Running against the machine

November 6, 2014

Tim Meegan is a candidate for Chicago City Council in the city's 33rd Ward. A teacher for 10 years at Roosevelt High School in the city's Albany Park neighborhood and a fighter for education justice, Meegan is running as a progressive independent in a city that's generally run by a Democratic machine under the tight control of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In a textbook example from last spring, when longtime 33rd Ward Alderman Dick Mell retired, Emanuel appointed Mell's daughter, Deb Mell, to take his place. Meegan is challenging Mell to give ordinary Chicagoans of his ward a choice in the upcoming elections.

Meegan spoke with Tyler James about his grassroots campaign and the importance for working people of having an alternative to the Democrats on the ballot.

WHEN DID you decide to run for alderman in the 33rd Ward? What inspired you to run in the first place?

I BECAME politically active around 2010. That's when Rahm Emanuel got elected as mayor. That's when we had a huge round of budget cuts and layoffs in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). We lost about 17 teachers at my school, Roosevelt High, at the end of that year. And that was also the year that Karen Lewis and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) got elected in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

I became politically active then. I went to political protests and demonstrations in the run-up to the CTU strike. In May of 2012, I was elected union delegate for Roosevelt. I was one of the two delegates during the strike, and that was definitely a life-changing event for me.

Later, after the strike, in the summer of 2013, I became a CTU organizing intern, and I learned a lot about how to organize people. I helped organize three successful community meetings and rallies about budget cuts, [tax-increment financing] and school closings. This experience was invaluable.

Tim Meegan
Tim Meegan (Meegan 4 Ward 33)

But it was really after the strike, especially when the school closings went through, that it became clear that we did everything possible, on our end, to prevent them. We protested, we wrote letters and editorials, we signed petitions. We did everything you could imagine. We even got arrested at some of the demonstrations. But they went through anyway. [The closings] were overwhelming unpopular and based on lies--and anyone who was paying attention could tell that.

So it became very clear to me that the politicians in City Hall weren't listening to their constituents. And at this point, it became very apparent to me as an activist--it seemed like an obvious next move--to seek political office. Because if we can't pressure our politicians to listen us, then they need to be replaced. That's why I decided to run.

CAN YOU talk a little bit about how your campaign is organized? I know that many on the left are inspired by what you're doing and are eager to build independent progressive campaigns of their own elsewhere. How is the campaign run on a day-to-day basis?

WE'RE COMPLETELY grassroots, and we have basically no formal political experience. We're 100 percent volunteer-based. We don't accept money from corporations. We get no contributions except for individual donations. It took us a long time to get to the point where we now have an office and other campaign materials.

We have a large number of volunteers. There's about six or eight core people that have various roles, and we have about 10 or 12 precinct captains. Since August 26, we've been holding mass canvassing events every Saturday to collect the needed signatures for us to get on the ballot. Every Monday, we have campaign meetings where we assess how things are going, talk politics, prioritize what needs to be done and discuss volunteer recruitment and outreach.

We have an array of volunteers that go around knocking on doors, canvassing the neighborhood on a regular basis. In fact, I do that myself, Tuesday through Thursday. As I said, every Saturday, we have a "mass canvassing" event where we encourage as many of our volunteers to come out as possible to knock on doors, collect signatures and tell people in the ward about the campaign. So far, it's going really well, and the reception has been very positive.

WOULD YOU mind talking a little about your platform?

THE MAIN elements of the platform are no more privatization--and that applies not only to schools, but to all city services and assets. We are also for economic justice. That includes not only a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but also affordable housing, fully funded quality neighborhood public schools, and so on.

We don't want more expansion of charter schools, we don't want to see any more of our neighborhood schools closed. We want them to be fully staffed and fully resourced. We also want fully funded pensions for teachers and all city workers. And we want to tax rich people to make of all this happen. We're not in favor of adding an additional tax burden on the working classes. Instead, we're arguing that the 1 Percent should pay their fair share.

