Chicago’s Progressives, Democratic Socialists Gain at Ballot Box
The socialist flicker grew into a flame in 2023 elections
When Alderman Carrie Austin (34) announced in December 2021 she would not seek reelection in 2023, few would have suspected her retirement would be a precursor to a raft of departures from the City Council. In sum, 13 seats were vacant in 2023, which parallels the 13 seats opened by retirements in 1991.
With aldermanic elections a leading indicator for which direction Chicago is headed, it is worthwhile to perform a brief analysis of how returning DSA and progressive aldermen fared in their reelection bids and examine the incoming class of DSA or progressive aldermen who will be serving Chicago. With the far-left increasing their bloc in the city’s legislative chamber, it is fair to say 2023 is shaping up ominously for Chicago residents.
The election of Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to the City Council in 2015 did not signal a seismic shift in Chicago politics, but his campaign did arouse a new fascination with democratic socialism. In the four-year period following Ramirez-Rosa’s win at the ballot box, his victory was used by grassroots groups to mobilize to expand the presence of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates in public office. Armed with effective messaging, volunteers preached a “free stuff” punch list: Education, housing, job training, and child and health care. Through an aggressive ground game, their efforts found some success. After exhaustively pounding on doors, DSA foot soldiers spreading word of redistributionist policies convinced a sufficient number of voters the election of DSA candidates would usher in a Halcyon period in Chicago.
By February 2019, an additional four DSA candidates — Daniel La Spata (1), Jeanette Taylor (20), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25), and Rossana-Rodriguez-Sanchez (33) — joined Ramirez-Rosa in Chicago’s legislative chamber. Together, the five spent 2019-’22 using public office as a platform to raise their public persona on radio and television interviews or at staged protests with a variety of aggrieved left-wing interest groups. In many appearances, the five DSAs often directed intemperate and unrestrained criticism at fellow Democrats, depicting them as weak-willed and betraying the cause of liberalism.
Over and above their routine displays of cheap showmanship, when the DSAs did deign to do legislative work, the five DSA aldermen in question attempted to advance utterly impractical and unworkable legislative priorities. Plans which consisted of calling on Chicago to take complete control over utilities, impose regulation on privately held rental units or curtail police, only a sheer lack of numbers stood in the way of a DSA takeover of Chicago.
However, in 2023, the fortunes of DSA and progressive candidates rose significantly. For a group which has so successfully communicated their messages but governed so poorly, all five acknowledged DSA candidates were victorious in their reelection campaigns.
In the 33rd Ward, one of the celebrated female members of the City Council class of 2019, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, was returned to office with a comfortable margin of victory, 53.1 percent. Only four years ago, Rodriguez-Sanchez was a virtually unknown drama teacher and community organizer who unseated incumbent Deb Mell by a mere 13 votes. Running on a platform of a “co-governance” model of leadership, opposition to gentrification, and faith in alternatives to police — mainly violence interrupters and mental health workers — to achieve a crime-free utopia in the 33rd Ward, Rodriguez-Sanchez frustrated challenges from Samie Martinez and Laith Shaaban. A woman best known for her donation to a GoFundMe campaign for a murdered gang member, Rodriguez received her strongest financial support from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to win handily by a margin of over 1,000 votes.
In Chicago’s 1st Ward, Daniel La Spata held on to his seat in the City Council, barely escaping a runoff against opponent Sam Royko. In 2019, La Spata ousted then-incumbent Alderman Proco Joe Moreno with some 60 percent of the vote in an election which saw Moreno tainted by scandal. Upon his victory over Moreno, La Spata had, in a measure of his confidence in the “revolution,” proudly trumpeted his success at the ballot box as a symbol of the Chicago Machine “crumbling against a progressive wave.”
In February, however, the wave with which La Spata crowed in 2019 was reduced to a ripple as he faced higher crime and, in addition to Royko, two other challengers, Andy Schneider, and, oddly, former Alderman Moreno. Though on election night La Spata looked as if he would fail to win enough votes to be crowned winner, mail-in votes and provisional ballots tallied after February 28 allowed him to edge out Royko. Though La Spata was returned to office, he suffered an 11-point drop in support and earned only 50.11 percent of the vote.
In Chicago’s 35th Ward, incumbent strongman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa coasted to reelection on February 28. The most obnoxious member of the City Council, Ramirez-Rosa’s victory rested not on running a positive, unifying campaign or a record filled with achievements, but rather on the strength of a lawsuit filed to have his sole opponent kicked off the ballot. Put differently, the competition was over before it began. A man who despises challenges to his power and any form of competition, Ramirez-Rosa prevailed in court instead of in the voting booth when a judge upheld the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners’ judgment Richard Mpistolarides had failed to reach the minimum threshold of signatures to appear on the ballot. The ruling disqualified over 300 signatures collected by Mpistolarides’ campaign. Ramirez-Rosa’s victory returns an irresponsible critic of Chicago Police and a democratic socialist theologian to the City Council.
On Chicago’s South Side, Alderman Jeanette Taylor (20) was reelected despite challenges from Jennifer Maddox and Andre Smith. A fringe-left radical and community organizer known for blurting out crank conspiracy theories, Taylor won election in 2019 in a runoff after vanquishing eight other candidates to replace the disgraced Willie Cochrane. Though Taylor won only 28 percent of the vote in the first election round in 2019, she waltzed to victory in the runoff with 60 percent of the vote. Four years later, however, Taylor was faced with two challengers and only managed to be returned to office with 53 percent.
