In the U.S. system, the power is at the state level. Federal law touches us only where state law leaves a gap, and local law is a creature of state law. In the U.S. constitutional order, state governments are “sovereigns,” with a huge–nearly limitless–array of powers to tax, spend, and regulate. Their only limits are constitutional, and even then, those limits are increasingly narrowly defined. Cities and counties get their power–and much of their money–from state governments. At the same time, state legislatures act as true legislative bodies dealing with big-picture policy questions, unlike city governments where legislators are also local administrators caught up in providing local services, even while their power is routed through the Mayor’s control of city agencies. This makes state legislative races much more ideological in nature, and free from the “potholes and trash” baggage of hyperlocal races. State legislators can more freely represent their working class constituencies ideologically, while using their staff resources to provide support and aid to that constituency at their discretion. In the big picture, state government has significantly more strategic value for building up a socialist movement, and Chicago DSA and its sibling Illinois chapters should start planning to send a strong delegation to Springfield, as part of a strategy to grow the field of class struggle elections and complement local state power.
State Government is Where the Power Is
States are the ultimate holders of power. In the U.S. system, state governments are “sovereigns” of near limitless power. They cannot go bankrupt, and the only things they cannot do are things that the federal constitution specifically denies them, or that it allows only Congress to do (an idea called “preemption”). States create cities–known as “municipal corporations” legally–and grant them their power. Even so-called “home rule” cities, which have a greater range of legal power, can be denied powers by an act of state government, the most prominent local example being rent control. In other parts of the country, state preemption of local initiatives is a constant threat–as our comrades in the Dallas area found out when a local paid sick leave ordinance was struck down as preempted by state law. For a variety of local and regional agencies to act, there has to be “enabling” legislation from state government: a recent example is the law that was passed “enabling” City Colleges and community colleges to develop affordable housing for students.
City Colleges, whose student bodies are predominantly working class people of color, and “non-traditional” (that is, older) students, being able to develop affordable housing for their students is a remarkable opportunity for socialists to organize around. It is frankly somewhat embarrassing that we were not a part of organizing around and advocating for this law: but our lack of connection to state government is one reason why that was the case.
Ultimately, whether you’re talking about school systems, cities, counties, transit agencies, etc., they get their authority (and much of their money) from state government. It’s where the buck stops, so to speak. What’s more, just about all major regulatory and criminal matters are determined by state statute. Reforms to the criminal justice system, the regulation of business practices, and environmental degradation, are a matter of state law. The state can more meaningfully punish wage thieves; it can require strict environmental impact study for new development; the state can enable cities to create public banks and can create regional mandates for public transit and pedestrian-friendly planning. To meaningfully impact these areas, state-level action is necessary.
Because states have both this positive (creative) and negative (destructive) power, having a beachhead in state government is a crucial part of any electoral and state power strategy: local power helps build a base to achieve power at higher levels, and power at higher levels, like the state, helps reinforce and protect power held at the local level.
States have a bigger purse. Cities and other local agencies only have as much power to tax as they’re granted by state government. The state’s ability to tax is virtually unlimited. Beyond that, the state obviously encompasses a much larger area, and is less susceptible to “capital flight”: where people can easily move themselves or their business across the border of Chicago into a suburb. The state includes almost entire metropolitan areas, giving it a much more diverse and reliable tax base from which to draw revenue (and making redistribution more feasible). This makes state government extraordinarily important for experimenting with the types of programs that can and should be part of building working class support for socialist politics: funding for public safety alternatives, enabling and funding public banks and community land trusts, reducing and eliminating tuition at public higher education institutions, etc. Cities have such little discretionary spending–particularly while police budgets take the lion’s share–that even when pilot programs can be secured, they are often so small, and so targeted, that they can fail to capture the imagination of the broader working class public and so lack the political education function that these kinds of programs can otherwise offer.
