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Making sense of Chicago’s election

Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign redux?

Joe Allen sets the Chicago mayoral election in historical context and argues that the choice on offer, however stark, also reflects the political limits of the strength of the Left and our (social and trade union) movements.

The Chicago mayoral election, set for its run-off on April 4, reflects a sharpening polarization of politics in Chicago (and nationally) and is absorbing the attention and energy of the vast majority of the city’s Left and social movement activists. On the one hand, Paul Vallas is a long-standing member of the boss class and is more than happy to blow the dog-whistle of racism and reaction in his appeals to law and order. On the other hand, Brandon Johnson wears proudly both his history as a Chicago teacher, union and social activist, AND his allegiance to the Democratic Party, albeit one he pitches with a “progressive” spin.

For revolutionary socialists—without illusions in either the depth of the threat posed by the virulent far right, or about the pro-capitalist nature of the Democratic Party, ”progressive” or otherwise—the strategic and tactical questions raised in this reality are challenging. First, the dynamism of the preceding period of radicalization and hope—most strongly embodied by the anti-racist rebellion of 2020—has receded. Second, the dynamic in Chicago is, at least arguably, unique, resting on the particular legacy of class struggle and social justice unionism led by the Chicago Teachers Union and its intimate links to the liberatory thread of radical Black politics.

Tempest is presenting what we hope to be a series of articles on the Johnson-Vallas race with different emphases and conclusions. Each is written by comrades committed to the politics of solidarity and with a political horizon shared within Tempest, in which we agree that the working class and oppressed must have a party (or parties) of their own and that there must be a definitive rupture with capitalist business as usual. Regardless of the outcome on April 4, we will continue with the assessments and continue organizing for struggle.

The big shock in Chicago’s recent municipal elections was the defeat of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first incumbent mayor to be defeated in thirty-fours years. The race for mayor remains unresolved, however. It is now heading to a run-off between Brandon Johnson, a Democratic Party Cook County Commissioner and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and Paul Vallas, a longtime education reform hitman whose list of victims extends from Chicago to Haiti is well documented.

For an older generation, there is a heavy nostalgia for the Harold Washington campaign that elected Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983 that underlies the Johnson campaign, even though Lori Lightfoot won all of the city’s majority-Black wards. With the runoff election less than two weeks away, the Chicago media likes to portray the two candidates as having sharp differences, and in many ways they do.

Led by CTU, almost all of Chicago’s loosely defined progressive unions are lining up and donating heavily to the Johnson campaign, much to the annoyance of anti-union forces in Illinois. Vallas, meanwhile, has the backing of major business and conservative donors, as well as the city’s most conservative unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the Operating Engineers. He has also been endorsed by conservative to moderate figures in the Black community, including former mayoral rival Willie Wilson and former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Eric Adams, the conservative Democratic Mayor of New York City, was the first major political figure to react to Lightfoot’s defeat. He declared that it was a “warning sign for the country. I showed up at crime scenes. I knew what New Yorkers were saying.”  Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, and former mayoral rival Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia have recently endorsed Brandon Johnson, who has positioned himself as “the real Democrat for mayor.”. Meanwhile,  Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, who has presidential ambitions, has taken a hands-off approach to the runoff between Vallas and Johnson.

The end of bossism

The political turf of this year’s elections are a world away from 2019. That year the political establishment in Chicago was on a fast retreat when not appearing to be collapsing outright. Rahm Emanuel, dubbed Mayor 1%, shocked the political world when he dropped out of the race for a third term. Eventually there were fourteen candidates on the ballot to replace him. However, many of those vying for mayor were tainted by a wide-ranging corruption scandal involving Alderman Ed Burke.

In the runoff election, Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor and corporate lawyer, after a surprise showing in the first round, won 73 percent of the vote and all of the city’s fifty wards, an unprecedented victory. Her opponent was the long established liberal Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. The CTU invested heavily in Preckwinkle’s campaign, donating over $290,000, and didn’t win one ward.

From winning all fifty wards in 2019 to not making the runoff in 2023, Lightfoot is the latest proof that the much vaunted Chicago Democratic “machine” is defunct. While the Cook County Democratic Party remains the dominant political party in Chicago, there is no longer the Boss/Mayor, who commands an army of patronage employees and can stay in office with little to no effective opposition. Chicago’s most famous columnist, the late Mike Royko, in his book Boss captured the machine at its height of power under Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1960s.

His son Richard M. was the last Boss, but the machine was already on shaky ground for a while. Frank L. in a recent post in the Midwest Socialist captured the decline of the machine quite well.

It is difficult to point to an exact date of the collapse of the Chicago Machine, but the election of Harold Washington, the decades of austerity policies that hollowed out our public sector, and the Shakman Decrees that erected a legal barrier to official patronage, have all whittled the Chicago Machine down to nothing. A clever reinvention of patronage, and the inertia of the social and ethnic institutions that made up the machine at the hyper-local level has allowed some wards to continue to have a machine character to their local politics, but even here their influence has been in persistent decline.

