Electoral and community organizing in Chicago

By Levi Todd and Jonathan Nagy

Introduction

In a time when the Democratic Party is nationally divided, Chicago reflects this fracture locally. The Cook County Democratic Party (CCDP), once dominant, now shows less structure and ideological firmness, shifting towards prioritizing wealthy donors over traditional party elites. This shift opens avenues for grassroots movements among the disadvantaged to assert political independence, challenging Corporate Democrats especially in local elections. This independent political stance can advocate for people’s issues, mobilize around them, and demonstrate effective governance, contrasting with ruling class interests. Nationally, both Democratic and Republican parties face a potential split into a third party amid ongoing capitalist crises and internal dissent. Chicago is poised to be a focal point if this split materializes, with grassroots movements like independent political organizations (IPOs) already electing working-class candidates and forging co-governing relationships. These leaders, despite their Democratic Party origins, may ultimately steer towards creating a new working-class party.

Chicago’s Political Landscape and the National Scene

Chicago has long been a vital part of the national landscape, historically thriving as a key center for industry and transportation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It once maintained economic power in sectors like meatpacking, steel, construction, and rail, attracting both local and national elites and making it a hub for commerce and politics. (Today, Chicago’s economy has become deindustrialized and more reliant on tourism, tech, real estate, entertainment, and services.) Notably, LaSalle Street emerged as Chicago’s Wall Street equivalent, housing institutions like the Chicago Board of Trade Building and the Chicago Stock Exchange, linking the city to national and global markets. The city’s political evolution, from business-focused mayors in the 1800s to politically (and criminally) connected figures like Richard Daley Sr. and Jr. in the 1900s, underscores its enduring influence. 

As a hub of labor, Chicago has been known for its reliability as a Democratic city. Whereas Chicago’s labor power was once consolidated in the trades, its largest unions today represent educators, service/healthcare/hospitality workers, and public employees.  Chicago’s political landscape, anchored by its Democratic stronghold, has drawn significant attention from the Democratic National Committee, evident in the city’s hosting of the Democratic convention 11 times, more than any other US city. This close scrutiny reflects Chicago’s role in shaping Democratic deliberations during critical periods. Many Democrats who take on national significance have roots in Chicago, such as Harold Washington, Rahm Emanuel, and Barack Obama. Recent figures like Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Mayor Brandon Johnson, and Governor J.B. Pritzker maintain their own national political relationships, with the latter speculated to run for president in 2028 (if not sooner).

Yet, alongside its political prominence, Chicago is also a site of both lavish abundance and escalating poverty. At the end of 2023, there were more than 450,000 Chicagoans living below the federal poverty line (17.2% of the population, compared to 11.5% nationally), and more than half of those people, 240,000, are living in deep poverty. (1) This reflects the automation of work, the closing of factories, and the gutting of the social safety net (especially public housing) over the last 50 years. The 35th Ward does not represent the highest concentration of poverty in the city, but there are intense pockets and communities within the ward where this trend is pronounced, especially in the neighborhoods of Albany Park and Hermosa. UN35 and the elected officials it partners with have maintained relationships with those living in homeless encampments, and now partners with the Illinois Union of the Homeless. 

The model of ward-based IPOs in Chicago traces back to the movement behind the Harold Washington mayoral campaign in the 1980s, when grassroots organizers were forced to organize systems of political power independent of the historically dominant Cook County Democratic Party (CCDP). The CCDP maintained its power by organizing deeply in Chicago’s neighborhoods through networks of Democrat ward organizations, which it used to advance racist segregation and rampant corruption. When poor people’s movements began to contend for electoral power, they recognized the need to mirror this structure at the ward level. As Chicago’s grassroots has increasingly turned to the electoral arena in its organizing struggles, new IPOs have increasingly been forming since 2015. 

The CCDP maintained control in the 20th century through a corrupt patronage system, where local Democratic precinct workers’ campaigning for party candidates in their neighborhood were rewarded with jobs (sometimes no-show jobs). From the 1990s to now, the party began shifting control away from local party elites (largely because of new legal mandates resulting from lawsuits) and towards wealthy donors, especially in finance. Whereas the precinct worker and ward organization was once needed to establish name ID for candidates locally, in the modern era this can be achieved with digital ads, texts, and especially mail ads. This has resulted in the CCDP being less coalesced around a platform and leadership of bosses, and more dependent on the vision and goals of their donors. This lack of universal alignment has created windows of opportunity and fracture points in the overall local party infrastructure that Chicago working class movements have been able to exploit to seize victory in their struggles. This lack of universal party alignment has led the CCDP to not coalesce around a single Chicago mayoral candidate in the last two elections in 2019 and 2023.