In the nearby 25th Ward, Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez was victorious in his reelection bid, fending off opponent Aida Flores by a mere 344 votes. Sigcho-Lopez won his first term in a runoff in 2019 against Alex Acevedo. A theatrical alderman who has a habit of making a spectacle of himself with hollow, self-indulgent tantrums and in meandering speeches which flay the eardrum, Sigcho-Lopez has often distinguished himself on the floor of the City Council for clashing with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
A reckless critic of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), Sigcho-Lopez once called for fewer officers in his ward, but in a sensational reversal in 2022, asked for a stronger police presence after shootings in his ward rose dramatically. One of the biggest buffoons in the DSA caucus, Sigcho-Lopez once issued a bizarre public plea to gang members to agree to a 48-hour truce following a pair of shootings in the very heart of his ward. While Sigcho-Lopez was able to avoid a runoff against Flores, he, like several of his DSA colleagues, saw support drop over the past four years.
Though the revolution gathered enough steam to thrust four additional democratic socialists into office in 2019, the movement's momentum stalled this year. Despite high expectations, only one DSA-endorsed candidate was elected, housing organizer Angela Clay. A signal there was a dramatic leftward shift in the 46th Ward, Clay replaced the retiring James Cappleman by defeating Kim Walz. Reveling in her electoral victory, Clay, in profound terms, articulated her overarching goal as alderman was to ensure “Chicago remains the dopest city on the planet.”
In the 40th Ward, incumbent Andre Vasquez, a former hip-hop artist noted for his misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, was easily returned to office with 76 percent of the vote. In the 49th Ward, incumbent Maria Hadden, who has turned Rogers Park into a crime-ridden, homeless oasis, was decisively reelected. In other races, DSA candidates seeking office for the first time did not perform as well as DSA incumbents or Clay. Five other DSA-backed candidates, Oscar Sanchez, Ambria Taylor, Nick Ward, Mueze Bawany, and Warren Williams, were all defeated. All five were well financed with CTU campaign cash, but none advanced to runoff elections.
That the DSAs were unable to substantially increase their numbers in 2023 as they did in 2019 is good news, but this is where the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" ends for Chicago residents. Though the DSAs only grew by one seat in the City Council, the incoming class of first-term aldermen are a chorus line of social-justice activists, anti-police cheerleaders, and community organizers who cleverly disown the DSA stamp. Despite the attempt to distance themselves from the Democratic Socialist movement, many of these aldermen are true believers in Marxism and they are all deeply disconnected from their constituents.
Municipal voters typically prioritize local issues and demand effective government which concentrates on the basics of social order — trash and graffiti removal, clearing roads of snow or fixing potholes. Aside from expecting their alderman to fulfill simple ward work, voters tend to be absorbed with the condition of the Chicago’s schools, finances, and safety issues. Only eight years ago, no single issue — the economy, city finances, public transit, education — dominated the mayoral election. In 2023, however, crime overshadowed all other concerns.
The freshman class of 2023, most of whom are socialists and activists to the core, have far different priorities than good governance or critical issues which have dominated recent elections. An uncompromising, absolutist group of social justice activists, the incoming class of rookie aldermen signals the sterilization of the City Council’s remaining establishment-style, moderate Democrats. Gone are the gradualists, skeptics, and prudent aldermen who could have been relied upon to slow or oppose outlandish and unworkable legislation in the City Council.
In the place of liberal aldermen who are retiring from the city’s legislative chamber are an illiberal band of social-justice activists, and the movement which they have incubated and molded is determined to place greater priority on overturning Chicago rather than saving it from epochal disaster. Activists masquerading as legislators, combine the freshman class of 2023 with the existing DSA and progressive caucuses in the City Council and Chicago is left with a bloc of socialists which will be both large and formidable enough to rubber stamp Brandon Johnson’s progressive goals.
With socialists increasing their numbers in the City Council, Chicago residents can expect DSA and progressive aldermen to prioritize ideological goals over the well-being of the city’s residents. This means the Chicago Teachers Union will be crafting legislation for progressive aldermen to advance in the City Council. Those measures will myopically fixate on niche issues such as race and diversity. The invention of artificial crises to deflect from legitimate crises, ordinances which advance the objectives of social justice will revolve around renaming streets, parks, schools, removing statues from their plinths, raising taxes on a whim, and imposing punitive measures on Chicago Police. Disastrous policy making, crime, the economy, and functioning schools will all be rated near the bottom of the list of concerns. Chicago will pay dearly for the expanded influence of progressives in the City Council.
Though Brandon Johnson is being laureled as the Second Coming and laurels are being thrown at the incoming class of new aldermen, their plans for Chicago spell calamity for the Windy City. As Chicago residents are confronted with higher taxes, higher crime, and a bleak economy, both Johnson and the progressives will huffily explain taxes are sacrifices for the greater good, we must learn to coexist with criminals, and prosperity and economic growth are curse words.
Chicago barely survived Lori Lightfoot, but it may not survive the City Council’s class of 2023.