No to privatization. Fully funded neighborhood schools. Economic justice. Those are the three main points that we're emphasizing.

We're also running an independent campaign. Municipal elections in Chicago are non-partisan--that is, you don't have to declare any party affiliation. But we have gone out of our way to be very specific and deliberate about being independent. We're not Democrats. We're not Republicans.

COULD YOU talk more about why you think it's important to run a progressive campaign that is independent from the Democratic Party? Why is it so important, in your view, to be explicit about breaking from the Democrats and mounting an independent challenge to them from the left?

BECAUSE, INEVITABLY, you get roped back into doing what the wealthy people that run the party want you to do.

Take Dennis Kucinich, for example. [During the presidential primaries], he says all of the right things and this excites a lot of people on the left. But when he loses--and he always does--we always wind up hearing the same thing: "Okay, now bring all of your people and money and come support the mainstream Democrat in the election." And the result is that the left never gets a fair shake. We can't keep letting this happen.

Also, over time, there's less and less difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. In fact, in Chicago--and nationally--the Democrats are doing things that we would traditionally associate with the Republicans--for example, handing out huge corporate tax breaks, and dismantling and weakening unions.

The Democrats are not really standing for working-class interests. Basically, both parties are parties of the super wealthy and nobody is looking out for working-class people. So that leaves a political vacuum. There's not really any political party that represents the working class. There needs to be an alternative. What exactly does that alternative looks like? I don't know. But what we're trying to do is show the city of Chicago that an independent campaign can win against a powerful, entrenched Democratic incumbent.

Take my Democratic opponent, Deb Mell, for example. Mell is one of the biggest names in Chicago and state politics. Dick Mell, Deb's father, was in charge of the ward for decades beginning in 1975. He openly brags about his patronage operations as if there was nothing unethical about anything that he has done.

Now we see a situation where the guy steps down and makes a backroom deal to place his daughter in his former seat. And then as Democratic Committeeman, he also got to appoint his daughter's replacement in the State House. So for a year there, we in the 33rd Ward were living with not one, but two unelected "representatives." But how could they be "representative" if they weren't ever elected? It's corrupt. And I think people are tired of political dynasties. They're tired of the same old Democratic Party. We can't continue with a two-party political system dominated by the wealthy. It's time for a change.

YOU ARGUE against cutting back on public services, which is what the Democratic Machine in Chicago has done time and time again. You also argue against increasing the tax burden on working-class people. Instead, you say, we should be seeking new sources of revenue by taxing the rich. Concretely, in Chicago, what might this look like?

WELL, FIRST of all we want to close tax loopholes for the wealthy. We also want to abolish Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. Here's how they work. When you create a TIF, basically you cap property tax revenues flowing into schools and public services where they are at that moment. Then, when property values increase--and additional tax revenue comes in--all that extra cash goes directly into the TIF fund.

In theory, that money is supposed to be spent on economic development in "blighted areas," but it always seems to find its way down to the Loop [downtown in the financial district]. It's basically a slush fund for the mayor. He can use the money however he likes since it doesn't show up on the official budget.

One problem is that it drains tons of money away from parks, libraries, schools and other city services. TIFs siphon more than $250 million a year away from Chicago Public Schools, for example. But there's also another problem--a political problem--with TIFs. Because these funds are used at the mayor's discretion, he can reward alderman who are compliant with extra money and he can punish those who are not by denying them needed funds for their ward.

As a result, we have a rubber-stamp City Council. What the mayor says goes. This has got to stop. There's no point in having a City Council at all if it's just going to rubber-stamp whatever the mayor wants.

In addition to these measures, we also support a financial transaction tax. That would be a tax of one or two dollars per transaction on high-volume traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. There are millions of dollars in transactions going on there every day. The estimate is that we could earn $9-12 billion dollars a year [if this were implemented]. And these people would still earn oodles--boatloads--of money, even with a tax like that.

