Rossana Rodriguez – Fighting from Puerto Rico to Chicago

While much press is being devoted to presidential politics, Chicago DSA is justifiably focused on a much-sooner Election Day: February 26, when candidates like Ugo Okere and Rossana Rodriguez offer us the chance of a true socialist caucus in a major city. We’ll be on the edge of our seat that Tuesday night, knowing that either way we’re a step closer to a new future. (Ed.)

This summer, an article in the local alt-weekly Chicago Reader favorably called  Rossana Rodriguez, a working-class educator and artist running for City Council, the “next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

The parallels between AOC and Rodriguez, who moved to Chicago ten years ago after austerity measures forced her from Puerto Rico, are compelling. I first met Rodriguez when she showed up, with about a dozen high school students in tow, to an anti-foreclosure protest in December 2012. As part of her job at an acclaimed youth theater company, Rodriguez was working with the students to develop a play about the foreclosure crisis in Chicago, and she wanted to make sure they also depicted and supported the people fighting back—which they did that day by performing an anti-eviction holiday carol Rodriguez had worked with them to write for the occasion. I really, really want this woman to be our alderman.

But beyond her individual talents, it’s important to note that Rodriguez’s campaign was several years in the making and sits at the nexus of several important political developments in Chicago, both within the socialist movement and outside it. Her run has inspired broad participation from neighborhood housing and immigration organizers, rank-and-file teachers and other union members, and the youth artists and activists who she has mentored, as well as Chicago DSA, the International Socialist Organization, and members of Socialist Alternative. The campaign has been incredibly inspiring to work on, and I think it provides a great case study for DSA members to assess some of the opportunities and challenges to participating in electoral politics right now, particularly at the local level.

Rodriguez was recruited to run by a ward-level independent political organization (IPO) called 33rd Ward Working Families, which she co-founded (and of which I’m also a member). The IPO’s membership overlaps heavily with Chicago DSA’s, but also with that of community organizations based in Albany Park, a Northwest side neighborhood that is home to dozens of immigrant communities and several of the most diverse zip codes in the nation.

The 33rd ward incumbent is Alderman Deb Mell, the daughter of longtime ward boss Dick Mell, who literally handed his seat to his daughter when he retired in 2013. The younger Mell is a supremely untalented politician but has held on to power thanks to the vestiges of the old Chicago machine, as well as nearly $150,000 in real-estate industry donations that she’s accrued while presiding over a gentrifying ward that has lost 5,000 Latinx residents during her tenure.

Rodriguez, by contrast, is a skilled, lifelong organizer—in the campaign video above, she tells the story of her community’s successful struggle to regain access to water that had been diverted to a U.S. military base, which occurred when she was six years old—and she frames her run for office in the context of a struggle to reclaim resources for the working class, including resources to organize itself more effectively.

That framework means that fostering democracy in the ward—through processes like participatory budgeting, community-driven zoning, and providing dedicated space for community organizing—is a key platform point. While “transparency” and “participation” are pretty standard pieces of rhetoric that often don’t have much of a political upshot,Rodriguez’s campaign is supported by many members of organized  community groups ready to take advantage of participatory processes to make real gains.

Albany Park is already home to a militant tenants’ union and a deportation defense network, and many members of those groups see the aldermanic campaign as an opportunity to secure institutional support and resources for their organizing. Whereas the current office-holder, Deb Mell, is clueless about immigration and actively hostile to tenant organizing, an alderman who sees the position as an opportunity to organize could, just for starters, use her communications with ward residents to circulate know your rights information—as incumbent alderman and fellow DSA member Carlos Rosa has done in the 35th ward—and encourage them to report ICE activity or “problem” landlords.

“Housing for all” and “sanctuary for all” are two of Rodriguez’ other key platform points, and making progress towards them will mean working with the city’s housing and immigrant rights movements to pass some of their key legislative priorities—including establishing rent control and just-cause eviction legislation, eliminating carve-outs in Chicago’s sanctuary ordinance and abolishing the racist and error-filled gang database maintained by the Chicago Police Department. It will also require continuing to build neighborhood-level organization that can, for example, combat the kind of racist backlash that inevitably appears when aldermen attempt to bring in new public or affordable housing developments.

A major strength of the campaign has been its ability to incorporate groups and individuals who have a range of different approaches to electoral politics writ large, but who all see it as having a role to play in securing movement gains. Rodriguez’s campaign is also part of an electoral project seeking to build independent political infrastructure in the city and state that can deliver long-sought reforms like an elected school board, a Civilian Police Accountability Council, and progressive taxation to counteract a heavily regressive property tax system, resource-starved schools and services, and perennial attacks on public pensions.