While Daley II was able to claw back some of the ground lost to the machine through devious means, a series of political scandals and federal corruption trials tore it apart again. Michael Madigan, the four decade-long and disgraced former speaker of the Illinois Assembly, along with closest political allies, and former Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, all face upcoming federal corruption trials. Democratic Party machine politics of yesteryear are over for now.

Another Red Wave?

In 2019, the already advanced decline of the machine led to the biggest gains in city council seats by members of, or endorsed by, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Dubbed Red Chicago, six DSA members and several other well-known progressives won seats, which led to the formation of Socialist Caucus on the city council. Expectations were running high for significant change in the direction of the city after Rahm’s two terms in office, but reality set in fast as Lightfoot led a frontal assault on the CTU in 2019, followed by a major law-and-order crackdown following the George Floyd uprising in 2020.

During the past four years, Lightfoot’s popularity continued to plummet, while Chicago’s socialist aldermen have slowly but surely accommodated themselves to the political establishment. The Chicago Tribune, one of the most anti-communist and anti-union newspapers in the country chose to endorse several of them, including Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Jeanette Taylor, and Andre Vasquez. The Tribune, however, didn’t endorse for reelection Daniel LaSpata or Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who ran unopposed.

To her credit, the Tribune didn’t endorse Rossana Rodriguez-Sánchez, either. They conceded that

We like her energy, but we cannot agree with her contention that, as she tells us, “the requests that led to the 2019 (Chicago Teachers Union) strike were valid and necessary to ensure quality public education.”

All of the DSA candidates elected in 2019 were reelected but two of them with much smaller numbers of votes. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, for example, won reelection in Chicago’s 25th Ward with 1000 fewer votes than he won in 2019. Jeanette Tayor won reelection with 1200 fewer votes than in 2019. Daniel La Spata won reelection with a slim majority and roughly the same number of votes he won in 2019.  Rossana Rodriguez-Sánchez increased her total number of votes by 60, while Andre Vasquez—who in 2021 was censured by the Chicago DSA for voting for Mayor Lightfoot’s budget— saw his vote total increase by 2700 over 2019.

DSA was hoping to make further gains in the aldermanic elections this year. DSA endorsed and ran candidates across the city. Last December, Byron Sigcho-Lopez told Chicago magazine:

Maybe we can double the size of the caucus. Ultimately, with a greater majority of socialists and progressives, we can push forward the vision we have and the platforms we’ve seen [that] have popular support but have so far failed to gain political support.

That didn’t happen. There was no second Red Wave. DSA endorsed Mueze Bawany’s campaign in the 50th Ward against the incumbent Debbie Silverstein, but it imploded to the embarrassment of all involved, leading to the rare case of DSA rescinding its endorsement. Oscar Sanchez, an environmental activist on the Southeast side of Chicago, was endorsed by DSA and popular with many activists in Chicago, came in third in his race in the 10th Ward. Ambria Taylor came in fourth running in the newly created majority Asian American 11th Ward. One DSA endorsed candidate is heading into the runoff.

The declining number of votes for many of the DSA endorsed candidates reflected the anemic overall turnout—less than a third of eligible voters voted across the city, where older voters were voted early and in large numbers. The Northwest and Southwest sides, where large numbers of cops and firemen live, saw some of the largest numbers of early voters. Traditionally, they are conservative Democrats—pro-union but hostile to liberalism—with a visible number of Trump supporters. Vallas clearly benefited from this early surge.

The image is a mix of photo collage and graphic design, in greens and pinks. Two men wearing suits stand at debate podiums and each podium as the logo for the Chicago based channel ‘abc 7.’ The man standing on the left is Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson and has the icon of the Chicago Teachers Union behind him. The man standing on the right is Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas. Chat bubbles are in the image’s forefront, with various questions. From left to right, the first asks ‘Support militant unions?’. The second asks ‘Defund the police?’ The third asks ‘Demands of big capital?’ The fourth asks ‘Support the carceral state?’
How the Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and CTU backed Brandon Johnson respond to critical political issues brings into question who this electoral system works for. Photo Credit: Nevena Pilipović-Wengler.

Is the CTU the new “machine”?

With the general election barely over, the Chicago Tribune editorial board posed the question, “Is the Chicago Teachers Union the new machine?” Its panicky editorial extensively quoted the Vallas-supporting Alderman Brian Hopkins:

“They’re everywhere,” Hopkins referencing the CTU workers. “It’s a saturation ground game—even in precincts where Johnson was not expected to do well. If they have that many people to spare, that’s incredible. It’s something to see. This is the new machine.”

The Tribune is obsessed with the CTU. From the election of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in 2011, through the many strikes the union has undertaken against the city, and under three different leaders, the Tribune has grown increasingly obsessed with the CTU leadership, its role in city politics, and it larger political agenda beyond bread and butter issues and classroom. A little more than a year, the Tribune revealed its deep grudge with the CTU:

There’ve been too many instances of the union behaving more like a political party than an advocacy group for teachers. To find examples, simply rewind back to the union’s decision earlier this month to hit the city with an illegal walkout that robbed CPS children of five days of in-class instruction, and kept teachers from getting paid for four days.