The criticism of this measure has been, "Well, these guys will go somewhere else, they'll move out of state." But they can't, for two reasons. First, they need all of the infrastructure that already exists in Chicago in the Loop. Second, they benefit greatly from agglomeration downtown. There are tons of amenities, financial institutions and other businessmen down in the Loop and they aren't likely to just pick up and leave because of a $1 tax.

AND IT'S not as if anyone in City Hall has ever called their bluff on this.

EXACTLY. THEY get away with it every time. Look at Caterpillar. They say: "You'd better give us this tax break or else we're moving." And then we find that they paid zero taxes and posted record profits the next year. That's a bad deal for ordinary taxpayers.

Besides a financial transaction tax, however, we're also in favor of a graduated income tax at the state level. Obviously, we'd have no direct control over that, but I'd be willing to argue for it publicly and organize citizens to fight for it. Illinois is one of only seven states that doesn't have a graduated income tax. It's ridiculous.

If we implemented the graduated income tax, just like the state of Iowa has, 50 percent of the residents of our state would actually be paying less in income taxes than they are now. So, for most people it would actually reduce their tax burden. And for the wealthy it would require that they pay more. There's lots of money in this state, but we're not getting it for the critical services that we need.

YOU ALREADY talked about how being in the orbit of the Democratic Party puts a lot of pressure on people to fall into line and do the bidding of the wealthy higher ups that run the party. If elected, however, in what ways would you resist these pressures and stay true to spirit of the independent left-wing campaign that you're running now?

COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION and transparency are important. One of the ways I would stay accountable would be by creating a democratically elected 33rd Ward advisory council, or forum, or something of that nature. Basically we want a council that meets monthly, that is elected by the people who live in the ward, where the alderman is required to attend and communicate directly with folks in the neighborhood about what's happening in City Hall and in the ward. It would also be a place where citizens could voice their concerns, where votes would be held on the issues of the day. It would then be my job to take bring these concerns to City Hall.

To pressure aldermen into complying with the mayor, the Machine often threatens to make it very difficult (financially) for independent-minded incumbents to get re-elected. They threaten to withhold contributions to their re-election campaign. But I'm not going to get elected (or re-elected) by getting funds from the Machine. So, this pressure--the pressure to get re-elected--would actually be an important force in keeping me accountable to my constituents. In contrast to well-funded Machine candidates, I would have to do a really good job actually serving my constituents in order to get re-elected to my position. I won't have money from Rahm's super PAC. I won't have real estate or construction companies backing me financially.

So, by running a grassroots campaign I am rejecting the pay-to-play politics that are business as usual in City Hall. I don't want to do business that way. I can only be re-elected by earning the loyalty and respect of the people in my ward. That's an important part of why I'll be accountable.

Another point is that, as an activist, I have a lot of experience standing up to the powers that be. I was part of an organized campaign by teachers, students and teachers at Roosevelt to replace our principle--a campaign which we won. He was doing some things that were unethical, that weren't in the best interests of students. And we got rid of him. And we did it transparently and publicly through the local school council, by organizing parents, students and teachers. No matter who the mayor is, I want to continue to challenge the powers to fight for the interests of working people.

IF ELECTED, what kind of a relationship would you want to build with social movements in the city and with the labor movement in particular? How would you use your office to work with these movements as well as with other progressive activists in the city?

AS A union delegate--during the strike and after--it was critical to build a school where teachers had voice, where decisions were made democratically and transparently. In order to win those fights, you have to convince your members. And we succeeded in doing that. I want to do things the same way [as alderman]. I'm interested in building coalitions with other progressive city officials and building partnerships with unions and activist groups.

The office of alderman can also be used as a bully pulpit. The office can raise the level of activism and make sure that the concerns of activists and movements are being heard by the media and city government. Like, for instance, I'm fond of saying that as alderman they can't pull me away from the microphone after two minutes at a Board of Education meeting. Let them try! [What kind of a story would it be if the alderman was arrested at the Board of Education meeting and dragged out by security?

So, it's a means of elevating the level of political discourse in the city. That's good for everybody.

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