Since the early 2010s, there has been an upsurge in the expression of political independence in Chicago that has resulted in countless union and electoral victories. This upsurge is unique from previous political uprisings, and reflects the deepening economic crisis nationally and globally. IPOs provide a model of how movements of the poor can organize locally to build permanently organized and politically independent communities fighting for a people’s agenda. It is important to note that though IPOs may endorse Democratic candidates, these organizations remain independent of any party and their candidates often take stances that align themselves with their organized base in direct conflict with Democratic party leadership. 

United Neighbors of the 35th Ward and the Struggle for Political Independence

United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35) is a volunteer-led and grassroots-funded independent political organization founded in 2015 by poor and working class people.(2) We describe “independence” in our work as the practice of maintaining unencumbered political power wielded by the most impacted people in our neighborhoods. UN35 organizes in the 35th Ward of Chicago, which is located on the northwest side of Chicago and encompasses portions of the neighborhoods of Logan Square, Irving Park, Hermosa, and Avondale. These neighborhoods have historically been home to many culturally diverse  immigrant communities, including Mexican, Puerto Rican, Polish, Venezuelan, Norwegian, and more. 

UN35 maintains collaborative relationships with local elected leaders, other nearby community organizations, other independent political organizations both nearby and around the city, and citywide issue-based and electoral coalitions, as well as many independently connected neighbors. We meet monthly and canvass our neighborhoods regularly to gather stories and connect our neighbors to resources. Although our organization maintains a focus on building a base of community leaders within the boundaries of 35th ward neighborhoods, we recognize our members are also more likely to move neighborhoods to find work or affordable housing. It is also true that poor and working people are likely to ebb and flow with their ability to commit volunteer time to an organization. We approach our work to develop leaders of our class to participate broadly in any political or community organization with a class analysis and equip people with skills to participate in the most holistic and sustainable way possible for them. 

UN35 was established in 2015 to create a permanent organizing project for the community leaders that came together to organize for the election of Chicago’s first self-identifying socialist alderman since the early 1900s, Carlos Ramirez Rosa (alderman, or alderperson, is synonymous with City Councilmember). Carlos’s campaign was organized to center the experiences of poor and working class immigrant families in the 35th ward, and inspired our neighbors to develop a community-informed political program that laid the foundation for many of UN35’s current efforts. Over time, UN35 was forced to confront questions of political independence from nonprofit political projects, education institutes, capitalist organizing methodologies, and currently the Democratic Party and labor unions. Several of UN35’s members are also members of the University of the Poor, are active in our local Chicago/Midwest Chapters of the UPoor, and leverage our studies to develop an organizational culture of self-reflection, strategic planning, as well as a focus on identifying and developing local leaders of our class to participate in and lead the organization. Both our former and current chairpersons, and several of our members, are born and raised in the neighborhoods to working class immigrant families. 

Through our nearly 10 years of organizing work, we have worked alongside innumerable community leaders to broadly shift the culture within our neighborhoods to produce regularly high-than-average voter turnout for progressive issues and support for local candidates for elected office. This support makes our community one of the most consistently progressive electoral districts in Chicago, if not the country. During our electoral canvassing, we have made 130,000+ door knock attempts since our organization’s founding in 2015, targeting a universe of roughly 20,000 registered voters out of the 55,000 overall ward population. This represents 2,363 hours of our members’ time. 

Notably, our organization currently works alongside our district’s city councilmember (Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa, now in his third term), Cook County Commissioner (UN35’s former Chair Anthony Joel Quezada), state representatives, state senator, and Congresswoman Delia Ramirez to ensure our poor and immigrant communities see themselves reflected in their elected leaders, and that the resources they most desperately need are advocated for and provided. UN35 is building trusting and co-conspiratorial relationships with the leaders most likely to leave and support a new working class party in the event of a Democratic split.

We are in the beginning phases of establishing models of a collaborative relationship with our new progressive mayor and hold leadership roles at roundtables with the mayor and his staff to deliberate the impacts and process of such a relationship. We also organize to hold power within the local Democratic Party in order to control the appointment process for office vacancies, where we currently have significant influence over a number of local districts, and singular power in some districts to appoint replacement candidates from our base. 

