Progressive Politics in Chicago and Cook County, Part 2

March 16th, 2016 by Phil Leave a reply »

[This was separately posted to Facebook.]

This is Part 2 of what is now a 3-part (!) series on progressive politics in Chicago and Cook County. Part 1 dealt with establishing the lay of the land. Part 2 focuses on what progressives can, probably can’t, should, and probably shouldn’t do. I’ll be referencing points from Part 1. Note that Part 1 was an attempt to be very objective in evaluating what’s going on. This part is different. It’s harder to write, as I’m speculating on a lot of things.

Part 2 went on so long that I’ve decided to split it into Parts 2 and 3. Part 2 is heavier on analysis, explanation of legal issues, etc. Because I’m writing so much, and I don’t want people to gloss over everything, Part 3 is much more focused on specific ideas for what to do next, as opposed to explanations of possibilities. Therein I talk about focusing on school board races, how to interact with prominent Democrats, etc.

I held off on finishing this until we could see the primary results. Nationally, it’s now extraordinarily difficult to see how Bernie Sanders can win the nomination, so it stands to reason that people will be looking for something to plug into. (I realize that there are mathematical possibilities open for Bernie. But with the Illinois primary behind us, and the odds very much against him, my assessment here is based on the very strong likelihood that he can not make up his delegate deficit.)

In Chicago, the Republicans are irrelevant in local politics, so only the emergence of third party or independent candidates will make for interesting local elections in November. The primary results, overall, were exceedingly good for the Democratic Machine, and really hammer home the need for progressives to find a way to come together. The most favorable results, though, were a couple of surprises from Ward Committeeman races, which demonstrates that progressive, anti-Machine efforts are most likely to pay off at the ward level.

The essential question I’ve been trying to grapple with is: How can progressives take the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and apply it toward building something more permanent? I’ve been trying to think of this in both national and local terms. I’m focusing mostly here on what could happen locally, but I’m also viewing Chicago as one of the most important epicenters of progressive political development in the country. What happens in Chicago matters elsewhere, so we have to think in terms of engaging in efforts that, while locally focused, are not parochial in their applications.

So let’s consider all of the Bernie love that’s been going on. If you’re a Bernie supporter, where do you “go” from there? How do you move beyond the presidential, especially in Chicago?

For some people, the question may seem curious, because they already feel pretty good about their local elected officials. Let’s say you live in the 35th Ward – Logan Square, Avondale, thereabouts. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is now your Alderman and also the Democratic Ward Committeeman. There’s no other local electoral effort to be directed into for a while (unless Rosa runs for higher office!) We might expect to see people in such an area mobilized for higher-level races in the future (a hotly contested primary for Governor, perhaps?) Overall, though, if we follow the maxim that all politics are local, we’ve got to think in terms that here are residents who have already won at the local level.

In multiple wards of the city, Independent Political Organizations (IPOs) have been created, and United Neighbors of the 35th Ward is one such example. The thing is that for all practical purposes, that organization has simply displaced the Regular Democratic Organization in the ward. What we have here is perhaps the very best example of how difficult it is to parse where Democratic politics end and self-stated “independent” politics begin.

By becoming Committeeman, Rosa – and for that matter Sue Garza and before her John Arena and Scott Waguespack – has slightly compromised his ability to do certain things, in exchange for gaining an ability to do certain other things. “Compromise” here is intended as a neutral word; I’m not using it as shorthand for “compromised their values”. The reality is that it would have been politically foolish for Rosa not to have run for Committeeman and both consolidate his base and expand his influence. Voters didn’t elect him so that he would sit on the sidelines.

A lot of progressives might feel that such a compromise isn’t worth it, because it betrays “independence” in favor of bolstering the formal Democratic Party organization. I’m not going to argue against that position. Instead, I want to emphasize that even for people who might feel that way, it cannot be used as some sort of a hard litmus test. Any would-be serious progressive movement in Chicago which would outright, as a matter of some randomly elevated principle, shun the likes of Rosa or Garza, is wildly deluding itself, and consigning itself to total isolation. This doesn’t mean that progressives must themselves embrace internal Democratic Party affairs. It does mean that a movement with absolutely no friends is not really a movement.

As many people know, I’ve been heavily involved with the Green Party for 15 years. The Green Party, for what it’s worth, has basically refused to engage in any of the kind of bargaining or alignment I’ve written about. We’ve very strongly supported CTU, and we did endorse some aldermanic candidates for the first time in 2015. But the party generated no enthusiasm for those candidates, and now in 2016, the party is not even attempting to field candidates for state legislature. At one point in time, the Green Party was relevant in Chicago. It’s not today, largely by its own choosing.

