Left inside the Chicago machine?

January 24, 2018

brian bean and Tyler Zimmer write from Chicago about the lessons for the left after a powerful liberal Democrat passed on his seat in Congress to a one-time rival.

CHICAGO HAS been governed for generations under a one-party regime controlled by the Democrats. Though occasionally shaken by infighting, this regime has been remarkably durable and coherent--and shows no signs of losing its grip on power or disintegrating from within any time soon.

Case in point: Longtime U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who recently announced (to some surprise) that he would not be seeking re-election this year, anointed Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" García to be his successor--and after only a few weeks of uncertainty, the one rival most likely to upset a smooth succession, Chicago City Council member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, dropped out and endorsed the heir apparent.

García's all-but-certain assumption of the seat in Congress that Gutiérrez has occupied for a quarter century brings together some awkward bedfellows--the two have clashed in the past, including during García's underdog campaign for mayor against Rahm Emanuel in 2015.

But it also highlights some important lessons for the left: about the lack of democracy in the Democratic Party, including among the some of the best-known figures of its liberal wing--and the contradiction of seeking to advance the cause of social justice from within the party, as Ramirez-Rosa, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has hoped to do.

Left to right: Luis Gutiérrez, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa
Left to right: Luis Gutiérrez, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

GARCÍA IS best-known for his mayoral campaign that forced the hugely unpopular incumbent Emanuel into an unexpected run-off. But in that election, Gutiérrez backed Emanuel and snubbed García.

The two also diverged during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries: García supported the left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders, while Gutiérrez was a stalwart Hillary Clinton backer and attacked Sanders viciously during the campaign.

Yet now, the two are appearing together at press conferences and showering one another with praise and political support.

And that's not all. For Emanuel, who's up for re-election again next year, García was the most substantial threat to winning a third term as mayor. Now that García is all but assured to become a member of Congress, the way is clear for "Mayor 1 Percent" to keep his tight grip on power.

Why Gutiérrez chose not to seek re-election is unclear. He maintains he did so to focus on helping the people of Puerto Rico (where his parents were born) recover from the devastation of last year's hurricanes. But this raises questions and speculation about how he intends to do so.

For his part, Emanuel has offered nothing but praise for his retiring former House colleague and longstanding campaign supporter: "I have been proud to call [Gutiérrez] a dear friend and trusted colleague, and stand with Chicagoans and Americans everywhere in expressing my appreciation for his service and wishing him well in his next chapter."

So what exactly is going on here?

GUTIÉRREZ IS known as one of the more liberal Democrats in Congress and a prominent defender of immigrants--he has been praised for his criticism of Trump's racism.

But Gutiérrez has also been prepared to make the same concessions as mainstream Democrats. During last weekend's government shutdown, for example, he said he would be willing to support funding for Trump's border wall in exchange for legal protections of DREAMers. The capitulation of the Democrats this week showed once again how such concessions play into the hands of the anti-immigrant right.

Gutiérrez's history is more mixed than his reputation might suggest. For example, in recent statements, both García and Gutiérrez touted their shared connection to Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black mayor, as evidence of their progressive credentials.

Yet after Washington's death, Gutiérrez backed the mayoral campaign of Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor and machine boss, whose victory represented the return to power of the racist white City Council bloc that opposed Washington.

In return for backing Daley, Gutiérrez got the endorsement of the Daley machine for his campaign for Congress. Thus, his support for Emanuel is completely in character.

What about García? A former community organizer who has often decried economic inequality, voiced support for an elected school board and enjoyed union backing, García is widely seen in Chicago as a prominent progressive. As always, however, it's crucial to examine not simply what Democratic politicians say, but what they do with power when they have it.

As a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners since 2011, García has proposed increased cuts to public services, talked tough about the need to rein in public-sector unions, backed regressive tax increases that have harmed poor and working people in Chicago, and advocated for hiring a whopping 1,000 new police officers.

This last point is especially troubling, given the long and heinous history of the Chicago Police Department in committing violence and brutality against poor communities of color, which García claims to represent. Thus, rather than challenging examples of police repression like the infamous "black site" at Homan Square, García actively courted the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police during his run for mayor.

GARCÍA CLAIMS to stand with Bernie Sanders' call for a "political revolution against the billionaire class." But during his own campaign for mayor, he was at pains to avoid a commitment to increasing taxes on corporations or the wealthy--even while, as Cook County Board commissioner, he helped preside over the most regressive tax systems in the country. When pressed, García has been more likely to praise the 1 Percent, not criticize it.

