It’s Possible to Run for Office as an Unapologetic Socialist and Win

Despite being an eternal disappointment to the majority of people, the capitalist-allied political establishment is able to remain in power in part by maintaining the illusion that politics is for experts, people with Rolodexes full of professional contacts, people who went to elite schools. Since the myth of meritocracy maintains that people get ahead professionally because they’re smarter or better than others, the people who are in charge (both as candidates and behind the scenes) are presumed deserving of their pedestal and the proof of their deservingness is precisely that they’re in charge. It’s a dizzying tautology.

The truth is that the people who engage in politics professionally are not inherently smarter than everybody else. (In fact, through engaging with the process up close, we’ve learned that many of them are actually less smart.) And when they turn their backs on principles of equality and justice, they demonstrate that they don’t deserve to be in the drivers’ seat. They do have some specialized knowledge, but ordinary people can develop that knowledge themselves through collective trial and error. If we don’t muster the courage to challenge the establishment, they’ll run the show forever. If we want politics to change, it’s time to roll up our sleeves.

The 2019 socialist victories in Chicago are the clearest indication that a big, bold electoral strategy can actually win. Six members of the Democratic Socialists of America were elected to the Chicago city council in April 2019: Carlos Ramirez- Rosa, Rossana Rodriguez, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Jeanette Taylor, Andre Vasquez, and Daniel La Spata. This means that 12 percent of the fifty-member council are DSA members.

When Chicago DSA (CDSA) began thinking about how it would approach the 2019 election cycle, many members counseled a conservative approach. Only one DSA member, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, was running for reelection. All other socialists running for city council would have to topple incumbents, several of whom had held office for decades or were part of long-standing local political dynasties. Many in the chapter argued to endorse one or two campaigns and throw everything behind winning them.

Ultimately, CDSA opted for audacity rather than timidity. That audacity paid off. “It turns out that as we endorsed more candidates, our capacity grew rather than shrank,” Steve Weishampel, at the time the CDSA’s electoral working group co-chair, wrote after the elections.

The successful campaigns shared a few key characteristics. The candidates had a core message in common: fight the wealthy and their political lackeys pushing gentrification and austerity in Chicago. The six races spanned much of Chicago and a wide range of neighborhood-specific issues, but all the candidates signed onto a broad, left platform: housing for all, sanctuary for all, education for all, and taxing the rich. These demands reflected political issues and movement demands in Chicago, but are also burning issues throughout the country.

And they were united in a political approach that wasn’t afraid to name the class enemy in the city, especially the real estate developers that are rapidly gentrifying working-class neighborhoods and forcing working people out of Chicago.

Ramirez-Rosa, for example, made his race a referendum on affordable housing and gentrification, a pressing issue in his ward, where rents are rapidly rising. He painted real estate developers as the enemy of the ward’s working class. The real estate developers responded by painting him as the enemy. The ward’s largest landlord, Mark Fishman, spent at least $100,000 on Ramirez-Rosa’s opponent in an effort to unseat him; other developers, big landlords, and property managers spent an additional $100,000. Voters were flooded with attack mailers DSA canvassers often saw them stacked high on porches and in apartment building vestibules leveling wild accusations that Ramirez-Rosa was a deadbeat city council member and that he didn’t actually care about affordable housing in the ward. They didn’t work.

“In corporate politics the narrative is you can screw over the voters, you can screw the working class, and as long as you have the money to get on TV and slam your opponents in the mail boxes, you can win,” Ramirez-Rosa said after the election. “We turned that logic upside down not just in my ward, but in wards across Chicago, where we saw corporate Democrats spending big and losing. At the end of the day, if you reach the voters door to door with a compelling message and a political vision that speaks to their needs, they’re going to go with you every time.”

Ramirez-Rosa’s campaign didn’t shy away from attacking the ward’s most powerful capitalist. That class-struggle approach paid off: he won reelection by nearly 20 percent over his real estate–friendly opponent.

Ramirez-Rosa’s win and the other five victories didn’t come in a vacuum. All six of the candidates are DSA members, but they are also aligned with unions, community groups, political organizations, and other groups. Those groups both paved the way for these victories and played key roles during the campaign. And DSA showed them that socialists are key allies in these fights.

All of the candidates were endorsed by United Working Families (UWF), the political organization formed by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Healthcare Illinois- Indiana along with a number of community groups, which other unions and community organizations have joined in recent years. It also devoted significant resources to many of the campaigns. Most unions and progressive groups shy away from the “socialist” label. UWF didn’t.