My extensive experience in the party, though, understanding both the legal issues confronting an entity which strives to field candidates outside of Democratic Party processes, and the internal issues which at least for the Greens have tended to hold the party back from becoming what I feel it could have become, are very instructive to my overall thinking about what progressives could or should do now. Given the number of people I’ve heard in recent months talk about forming a “new working-class party” or who are so disgusted with Hillary Clinton that they’re looking for an alternative, any discussion about what might constitute such an alternative simply has to take into consideration the extensive experiences of the people who have been on the inside of the Green Party and who understand so well why it has mostly failed over time. I mean no offense to friends or colleagues across the progressive spectrum when I say that while many of you are brilliant and wonderful people, most of you simply do not know the details you need to know when seriously contemplating any kind of broad third party approach.

At this point, I want to explain some technical stuff, which I admit is dry and not too exciting to a lot of activists, but which I think is very important to put on the table so we can have the kind of conversation we need to have.

When I talk about a “formal” political party, I am in general talking about an entity that is either legally recognized under the laws of a given state, or which is seeking to be so recognized. The Libertarian Party, for example, is a formal political party. The Tea Party is not. Organizations like Democratic Socialists of America may constitute a distinguishable political current, and may even in some way aspire to forming formal party organizations, but they are not political parties.

In Illinois, speaking in strict legal terms, there are two kinds of formal political parties: Established and New. These can exist statewide, or isolated within one or more electoral jurisdictions. The Green Party, for example, is Established right now for 5th Congress (north side), 12th Congress (deep downstate), and MWRD. Because the Green Party is established for MWRD, the party is entitled to Ward and Township Committeepersons throughout Cook County. The Democrats and Republicans are of course Established statewide. Any political party which is striving for legal status, whether statewide or within a given district, is considered “New” in the eyes of the state. For ease in understanding what I’m explaining, I will always capitalize the word New when referring to the _legal_ status of a party within Illinois. In general, I will use lower-case “new” to refer to the idea of a political entity which has not before even conceptually existed.

Here I will briefly emphasize: the way all of this works in Illinois is unique. There are similarities to other states, but every single state has developed its own system. While I’m focusing on Illinois here, it should be understood that some of this simply won’t apply in other places, and examples from other places might not hold any relevance here.

I’ve had a number of discussions over time with people who have expressed interest in creating some kind of new political party. This sentiment usually seems to come from people who self-identify as independent and/or socialist. Keep in mind here that a very large number of Sanders supporters self-identify as independent, and a very large number self-identify as socialist. While I’ve seen no numbers, I think we can all agree that those two self-identifying groups substantially overlap. That does not of course mean that there is necessarily a strong sentiment within those groups in favor of the creation of a new party – but for the moment we’re going to assume that there’s sufficient sentiment to justify this line of discussion!

Let’s pursue the idea that a group of people wish to form a formal party within Cook County, under a party name which doesn’t currently exist. For our exercise here I’m going to call this the Orange Party. Let’s say a bunch of people across the county – but, realistically, mostly from Chicago proper – convene in the very near future with a goal of achieving a legally-recognized (i.e. Established) political party.

Up front, there are a lot of immediate issues. First, there’s actually no way to form such an entity directly at the Ward level. Where I live, if I want to become the Orange Party Ward Committeeman, this would require that the Orange Party field one or more candidates at one of these levels: State Representative, State Senator, County Board, Congress, Countywide, Statewide. If you’ve got a good IPO at the Ward level but you’re not also in power there – think the 12th and 33rd Wards for a couple of examples – then the only way for you to have a Ward Committeeperson is if you’re involved with fielding candidates for at least State Representative in your area. (Remember, Alderman is a nonpartisan office.) It might be enticing to try and just field candidates at the countywide level, but it’s brutally difficult to collect the signatures, and precisely who is going to get excited about a candidate for Cook County Recorder of Deeds? Kim Foxx’s win in the State’s Attorney primary pretty much rules out any third party run at the Cook County level in 2016, as I see it.

So for the moment, let’s set aside the idea of fielding New party candidates at the county or state level, and suggest that only state legislative races may be immediately compelling. After all, we know that some pro-charter Democrats won their primaries (notably including some who were unopposed!) Maybe there would be a desire to whip support for a slate of anti-charter candidates to go after certain primary winners.

One problem with this line of thinking is that if there had been much excitement along those lines in the first place, then the pro-charter candidates probably would have just been challenged in the primary. The signature requirement for State Senator in the primary is 1,000. For a New party, it depends on the district, but it might be over 3,000, which is very difficult work.

