The states! There’s 50 of them, just like the Founding Fathers planned. Some interesting things happened in those states’ governments recently. First, all five socialist candidates won their state-level races in New York, just weeks after all three Pennsylvania DSA endorsees won their state-level races. Second, the Angel of Death and Archbishop of Transactional Politics, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, was named in a major bribery investigation. After his evil Senate counterpart John Cullerton retired last year, it seems that the old machine is, well, very old. What should follow? The answer is: socialists.
Springfield is an infamously shameless locale, home to some of America’s most-investigated scoundrels. That’s partially because most of its seats are uncontested by the working class. Few Illinoisans know who their state representatives are, and even fewer know what they do. Some representatives work as lawyers for corporations while in office, some are alcoholics who get into Facebook arguments with activists, and some fit into both categories. Many are unelected — lawyers or nonprofit activists who make the right friends, then receive their seats via appointments from the Democratic Party. Once in office, they settle in to quietly create lucrative new loopholes for eldercare, insurance, and real-estate companies. There’s an opportunity to politicize these races around local issues.
Were you outraged when Chicago’s school board decided to keep racist police in our children’s schools? Then you should know that an elected school board bill with overwhelming support has been held hostage in the state legislature for years. Are you stunned at the lack of housing relief in response to COVID unemployment? Know that the state legislature’s ban on rent control prevents our city from giving meaningful rent relief, and a bill to cancel rents and ban evictions received huge support in the state house before being sidelined. Our governor has been more progressive than our mayor on most issues, and it’s time we took advantage of that.
Take rent control as a case study. In the ’90s, the Koch Brothers-funded think tank ALEC attempted to pass a statewide prohibition on rent control. It didn’t pass. They ran some candidates, flipped some seats, and passed the ban on rent control in 1997. Now our city council socialist caucus cannot seriously propose rent control or cancelling rent during the pandemic — an entire site of struggle with our awful mayor removed from the table.
The Democratic Caucus and Winning Legislation
Though there is an obvious need for us to intervene in statewide politics to achieve our legislative goals, electoral politics alone will not bring about socialist transformation. That’s why it’s important to highlight the benefits of the campaigns themselves.
If there’s no nasty fights, there’s no working class power. As long as progressives must maintain party loyalty and decorum, they cannot confront the class warfare that corporate Democrats are waging against us. Socialist candidates, protected by the movement and empowered by organized coalitions, can clearly identify the battle lines and start to name the power of the corporate bloc.
The Illinois Democratic caucus includes a small, young Progressive Caucus based mostly in Chicago, which includes a couple genuine allies like United Working Families-supported Delia Ramirez and Will Guzzardi, and newcomer SEIU HC organizer Lakesia Collins. However, much like the national party, Illinois state democrats have been increasingly winning suburban districts with corporate Democrats. These Democrats represent a major obstacle to progressive legislation. The party’s more tenuous grasp on their seats leads party leaders to work harder to please and protect them, and not start those nasty fights over ideology or policy.
In addition to the obvious value of flipping a seat from corporate “progressive” to socialist, another crucial metric is: what does our organization get from running the campaign itself? When weighing the benefits of endorsing/running a candidate, we should focus on whether or not the campaign gives the chapter the opportunity to develop in accordance with the national electoral strategy, as outlined by the National Electoral Committee.
In 2022, we would be remiss to ignore the opportunity for Chicago DSA to deepen our coalition partnerships with groups like UWF, SEUI HCII, and local IPOs by running campaigns for state house/senate. Additionally, as noted in the NEC’s electoral strategy, worthwhile electoral campaigns must build the chapter’s capacity to execute electoral campaigns from start to finish. This end goal means developing to the point where Chicago DSA can draft the candidate from within our rank and file, fundraise as needed, run a robust field operation, project strong socialist messaging, and more. We aren’t there yet, but engaging in the 2022 cycle gives us the opportunity to continue in this direction.
Beyond Legislation: Building Power in Chicago
In addition to all the benefits noted above (moving the needle in terms of legislation, growth in membership and development of our capacity) these campaigns will help build our power locally. Running and winning races for Springfield doesn’t mean our eyes are fixed on Springfield — it means we are taking some of the many opportunities to build power and agitate here in Chicago.
Take another example from the struggle for rent control. In 2018–2019, the fight to get a floor vote on lifting the ban in Springfield was stymied by the stubborn opposition of just a few representatives — one of whom is Curtis Tarver II. Tarver represents the most-evicted district in Illinois, and actually ran on rent control to get elected. But his betrayal of his campaign promises went completely unchallenged in 2020’s primary, despite toxic press in local papers over multiple scandals. A challenger’s campaign could represent a massive organizing opportunity in his district, which contains the deeply progressive Hyde Park and the working class South Shore.
Just like aldermen, state representatives can endorse other socialist candidates, be mouthpieces for the movement, stand on picket lines, legitimize our organization and our agenda to their communities, organize against ICE, demand accountability from corporations like Hilco, frame the debate on a range of issues, name class enemies, loudly refuse checks from the real estate lobby — all of the powerful things that go beyond writing and passing legislation.
Once a socialist alderman proves that our message can win in their ward, a state assembly campaign is not a detraction from our efforts in City Council— it’s the opposite: a way to shore up our power there. It’s also our strongest route to eventually electing our first socialist Congressperson in Illinois, which NYC DSA has now done twice. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Charles Booker were all state representatives who built support in the party and name recognition in their communities that led to strong runs for national office.
We should take note from the success of NYC DSA in 2020, and view it as a possible path for us going forward. Their candidates were born from their struggle — see Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer who was literally in the room when their 2019 rent control bills won, or Jabari Brisport, who took on a real estate funded City Council member and lost before his successful Senate run. And by running their candidates as a slate (five candidates, including incumbent Julia Salazar) they were able to unify, elevate NYC DSA’s message, and increase the candidates’ likelihood of winning. Particularly for ideologically grounded organizations like DSA, slates can have a very powerful effect. Through our successful city council efforts, we’ve planted seeds of power in the city of Chicago. 2022’s state level cycle gives us a critical opportunity to further legitimize Chicago DSA as an electoral force. Let’s take it.