Having a team in Springfield is key to supporting local initiatives. Anything socialists hope to accomplish on the local level is made more likely and more impactful if there is support coming from state government. As it stands, local socialist officials often have to work with progressive (or “progressive”) state legislators. Without a contingent of ideological and organizationally connected socialist state legislators, this will regularly put local electeds into less than ideal compromises, and make their relationships with these officials more personal and less organizational–in other words, these political partnerships will turn on the personal connection and bargaining local electeds engage in with a given state legislator. This is obviously fraught: it undermines the ability of a socialist organization to strategically plan and exert organizational influence on state government, since those state legislators are not part of the organization. Instead, that influence will have to be routed through the personal relationships of individuals. This is not a reliable or democratic way for an organization to wield state power or build a strategic program.
Importantly, the spending power and legal authority of state government gives an organization the opportunity to pursue creative and experimental local initiatives: for example, creating grant programs for community initiatives (like around housing, or land trusts, or for pilot programs run by local community groups). This type of experimentation and these types of pilot programs can be an important component part of larger state power strategies, as they can serve as a kind of proof of concept, demonstrating that broader programs are feasible–as one example, the success of a pilot like treatment not trauma can demonstrate the viability of shifting funds away from police departments; and state government has more resources and authority to create these pilots in communities across the state.
The Collapse of the Madigan Regime is a Historic Opportunity. For three decades, Springfield was dominated by Mike Madigan, a southwest side representative and chairman of the state Democratic Party. So complete was Madigan’s control of the General Assembly–not just the House, where he was speaker, but also through his control of the state party, the Senate–that he was in a significant sense the prime minister of Illinois. Madigan controlled tens of millions of dollars in campaign money every cycle, and the network of jobs, judgeships, and other positions that were routed through his organization gave him practically discretionary power over which legislation moved through state government. With his resignation in 2021, the state party and the state legislative caucus was thrown into some degree of disarray, opening up the balance of power for the first time in over a generation. Now more than ever, a true progressive and socialist alliance could truly impact the course of legislation in Springfield.
State Legislative Elections Can be More Ideological
State legislators are true legislators. Chicago City Council aldermen have a form of blended legislative and administrative jobs. For that reason, state races are in nature more ideological, at least in a broad sense: while of course they are low-visibility positions, they turn on policy questions of interest. Votes on budgets, proposed laws (like rent control or bail reform), etc., are the natural vocabulary of these elections because those are the records people have to work from: how did so-and-so vote on this bill or that one, what bills did you sponsor, etc. As we’ll discuss below, this is less the case in aldermanic elections.
Certainly, over the last handful of years, state legislators were evaluated based on their relationship to Mike Madigan, who had become a highly controversial figure and a sort of symbol of Chicago “politics as usual.” (Did so-and-so accept donations from Mike Madigan?!) With Madigan out of the picture, the field is much more open to refocus these races on a positive vision of what state government can actually do: control your rent, fund your schooling, open a public bank, fund mental health, etc. With the “Chicago machine” question more sidelined, issues like rent control, school funding, criminal justice, etc., can be the springboard to have ideological conversations at voters’ doors. Voters understand intuitively that their state representative and senator are not responsible for how they get local services–they decide how taxes are imposed, how tax money is spent, and what state programs are created.
The powers associated with local offices require aldermen to balance more complicated interests. Related to the point immediately above, aldermen have to daily balance much more complex interests and constituencies. An alderman cannot easily wage local war against small business owners, NIMBY-ish homeowners and developers, and hope to win reelection. The intersection of interests when dealing with peoples’ day-to-day local issues are complicated. They need to make sure businesses stay open so residents have local services; they want housing to get built, even if only a portion of it is affordable; they need to be sensitive to noise and crime complaints, even if they offer more progressive solutions. This creates a thicket of issues to deal with that, if they hope to stay in office, they need to carefully and deftly balance.
The more ideological nature of state legislative races dovetails with class-struggle elections. The electoral orientation of DSA, and of CDSA in particular, has been for “class struggle elections”: a strategy that entails building our electoral campaigns with working class power and around issues that will move working class people into political action. The more ideologically-focused nature of state legislative races makes them a more natural fit for class struggle elections than campaigns that often turn on much more transactional and idiosyncratic questions (“I like him, but he let that eyesore get built on my block”). The policy-focused and ideological room we can work in in state legislative elections gives us the opportunity to generate a simple, class-struggle platform around which to organize and which can set an ideological pole in the legislature that calls the question, so to speak, on the broader “progressive” wing of the legislature.
