Post-Election Thoughts on the Progressive Movement in Chicago

The election and the success of the progressive movement in Chicago can be validated in many different ways, from how progressive policies have become part of the political discourse to progressives running and winning in this election. It is also evident that there are obstacles that need to be overcome such as big money’s influence in politics and getting progressive messages to voters. One thing for certain, many solutions to these obstacles are already solidly in place. These are some of my post-election observations on what the successes were, the obstacles that still need to be overcome and the solutions that are already in the making.   

Progressive Victories 

I want to start out by highlighting some of the many successes Reclaim Chicago and the progressive movement accomplished in Chicago on primary night and over the past few years. I look at inspiring legislators like Will Guzzardi, State Rep, 39th District, and Theresa Mah, State Rep, 2nd District, who both ran unopposed this election and who were both progressive candidates endorsed by Reclaim Chicago on their initial run for office. Ram Villivalam was elected for State Senate in the 8th District, beating out 20-year incumbent Ira Silverstein; and Beatriz Frausto-Sandavol became the first Latina judge in the 14th Subcircuit. Educator and activist Brandon Johnson became the democratic nominee for Cook County Commissioner, 1st District. Aaron Ortiz beat 27-year incumbent Daniel Burke, for State Rep, 1st District. Marie Newman ran a fierce campaign against Dan Lipinski in the 3rd Ward and Daniel Biss ran a hard-fought and game-changing election for governor. Both of these campaigns left indelible marks on the Democratic party in Illinois. All the progressive candidates, whether they won or lost, can hold their heads up high because they ran fairly, ethically, and with the people and their communities first and foremost in their minds.

As Bernie Sanders on a national level continues to move the Democratic party to the left and has made such policies as increasing the minimum wage and Medicare for All part of the national political discourse, these elections had the same effect in Illinois. Whether they won or lost, the progressive candidates succeeded at making their policies the central focus of their races. Free public college, minimum wage, health care for all, a progressive income tax – these were all issues addressed during the primary.

Many policies have been pushed forward by the elected progressives in Illinois including campaign finance reform, expanding voting rights, protecting the undocumented, making the tax structure more fair, reforming the criminal justice system, free public college, increasing the minimum wage, healthcare for all, legalizing marijuana, gun reform, and solutions to the rapidly increasing rents in Chicago.

It’s also worth noting that any progressive win is an accomplishment in itself considering these candidates are usually up against big money and the establishment. What is even more impressive is that they’re powered by the people, the people that will hold them accountable. It’s a matter of pushing the movement forward — it’s a relentless battle.

Many of Bernie’s messages are part of our nomenclature now. His constant reference to the 1% when talking about income inequality is an example of this. The same thing happened here in Chicago during this primary. Reporters and many voters were shocked by the 70 million spent by the Pritzker campaign during this election. Questions were asked of him on the topics of tax evasion and offshore accounts, highlighting how the history of these wealthy candidates points to their character and to what policies they would pursue once in office. As a result of the election, the questions regarding money and politics were put in people’s minds and reporters asked these pertinent questions to the candidates. This is progress even if it seems incremental.

Big Money in Politics

Although there were notable successes, after each election questions naturally arise about how to keep the movement growing as it moves forward. Questions arise as to what obstacles have to be overcome to get more voters to the polls and voting for progressives.

It was played out before our eyes how the blatant power of big money bought the democratic primary for governor. Pritzker’s 70 million dollars bought him the TV, radio, print and social media advertising that blanketed the state; the ads containing misleading information and outright lies aimed to sway voters. For voters who are uneducated on the facts or just don’t have the time to invest in learning about their candidates, they succumbed to what was incessantly presented in front of them. They also have been conditioned to think wielding big money is the only way to win elections. It is obvious this kind of money buys support and influences policies as well. The establishment will get behind those candidates who keep the status quo in place and those candidates once elected are beholden to the establishment.

This election exemplified the need for campaign finance reform and the importance of electing and supporting the progressive candidates who will keep fighting the fight to get big money out of politics. Following the Citizens United decision, it’s more important than ever to support the Fair Elections Ordinance, which allows small donations to candidates to be matched with public funds.

Educating Voters – Breaking Through to Reach Voters 

Policies such as fair election ordinances, ranked choice voting, and leadership term limits make common sense and you would think should be easily supported by voters. Measures to limit leadership terms as Daniel Biss proposed are important so that our elected officials don’t become so entrenched and connected that they work only for their own interests and not for the people. You would think concepts such as these and big money’s influence in politics should rally voters to progressive causes. So why don’t these messages resonate enough with voters to bring them to the polls for progressive candidates?  

One answer is that there is a generation of voters that are set in their ways and they look to establishment Democrats for answers. Another barrier is that many voters are uneducated on politics and the issues and are easily fed false narratives from political parties and the mainstream media. Many voters don’t have the time or take the time to become educated on the facts; for example, the many years Democrats have sold Democratic voters on the idea of centrism winning votes or how voting with Republicans on war, military budgets, deregulation, and even compromising on the ACA should be considered part of the Democratic agenda. Or maybe they look to the 2016 presidential election and buy-in to the idea of the lesser of two evils strategy that they have to settle for a certain candidate that they think will most likely beat the opponent. This idea didn’t pan out then and I’m worried it won’t work again with Pritzker against Rauner come this November.

