Illustration by Kelly Butler

The Democratic Socialist Caucus Gets to Work

Is the progressive movement in Chicago seeing a divide?

On May 1, alongside May Day marches across Chicago, alderpersons Daniel La Spata (1st), Jeanette Taylor (20th), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) announced the formation of the Democratic Socialist Caucus in the Chicago City Council. 

Before the caucus was formed, the Progressive Reform Caucus—established in 2013—was the council’s prominently left-leaning caucus. Since its formation, the socialist caucus’s relentless push to hold Mayor Lori Lightfoot accountable to campaign promises she made two years ago makes some observers believe the progressive movement in Chicago is seeing a divide.

“What you’re seeing with the creation of the Democratic Socialist Caucus is sort of a break, even among progressives, to say, ‘wait a second, there’s some things we want different and now we’re the outside group looking in the subset saying that you guys who have taken over the sort of the legitimate positions of governance are not are not going far enough,’” said Nick Kachiroubas, an associate teaching professor in the School of Public Service at DePaul University.

The Progressive Reform Caucus (PRC) was founded during former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, and initially challenged some of Emanuel’s budget proposals and policies. The PRC backed Emanuel’s opponent, Jesús “Chuy” García, in 2015. This helped contribute to the first mayoral election runoff in Chicago’s history. But Emanuel walked away victorious, and at that point the PRC—with twelve members—did not have enough votes in the City Council to block or push any legislation on their own. 

“During Rahm’s second term, people were listening to their voice, residents were listening to it, the press were listening to it, and that opened the door to a progressive candidate being seen positively in the 2019 election,” Kachiroubas said. This “opened the door for additional people to run who had a more progressive stance,” and was part of the reason people rallied behind Lightfoot, he added.

Eighteen city council members are now aligned with the PRC, including all five DSC members as well as more moderate South Side representatives such as Sophia King (4th), Leslie Hairston (5th), and Stephanie Coleman (16th), giving them enough clout to work with members of the Black and Latino Caucuses to push their agenda.

Lightfoot cast herself as a progressive during the 2019 election, but once she reached the fifth floor of City Hall the tide turned. During her administration, the PRC has been split on many votes, with some members questioning if Lightfoot is truly the progressive she convinced people she was back in 2019. the Weekly reached out to Lightfoot’s office for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Rodriguez-Sanchez noted that the broad term “progressive” encompasses a wide variety of actions and policy positions, which is one of the reasons why she finds the Democratic Socialist Caucus imperative to building a more equitable Chicago. 

“One of the things about progressive politics is that you can pick and choose,” she said. “You can decide that you are okay with gay rights [but] you can be racist, or you can do things that actively harm people.”

Rodriguez-Sanchez said she feels that because of this pick-and-choose element, politicians oftentimes camouflage themselves as progressives, when in reality they are not, which is what she believes the Lightfoot administration is doing—using Lightfoot’s identity as a queer, Black woman.

“That’s great that we have a Black lesbian mayor; it’s historic,” she said. “Now, what are you doing in order to ensure that [marginalized] people are going to be able to thrive?”

The progressive divide under the Lightfoot administration has been demonstrated by several key issues, but most prominently the 2020 budget proposal. Lightfoot’s budget passed, 39-11; of these eleven “no” votes, nine were from the Progressive Reform Caucus. 

In Lightfoot’s 2020 budget, $1.8 billion went to policing. Black people and people of color experience abuse at the hands of the Chicago Police Department in vastly disproportionate numbers. According to research conducted by the Invisible Institute in 2018, CPD officers are fourteen times more likely to exhibit force on a young Black man versus a young white man. 

The DSC believes police funding should be reduced and reallocated to provide social programs, such as mental health support and housing security assistance that could reduce the amount of crime that takes place.

On July 21, in one of the biggest victories for progressive alderpersons this year, the City Council passed an ordinance to create an elected police oversight board. The proposal was the result of contentious negotiations between activists and progressive alderpersons on one side, and the Mayor’s office on the other. Ultimately, Lightfoot backed the ordinance that came out of those negotiations, and it is one of the most extensive reforms to policing in recent memory.

“There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the nation,” Ramirez-Rosa tweeted after the ordinance passed, 36-13. “The people won this change in the streets, at the doors, and through relentless grassroots organizing.”

