them there. There was never any question that [Rodriguez-Sanchez, Sigcho-Lopez, Taylor, and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa] would vote the right way, [because] they had their base to answer to. Their base is the ward-level organizations with the neighborhood members who will knock [on] doors and hit the streets come election time. I am convinced that is the difference between candidates that come to the movement versus candidates who come from the movement.

JP: I think that’s part of it, an important part. Also, I think candidates are used to not being accountable to the people who brought them into office. What’s most stunning from the [alderpeople] like Maria [Hadden], Sue [Sadlowski Garza], [Vasquez], and [Mike Rodriguez], who also voted with the mayor, is their shock that they are being held accountable and that UWF and Reclaim [Chicago are] withdrawing their support for next election. But I agree there is a concern [as to how] we hold these folks accountable once we get them in [office].

A part of a good solution, I believe, is making sure they are members in social movement, labor, [and] socialist organizations, but also being willing to run people against them if they switch up and upping the political attack on their governing record so that they have no room to pretend they are progressive, movement, labor or socialist orientated. But also, this strategy only works if we are building strong organizations with active memberships and we are committed to vibrant militant direct action against police, capitalists and elected officials, and doing mutual aid and community support work. Just relying on elections isn’t enough.

Graffiti outside the 49th Ward office of Alderwoman Maria Hadden.

TZ: There’s also the substantive question of what the political litmus test should be for a candidate to get support from labor and social movements. Here, the norm is to grant endorsements based on arguments about “values” as well as “strategic considerations,” [such as] supporting a lesser-evil candidate who “is electable” when pitted against a particularly reactionary incumbent.

I would prefer to see a more concrete set of political criteria that is strictly adhered to—for instance, something like: “we only endorse candidates who are resolutely anti-austerity, who support taxing the rich, who want to defund the police and increase funding for schools, social workers, and so on.” When an organization backs someone who makes this pledge, there need to be clear consequences if they break ranks.

Of course, Chicago’s political institutions are set up to structurally favor individual self-enrichment and opportunism, so it’s not easy. But the bigger question looming here, of course, is how we build something like a labor party that fields candidates of its own based upon a democratically determined political program.

brian bean:Is the action taken by CDSA a practice that should be generalized? And if so, how far should we go with such practices? Should organizations of the Left and social movements try to discipline someone like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if she votes in favor of a massive military budget, for example?

JP: Yes, they definitely should [be censured]. [Politicians’ actions] should condition if we throw our endorsement behind [them], which translates into doors knocked, donors, etc. It also impacts their reputation. These politicians want to be seen as socialist or progressive. It is our job as socialists, abolitionists, radicals, (I’m a socialist, abolitionist and radical, obviously) and progressives to call that out when that doesn’t happen and go after the reputation and brand they are trying to build for themselves. But we also have to do [that] with our endorsements.

CB: We have to get out of the mindset that we should be deferential to people in power, even if they identify as socialists, progressives, movement candidates, whatever you want to call them. This is how we keep ending up with crumbs. To me, it matters much more that we have real champions that will stand with the people, rather than [saying], “look we have five socialists in Congress.” Having a hundred socialists in power doesn’t mean anything if they are constantly compromising.

People forget, Rep. Bobby Rush was chair of the Chicago Black Panther Party after the assassination [of] Chairman Fred Hampton. Rush endorsed Emanuel [for mayor] in 2015. Rush is what happens when leftists get into power and no one is around to hold them accountable. These people are not deities. If AOC votes for a massive military budget, she should be censured by the people who got her that seat. All of our elected officials should be clear: if you vote against us, we will not support you and you can’t come crawling back come election season.

TZ: I think it is a positive example of what to do when someone claims the DSA label, on the one hand, and then blatantly betrays the organization and what it stands [for], on the other. It’s also a good precedent in the sense that it may have some deterrent effect on others going forward. These decisions ought always to be made on a political basis that weighs costs and advantages, not on a moralistic basis that is constantly searching for the smallest heresy and betrayal.

Also, I don’t think expelling opportunists like Vasquez, which I support, solves the deeper issue, which has to do with what sort of political organization we want the DSA to be. My own view is that we ought to work toward a state of affairs where we recruit and run our own members as candidates who [are], first and foremost, representing the DSA in a united fashion and fighting for its political program. Here, we would do well to learn from comrades in other countries where problems have arisen within left parties between the more extra-parliamentary activist wing and the more electoral[ly]-focused wing composed of MPs and so on. The experience of Die Linke, for instance, is instructive.

bb: Some may criticize the left-wing alderpeople who voted against Lightfoot’s budget—charging them with empty posturing and arguing that you have to make compromises to get things done at city hall. What are the political effects on our social movements when politicians elected with the Left’s support vote in favor of a budget like Mayor Lightfoot’s? What about when they vote against a budget like this, but lose the vote?