So that brings to mind another barrier. The Democratic establishment is fighting progressives tooth and nail. Yes they often pay lip service to progressives, but they work behind the scenes to take them down. It’s happened in races across the country and it happened here during this primary, whether it was the local democratic establishment with Mike Madigan’s support of Pritzker or on a more national front with Nancy Pelosi supporting Lipinski over Marie Newman. This is another dark force progressives have to fight. The only answer is to keep doing what grassroots organizations like Reclaim Chicago are doing, supporting progressive candidates in races against establishment Democrats and Republicans. I also feel as individuals we need to get behind progressive candidates nationally as well as locally because there is a shared interest in advancing the movement.

So how does the movement educate voters? How do progressive messages get through? Once again, I believe inroads have been made. It’s a matter of keeping at it. Through progressive grassroots organizations like Reclaim Chicago, people receive training on the issues and how to build a movement. At their meetings and events they talk about the issues people care about in their communities providing them the opportunity to learn together and bond. It’s about what we can do as individuals and as a group to spread the word about progressive issues, whether through social media, writing editorials, or bringing friends into the fold. Maybe it’s a matter of reaching out to other groups and organizations who may not share every progressive view, but common ground can be found on such issues as women’s rights, gun reform, and immigration. This is where creative ideas come into play of how to get messages out to more people and grow the movement. It’s a chipping away that once again will not happen overnight and that will take time. 

I also feel it’s extremely important to support the independent progressive media both locally and nationally. The coverage on our races provided by David Sirota and The Intercept as well as other national outlets this election cycle brought national attention to the progressive movement here in Chicago. It’s a reminder that what is done here in Chicago is part of a national movement.  

Are rich people and those who are living comfortably more inspired to vote to preserve their money than the disenfranchised are to vote for change?

In a country where capitalism and the all mighty dollar are worshipped as part of our culture, money is a motivator above all else. The economic divide between the rich and poor has become so great, the disenfranchised feel they are left out of a system that caters to the rich at their expense. Their communities have experienced neglect and disinvestment, while the top 1% has amassed record levels of wealth. So this is the challenge, How do disenfranchised groups be brought back into the fold? How do they once again feel part of the system? 

Reclaim Chicago and other grassroots community organizations in carrying out their missions are an important part of the answer. It starts with community organizers who have worked with these communities and developed a relationship built on trust. They have listened to their communities and responded with progressive policies to help them. This is where the future of the progressive movement lies and this is not a new idea. Bernie Sanders talks about this all the time. It starts with the local down ballot races. These are the candidates who will develop a following by being true to their roots and grow with a movement. These are the candidates that will bring people back into the political process. This happened in Chicago with Brandon Johnson, a local educator and political activist in his community who won his election as Cook County Commissioner. Yes this is a process that will take time but the seeds of change are planted and will grow with a movement behind them. It makes sense, people will get behind others who have shared similar struggles and have shared identity. 

This year there was the challenge of an off-year primary where voter turnout is always lower than during midterms or presidential election years. Even in these off years, progressive policies such as campaign finance reform and measures for fair representation would allow voters to feel they have more of a stake in the system. The governor’s race was a perfect example of how ranked choice voting would of made this election more fair and representative of the people. Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates they want in order of choice. It’s called proportional representation which means candidates who receive a certain share of voters will be elected. This system more accurately represents the full spectrum of voters including historically underrepresented groups such as women and people of color and because candidates focus on grassroots outreach over spending big money on advertising, studies have shown this results in more positive campaigns. I heard over and over again that the deluge of ads and flyers turned people off from the election this year. Without the negativity and lies constantly being thrown at them, people have a better chance to see through to the issues.

The Youth Vote 

I would be amiss to write this article and not mention the amazing volunteers who put in 1,000’s of phone banking calls and canvassing shifts to get progressives elected. It was an honor for me to work alongside these volunteers at Reclaim. They worked from dawn until late night right up to when the polls closed. They say the millennial turnout was 3% this election. That’s hard for me to believe after witnessing the amount of young people who volunteered and their level of dedication. They are behind progressive policies and they are the generation that will change the world. I am a firm believer of that.

A vital part of the movement is to reach out to the youth vote in new and creative ways. I think in time as more candidates evolve from the progressive movement, these are the candidates who will inspire the youth vote. Young people are more willing to vote for candidates they trust and who have been committed to the movement from the start.

In addition, considering millennials now make up the largest voting bloc and they tend to lean progressive, it’s important they’re provided the information they need to register to vote and are encouraged to join progressive organizations. This can be done by reaching out to them at locations they frequent, i.e., high schools, colleges, entertainment venues.   

In Conclusion

I believe progressive organizations like Reclaim Chicago will continue to bring new voters into the fold. Through grassroots campaigns and grassroots candidates these voters will be reached, but it will take time. It is a movement from the ground up. Each election won and each piece of legislation put forth should be looked at as a huge triumph because of the mountain of resistance the progressive movement is up against.

It’s important to continue to work on matters of messaging and finding ways to reach out to those communities who feel left out and hopeless that their vote won’t matter, that nothing will change.  Campaign finance reform must continue to be a priority so more candidates from a wider spectrum of communities can afford to run for office. The progressive candidates who will make the change in these communities must be supported, elected, and held accountable. It comes as no surprise that there is much work ahead. Nobody ever said causing major upheaval to an entrenched system would be easy.

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