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An Examination into Chicago’s Independent Political Organizations

In Chicago, we have a tradition of political organizations called Independent Political Organizations. Given the overlap between DSA and IPOs in Chicago, it may be worth talking more about the role they are currently playing and could hopefully play in Chicago politics. This piece will start off by defining what IPOs are and how they operate. Then it will try to grasp the recent growth in IPOs over the past few years, both factually and politically: where have they grown, why have they grown, and what organizations or movements have scaffolded their growth alongside each other. The last parts of the piece look forward to the challenges that IPOs (and their coordinated growth) may face in the 2023 municipal election, and how IPOs and their scaffolds could construct an independent party.

Definitions and examples

Independent political organizations engage in electoral politics (although not necessarily exclusively) and operate independently of Democratic Party organizations. When the Democratic Machine was more powerful, these IPOs were a means of circumventing that, or creating a more progressive machine. There’s a range of what “independent” can mean here: Chicago is commonly understood to be a one-party town, but the power of the Democratic Machine today is debatable; mayoral and city council elections are nonpartisan but politicians can still self-identify as Democrat, Independent, or (rarely) Republican. This open space within Chicago politics has possibly encouraged a small flourishing of IPOs since 2019, especially in the wake of some clear left wins in 2019 city council races.

The first IPO in Chicago was founded by former volunteers of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential run, called Independent Precinct Organization at the time. It was established as an alternative to the local Democratic machine operations, and sought to recruit or support progressive candidates (such as Dick Simpson, a progressive alderman in the 44th ward from 1971-79) and engage in issue campaigns. It still exists today in some form as it fused with the “good government” group, Independent Voters of Illinois.

In the 1980s there was a growth in IPOs tied to independent/anti-machine political action by Latino politicians, contemporaneous and often connected to the Harold Washington campaign. 

In some ways the history of IPOs overlaps with Chicago’s history of Alinskyist community organizing. One notable example is the trajectory of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO); founded in 1980, by the 2010s it was a prime example of the corruption rife within Chicago charter schools. (The presentation in that last link is by Byron Sigcho-Lopez when he was a researcher at UIC. In 2019, he unseated 25th ward alderman Danny Solis, who was co-founder of UNO.)

As a contemporary example, I’ll use the organization I’m a member of, 33rd Ward Working Families. Like the first IPO, our goals are to run home-grown candidates, build political power and infrastructure for activity outside of the “Democratic Machine,” and fight issue campaigns. This group was founded out of the aldermanic campaign of CTU teacher Tim Meegan, who ran against machine scion Deb Mell (appointed to the seat under Rahm Emanuel after her father Dick Mell’s 38-year incumbency ended in 2013). Meegan narrowly lost the opportunity to push Mell to a runoff, but activists on his campaign formed 33rd Ward Working Families to dig in for the next four years. In 2019, we and our candidate Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez toppled the Mell dynasty in our ward. The IPO’s organizing in the years leading up to the election even made Deb Mell remark that the ward organization and Rossana had been “running for a long time.”

What does it mean to be a member?

The meaning of membership probably varies from IPO to IPO, and likely within IPOs as well. Starting from the first IPO and continuing to this day, they usually have a democratic endorsement process for candidates. The right to vote will usually be based on dues (since elections can cost a lot of money) or participation in IPO work, though it may also be geographically determined by simply being a member of the ward. Speaking for 33rd Ward Working Families, our definition of membership is monthly dues (suggested at $10 per month) or participation in a number of events over the past 6 months. We currently have more than 60 dues-paying members.

