Case Study: The Role of IPOs in Graciela Guzmán’s Campaign for State Senate

By Levi Todd and Jonathan Nagy

In 2024, healthcare advocate Graciela Guzmán ran for the 20th District State Senator in a Democratic primary that highlighted the divide between establishment corporate Democrats and the political independence of the working class. After former State Senator Dr. Cristina Pacione-Zayas resigned in May 2023 to become Mayor Johnson’s Deputy Chief of Staff, a vacancy was created in the 20th Senate District. Guzmán decided to seek the nomination, encouraged by her long-standing dedication to progressive causes and her connection with the community.

Traditionally, Cook County Democratic Committeepeople appoint nominees to fill vacancies, often through deals lacking public input. This process has a history of decisions made behind closed doors without regard for the electorate’s input. Pacione-Zayas herself was appointed in 2020 but joined the progressive coalition after engaging with Independent Political Organizations (IPOs). During her appointment, the IPOs in the Senate district held a People’s Appointment process, separate from the formal appointment process, to interview her and secure commitments to movement demands. Pacione-Zayas learned about the IPOs’ organizing model and their crucial role in electing progressive champions. Though appointed by moderate Committeeperson Iris Martinez, she joined the progressive coalition and supported significant legislation such as the Lift the Ban on Rent Control. This history set the stage for Guzmán’s campaign and the IPOs’ continued influence.

In June 2023, after Pacione-Zayas resigned, the IPOs convened again to hold another People’s Appointment process to identify a candidate to recommend for the formal appointment. These IPOs included 30th United, 33rd Ward Working Families, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, 39th Ward Neighbors United, and United Northwest Side. The IPOs had a long history of organizing in the district and included many members who lived there. They solicited nominations and received four, including Guzmán’s. Nominees completed extensive questionnaires and participated in a live Zoom town hall where they answered questions from the community. The town hall audience and the IPOs reached a consensus, recommending Guzmán to the Democratic Committeepeople to fill the vacancy. Notably, Aldermen Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) and Daniel La Spata (1st Ward), both committed to supporting Guzmán based on the IPOs’ recommendation, with Ramirez-Rosa being an active member of United Neighbors of the 35th Ward. A formal letter was sent to the Committeepeople to support her appointment.

The 20th Senate District, one of the most progressive in Illinois and arguably the nation, is roughly 50% Latine and 45% white. Graciela Guzmán, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who fled the civil war, shared her experiences with poverty during her campaign, recounting how her family lost their home in the 2008 housing crisis and how her grandfather died without healthcare as an undocumented immigrant. As Campaign Director for Healthy Illinois, she helped expand Medicaid coverage to low-income seniors regardless of immigration status and played a key role in this legislation, leading to her role as Chief of Staff for Dr. Pacione-Zayas. Known in organizing communities, Guzmán built relationships with progressive groups, serving on the board of the Chicago Women’s March and working with Indivisible and reproductive health organizers. Guzmán founded a mutual aid network in Belmont Cragin, initially providing meals and medical supplies during the pandemic and later supporting migrant arrivals in 2023-2024. She connected her healthcare advocacy and mutual aid work to political struggles throughout her campaign.

On July 10, 2023, the Democratic Committee of the 20th Senate District convened to appoint a new Senator. The meeting, held in a park district gymnasium on a hot summer day, was poorly promoted. However, the IPOs organized a large turnout of Guzmán supporters, who wore “I’m with Graciela!” buttons. Of the roughly 120 attendees, about 90 were IPO members or supporters, including many whom Guzmán had connected with through healthcare or mutual aid efforts. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa moved to allow public comment, and eight of the twelve speakers, prepared by the IPOs, voiced their support for Guzmán and referenced the People’s Appointment process.

Despite this show of support, the Committee’s weighted voting structure favored conservative forces. Iris Martinez and Scott Waguespack united to give the appointment to Natalie Toro, a Kindergarten teacher and Martinez’s god-daughter. Toro, previously unsuccessful in a run for Cook County Commissioner, was appointed due to Martinez’s influence and her longstanding family alliances. Senate President Don Harmon, anticipating Toro’s appointment, attended the meeting to quickly congratulate her. After Toro’s swearing-in, the IPOs orchestrated a walkout, chanting “See you at the ballot box!” in reference to the upcoming special primary election.

Following the appointment, the IPOs began formal endorsement processes for Guzmán’s campaign. With petition season approaching in September, Guzmán’s campaign started building their field infrastructure. The 33rd and 35th Wards, deeply organized due to the IPOs, committed to canvassing entirely through volunteers, supported occasionally by the campaign’s paid canvass team. Guzmán’s campaign hired IPO members as field coordinators for other priority wards, marking the first campaign to exclusively hire IPO staff. This staffing structure contrasted with Toro’s campaign, which relied on Senate Democrats’ staffers from outside the district.

By petition season, four candidates had emerged: appointed incumbent Natalie Toro, wealthy philanthropic doctor Dave Nayak, local park district council president Geary Yonker, and Guzmán. The attention on the race and progressives’ consolidation around Guzmán led her opponents to adopt her language and talking points. Toro’s campaign raised over $2.5 million, with $1.9 million bundled by President Harmon. Nayak’s campaign self-funded over $700,000, largely from his trust fund. Guzmán’s campaign, supported by small donations, unions, and progressive electeds, raised roughly $750,000.

The IPOs’ field efforts collected over 3,000 signatures, well above the 1,000 minimum and 2,500 maximum required. The campaign knocked on 158,261 doors and spoke with 28,241 voters, with targeted efforts in Spanish-speaking communities and towards mail-in voters. Paid canvassers from local nonprofits supplemented the field program, bringing impacted communities closer to the political project. Many canvassers, experienced in previous progressive campaigns, expressed interest in starting their own political organizations in Belmont Cragin.

Guzmán received endorsements from prominent progressive figures, including Congresswoman Delia Ramirez, Cook County Commissioner Anthony Joel Quezada, several alderpeople, and state representatives. These endorsements demonstrated the power of the IPOs and indicated a potential shift away from Democratic party leadership. Notably, Commissioner Quezada’s endorsement from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle triggered conflict between Preckwinkle and Harmon, highlighting the growing influence of progressive alliances.

Key voter concerns included housing, healthcare, public safety, education, and immigration. Guzmán’s personal experiences with poverty and healthcare resonated deeply with Latine and low-income voters. The campaign employed Spanish-language targeting through canvassing, digital ads, TV ads, and mailers. Guzmán’s extensive policy platform, based on her deep knowledge and grassroots experience, addressed these issues comprehensively.

Guzmán won the Democratic nomination with 51.18% of the vote, defeating Toro’s 29.33% in a four-way race. Her victory, with more than 50% of the vote, sent her to the Senate with a progressive mandate and demonstrated the power of grassroots organizing against establishment Democrats. Following this victory, the IPOs plan to shift focus to community organizing and popular education, continuing to engage communities involved in Guzmán’s campaign and connecting them to existing or new organizing projects.

Further Reading: Electoral and community organizing in Chicago

Levi Todd (they/them) is a lifelong Chicagoan and community organizer. They are a member and serve on the Executive Committee of United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, their local independent political organization. In their free time, they enjoy reading, riding their bike, and dancing.

Jonathan Nagy lives on the northwest side of Chicago and was raised in rural Ohio. He organizes with United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, and serves on the organization’s Executive Committee. He volunteers as a graphic designer for grassroots campaigns and organizations, and works as a Director of Communications and Policy for a local city council member. 


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