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 Andre Vasquez, who defeated thirty-six-year incumbent Patrick O’Connor in a runoff to become alderperson of the 40th Ward, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) but not officially part of the DSC. (The DSA also ran a candidate in that election, but only Vasquez and O’Connor received enough votes to qualify for the runoff.) Vasquez broke with the caucus to vote in favor of Lightfoot’s proposed 2021 budget, a move that the Chicago DSA officially censured

Vasquez said he considers his constituents when deciding whether to vote with the DSC, whom he referred to as his “comrades.” The 40th Ward includes parts of Edgewater and West Ridge on the North Side, and Vasquez said it isn’t the most progressive in town. “Being able to have a conversation with our neighbors and having the ability to show independence is something [my constituents] value, which allows me the opportunity to move the agenda more progressively than where our Ward currently is,” he said.

“Do you spend every time making the case that something is wrong? Or do you also find the things that you help improve with the time you have in Council and in government?” Vasquez said. “And I do think you have to put up some things to add to the credibility of what we can do as socialists, and [that] allows us to continue going further, rather than people saying that it’s pie in the sky.”

Vasquez said that pressure to work towards a specific agenda can sometimes get in the way of solving the issues at hand. He went as far as to say that if conversations shift from a progressive versus socialist to a more issue-based conversation more progress might occur.

“I think, for me, if you remove categories, period, and talk to people about what’s important to them, you’re more able to find consensus that then moves the agenda and inches forward,” Vasquez said. “Whereas what we’ve seen, sometimes the categories themselves have a connotation and don’t even allow for conversation.”

It is because of this issue that Vasquez said he sees himself as a “city kid” first, not an alderman nor socialist. “My socialism is grounded in my experience growing up as a broke city kid who was gentrified out of five neighborhoods growing up, and racially profiled,” he said. “In looking at that, it’s not that I view myself as a socialist or alderman first more than like, I grew up in this city, and I’m a product of it. So the decisions I make are very rooted in that.”

Rodriguez-Sanchez said she believes that Lightfoot exemplifies the notion that identity does not always correlate to a certain political alignment. She said this is part of why some of the issues the Democratic Socialist Caucus want to focus on, like the “Just Cause for Eviction” ordinance, cannot be accomplished in other caucuses like the Black, Latino, or LGBT caucus. Still, caucuses representing marginalized identities are still needed in City Council regardless of their political alignment to bring a more diverse set of representation, she added. 

Mayor Lightfoot told WTTW in late June, in response to blistering criticism of her leadership from City Council, that ninety-nine percent of criticism of her is driven by racism and sexism. Rodriguez-Sanchez said that identity can be used as a weapon and that while Lightfoot may feel attacked based on her identity, she should take a look at her own track record. 

“The track record that the Mayor has right now is that she’s been incredibly disrespectful to women of color around them, including me, including my colleague Jeanette Taylor, including people in her staff,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “So for me to hear her say that [nearly] all of the criticism comes from racism and sexism is just baffling.”

During the July 23 City Council meeting, Lightfoot came down from the rostrum to heatedly confront Taylor on her decision to second 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez’s motion to table Lightfoot’s appointment of the confirmation of Celia Meza as Corporation Counsel to another meeting. The move was in protest of the Law Department’s handling of  Anjanette Young’s lawsuit against the City for her treatment during a botched police raid of her home in 2019.

“One of the things that the mayor told [Taylor] was [that she was] blocking the appointment of a woman of color,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “And the mayor assumed that as an attack on a woman of color when it was just a procedural move. So, the mayor tried to punish Jeanette and actually attack Jeanette, like, came all the way to the back [of the hall] to argue with a lot of anger towards a Black woman [for] a procedural move that we are allowed to use.”

Taylor agrees with Rodriguez-Sanchez that Lightfoot treats City Council’s women of color unfairly. “[Has] she ever walked up to a male colleague of theirs, and scream, to point their finger in their face like she did me?” Taylor said. Alderman Lopez ultimately motioned for the vote to be moved, she added. “I just seconded it,” only to have Lightfoot “come scream [and] point her finger in my face.”