Additionally, what work members engage in via the IPO can vary from group to group. Some are strictly electoral formations, thinking primarily about the next election. Others, including ours in 33, tackle a mix of elections and issue campaigns or organizing initiatives in the ward. For our IPO over the past year, we’ve had members:

  • hosting a food pantry out of our office for the past year as a mutual aid response to the coronavirus pandemic,
  • organizing around defunding the Chicago Police Department and advocating for the “Treatment not Trauma” ordinance,
  • supporting other legislative and ward-level initiatives from Rossana’s aldermanic office, like participatory budgeting and community-driven zoning,
  • campaigning for seats in Local School Councils at neighborhood schools, and supporting students who organized successfully to remove police from the local high school, Roosevelt,
  • collaborating with neighboring IPOs to agitate for a democratic process in appointing a vacant State Senate seat,
  • putting pressure and educating the public on Democratic machine politicians, like recently ousted Speaker of the House Michael Madigan,
  • building the internal organization of the IPO through fundraising, member organizing, and strategic planning, and
  • helping advise other IPOs who are forming around the city.

We’ve also discussed and made plans for running members for other positions beyond city council, though we haven’t actually run a campaign since Rossana’s in 2019.

Part of the reason our IPO has been able to balance electoral and social movement work has been because of the politics of our organizers, some of whom had experience working together on the left over the past decade before we started getting involved in electoral organizing.

Current spread and recent growth

Now that we have a rough idea of what IPOs are and how they operate, what’s the extent of their spread within Chicago?

There isn’t a central directory of IPOs in Chicago, and because of the ease of declaring an organization and starting a Political Action Committee (PAC), they can form without much fanfare or coordination. Here are the wards with IPOs that I’ve been able to identify based on my work and supplemented with some searching online, though some are possibly defunct based on social media activity: 1, 10, 11, 12, 14 (against notorious dinosaur Ed Burke), 15, 22, 25, 31, 32, 33, 35, 36, 39, 40, 48, and 50. Additionally, there are three IPOs that are not necessarily ward-specific, possibly thinking about their activity around not just ward but also county or state districts: Greater Austin IPO, Lakeview Uptown IPO, and United Northwest Side. Added together, and considering there are 50 total wards in Chicago, this preliminary list accounts for roughly 30-40% of the wards in the city.

PACs have to register with the state, but that can be a pretty porous and vague measure of IPOs as well. Based on a search of Illinois Sunshine, there are 11 committees registered as “Independent Political Organization” or “IPO”, 4 of them inactive. (Since IPO is not an official term, groups can organize independently and politically without being a PAC, or they can form a PAC without “IPO” in their name.) Two of the inactive IPOs have been marked as affiliated with the Democratic Party–though one re-activated in 2018 under the same name and dropped the Democratic affiliation. Of those active, half are recorded as founded in 2020, and half as between 2017 and 2019. There could be incomplete data in Illinois Sunshine’s database, but this confirms an obvious trend of hyper-growth of IPOs recently, especially since the 2019 municipal elections. 

Though wards are gerrymandered in ways that sometimes concentrate and sometimes disperse demographic communities, there are some patterns in demographics of the neighborhoods where IPOs have emerged. Roughly 10-11 of the IPOs I identified are located on the (generally whiter) North and Northwest Sides, 2-3 would be considered West Side, and 7 would be considered South Side. Most of the South Side IPOs are based in communities that are largely Latino, though two of these South Side wards are in traditionally white enclaves of the South Side (10th and 11th ward). Only one of these 20 organizations is based in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Austin. A deeper analysis of the racial and class make-up of the areas represented by IPOs might complicate this, but this brief overview suggests that the majority of IPOs seem to be in whiter neighborhoods, then Latino communities, and few in Black communities. (This does not take into account the relative membership and rootedness of these IPOs though, which would definitely require more analysis.)

My estimate is that, if 30-40% of wards have IPOs, at least half of them were founded in 2019 or later. Over the next two years, it is possible that there could be 20 IPOs, maybe more, campaigning in city and state elections, not to mention campaigns run without wider ward organizations.

In terms of political spread, Chicago’s IPOs run the gamut from “progressive” to “socialist,” though these definitions are also very fluid. Some, like in the 33rd ward, complement and broaden the legislative power of sitting socialist aldermen through a more democratic membership apparatus. Some exist to challenge incumbent aldermen from the left in preparation for running a campaign in the next round of elections. Political tendencies among IPOs can be gleaned by what coalitions they may be a part of. More on that below.