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Our communities are up against many significant struggles that we organize around, such as gentrification and unregulated rents that are both dramatically affecting availability of affordable housing and reducing rental housing stock, an inaccessible and broken local government infrastructure, defending public education from funding cuts and privatization, supporting new migrant families and asylum seekers amidst record levels of immigration in a society that already persecutes immigrants, accountability efforts around a bloated police budget and rampant police violence, and more. In the face of these issues impacting our community, we have observed natural and spontaneous tendencies from our neighbors to look to the electoral arena as a field of struggle, and to demand more of their elected officials. Our work has put us in direct conflict with many institutions representing ruling class interests, such as the local Democratic Party apparatus, real estate developers, charter school networks, and the police and their union to name a few.

UN35 has engaged in a variety of organizing tactics in our history, but our overall strategy has remained the same: we remain rooted in uplifting and uniting poor and working people in the 35th Ward to engage in community decision-making processes, including the electoral scene. When considering whether to take up various issue-based, electoral, or community organizing projects, we ask ourselves several questions:

  • Does it build power for the poor? Will the people relate to the message? Will it inspire people to take action collectively? How will we help people understand their power when they unite?
  • Will this campaign help us build the leadership of our existing members, and will it help connect us to existing leaders in our community?
  • How does this project help advance political clarity? How are we making space for people to connect their lived experiences to our political project?
  • How will we promote individual and organizational self-reflection and assessment before, during, and after this project?

A broad overview of our previous and active campaigns include:

  1. Community Organizing & Coalition Building: Connecting to a long-time community demand to convert an underutilized parking lot into an entirely-affordable housing building; canvassing neighbors to discuss their experiences around housing and displacement while building support for the project to turn out for community meetings. Organized in co-governance with our 35th ward alderman to develop an inside-outside strategy to advance the project, resulting in the successful creation of 100 entirely affordable housing units after out-organizing opposition from the real estate lobby. Participate in many city-wide coalitions around issue campaigns.
  2. Direct Service: Canvassing our neighbors with printed bilingual resource newsletters during COVID to breach the digital divide, promoting community services through ward office, organizing deportation defense committees during the Trump administration, volunteering in other mutual aid networks, providing space for donations and a “free store” for new migrant arrivals.
  3. Electoral Organizing: Successfully running one of our own members, longtime community resident and organizer Anthony Joel Quezada, for an unpaid Cook County Democratic Party leadership position in 2020, and for Cook County Commissioner in 2022 directly against the endorsement of the Democratic Party.
  4. Issue-Based Organizing: Organizing a petition drive and canvassing operation around lifting our statewide ban on rent control, resulting in an advisory ballot referendum demonstrating overwhelming support for rent control in our ward. Have connected the 35th Ward to other city-wide and state-wide campaigns to pass a graduated income tax, protect the right to unionize, tax real estate interests to fund housing for the homeless, and more. We have also organized community defense efforts in the face of Trump-era deportation raids, and our members have tapped into mutual aid projects to welcome and care for new migrant arrivals in the midst of a dislocated government response.
  5. Political and Popular Education: UN35 frequently organizes political education trainings, study groups, and book clubs for our own members, as well as popular education events for our broader community. For our members, the purpose of this political education is to welcome in new members and engage with them to build a shared political clarity and analysis. For our community, the purpose of our popular education is to get neighbors to connect their individual lived experiences with our community’s shared experiences, and to develop an awareness of the forces against us.
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We face a moment of contradiction as some sectors of the poor are increasingly jaded by politics and opt not to participate (whether in defiance or in apathy), other sectors where the poor are increasingly driven towards the electoral arena as a space to contend for their working class agenda, and other sectors that are systemically prevented or disincentivized from voting or organizing electorally. As the ruling class realizes both the Democrats’ and Republicans’ inability to control the accelerating crises of capitalism and the technological revolution, the landscape for political independence of the poor becomes more possible but is also riddled with new and important questions and contradictions. 

Notes:

  1. This statistic is shared with the understanding that the federal poverty line is an incredibly flawed system that does not fully capture the landscape of poverty in the United States.
  2.  Throughout this article, we understand that “the poor” and “working class people” are not separate or distinct from one another. Rather, while all of our active members are working class, we recognize that the most impacted neighbors in our community are the poor, who are a subsection of the working class.

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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