JP: I think such an argument is fake pragmatism and realism. Ideology matters, political values matter. People don’t trust formal politics because they don’t see people fighting for them and willing to take tough votes for what is right and just, even when it may cost them their seat. The left-wing alderpeople who voted no all risk a capitalist, police, [and] nationalist backlash that is well funded. But they voted against the budget because it is [the] right thing to do.

It’s also good left-wing politics to vote no to a regressive revenue, austerity, pro police, anti-worker budget. In its current iteration, radicals running in elections is a very new project and all we have is politics and the people we can bring [into the] streets for elections and protests. So we need to make sure we do what is politically sound, which is voting with our politics. That is true realism and pragmatism.

TZ: This gets at the contradiction leftists face when they try to use the electoral system and the levers of government to further their long-term goal of social transformation. If the goal is simply “to govern responsibly” under capitalism, then it may well be unproductive or “empty” to vote down an austerity budget. But if the goal is to strengthen our side, clarify what’s at stake politically, and help amass the forces needed to wage a fight and win, then such an action is anything but empty. As you suggest, voting in favor of austerity demoralizes the social movements and weakens our side considerably.

So, there are great costs to caving in and supporting austerity. Moreover, it is not lost on the mayor or the local ruling class that the vote has implications for next year’s budget fight. With a few more leftist victories and more organizing, we may well be able to tip the scales in a year’s time. If I were the mayor, I would be deeply unnerved by the fact that my budget almost didn’t pass this time around. That’s got to be good for our side.

CB: [After standing] as a candidate for the St. Giles ward in the 1894 Edinburgh municipal elections, James Connolly wrote: “The election of a socialist to any public body at present, is only valuable insofar as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace.” We are supposed to be disrupting. We are there to expose this rigged two party system as a tool for wealthy corporations and the elite.

That’s not to say we don’t try to negotiate for policies that will move us closer to our goal of socialism, but we don’t squander the credibility of the movement for crumbs. [The Treatment not Trauma ordinance] is a perfect example. The original council order as proposed by Rodriguez-Sanchez called for non-law enforcement teams of mental health professionals to respond to persons having a mental health crisis.

[Lightfoot] attempted to use this order as a way to extract votes from the progressive caucus. What was offered was nowhere near close enough to what we were demanding for [Rodriguez-Sanchez] to even consider trading her vote. I understand [the] desire to be able to point to a win and to say, “We accomplished something, we’re not all talk.” But as Taylor said at the budget hearing, “Don’t give me crumbs and tell me it’s cake.” When you keep trying to repackage crumbs as cake, it demobilizes people. They can see through it, and they won’t keep showing up for you.

Protesters gather at Chicago City Hall to demand a just budget.

AS: What’s next in Chicago?

TZ: We need to expand the presence of socialists on City Council and [learn] the lessons from the Vasquez debacle. We need to think about how to use this as a ‘teachable moment’ for social movements, labor, and the Left generally in the city.

JP: Right now, [we’re] bolstering the socialist caucus in city council, recruiting more socialist and abolitionist candidates to run for city council and mayor, skilling up, and doing direct actions, doing mutual aid to support our communities, building our base, and preparing for a much tougher budget fight next year.

CB: While there is a rich history of militant labor and socialist organizing, Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities and the effects of that cut through to organizing today. [Sections] of the Left are fractured and mistrustful of each other. Black activists on the South and West Side take a cautious approach to the whiteness of DSA. It’s getting better through DSA showing it is willing to throw down on the Defund CPD campaign. We have to move toward a party approach [to] organizing. We keep building at a grassroots level, ward by ward, to get more socialists in power, but we make sure we partner with mass movements on the ground. We can’t win more seats and we can’t protect the seats we have by betraying the people who put us in power. We only win when we go hard and stick to our principles.

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Alex Schmaus and brian bean View All

Alex Schmaus is a member of San Francisco Movement of Rank and File Educators, United Educators of San Francisco, the Tempest Collective, and the Democratic Socialists of America. brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.