Political context for recent growth

To understand the relatively recent growth of IPOs in Chicago, it’s important to put it in the context of local electoral politics over the previous decade that people outside of Chicago might not be familiar with.

At the start of the decade, Mayor Daley announced that he would no longer run for the seat that had been held by him or his father for 43 of the previous 56 years from 1955 to 2011. There was a resulting increase in political activity around both the mayoral and city council races in 2011’s municipal elections.

In the lead up to the 2015 municipal elections, Occupy, Ferguson, the 2012 CTU strike, and Rahm’s revanchist closure of 50 schools in 2013 provided the left with stronger political demands, and a desire to express those demands through electoral means. CTU put increased energy and resources into city council and the mayoral race of Chuy Garcia, and built an electoral vehicle along with community organizations called United Working Families (UWF). However, many of these challenges were rebuked. Rahm Emanuel won by a higher percentage than he had in 2011. So the demands crystalized since 2011 didn’t manifest a left turn in city hall.

With the 2019 elections, it appeared that some of the left’s demands were maybe just delayed, instead of completely deferred. Another open race for mayor raised a sense of possibilities for left politics. (Rahm Emanuel, after winning election in 2011 and re-election in 2015, decided not to run again in 2019, possibly due to unpopularity and scandals like the Laquan MacDonald cover-up.) Momentum from the Bernie campaign in 2016 and the growth of left organizations such as Chicago DSA (CDSA) meant that there was a broader popular force that could knock doors, talk to their neighbors, and carry out a significant leftward shift in city council. Six of the elected aldermen were members of DSA. Nine of the 15 candidates endorsed by UWF won (five of whom overlapped with DSA’s endorsees). Four of the five candidates endorsed by the electoral wing of local People’s Action affiliates, Reclaim Chicago, won their seats (all four of whom overlapped with DSA’s endorsees). Three of the candidates who received endorsements from all three of these left organizations were also rooted in IPOs in the 25th, 33rd, and 35th wards. Across the spectrum, there was an uptick in total candidates for city council running compared to 2015–though not as many as in 2011.

Wins at the ward level have paralleled some wins in Springfield, with progressive state representatives also running, some of whom are strongly connected to the organizations mentioned above.

The successes for left organizations in the city council races inspired a turn to ward-based organization by others: activists who campaigned for winning campaigns the next ward over and wanted to bring similar victories to their own neighborhoods; activists who saw their challenger narrowly lose and wanted to dig in for the next round; and candidates who won but wanted to strengthen and/or democratize their political power through organizations.

Coordination and tendencies among IPOs

As said earlier, the best way to get a sense of the politics of an IPO may be the coalitions it participates in. 

Five IPOs are officially affiliated with United Working Families (UWF): 22, 25, 33, 35, and 50. UWF, as a coalition of left labor unions and community organizations, sees itself as an umbrella organization for IPOs and has attempted to foster growth of these organizations rooted across the city. On the labor side of things, UWF also represents a growing left pole among unions, helping draw greater political power around a previously isolated CTU. Leaders of UWF are explicit about wanting to form an alternative party, and see this coalition as the basis for doing so. (See, for example, the delegate questionnaire responses for eight candidates running for UWF’s Party Committee, especially responses around the need for an “independent political party.” Only one candidate stated the need to work within the Democratic Party until a future scenario.)

However, the alliance between labor and IPOs through UWF demonstrates their different approaches to electoral organizing. IPOs are volunteer organizations, often with shoestring budgets. UWF brings resources from the labor movement, which also encourages more staff-driven processes, even despite being anchored in an exemplar of democratic unionism in CTU. This difference manifested in a recent meeting when there was a contentious discussion about how to hold accountable the aldermen who UWF had endorsed but who then later voted for Lightfoot’s regressive budget. The vote on one amendment to name the specific aldermen who had broken with UWF split clearly (though not completely) along the lines of union staff versus IPOs, with union members in the meeting falling to both sides on the question.