Another problem is that, regardless of what people might say, most activists are not going to travel any appreciable distance to support candidates running in other districts. We repeatedly found this to be true within the Green Party. We would try to have “anchor” campaigns which would be epicenters of activity for a wide radius around, but people simply didn’t feel ownership or excitement about races which weren’t in their own districts or at least immediately adjacent. Now, I’ve seen some evidence in recent years of organizations recruiting outside volunteers to go in and target specific areas – I know IIRON was doing this with some aldermanic races in 2015 – but I feel like that’s still more the exception than the rule. At best, you might find one or two dynamic candidates with very broad citywide appeal and be able to muster support for them.

It should also be stressed here that when you field candidates in isolated races, you’ve still got all of the other surrounding races to deal with. There might be an Orange Party candidate running for State Representative somewhere, but almost all would-be voters in such a race will also vote for the Democrat for U.S. Senate and U.S. House and the countywide offices. This presents a lot of practical issues, because it means there’s not other campaigns that you can link up with to do combined precinct walking.

And one more thing. If you try to field a candidate in the general election against an incumbent Democrat, and you’re at all regarded as a credible threat, Michael Madigan or John Cullerton will divert six figures worth of their largesse to support the incumbent.

With all that said, I have nevertheless been trying to think through what it might mean for there to be a formal, legal party organization, if not entirely throughout Cook County, at least with remnants scattered across Cook County. I have been trying to think in terms of what the organization might look like, and how it would come to terms with the way in which the Democratic Party is structured around it. All of the practical issues with trying to field such candidates hadn’t deterred the work I was doing in the Green Party for so long, and I found that fielding such candidates could often prove very important for the long-term success of local progressive politics. The Green Party’s work in Logan Square through 2010 is the most notable example, as we established the blueprint which wound up being followed first by Will Guzzardi and then by Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.

The two questions which would have to be asked up front are who any immediate candidates might be, and under what party label they would run. Often identifying who to run has to begin by identifying who to run against, but for my immediate purposes here, I want to set all of that discussion aside. I’ll just speculate here that perhaps 3 state legislative candidates might emerge in Chicago running under the same party label this November, and focus on the party label question.

I see five possibilities for the party label: None / Independent; Green; Working Families; Progressive (or something similar); “Chicago” (or something similar).

I think any such effort which comes together only to field candidates as formal Independents is a waste of time. No formal party structure would wind up being created, and when each race is over, it’s really over. Only if a particular given candidate wanted to use such an approach as a means of preparing for an aldermanic run in the future could I see much merit in it.

I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t see Green as a serious option at this point. The party is now saddled with a horrible congressional candidate in the 5th District, and the party infrastructure itself is largely hostile to “outsiders”. While it might at first seem like an understandable route to go, especially for Sanders supporters who will now need a presidential candidate to support in November and see Jill Stein as the most likely option, unless there was a serious intention on the part of progressives nationally to step in and take over the Green Party as a whole, Green isn’t really a sensible option for the kind of work I’m talking about now. I feel terrible having to admit this, but it is what it is.

I also do not see Working Families as the answer here, for a number of reasons. United Working Families in Chicago wasn’t formed as a bottom-up entity but as a top-down entity pushed by two highly compromised labor unions (CTU and SEIU Healthcare). And the main model of what the existing Working Families Party is comes out of a fusion system in New York which simply doesn’t translate well to other states. I expect that UWF will wind up focusing on the 2019 elections, maybe also getting involved in the school board elections if the elected school board bill eventually passes. But this is not the kind of entity which these large numbers of Bernie supporters can meaningfully plug into.

The primary election results superficially look like CTU had a good night. In reality, though, CTU wasn’t very involved in most places. Its presence mattered in perhaps two races, but in both cases, the winning candidate was more closely linked to the Democratic Machine than to CTU. They are in such an incredibly precarious situation, having essentially been forced to buddy up with Michael Madigan, that it is simply unfair and unrealistic to expect that they are in any position to be the out-in-front leaders of a strong progressive electoral force in Chicago. They badly need a new entity to arise and lead the way, which will protect their flank and give them better room in which to operate. United Working Families is too close to CTU for that, and the other entities involved are actually less radical than CTU itself. For all intents and purposes, the primary results constituted the informal absorption of the Chuy Garcia chunk into the formal Cook County Democratic Party apparatus. In some ways that might prove good and useful down the road, but that’s not the model which is going to sustain extensive progressive change in Chicago or beyond.

