The last few weeks have shattered Illinois’ hopes of making an economically sensible and just recovery from the coronavirus economic collapse. With the Senate in Republican hands, no federal relief is coming at the scale needed to make up the gap. Unchecked infections will bring another lockdown and mass layoffs. The failure of the Fair Tax and Lightfoot’s property tax increase are two torpedoes to the working people of Illinois, who were already in a leaky vessel before coronavirus. 94 Million dollars, an income tax increase, and slashed social services will sink us.
Imagine a working mother who makes roughly the median income in Chicago — $55,000. Rising rents have displaced her at least once in the last ten years. Health insurance, childcare and rents are eating all of her budget. An increase in income tax and rent could easily amount to $1000 a year for her. That’s almost an entire month’s rent, gone. That could erase the raise she got last year. She could be forced to make another expensive move to a cheaper neighborhood, and a tumultuous change to a new school district for her children. As millions of Illinoisans have done, she could move out of state, further decimating our communities and tax base.
Dozens of sources of progressive revenue are available to fix this mess. We could quibble over the strategy and message of the Fair Tax (it’s hard to imagine any strategy doing worse than what was implemented). But we don’t need a new issue campaign to push for progressive revenue. Any new initiative will die the same gruesome death as the Fair Tax, LaSalle Tax, and countless other bills whose time may never come.
Instead, we need to excise and excoriate the leaders and structures that make the Illinois Democratic Party toxic to working people. Illinoisans loathe Michael Madigan on a level comparable only to Mitch McConnell. We loathe his corporate agenda, and we loathe his shameless corruption. Lori Lightfoot and the City Council socialist caucus have radically different agendas, but they were swept into office with one thing in common: the Democratic Machine is evil. Madigan’s past ability to weather Rauner’s nihilistic assault may be impressive. But now that it’s time to legislate, his toxic reputation makes him incapable of passing the progressive agenda that Illinoisans desperately need.
Well-intentioned progressive legislators regularly tell advocates that there is little they can do in the face of Madigan’s control of the legislative process, or that they can only try to pass “realistic” bills. But during his election to the Speakership last year, only a single state representative voted “present” (not even “no”). Only a handful have called for his resignation since the ComEd scandal broke. Now we are facing an apocalypse. That type of thinking will not get us out.
But it’s not just Madigan himself that perpetuates this corrupt dynamic. It’s his ability to shovel cash to candidates who know where it comes from: insurance, corporate finance, real estate, and labor unions desperately paying for their survival. Illinois families are being strangled by the political malfeasance of a party leader fueled with dark money and hardworking union members’ dues. We must replace not only the man, but also the reliance on corporate money and incompetent operatives that defined him.
A concerted opposition and a unified, moral message could end the abusive relationship between union workers, nonprofits and corporate power. In the short term, labor unions, Governor Pritzker and progressives must regain public trust and seize the initiative by not just calling for the end of Madigan’s disastrous reign, but humiliating his brand of politics. This is the only move serious enough — and newsworthy enough — to tell voters that change is possible, that corruption is unacceptable, and legislative gridlock is in the past.
In the long term, aggressive progressives must fund campaigns by grassroots means, to become independent of party control, and seize the anti-corruption narrative before the Republicans use it to further harm their constituents. They must proudly support insurgent candidates challenging incumbent Democrats who follow in Madigan’s footsteps.
Here’s the alternative: In a few years, the turbulence of capitalism and the weak dribble of meaningful policy from Democrats will yield a Republican Governor. Austerity will see further displacement and disenfranchisement of Black and brown Chicagoans, cementing a conservative white rule. We will see candidates like Kim Foxx lose. Pensions will eventually be cut, and public workers will bitterly turn on the party that failed them. Get on those workers’ good side now.