Although Chicago DSA does not officially affiliate with IPOs, I would estimate that 8 IPOs have openly socialist DSA members among their key organizers. Some IPOs have such a saturation that the IPO is implicitly–if not formally–socialist. There are a couple of reasons that CDSA hasn’t actively coordinated its work within IPOs. Individual CDSA officers have expressed reluctance about members getting involved in building IPOs as a distraction from building CDSA. Leaders among the Electoral Working Group put it in slightly more positive terms, wanting to build knowhow and capacities for electoral work among CDSA members directly, so that “CDSA [can] lead our own campaigns from start to finish.”

At the same time, some CDSA members who work in IPOs have–thanks to relationships built through prior collaboration on campaigns and through shared DSA affinity–had some success coordinating laterally around issue campaigns and legislative organizing. Like the outpouring of CDSA members to support socialist candidates during the 2019 municipal campaign, the self-organization and self-movement of members means that IPOs are de facto an area of CDSA activity. And given the members from 33rd Ward Working Families who have gone on to join CDSA, it seems that the intermixing of membership can be fairly bidirectional, even if there is no official affiliation.

Additionally BLM protests have helped draw a clear political line to unite IPOs. During George Floyd protests, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) solidified its neighborhood-based canvassing into more lasting organizations within some wards. These organizations sought to pressure aldermen to sign onto an ordinance for a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), and some have since become IPOs. Other existing IPOs have also been involved in CPAC organizing, drawing a somewhat clear political line in the sand for the local electoral left on the question of police and repression.

While IPOs are definitionally independent, there’s a room for interpretation here, and in some ways the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been a coordinating factor among IPOs or politicians connected to IPOs. Some politicians emerging from IPOs have identified as Democrats while seeking endorsements (perhaps more as a short-hand for a political orientation than as a formal membership of the party). Some may accept donations from progressive politicians who have run as Democrats in partisan elections at the state level. Some IPOs have run campaigns for Democratic Party Committeeman. The hegemony and centralization of the Democratic Party is nowhere near the levels from our machine days. Seeing this opportunity, some IPOs are using the remnants of the Democratic Party’s structures and legitimacy as a launching point for building their own, separate organizational capacities.  But shorter term tactical wins and organization-building are prioritized over debates about long-term strategy in relation to the local Democratic Party at the moment. This is also true of citywide organizations beyond IPOs. UWF explicitly discusses the longer term goal of building an alternative to the Democratic Party, but balances that with tactical engagement in the Democratic Party. The closest that DSA has had to a debate around this was after DSA Alderman Carlos Rosa endorsed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign in 2019. This brought up questions about the nature of the Cook County Democratic Party, but DSA didn’t need to make a decision, and so the debate didn’t coagulate into clear or lasting camps among membership.

Challenges in the next municipal election

The municipal elections of 2023 may be a crucible for these coalitions and open questions. Lori Lightfoot has continued the anti-democratic trends of the Chicago executive branch under the Daleys and Rahm. While the city council is less of a rubber stamp than under previous administrations, it still struggles to act as an independent legislature, even with a growing Progressive Caucus and a new Socialist Caucus. The inertia of neoliberalism, privatization, and business and developer interests weren’t overcome in 2019 by a long shot, despite some clear wins. 

Additionally, the politics and alliances established during the last round of elections are not promised. Collaboration between CDSA and UWF is sometimes uneasy, especially in the wake of the 2019 elections when there was a tussle over who deserved more credit for the wins. On CDSA’s side, the Socialist Caucus of DSA aldermen didn’t cohere as a force for a while, references in the media and aspirations notwithstanding. In fact, one member, Andre Vasquez, exited the caucus after he voted for Lightfoot’s regressive budget and was formally censured by CDSA for that vote. UWF has similarly struggled with the question of accountability as some of its aldermen broke ranks on that vote as well.