General Assembly Elections Offer Strategic Advantages.
That last point speaks to the greater strategic opportunities offered by focusing on the state legislature.
State lege races are in general election years, where the voters are more focused. There is generally (though not always) higher turnout in the primary elections in even-numbered years, because they line up with gubernatorial and presidential elections. Every ten years, the entire legislature is up for election. This means more eyes are focused on the election, and there are more issues (and, potentially, elected offices) to tie together–or to draw contrast with. What’s more, because these elections happen in “big election” years, turnout is an easier task; rather than a block-by-block street fight to get people to the polls, there is at least some proportion of the electorate that will be voting anyway, and our task will be to get our candidate and their simple big-picture message in front of them as many times as we can before they go into the booth. We can build up-and-out from a voter base much more easily, because the universe of “casual” voters who will vote anyway is often larger.
The electorate makes it easier to generalize elections. On a strategic level the difference in issues and the base electorate between even-year primaries and off-year local elections, makes it harder to “generalize” a message in aldermanic election season than it would be in a state legislative election. State primary turnout is very variable; in gubernatorial years, the primary turnout is similar to the municipal number, sometimes lower and sometimes higher; in presidential years, the number is considerably higher. This can offer some flexibility in choosing strategic seats to contest (and make it easier to allocate resources to defend incumbents).
As just one example, it means keeping a field operation up and running in a steady cycle; as these elections fall between municipal election cycles, target seats could be chosen to overlap, such that a nearer-cycle race could serve to build a base, recruit volunteers, and develop local relationships for a further-cycle race. Since state districts and local districts obviously don’t perfectly overlap, this could also set the table for targeting a subsequent seat or set of seats. The chapter engaging in this consistent way brings the base-building and relationships in-house, and makes setting medium- and long-term strategic planning more coherent, rather than a scattershot election-by-election “what’s viable?” approach.
Also, a slate of candidates running for state legislature can more easily run on a simple, ideological policy message about what Springfield should be doing–enacting rent control, reforming the criminal justice system, creating public banks, prosecuting wage theft–than an election where the issues are very idiosyncratic between neighborhoods, and, more importantly, where the electorate will be focused on very local questions often through the lens of homeowners. With state races, you can run on a big, class-struggle tinged platform everywhere working class people live and vote, without the election being dragged down to the level of block-by-block neighborhood concerns of property owners, because between a working class renter and a working class homeowner, while there will be differences, questions of labor rights, environmental justice, and criminal justice reform will be more clearly heard than when “aldermanic” issues are at the forefront.
State legislators can be creative with direct service. State legislators, like aldermen, get budgets to maintain district offices and hire staff. Their budgets are smaller; but they are not expected or required to provide the vast array of local services expected of aldermen. They have a free hand to choose what services they provide, and how their state-funded offices will be used to coordinate. Aldermen are immediately and constantly swamped with constituent demands of all types, from the truly needy to the superficial, and an immense amount of staff time and resources have to go to addressing these various demands–often the primary issue on which municipal voters will vote. State legislators’ offices would be leaner, but could be more focused on serving the constituency which elects them: working class residents.
A focus on the state legislature can help encourage coordination with sibling chapters in the suburbs and other Illinois cities. Focusing on Springfield also creates more opportunity to develop a statewide program, platform, and slate that can put us into a working conversation with our sibling chapters in Illinois’s working class suburbs and smaller cities. Encouraging the creation of statewide bodies was among the recommendations to come out of the 2021 DSA Convention. Places like Rockford, the Quad Cities, Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Joliet, the spread of South Suburbs from Posen to Harvey to University Park, Champaign, East St. Louis, and an increasing number of Chicago’s west and northwest suburbs, are ripe for socialist organizing and campaigning. These are places with large working class populations, whose residents, if they rent, often live in large, corporate-owned apartment complexes, and who lack reliable regional services (like transit and parks).
At the same time, these areas often are much less organized politically; they do not have the degree of overlapping political organization that Chicago has. This is a huge opportunity to base-build among working class people who may have never had an organizer show up at their door to say “What do you want?”