García's mayoral campaign owed its very existence to the support of the Chicago Teachers Union and its president, Karen Lewis. Yet he didn't call for reopening the 50 schools closed by Rahm Emanuel in spring 2013, nor for drastically expanding the ranks of public educators by hiring more teachers.

It's a telling statement that García's campaign for mayor was run by the same Democratic political operatives who masterminded the strategy of channeling the energy of the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising against Republican Gov. Scott Walker into a recall election in which Walker triumphed.

The problem here isn't so much García as an individual, but the Democratic Party to which he is a committed and plays a leading role locally.

As its record makes clear, the Democratic Party doesn't use its power to challenge austerity. It promotes neoliberalism with--usually--a kinder, gentler message. Whatever his reputation, García is another fixture of the entrenched Democratic apparatus that has governed Chicago in the same fashion for generations.

You don't advance within an organization that governs in this way, as García has done over the last 30 years, without swimming with the tide when the occasion demands.

The records of García and Gutiérrez--not to mention the coming together of two former rivals who are willing to work together to secure power and influence--should give pause to anyone who believes the aims and ideas of social justice can be advanced from within the Democratic Party.

And to say that this is the best the left can reasonably hope for is false. The evidence consistently shows that the electorate is far to the left of the two main parties in U.S. politics--and that millions of people strongly desire an independent left-wing alternative.

CARLOS RAMIREZ-ROSA's role in this illuminating story holds similar lessons for the left.

As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ramirez-Rosa is unique among elected officials in Chicago. He is an open socialist who has taken bold, principled stands on many issues. Recently, for example, he was lone "no" vote on the City Council in opposition to Rahm Emanuel's proposal to build a $95 million cop school.

Ramirez-Rosa has already paid a price for some of his principled left-wing stands. A few months ago, Democrat Daniel Biss unceremoniously dropped Ramirez-Rosa as his running mate in the upcoming election for Illinois governor due to his refusal to renege on his commitment to Palestinian liberation and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

When Gutiérrez announced he was retiring from Congress, Ramirez-Rosa--who worked in Gutiérrez's office before running for alderman--declared that he would run for the seat.

This, however, meant running against García, who would get an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, even though Ramirez-Rosa was a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic convention.

Why did Ramirez-Rosa initially set out to challenge García? The DSA member has made it clear that he wants to use the offices to which he is elected to fight for popular left-wing measures, such as Medicare-for-all, opposition to deportations, police accountability, affordable housing and others. As a City Council member, he has been resolutely opposed to privatization, union busting, racism and austerity.

But only a few months after entering the race for the Democratic nomination, Ramirez-Rosa bowed out of the race and endorsed his "good friend and long-time progressive champion, Jesus Chuy García."

Adding that "our greatest work is accomplished when we are unified," Rosa implied that he was leaving the race so as not to divide the "progressive movement." This illustrates the immense pressure for those within the Democratic Party to not rock the boat--even someone who has proved his independence from Emanuel's City Hall machine.

To be clear, Ramirez-Rosa had serious reasons--considerations about logistics, feasibility, the odds of winning, etc.--for dropping out of the race for a seat in Congress. But we don't agree that our movements are best served when the left forgoes independent political action and supports Democratic candidates for the sake of "unity."

As always, whenever calls for "unity" are made, the question is: unity to what end?

Ramirez-Rosa implies that unity behind a leading Democrat like García will help the "progressive movement" get closer to winning popular reforms that benefit workers and the oppressed.

But García's record in office and during his 2015 mayoral campaign shows that he is fully prepared to renounce even rhetorical support for social justice goals while carrying out the austerity agenda of the Democratic Party as an institution.

For too long, many on the left have accepted, with criticisms or without, whatever the Democrats have put forward, whether in the form of a Rahm Emanuel or a Chuy García, as the "realistic" option. The result is that no steps are taken to build an independent alternative--while the Democrats impose a pro-corporate, anti-worker agenda with the gloss of liberal and left support.

We deserve much better. If we wait and hope for the Democratic Party to be transformed from within and come to our rescue, we'll be waiting forever. The left needs to rely on the power of working people in struggle to challenge injustice--and commit to building an independent alternative to the two parties of capital.

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