Outside of the IPOs officially or unofficially linked to city-wide groups like DSA and UWF, there is still a large swath of organizations and activists whose politics are untested or undefined–or at the very least unknown within left circles that I’m involved in. In some rare cases, activists that worked on competing campaigns in the past few elections might be in IPOs working alongside each other today. (For example, I worked on Jorge Mujica’s campaign in 2015 in the 25th ward, a race which also included the current DSA alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez. This has not been a source of tension and there is strong collaboration between our IPOs, but it just suggests that the basis for trust and unity among IPOs is not a given and may need to be built up in the wake of previous experiences.) The training and political orientation that activists bring to these IPOs may come from progressive organizations, socialist organizations, Democratic Party campaigns, or they may be developing their skills and politics for the first time. All of this makes it easier to imagine newer IPOs that endorse a candidate who might have shallow roots to labor unions, social movements, and the political left, and who might be more willing to break with a burgeoning socialist or progressive politics.

The financial basis for 2019’s electoral victories was somewhat scattered, and there may be reasons for it to narrow in the next round. During 2019, small dollar donations from DSA members flowed in, especially for candidates with higher city or national profiles. By my count, while volunteering as a fundraiser for alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez’s campaign, the money raised from DSA members apparently exceeded any amount given by UWF or any individual union. But CDSA did not form a PAC to collect and organize our members’ donations, nor to collect data on the extent of these donations. Without that data, it’s hard to be sure, but I imagine that it meant DSA candidates competed with each other for these funds based upon (at worst) name recognition and charisma, not based upon strategic importance or needs. If CDSA endorses more candidates in 2023 (which seems inevitable) without forming a PAC, that will mean more races and tighter competition for attention from individual members, not to mention the DSA races happening contemporaneously around the country, or the financial basis of DSA members themselves shrinking due to the pandemic economy.

On UWF and CTU’s side, they have PACs, but the constraints on CTU to put money into elections might tighten as well. After the limited victories in 2015, CTU leadership faced internal opposition from a caucus, Members First, that scrutinized their political spending on progressive candidates. This pressure, combined with the general budgetary situation CTU might find itself in a few years after the pandemic, could encourage some conservatism on the part of CTU’s electoral program, and by extension UWF’s.

And this is all at the level of city council races, without taking into account the gravitational weight of a mayoral race. Lori Lightfoot’s strength is unclear: polling during the pandemic suggested she was fairly safe, though she’s become unpopular among CTU, the political and social movement left, and cracks may be forming in her support among the right and among the public as a whole. Depending on whether the left unifies around a candidate against her or even has a candidate at all, this could either gather IPOs into formation or spin them into disorientation, and further splinter funding resources from CTU and other progressive sources.

Lastly, with much–though not all–of the holdouts of the old Democratic machine dusted into the trash heap, the left may have also lost some enemies to unify around. The boogeyman of corrupt dynasties like the Mell family was useful for winning over middle-ground liberals for democracy. Now that the alliance between the pro-democratic left and the neoliberal technocrats has cleared out those few remaining dinosaurs, the forces of neoliberalism might have more reason and resources to clawback the ground gained by the left.

Opportunities for party-building

Despite those challenges, the left may continue to gain ground. What horizon are we gaining grounds toward? If we are committed to the idea of forming a party for the working class, what are the steps from here to there, and where do IPOs fall on that path? Could these steps towards building a party also build the cohesion and power of independent and working class politics in Chicago, such that the challenges previously stated are overcome?

There is some debate in DSA about the “dirty” or ”clean” break nationally, especially after Bernie lost the Democratic primary. But these questions are mainly questions of national elections, and rarely discussed in terms of transitional organizational or institutional forms. It seems to me, though, that these local and institutional experiments are exactly how the debates about clean or dirty break will be resolved in the real movement of working class electoral politics.

So, what would be the key attributes of a local political party? 