That’s on top of the 14-day strike that CTU leadership inflicted on Chicago and its children in 2019. We haven’t forgotten some of the outlandish demands union leaders made during that strike. Calls for more affordable housing in the city. Rent control. Aid for the homeless. All very worthy issues, and each having nothing to do with collective bargaining on a teachers’ contract.

Acting like a “political party” appears to be the CTU’s crime. Of course, the CTU is not a political party, it is a trade union that has pushed the limits of traditional American trade unionism and that is something for which we should all be grateful. But, for the likes of the Tribune and other anti-union forces in Illinois and across the country, any role that unions play in politics is greeted with outright hostility or hypocrisy.

There are no outraged editorials about the Operating Engineers giving a million bucks first to Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, then another million to Paul Vallas, because they are giving to preferred candidates. There is no howling about the role of pro-business PACs pouring money into city council elections, like the Get Stuff Done PAC created by former Rahm Emanuel adviser Michael Ruemmler or the new dark money PAC Priorities Chicago created to support Paul Vallas.

Yet, has the CTU political strategy been all that different despite the howling of the Tribune? Under the leadership of CTU’s CORE leadership, its three presidents—the late Karen Lewis, Jesse Sharkey, and current President Stacy Davis-Gates—have focused on building up its presence inside the Democratic Party. The CTU even donated regularly to the disgraced Mike Madigan’s campaign fund. Jesse Sharkey went further and signed on to a public letter praising Madigan’s leadership as the best chance to “bolster worker power and protections.”

This year the CTU, the  Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of Teachers have poured $3.2 million into Brandon Johnson’s campaign. For those of us on the Left and active in the labor movement, the question posed by the mayoral runoff is whether this is the best political strategy for building a working-class political alternative.

“I’m not going to defund the police”

Paul Vallas came out of the February 28 general election as the frontrunner. It is his election to lose. He is certainly the preferred candidate of the city’s business class and conservative white voters, who are a minority even among Chicago’s white population. He has been dogged throughout his campaign as a barely concealed Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Lightfoot’s outing of Vallas as a Republican in a hilarious, early campaign video is a theme that Johnson continues to lash him with.

Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune, which endorsed Vallas for mayor, has run a series of articles about his social media posts with many likes for racist and other degrading posts that have done him no favors. He is very much the wobbly front runner at the moment. Brandon Johnson has a shot at winning the mayor’s office. The broad Left in Chicago has collapsed into the Johnson campaign led by the United Working Families Party (UWF) and other Democratic Party– aligned organizations.

Yet, Brandon Johnson has steadily moved closer to the center of political discussion since the general election in February, distancing himself from his trade union allies. Johnson made it clear that if elected, “I have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the city of Chicago, and once I’m mayor of the city of Chicago, I will no longer be a member of the Chicago Teachers Union,” during his first debate with Vallas. He further elaborated:

Look, it’s not just the CTU. As a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, there was an ally [SEIU 73] that supported me to become a Cook County Commissioner. They had a job action and I stood with Cook County government. An arbiter decided county government was right. I had to deliver, you know, that news to people who were friends of mine.

Crime is another major issue that on the surface appears to reveal a sharp difference. The mayoral runoff has national political implications for the Democratic Party, with crime being wielded to beat any candidates sympathetic to criminal justice reform. Johnson has been hit hard for his past support for defunding the police. “I don’t look at it as a slogan,” Johnson once said. “It’s an actual real political goal.” His “Tough but Smart” ads on fighting crime are a response to this. According to the Chicago Tribune:

Johnson also has broken with Vallas when it comes to two community activist-backed initiatives that have been introduced to the Chicago City Council by progressive aldermen during the current term. They are the “Treatment Not Trauma” legislation, which would repurpose vacant police salaries to send social workers and medical specialists to nonviolent mental health crises calls, and the “Peace Book” ordinance, which would devote 2% of Chicago police’s budget to violence prevention initiatives not connected to law enforcement and incarceration.

These are pretty paltry initiatives measured up to the scale of police violence and social crisis in Chicago. Johnson’s pledge to hire 200 detectives appears to overlook the long history of police torture by the detectives under the command of the notorious Jon Burge. Detectives are not the solution to police racism and violence. They are often the embodiment of police racism and violence.

In recent days, Johnson has had to further distance him from his past support for defunding the police. The Chicago Tribune reported: “Asked about his previous support for the ‘defund the police’ movement—including a declaration that it isn’t a slogan but a ‘real political goal’—Johnson said, ‘I said it was a political goal. I never said it was mine.’” And in a recent television forum Johnson backtracked on a statement he had made during 2020’s “civil unrest” during which he argued looters were “acting out of desperation.”

Johnson is a popular activist, well known to many people from his years of activism in the CTU. His election to the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2018 was seen as a major victory for the CTU’s political initiatives. Despite his political background and massive financial support from unions, however, Johnson has been forced to bow to the demands of big capital and the carceral state. With less than two weeks to go in the mayoral runoff, the race between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson is tightening. If the 2023 election demonstrates anything, it is that we need an alternative to the current system.

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Joe Allen View All

Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.