This leaves two options: a party label like Progressive, which would be broad and non-localized; or a party label like “Chicago” or anything else where the very name connotes localization. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. To me, though, if you’re going to begin the work of trying to create any kind of formal party apparatus, and you expect to have any reach, giving yourself a localized name is just not a good idea. Suburban voters won’t be interested in a Chicago Party, and what local name will resonate with anyone if it doesn’t have Chicago or a stand-in for Chicago (like “Windy City”) in it?

By process of elimination, I think any attempt to start building a formal legal party structure, with an attendant backbone of a structure rooted either in a membership organization or in an umbrella approach involving various ward-level IPOs, needs a broader, general, uniting name with which people can readily identify. The most logical word I can think of here is Progressive. It’s not a perfect word, and maybe someone can find a better word or couple of words. But it is the word which most sensibly reflects what cross-section of the voting public I think we’re talking about; it is already a known name which people positively identify with; and outside of Vermont, it’s not really in use anywhere.

Now, maybe candidates can emerge under such a party banner in 2016. Maybe progressives simply aren’t prepared for such a thing right now. Because I don’t want to wildly speculate on individual races, I want to just resuggest the idea that perhaps a couple such candidates could emerge this year, in isolated legislative districts. With that as a hypothetical goal, I want to pivot to what I think this party/movement needs to look like, especially within Chicago, but also into Cook County, and, conceptually, across the entire country.

One thing I really dread is the prospect of hauling people into a room to have a discussion about all of this, and getting people generally on board with the idea of creating some kind of new structure, only to have it all degrade into a debate about organizational structure. There’s an inherent danger in completely ignoring structure, but there’s an equal danger in having form demolish function. I’ve been spending a lot of time discussing legal and practical considerations for what an emerging legal political party structure might look like, but I’ve intentionally avoided a lot of discussion about things like bylaws and high-level organizational matters. I’ve been in the trenches for a lot of that stuff, and it’s important, but it sucks the air out of the room, and it turns off activists quicker than anything else.

So having said all that: I’m not going to argue for calling a “convention” of people to come together to form a new party or anything like that. I think we should strive for some general understandings about where we might all be going. It may prove smart to have, say, a Cook County Progressive Party and/or a Chicago Progressives organization within the next year. But I absolutely do not think focus should be on a county-level organization in and of itself. The focus should be on bringing people together to talk about how to best empower local activist communities. If a strong progressive challenger emerges this year to take on a pro-charter incumbent Democratic legislator, how do we marshall resources to support that challenger? That’s the kind of question which should be foremost.

When I look at the existing obstacles to coming together as progressives, whether under a party banner or otherwise, one of the things which I most clearly see is that everybody is very spread out in terms of how they’re organizationally plugged in. Certainly teachers are directly involved with CTU. Some people are very heavily involved in an IPO, or in something else very localized, like Pilsen Alliance or Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Some who aren’t directly involved with CTU have doubled down on education issues, either through groups like Raise Your Hand, or through investment in Local School Councils. There are a lot of great things going on, but it’s often hard for them to talk to one another, and expecting leaders of neighborhood organizations to also step up and be leaders of some new city or county level organization would be stretching these people too thin.

To demonstrate the problems and opportunities, let’s consider the possibility that we’ll have an elected school board in 2018. I’ve already heard rumblings from a lot of corners that pro-charter groups are already gearing up to support candidates, by establishing structures, and identifying money to pump in to races. I’ve seen no comparable effort – yet – on the part of progressives. It’s admittedly hard because we don’t know what the district lines might look like. But let’s pretend we can guess what the district lines would look like.

Here’s the big problem that I see: Most of the very good organizations that progressives and anti-charter people are involved with simply can’t participate in the school board elections. Neighborhood associations are 501c3s. Raise Your Hand is a 501c3. The Cook County Democratic Party structure isn’t going to get involved in these races. The City Council Progressive Caucus and some of their ward-level groups might well get engaged, but that election is also going to coincide with the next set of primary races, with big ticket offices like Governor on the ballot, and that’s where a lot of that attention will be. Even CTU is going to be in a tough position here, because although Chicagoans generally support CTU, it’s going to play poorly in the eyes of voters if CTU spends gobs of cash to try and elect the very board members who would be ratifying their contract.

The school board races, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrate the critical need for there to be citywide communication by progressives, taking place outside of the structure of the Democratic Party, and outside of the confines of most of the good organizations with which people are already involved. There should be a citywide slate of strong progressive public education champions for school board, and right now, there’s no entity in place to take the lead in bringing such a slate together.

This is where a Progressive Party can make a huge difference.

End Part 2.

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