Polarization of Wealth Defines Chicago Elections
In the midst of the Chicago election season during January 2019, Illinois’ wealthiest man, Ken Griffin, bought a condominium in New York City for $238 million, the most ever spent to purchase a home in the U.S. Last year he bought a condo in Chicago for $58 million. He gave $1 million to the election campaign of Bill Daley, scion of the Daley dynasty that ruled Chicago for almost a half century. A few blocks from Griffin’s home, people live in the streets under Wacker Drive. Tent encampments dot the Chicago urban landscape. The online newsletter Curbed describes 42 high-rise buildings under construction in Chicago, including 4,400 housing units. Provisions for affordable housing? None.
The stark contrast in wealth and poverty is more visible. Disinvestment in the neighborhoods stands side by side with privatization, violence and gentrification. The working class of Chicago is recognizing this disparity. Sections of the working class, including those who are most disenfranchised, are grouping themselves to take the offensive. They are making their voices heard in Chicago’s electoral arena. Elections have become a battlefield over class interests.
The Chicago Democratic Party in the 1930s crafted a political machine based on an expanding industrial economy, with powerful ward organizations capable of dispensing favors and jobs. As the industrial economy’s tax base waned, the ward organizations were weakened. The Democratic Party machine is transforming, as the ruling class reshapes Chicago into a “world class city.” Nothing symbolizes the rulers’ vision of “world class city” better than tax giveaways for the massive mixed use real estate developments, totaling 27 million square feet of space, called Lincoln Yards and The 78. These plans demand a compliant city council.
Outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel held a breakfast for his allies after announcing he would not run again. There he passed out $20,000 checks to protect some of his key supporters, who faced stiff challenges. The regular Democratic Party, corporate, developer, and real estate money flowed into the incumbents’ campaigns.
At the mayoral level, 14 contended for the mayor’s office. Bill Daley, the expected favorite, raised more money than anyone else, some $8 million. Despite all this money, two African American women made the runoffs for Mayor. Trade unions contributed significantly to both campaigns. The building trades gave Lori Lightfoot, the winner, over $500,000. The Service Employees International Union and the teachers’ unions contributed over $4 million to Toni Preckwinkle. At stake for the unions are union construction jobs, public service workers pensions and contracts.
Despite all the money thrown into these elections, the turnout fell to almost a record low. The Democratic Party machine was unable to turn out the vote for candidates who excited no enthusiasm. Many ward organizations are on life support. The Democratic Party and city hall have moved to maintain control through a network of not-for-profit organizations clamoring for
Battleground Over Class Interests
Voters showed their disgust for many long-serving aldermen by supporting challengers who voiced some of the demands that people have been making. Andre Vasquez and Maria Hadden ousted two of the most powerful, heavily bankrolled incumbents. They took up the call to house those experiencing homelessness, to fight for rent control, to oppose foreclosures, and to limit taxes. Police accountability and safety in the communities, public education, mental health, environmental issues, and sex trafficking are some of the life-and-death issues that people are bringing to the electoral arena.
The bottom line is that a whole new section of the working class is being driven out of the system as their jobs are replaced by automation in one sector of the economy after the other. Within this section are those who work but cannot afford food, housing and health care. They are confronting the system that has abandoned them. New housing construction, aimed at high-paid tech and management employees, leaves this new class to fend for themselves on the streets or get out of town. This is a reason hundreds of thousands of African American and Latino workers have left the city from the south and west sides in the last couple of decades.
And that is why, after years of fighting around these battles for survival, mothers and fathers, teachers and former union workers, children and young adults are confronting their elected officials. Fed up with “town halls” and “community engagement” dog-and-pony shows put on by government, some of these working-class fighters are actually running for office. Many candidates have had extensive experience fighting against government that refuses to address the problems of the people. They won outright or forced their opponents into runoffs. The efforts in Chicago are a part of the developing practical fight to transform society to meet the basic needs of the people for homes, food, water, education and health care.
Much is being made of the fact that six aldermen are Democratic Socialists. What this tells us most of all, is that a shift is taking place in the consciousness of the people of Chicago. After years of vilification, the word “socialism” is not as important as “will government help me when I’m down and out.” Each of the socialist candidates probably has a different idea of what socialism is, but there is a common denominator in addressing Chicago’s most pressing problems. Jeanette Taylor exemplifies this. For more than two decades she fought in local school councils for children’s education on Chicago’s South Side. She helped lead a hunger strike to keep her local high school open. In this election she was backed by United Working Families, the Chicago Teachers Union and Democratic Socialists of America.
What Can Revolutionaries Learn?
The people are seething with anger over dreams constantly deferred. At this point, that anger has expressed itself by working class leaders entering hotly contested races in key wards. Although Chicago politicians have masterfully convinced the electorate: “You can’t fight city hall,” the sweeping changes in the aldermanic races may indicate a turn away from the despair we have seen. The field is fertile, where so many people turned out to volunteer for the “reform” candidates – including candidates who spoke openly about the need for revolution.
Tactically, the Democratic Party dragon once again reared its ugly head, corralling as much as it could within its grasp, successful in its mainstay wards on Chicago’s South and West side. They continue to use their network of not-for-profit organizations to diffuse the class response, with calls for all-class unity. Strategically, they are stuck because they cannot solve the problems that confront the voters.
The new Chicago city council members will find themselves in a fight for, or against, the privatization of our lives. The city is shoveling tax money that should have been dedicated to schools and other public spending, into the pockets of real estate goons. Rahm Emanuel is making sure his imprint will remain on the city for decades, with projects like the multibillion-dollar giveaway to Lincoln Yards. The new mayor and her henchmen will dig into a time-tested Chicago bag of tricks to punish and undercut their opposition. The crucible that will test the new councilpersons will be the very real battle for the public way: housing for all, public health care, immigrants’ rights, public education, and the curbing of police power. RC
July/August 2018 Vol29.Ed4
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011