Until recently in U.S. politics, “socialists” and “winning” weren’t words you would utter in the same breath. That’s why, even months later, it’s impossible for me to write the following without a sense of incredulity: six members of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America were elected to the Chicago city council in April. DSA members now make up 12% of the 50-member council.
These are stunning victories, propelled by the candidates’ willingness to fight the wealthy and their political lackeys pushing gentrification and austerity, the strength of the city’s broader working-class movement, and the audacity of Chicago DSA to put the chapter’s resources behind a large number of candidates. Chicago’s unexpected victories should inspire socialists around the country to think big in their own cities—not just about candidates who can run for office and win, but also about the kinds of working-class struggles that can create the conditions for those candidates to win.
The six races spanned much of Chicago and a wide range of neighborhood-specific issues, but all of Chicago DSA’s endorsed candidates—Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, Jeanette Taylor, Andre Vasquez, and Byron Sigcho Lopez (a sixth candidate, Daniel La Spata, is a DSA member whom the chapter did not endorse, though DSA members worked on his campaign)—signed onto a broad, left platform: housing for all, sanctuary for all, education for all, and taxing the rich. These demands reflect 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, an incumbent in the 35th ward, made his race a referendum on affordable housing and gentrification, painting real-estate developers as the enemy and demanding rent control. Likewise, those real-estate developers painted him as the enemy. His ward’s largest landlord, Mark Fishman, spent at least $100,000 on Ramirez-Rosa’s opponent in an effort to unseat him.
But Ramirez-Rosa’s campaign didn’t shy away from attacking the ward’s most powerful capitalist. That class-struggle approach paid off: Ramirez-Rosa won reelection by nearly 20% over his real estate–friendly opponent.
The victories didn’t come in a vacuum. All six of the candidates are DSA members, but they’re 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 Health Care Illinois Indiana, which a number of progressive unions and community groups have joined in recent years. They devoted significant resources to many of the campaigns. Most unions and progressive groups avoid the “socialist” label. United Working Families didn’t.
Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez had the backing of a neighborhood group, 33rd Ward Working Families, that ran teacher and socialist Tim Meegan for the office in 2015. The group has organized around affordable housing and immigrants’ rights in a working-class immigrant neighborhood, Albany Park, since then—so effectively that the losing incumbent, Deb Mell, complained that 33rd Ward Working Families “[n]ever stopped running over the last four years.” Mell, whose father literally gave her the city council seat in 2013 after holding it himself for nearly four decades, apparently thinks candidates who organize in their communities are cheating.
And 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 Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike brought a sea change to city politics, popularizing opposition to austerity and making the CTU the city’s most important force fighting it. The union’s willingness to strike, in public schools and charters, has reshaped the city’s politics (and helped make all kinds of workers, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to graduate teaching assistants, more willing to withhold their labor from the boss).
That militancy is also seen in CTU-adjacent community groups such as the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, of which Jeanette Taylor has been an active member for many years. KOCO has long fought alongside the teachers union against education austerity on the city’s South Side, and the group led a month-long hunger strike in 2015 demanding the reopening of a neighborhood high school. Taylor was one of the hunger strikers.
In other words, Chicago DSA didn’t win these victories on its own. We were members of a broad working-class movement that tied electoral campaigns to grassroots labor and community organizing and militancy. Without the wider ferment in the city, it’s doubtful our six members would have won their seats.
The lesson from Chicago for socialists elsewhere, then, is not just that you can run socialist candidates who take on the ruling class and actually win. It’s also that socialists must join (or start) fights at their workplaces and in their communities that can create the conditions for electoral victories like the ones we’ve seen in Chicago.
After their wins, our socialist city councilors have hit the streets. Rodriguez-Sanchez has used her megaphone to support tenants organizing against an abusive landlord in the neighborhood; several have used their office to organize against Donald Trump’s threatened Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Chicago; they even joined in blocking traffic outside City Hall to protest massive giveaways to real-estate developers shortly after the elections. In all of these cases and more, 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 there’s no reason other cities can’t wage bold local electoral campaigns that name our enemy, the capitalist class, and are tied to militant working-class organizing.
Chicago’s socialist city council wins surprised many. But maybe they shouldn’t. Socialism is on the rise, in elected office and in the streets, in Chicago and around the country. We have a lot more to win. Chicago shows that we can do it.