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In Chicago and Denver, Progressives Face New Challenges — and Opportunities

Chicago and Denver municipal races offer a foretaste of electoral challenges for the left in 2023.

Chicago mayoral candidate and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks during a press conference outside of City Hall on January 24, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois.

For most of the media establishment, the year may as well already be 2024. Intrigue among the Republican Party’s emerging field of presidential contenders, and ongoing mixed signals from the Joe Biden camp about his intentions next year dominate political coverage. But, while this may be an “off” year for national politics, 2023 is rife with electoral opportunities for progressive candidates seeking local and state offices across the country. Indeed, a multitude of left-leaning candidates are running in races around the country.

In Chicago’s mayoral race, progressive former public school teacher Brandon Johnson is now set to face off with former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, a nominally Democratic candidate favored by Chicago’s police union and economic elite. Vallas, who has long pushed a privatization agenda, said in 2009 that he was “more of a Republican than Democrat.”

Vallas and Johnson are headed for a runoff after incumbent Lori Lightfoot, whom opponents described as “a law-and-order candidate trying to run as a progressive,” failed to even make the runoff, finishing third among the top four contenders. Lightfoot’s popularity cratered during her first term, with conservatives attacking her over Chicago’s persistently high gun violence, while many on the left criticized her for unleashing tear gas-wielding police on kettled protesters and for her confrontation with the Chicago Teachers Union, in which Lightfoot insisted on a return to in-person teaching during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That Johnson was among the top two finishers, with about 20 percent of the total vote, was a bit of a surprise; he had trailed in polling up to just a few weeks before the election. Some liberals were anxious that he would siphon votes away from Jesús “Chuy” García, although García, a prominent member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus during his time as a U.S. Representative, had fallen out of favor with many progressives for aligning himself with various white establishment positions (such as full funding for the Chicago Police Department). García ended up finishing in fourth, with just 13.7 percent of the vote.

The runoff election between Vallas and Johnson, scheduled for April 4, sets up a test for progressives in Chicago. Johnson, who already had the support of left-leaning organizations like the Working Families Party and Sunrise, should now enjoy the full backing of the progressive establishment. The Chicago Teachers Union announced its strong endorsement of Johnson shortly after vote totals were in. Johnson’s support for investing in communities and experience as a public school teacher and union organizer — in contrast with Vallas’s long history of privatizing and closing schools in Chicago and beyond — have gained national attention.

Whether this will be enough to propel Johnson to the mayoralty remains to be seen. Vallas finished well ahead of Johnson in the multicandidate race, with a 13-point lead, though progressives point out that many voters who initially chose Garcia may now move toward Johnson. Progressives have also struggled to win elections where crime rates have dominated the discourse; indeed, Vallas has leaned hard on themes of “public safety” throughout the race. (Progressives, meanwhile, have been heartened by Johnson’s commitment to build safety by investing in youth, jobs, trauma response, housing and mental health care.) A win by Johnson would mark progress in what has been, in recent history, difficult policy terrain for progressives to navigate. If Vallas wins, it will show the enduring power of fearmongering about crime rates as a campaign tactic.

Farther down the ballot, leftist candidates ran in a substantial number of races for Chicago’s city council. In 2019, the political establishment in Chicago was shocked when a slate of self-identified socialist candidates won races across the city. This year, socialist incumbents Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Jeanette Taylor all held on to their seats, while councilmember Daniel La Spata appears headed to a runoff election where he’ll be favored. But, elsewhere, insurgents running as democratic socialists struggled in multicandidate races, failing to finish in the top two in wards across the city. A bright spot for socialists was in the 46th Ward, where Angela Clay finished first in voting and will be favored heading into the runoff election.

Leftist candidates ran in a substantial number of races for Chicago’s city council.

This mixed bag of results highlights several dynamics emerging as progressives and leftists continue to engage more intentionally with the electoral process at the local and national levels. First, many city council races saw numerous self-styled progressives running for office within an individual district. For example, in Chicago’s 10th ward, candidate Oscar Sanchez was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), while Ana Guajardo, an advocate for immigrant workers’ rights, was endorsed by Chuy García and a slew of local labor organizations. This general leftward tilt is certainly good for the left in the aggregate, but on a race-by-race basis it has occasionally backfired and split the progressive vote, most prominently in the case of New York’s 10th Congressional District last year. Races like these speak to the need for progressive support organizations and constituencies to work more to build broad, coalitional support earlier in contested races.

In recent national elections, progressives have sometimes struggled to make inroads beyond districts where their constituents are most numerous. In wards held by socialist candidates like Rodriguez-Sanchez and Ramirez-Rosa, for example, Bernie Sanders beat Joe Biden by a nearly 2 to 1 ratio in most precincts in the 2020 Illinois Democratic Primary. In Ward 48, meanwhile, where a DSA-backed candidate failed to crack the top two, Biden and Sanders had a nearly identical vote split in 2020.

Across the country, for progressives to truly become a dominant force on the city and state level, they will have to learn how to consistently expand their reach and electability in precincts and neighborhoods beyond those that they are already winning.

Having witnessed the sluggish start for progressive insurgents in Chicago, activists in Denver will try to turn that trend around early next month. There, a slate of six candidates aims to seize a significant chunk of the city council seats, radically shifting the power center to the left in the U.S.’s 19th largest city.

In Denver, a slate of six candidates aims to seize a significant chunk of the city council seats, radically shifting the power center to the left.

The slate, which is endorsed by the Working Families Party, Denver DSA, and a number of labor locals, features one incumbent and five challengers. The incumbent, Candi CdeBaca, has championed the construction of affordable housing in Denver during her first term, and earned the ire of local developers in the process. Her reelection race, projected to be the most expensive in the city, pits her against two more development-friendly candidates who have both taken money from corporate interests in the city. Both of CdeBaca’s challengers also support Denver’s controversial urban camping ban, a decade-long, largely unsuccessful effort to curtail encampments of unhoused people.

Many of these races will be contested on familiar terrain for progressives — Denver has recently been named the fifth least affordable metropolitan area in the U.S., and homelessness has increased nearly 50 percent over the last five years. CdeBaca has been calling for more aggressive housing affordability legislation while the city’s housing developers are actively backing her opponents. If CdeBaca, and the slate of insurgents allied with her, are able to win their elections in April, it will be because they succeeded in mobilizing enough renters and working-class Denverites to overcome the deluge of developer dollars.

As 2023 continues, the progressive movement is likely to learn more lessons about the strength and reach of its electoral efforts, along with what challenges it still faces in advancing progressive policy via the ballot box. If it can incorporate these lessons into its tactical approach to contesting elections, the electoral left will be better prepared for what could be a very consequential series of races in 2024.

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