The most important actors in this vein are the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and United Working Families (UWF), a union-backed political organization that launched after the 2015 municipal elections, and of which 33rd Ward Working Families is a founding member and affiliate. In addition to successfully backing movement candidates for the Illinois legislature and Cook County Board last year,  UWF supports the growth of ward-level IPOs that can field their own candidates. Chicago’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, so City Council candidates are not running on a party line.  

33rd Ward Working Families, and Rodriguez’s campaign, emerged most directly out of an aldermanic challenge in the ward four years ago. A high school social studies teacher named Tim Meegan ran for alderman, one of three CTU members to receive early endorsements as part of the union’s efforts to flex its muscles in municipal elections after 2013’s devastating mass school closings in the city.

On election night in February 2015, it looked initially as though Meegan’s grassroots campaign had forced Deb Mell to a runoff, but thanks to some suspicious absentee ballots, he ended up 17 votes short of this threshold. Instead of pursuing a prohibitively expensive lawsuit, Meegan activists including Rodriguez decided to channel the campaign’s energy and resources into launching 33rd Ward Working Families. The group has spent the last four years building membership and running issue-based campaigns in the neighborhood, including passing advisory referenda to halt charter school expansion and lift the ban on rent control, electing a slate of candidates to local school councils, and helping to build the Albany Park Defense Network.

33rd Ward Working Families also kept its sights fixed on recruiting another challenger for 2019. After Meegan was laid off from his Chicago Public Schools teaching job and moved out of state with his family, some of our members realized that Rodriguez, who is widely known and loved by families in the community through her work with a youth theater company, was the ideal choice. After Rodriguez agreed to run, the IPO’s membership voted unanimously to endorse her at a session that also included two other candidates who sought the endorsement—including Katie Sieracki, a corporate event planner who is still in the race.

Rodriguez has since also been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare, (the more progressive of the union’s three locals), and United Working Families. While Chicago DSA is a relative newcomer to the local electoral landscape, our organization has made huge strides in designing and enacting a process for principled, strategic endorsements, and our members have become a significant presence in all of the endorsed campaigns. In Rodriguez campaign, we estimate that about a third of our total volunteers are DSA members, who are providing crucial support while developing campaign skills and building relationships with other movements.

The political landscape I’ve tried to describe raises a number of questions for me about Chicago DSA’s electoral work moving forward, and I hope that we can also consider some of them in terms of DSA’s electoral strategy nationally: How can we move towards running more candidates who have been recruited democratically from our ranks to contest strategic races, and what kind of infrastructure do we need to achieve this? Could this involve DSA joining as a left pole within formations like UWF, which is pushing a set of strategic priorities in line with the “Chicago for All” platform recently articulated by CDSA? Whether or not it does, how can we ensure that electoral work continues to build DSA as an organization, as well as independent working-class power?

The National Electoral Strategy currently recommends maintaining an independent field operation, messaging and research capacity as mechanisms to achieve this, but Chicago and other chapters will soon be in a position to assess more specifically whether and how DSA-backed electoral campaigns are translating into growth of the total membership or engaged membership, legislative victories for key policy demands, and other measurable gains. The way this plays out at the local level won’t translate exactly to, say, whether and how DSA should relate to a Bernie 2020 run at the national level, but it’s an important consideration.

To that point, we should be looking to the historical achievements and limits of municipal socialism, which, it’s easy to forget, has been a significant force in American political life within the last century. When Kshama Sawant won election in 2013, her victory was frequently announced as that of the “first socialist City Council member”—even though she certainly wasn’t the first nationwide, where some 74 municipalities counted socialist office-holders during one peak in 1913; nor in Washington state, where at least five cities elected members of the Socialist Party to local offices in the 20th century; nor even the first socialist officeholder in Seattle, where a labor journalist won election to the local school board in 1916. At the time, Sawant’s distinction of being the lone member of a socialist organization elected in recent memory made all this exceedingly easy to forget.

And, perhaps the most exciting question: what explicitly socialist demands might become possible in the near future? Rent control has been a major campaign for CDSA and a key plank for all of the endorsed candidates, but it’s also possible to imagine that more aggressive municipal ownership, especially as part of climate action, or ambitious plans for social housing, could become viable political battles with multiple socialists in local office.

But five years later in Chicago, the situation looks very different. The prospect of a socialist caucus in a major U.S. city puts some exciting questions back on the table—beyond whether we can elect a socialist, what can multiple socialists elected to local office accomplish today?