  1. Points of unity or a program
  2. Pipelines for identifying and developing candidates and activists
  3. A process to transform points of unity or program into policies for sitting politicians to champion
  4. Commitment from your candidates that they will pursue these policies in exchange for political power (mainly volunteers and financial resources during campaigns)
  5. A defined and democratically empowered membership, either individually or via a coalition of member organizations, that can be mobilized as a volunteer and fundraising force
  6. A shared fund, apportioned out to campaigns

More or less, IPOs aim to satisfy these attributes on a smaller scale, but would be unable to cohere them beyond the boundaries of their given ward.

Could IPOs be transitional? What would they transition to? They would need some sort of matrix in which these experiments can grow beyond their current limits. What could be the growth medium for this development?

Below are 3 main options for how IPOs–and left electoral politics–in Chicago could grow beyond their current basis into something more like a party.

Option 1: An existing organization becomes a pole of attraction for IPOs, and becomes a party

As a first option, an existing organization could take steps to become more and more party-like, expanding and developing in ways to become a structure that could challenge the local Democratic Party on equal footing. Two left organizations in Chicago that could conceivably fill this role are Chicago DSA or United Working Families, and it seems that both are moving in that direction independently of each other, though in different ways.

UWF is actively attempting to be an electoral umbrella for IPOs, community organizations, and progressive labor unions. If UWF continues this process, it could officially declare itself an independent political party. Aside from the legal hoops that would mean, in a political sense that would require further developing some of its internal decision making processes and membership. Currently it allows both individual membership and membership via affiliates or chapters; both of these categories would need to be expanded for it to be able to rival the breadth of a party like the Democratic Party. As it expands in breadth, it would also need to develop in depth its democratic processes; decision making is still heavily staff-driven, and its roots within the labor left are often limited to the leadership of those unions more so than their membership. This means that, at the moment, they integrate with IPOs and political campaigns at the level of policy, direct financial support, and campaign staffing, with more limited ability to mobilize and organize volunteers and fundraising efforts broadly. On a political level, parts of UWF leadership are fairly hostile towards socialism and socialists in the past few years; this wouldn’t preclude them from becoming an independent political party, but it would limit who might be welcome partners in such a party. Without a doubt, though staff-driven and subject to the staff’s politics, this staff definitely has better politics than the centralized decision makers of the Democratic Party, and better representation of progressive people of color and women.

Chicago DSA’s strengths and weaknesses as a pre-party formation complement UWF’s. CDSA is still developing relationships with the labor left, with some limited successes. By necessity as a large volunteer-run organization, CDSA is less driven by leadership, and membership voting–sometimes in general membership meetings, and often with their feet–decides more areas of the group’s work. As clear from the Electoral Working Group proposal shared above, there is active interest in developing CDSA’s electoral infrastructure that would allow it to act more party-like, especially their candidate pipeline and mobilizing membership. So far, these and other necessary structures for a party–like forming a PAC or shared fund, or developing policy positions–have been implicitly deferred to IPOs or elected officials themselves, as opposed to internally developed, though there is sometimes discussion within CDSA about how to develop those strengths in-house. CDSA could go that route of developing a party’s internal organs, or could formalize the existing symbiotic relationship by anchoring a coalition of IPOs, providing a defined politics and ready membership that could take the lead on some of the challenges IPOs will face in the coming years. At the same time, the semi-spontaneous growth of both IPOs and DSA might present an obstacle to becoming a true working class party. As mentioned above, the IPO growth spurt is geographically concentrated in more heavily white and–to an extent–Latinx parts of the city; DSA faces a similar problem in uneven demographic composition. What’s more, while the collected experience of CDSA members has grown exponentially over the years, the lessons and strategies derived from those experiences are still developing, and in a somewhat uneven way across members of varying levels of engagement. This could mean that CDSA may continue to be a somewhat unsteady coalition anchor.