In addition to UWF’s support, Rodriguez had the backing of a neighborhood group, 33rd Ward Working Families, that had run teacher and socialist Tim Meegan for the office in 2015. Since then, the group has organized around affordable housing and immigrants’ rights in a working-class immigrant neighborhood, Albany Park so effectively that the losing incumbent, Deb Mell, complained that 33rd Ward Working Families “never stopped running over the last four years.” Mell, a hapless hack whose father gave her the city council seat in the middle of his term in 2013 after holding it himself for nearly four decades, apparently thought candidates who organize in their communities are cheating. After her victory the Chicago Sun-Times christened Rodriguez a “dynasty slayer.”

UWF and the rest of Chicago wouldn’t be willing to elect leftist candidates if the city hadn’t been such a hotbed of working-class militancy in recent years. The CTU’s 2012 strike brought a sea change to city politics, popularizing opposition to austerity and making the union the city’s most important force in that fight. The CTU’s willingness to strike in public schools, as it did again for a single day in an illegal strike in 2016 and in a long, open-ended strike in 2019, and in charters, where it organized aggressively and struck repeatedly after 2012 has reshaped the city’s politics (and helped make all kinds of workers, from graduate teaching assistants to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, more willing to withhold their labor from the boss).

That militancy is also seen in CTU-adjacent community groups like the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), of which Jeanette Taylor has been an active member for many years. KOCO is a mostly black organization based in black neighborhoods on the city’s South Side that has long fought education austerity. Their organizing helped inspire the group of reformers within the CTU that took over the union’s leadership in 2010 and pushed it in a more radical direction, committed to fighting for the city’s entire working class (especially in black and Latino neighborhoods) rather than just teachers themselves. KOCO led a month-long hunger strike in 2015 demanding the reopening of a neighborhood high school. Taylor was one of the hunger strikers. “The movement made and pushed me,” Taylor said before she was elected. “I don’t like doing all this, running for office and talking in public. That’s something I was molded into doing.”

In other words, CDSA audaciously ran five socialists for city council, and for playing key roles in several cases, the central role in the victorious campaigns. But DSA didn’t win these victories on its own. The group was part of a broad working-class movement that tied electoral campaigns to grassroots labor and community organizing and militancy. Without that wider ferment in the city, it’s doubtful the six socialists would have won their seats.

The lesson from Chicago, then, is not just that you can run socialist candidates who take on the ruling class and actually win, and not just that you can run many socialist candidates and win. It’s also that socialists must join (or start) fights at their workplaces and in their communities that can create the broader political conditions for electoral victories. Those fights, built painstakingly over years and even decades in the city, created the conditions in which six socialists could win city council seats and shortly after the election, CDSA’s then co-chairs Leonard Pierce and Lucie Macias could declare in the Chicago Tribune, “Chicago’s politicians and the ultra- wealthy, from the mayor’s office to corporate boardrooms, need to understand that business isn’t going to continue as usual in this city.”

It’s impossible to know what will come of these wins. At the time of this writing, the six socialists have held office for less than a year. The city’s capitalist class, like capitalists everywhere, is very powerful. And because CDSA doesn’t have many institutional mechanisms to force its candidates to remain faithful to a socialist program, it’s possible that the rich could pick off a few of the socialist victors. A key task going forward will be figuring out how to not just win city council campaigns like these, but keep victorious city council members from succumbing to capitalist or mainstream Democratic Party pressure.

But in the immediate aftermath of the victory, things look promising. The city council socialists have hit the streets: Rodriguez has used her megaphone to support tenants organizing against abusive landlords in the neighborhood and provided space for numerous working-class organizing efforts in her ward. Several of the new council members have used their office to organize against Donald Trump’s threatened ICE raids in Chicago. The newly elected leaders even joined in blocking traffic outside City Hall to protest massive giveaways to real estate developers shortly after the elections. A “Socialist Caucus” on the fifty-member city council is in its infancy, one that will hopefully be more politically principled and consistent than the “Progressive Caucus,” whose members can’t be relied on to speak as a bloc on much of anything.

And all of the six could be seen on the picket lines during the CTU’s 2019 strike. They coauthored a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed siding with the teachers over the mayor and demanding that Chicago’s schools be adequately funded—no small development in a city where the city council’s complete fealty to the mayor could previously be taken for granted. Chicago’s elected officials are using their office to stoke more grassroots organizing, more bottom-up opposition to austerity, more class struggle.

The political conditions in Chicago are unique, of course. So are every city’s. But, given national currents, we’re likely to soon see other cities wage local electoral campaigns that name our enemy, the capitalist class, and that work and grow alongside militant working-class organizing.

Adapted from Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism by Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht, now available from Verso Books.