We have to start cooperating and working with our sibling chapters across the state, and the best way to do that is by undertaking a mutual project with one another. Planning for a statewide legislative platform and slate is just the type of thing that can start to wed us to our sibling chapters operationally, to build towards having an effective and battle-tried statewide socialist organization. And should we win a few races, having those legislators cooperate does more to bring us together.
State Elections Are No More Costly
Aldermanic campaigns are dog fights and almost always require two rounds. Anybody who has worked one can tell you that aldermanic races are brutal door-to-door fights, where the issues can change from block to block. At the same time, they are notoriously low-turnout affairs, where each hour of canvasser time will have a significantly lower voter-result than other elections. This has some appeal and advantage of course: each conversation may be more in-depth, and relationships built on the doors and on the block may have more lasting value–indeed, this is the base-building strategy that justifies why we should run aldermanic campaigns at all. But from a strategic point of view, it also should inform us that in a world of limited capacity, these elections have a limit in what we can achieve politically and legislatively. They are extraordinarily costly in time, energy, and money, and there are significant legal and political limits to what these offices can accomplish. That doesn’t counsel for abandoning them, but it does suggest that we may be able to do more with less, and over the longer term have a greater political impact, if we shift our focus to winnable races at the state level.
The per-vote cost is at worst comparable, and in many ways cheaper in terms of voter contact, than City Council elections. Looking at a few comparable races, there is evidence to suggest that the per-vote cost of running a state legislative race are on par with, or perhaps even cheaper, than aldermanic races. Part of this is because particularly in cases where we would be challenging an incumbent, but even where we are not, aldermanic races will almost always be fought over two rounds. In Chicago’s non-partisan primary system, there is a first round run usually in February, where the top two vote getters proceed to a second round in April, unless one of the two candidates gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round. In 2019, there were six DSA races. Of these, one candidate–Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa–was an incumbent. Another, Daniel La Spata, was running against a disgraced incumbent who had an open police investigation into him announced a month before the election. Of the other four, three were open seats. All of them went to second rounds. Two of the most competitive, in the 25th Ward and 33rd Ward, came out to around $56 and $38 per unique vote, respectively (total spending, depending on when you cut off the expenditure date, were $295k and $222k, respectively). If you don’t go by unique vote and count votes won in the first and second round, the per vote would be around $20 each. The problem is of course that these hotly contested races almost always will go to a second round. Arguably, it will usually be because there are more than two candidates in the first round that our candidates are able to proceed to a second round, and then scoop up anti-incumbent votes in the second round: so in a way, advancing to the second round is our primary path to victory, at least for non-incumbents in the near future.
Because of this, money (and time) are being spent turning out the same voters twice, and quickly; so counting the gross number rather than the net number does not seem to tell the whole story. State legislative races, at least in Chicago, lack this back-to-back voting pressure; they are first-past-the-post (highest vote getter wins) and are decided on primary day. Two recent races I looked at where progressives won: Representative Delia Ramirez in 2018 and Senator Robert Peters in 2020. Peters had been appointed to his seat shortly before the election; Ramirez ran for an open seat. The per-unique-vote numbers for these were $24 and $20 respectively. Of course, these candidates then need to win the general election, which requires more spending; but given the nature of primary and general elections at least in Chicago (where the Democratic primary winner is virtually guaranteed the seat), the per-vote number of spending plummets considerably after the primary. (In other parts of the state, the dynamic would sometimes be inverted; the primaries would be much less competitive, but the general election competitive).
Focusing on the state legislature expands the field of class struggle elections significantly, because of the more policy-oriented and ideological nature of state legislative offices. The considerable financial power and expansive legal authority of state government make it a crucial part of wielding state power, and can both safeguard and enhance political power hard-won at the local level. These offices are locally-rooted and can offer and coordinate services for constituents, with the added advantage of being able to focus more specifically on ideologically working class projects. The state-wide nature of the legislature also gives an opportunity to chapters across the state to coordinate their work. The similarity in cost–if not their cheaper cost–makes state legislative elections attractive on a practical level. Members should consider undertaking a short-, medium- and long-term strategy to compete for power in Springfield as a primary area of state-power strategy.