Option 2: A new coalition of existing groups citywide

What if DSA, UWF, and other social movement organizations formed a coalition that could catch the individual IPOs and provide a ground for better coordination? This coalition could be more formal than the current existing collaborations between these groups, and could be a pole of attraction for groups that have held existing citywide organizations like UWF or DSA at arms length. This is sort of the “broad left party” approach, albeit on a local scale. (For one example of this debate in a different context, see this article on the NPA in France.)

Drawing on the strengths of UWF, CDSA, and IPOs mentioned above, this coalition would probably be the result of continued collaboration formalizing into points of unity and shared decision making, and then finally into shared fundraising and membership (probably the most tightly guarded area of turf for each of these groups). Going into the 2023 elections with an orientation towards building this kind of coalition might inform how our groups engage in this election.

Of course, there are barriers to this sort of coalition, especially among the two citywide forces I’ve been focusing on. UWF would probably be resistant to being under a larger umbrella, given its role as an umbrella among the labor left and labor leadership. Similarly, DSA is developing its authority to be a potential partner in a coalition like this. Both might be fairly territorial over the things they can bring to the table, and what role they would have at a table like this, especially when it comes to pooling those resources like funds or volunteers. This territorialism could be replicated among IPOs as well, especially given Chicago’s historically turfy culture of community organizing. And finally, given the internal political dynamics of each group (UWF’s reliance on a more narrowly concerned union leadership, DSA’s reliance on a more recently developed and volunteer-only political base), the attempt to arrive at political unity could have many hurdles.

Option 3: IPOs enter the Democratic Party

It is also possible that IPOs could, instead of looking to a newer formation to lead a left electoral alliance, could try to renovate the Democratic Party. This would be similar to the realignment success stories covered nationally since Bernie’s first run in 2015. There’s some evidence that IPOs might be interested in jumping into this approach here. Though municipal elections are nonpartisan, county and state elections have primaries, and IPOs don’t have many qualms about jumping into the Democratic primaries. Additionally, IPOs have run members for seats within the Democratic Party Committee. Though in the long term it seems to me unlikely that this could elevate to a realignment of the Democratic Party on even a state level, the challenges and gains from these attempts still need to be concretized into some lessons. Given the short- and medium-term successes among some progressives who have entered those primaries, and the collaboration between non-partisan elected officials, local Democratic elected officials, IPOs, and left groups, it’s hard to argue with IPO activists who want to take this road as far as they can for the time being, and building a rooted organization along the way.

Of course, more options exist. We could see some mixture of these options: some IPOs form coalitions, some get a closer orbit around DSA, some join UWF, and some try to enter the Democratic Party. Different organizations with different politics or constraints will pursue different combinations of options. In that case, it’s possible that the coordination challenges mentioned above around 2023 continue but at a slightly larger scale. There could be another bolt from the blue nationally, like the Bernie campaign, to form an independent party that allows local formations to join as members–though this seems to me unlikely to lead to a party, given the difference between a renegade Democratic primary campaign and building an organizational structure. And the last option exists that there will be no further coordination of IPOs, each bumping into the limits within their own ward boundaries.

These complexities aside, it is difficult for me to imagine a scenario that leads to a strengthening of the local Democratic Machine in the long term, especially from its heights in the 20th Century. The political basis for capitalist exploitation and racialized oppression in Chicago has changed, and progressive, socialist, and anti-racist forces have gained some real partial successes during this interregnum. But those organizational and campaign successes are still somewhat fragile and proscribed, and will continue to face significant constraints.


IPOs are a unique institution in Chicago, and, as outlined above, their development may lead in many different directions. This report hopefully provided an idea of their current operations and those potential political trajectories. Though IPOs are becoming more common, basic questions still remain like knots within this movement that will be untied through continued practice: What does independence mean today? What kind of politics are IPOs putting forward? What kind of organization do those politics require within the ward and across wards? As socialists, our goal of bringing democracy and political power to Chicago’s working class majority will move forward by engaging and collaborating with IPOs in these knotty questions, and hopefully learning some answers together.