People power versus the Chicago machine

December 18, 2018

Glenn Allen gives a close-up look at the grassroots campaign for Rossana Rodríguez, an independent socialist candidate in Chicago’s 33rd Ward.

ROSSANA RODRÍGUEZ is an educator and activist campaigning for a seat on the Chicago City Council from the 33rd Ward in the February elections.

The ward is a largely working-class immigrant neighborhood under threat from real estate developers, and her grassroots campaign promises to put control back in the hands of the many, instead of the few.

One of three candidates endorsed by the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Rodríguez is running on a social justice platform — including fully funded public schools, rent control, making Chicago a real sanctuary city and abolishing the police gang database.

She’s running as an independent, which isn’t an easy thing to do in Chicago, where the Democratic Party machine dominates electoral politics and throws up many obstacles, such requiring a high number of signatures in order to even qualify to be on the ballot.

Supporters rally with Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez (front right) in Chicago
Supporters rally with Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez (front right) in Chicago (Rossana for 33rd Ward Alderman | Facebook)

Rossana’s campaign is an extension of high school teacher Tim Meegan’s 33rd Ward aldermanic campaign in 2015. Tim was one of several teachers who ran for City Council after being inspired by the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike.

His campaign was one of the most successful, coming within a handful of votes of forcing a runoff against Democratic incumbent Deb Mell. She only defeated his challenge with her greater access to money and lawyers.

Deb Mell is the daughter of Richard Mell, who was 33rd Ward alderman from 1975 to 2013 and has a long history as a major power broker in Chicago and Illinois. He is probably best-known outside of Illinois as a major backer and father-in-law of former Gov. Rob Blagojevich, who is now serving 14 years in a federal prison for corruption.

Mell is also notable for being one of the aldermen who sided with the racist city machine against Black Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s. In typical Chicago fashion, he finally resigned prior to the 2015 election so then-Mayor Richard M. Daley could appoint Mell’s daughter Deborah as his replacement.

After Meegan’s run for alderman, his campaign stayed together, reconstituting itself as the 33rd Ward Working Family independent political organization (IPO). Over the last four years, this organization has led important struggles in the neighborhood against charter schools and gentrification, and for immigrant rights.

Just as importantly, the organization held together a group of experienced left-wing socialists and activists.

Rossana was chosen by the IPO as their candidate, not the other way around. A native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Chicago for many years, she is a lifelong political activist and a founding member of the 33rd Ward IPO, and she stands out as part of the left wing of electoral politics in Chicago.

For more information, check out these articles in the Chicago Reader and In These Times.

I ATTENDED several large canvassing events for Rossana. The most exciting and impressive one was the launch event for her campaign in September.

Approximately 75 volunteers showed up. Her campaign made this event an all-out push for the first day of gathering signatures to get her on the February ballot, and the number of supporters who turned out was impressive — like what you would expect for a well-run mayoral or state-level race.

Before we began, there was a chance to talk to the dozens of other volunteers. Some were members of DSA; some were experienced activists from the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative or other groups; and others were attending a political event for the first time.

The atmosphere was exciting and inspiring. After several short speeches and a series of chants with the whole group, we were broken up into smaller groups for canvassing.

In Chicago, the first stage of the election campaign is gathering signatures of registered voters in the ward to get on the ballot. A candidate needs about 450 signatures to get on the ballot in the 33rd Ward, but after a candidate submits their signatures to the Board of Elections, they are gone over with a fine-toothed comb by machine officials. Typically, many are thrown out. This means that you need to get quite a few extra.

Rossana’s supporters succeeded in collecting more than 3,000 signatures, and she will be officially on the ballot in February.

While most volunteers went door-to-door, I was posted at a train stop with another volunteer. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, we collected 16 signatures. People who stopped were overwhelmingly supportive of Rosanna’s platform and happy to sign. We had one Republican who paused and then refused.

I have to admit that it was difficult to get into conversations at a train station, but I was able to have long conversations with my canvassing partner.

After the canvassing, everyone met up at a local bar to get our signatures notarized, as well as eat and relax. Everyone was very excited about the day. We collected almost 500 signatures, which was a very good start.

TWO MONTHS later, I took part in another canvassing event of about 50 people. At this point, the Chicago DSA chapter had endorsed Rossana, and many of its members turned out for the event. It was also the day the campaign office opened. Once again, everyone was very excited to be canvassing for a socialist candidate.

My experience this time was pretty representative. I was given a map and a list of addresses of registered voters. I went door-to-door with my partner, knocking and asking for support and a signature to get Rossana on the ballot. Out of the people we talked to, most were overwhelmingly supportive.

I pitched support for Rossana by explaining that she was against gentrification, for keeping people in the neighborhood, ending deportations and fully funding our schools. Almost everyone was supportive of that. A few people were very excited and wanted to have longer conversations.

I also had lots of time to talk to my partner. He was a member of the DSA who was working for Rossana because she has DSA’s endorsement. This was also the first political event he had gone to in Chicago, although he worked for a liberal nonprofit. We talked about the Democrats, the 2016 election, Chicago politics and much more.

Rosanna has a good chance of winning this election, despite going up against the Democratic machine and its favored candidate in the ward. She has endorsements from the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana, as well as Chicago DSA and the Chicago ISO.

She has a volunteer network that dwarves Deb Mell’s. Mell is a conservative Democratic politician who makes a big deal about “We Call Police” signs. She is a dependable ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Her main base of support is the older, white voters who supported her father. Although these voters make up a segment of the people who live in the neighborhood, the 33rd Ward has become one of the most diverse areas of the city, with large Latino, Arab and Asian populations. Plus, by all accounts, Mell is not a very good alderman and neglects simple good governance issues, like potholes and garbage cans.

I think campaigns like Rossana’s — independent of the Democrats, mobilizing large numbers of new activists, bringing together democratic socialists with other left activists — are going to be more and more common.

Further Reading

From the archives