“I mean, her floor chair Brandon Reilly, he’s done a bunch of things that she doesn’t politically agree with,” Taylor continued. “But does she walk up to him, and [get] in his face screaming, pointing her finger? Anyone can see that there’s a difference in how she treats women of color and men in the City Council.”

Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman (44th), said that while he can see what Taylor and Rodriguez-Sanchez are referencing, Lightfoot hasn’t been completely unfair to minority women.

“[Lightfoot] has had some disputes over issues with minority women, aldermen in the council that had some personality aspects,” Simpson said. “But on the other hand, she has made Michelle Harris her political floor leader and she has cooperated with other minority women aldermen.”

Taylor said she believes that the difference between the Lightfoot administration and the Democratic Socialist Caucus is that “we believe in public power, they don’t.”

A report from the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago indicates that Lightfoot has a more progressive agenda than Emanuel. However, despite that, only two alderpersons voted agreeing with Lightfoot one hundred percent of the time compared to the nineteen alderpersons that voted with Emanuel one hundred percent of the time. 

Simpson said Lightfoot’s promise to invest more on Chicago’s South and West Side is a prime example of that. “During the Emanuel administration, the neighborhoods in the South and West sides of Chicago were being disinvested ,that is they were losing economic development,” Simpson said. “[Lightfoot] has pledged at least $750 million of investments into those neighborhoods over the next several years, and more than $300 million has already been invested.”

Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez said he is under the impression that the Lightfoot administration has been focusing primarily on the Loop, ignoring Chicago’s seventy-six other neighborhoods. He said that this is in efforts to appease big corporations. 

“We have seen, unfortunately, corporations like Amazon receiving huge subsidies, like a $600 million subsidy,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “Corporate developers that have gotten, in recent years, over $2.4 billion in TIF money, while our schools are struggling or small businesses are struggling. Where homeowners are struggling, tenants are struggling, [and elderly residents] are struggling.” 

Because of that, one of the main goals of the Democratic Socialist Caucus is to get corporate money out of Chicago politics, and to focus on the entirety of Chicago—not just the Loop. 

When looking at Lightfoot’s promise to invest in Chicago’s South and West sides and then seeing DSC members, like Sigcho-Lopez, say Lightfoot isn’t investing in other neighborhoods other than the Loop has people conflicted on if big, immediate change or small steps towards a more equitable future is the way to go. 

One of the ways that Sigcho-Lopez and Taylor want to get big money politics out of Chicago is by putting legislation in place that will make campaigns publicly funded. This has been implemented in cities like San Francisco, where the government gives candidates money to use on their campaign. This makes it easier for candidates that do not come from wealth and don’t want to rely on corporation money to run a realistic, effective campaign. Sigcho Lopez believes that these programs have been effective.

The “Just Cause for Eviction” ordinance is another issue that Sigcho-Lopez, as the alderman of a gentrifying ward, named as one of the caucus’ top priorities. This legislation would require landlords to give reason for evicting a tenant. It would make eviction for failure to pay rent, damage to property, and disrupting neighbors still possible, but would eliminate evictions that occur at no fault of the tenant. Similar legislation in other cities has been shown to lead to a decrease in evictions and helped stabilize the rental market. The ordinance could also help reduce race-related discrimination evictions.

Rodriguez Sanchez recently advocated for affordable housing funds in her ward and received $2.5 million in TIF funds. Also given was $3.5 million in TIF funds for improvements to Ronan Park including an expansion to the park, the creation of a pavilion along with protection and improvements for Global Gardens–a community garden in Albany Park.

Other priorities for the caucus include environmental reform, an elected representative school board, police accountability, and providing more funding support to small businesses. 

“We have the inequities that have, you know, got into despicable levels. We see real cost contrast between different communities and an administration that focuses its energy on downtown, right, the one area,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We have another seventy-six communities. We need [all] seventy-seven communities to be represented.”

Simpson said that the places in which the two caucuses find themselves focusing on appears to be the biggest distinction between the two, and a potential reason for their divide. “The day-to-day governance is something that people like Scott Waguespack, who used to head the Progressive Reform Caucus, are involved in more and the sort of more extreme positions on things like police reform are pushed hardest by the democratic socialists.”

While Rodriguez-Sanchez said there hasn’t been a conversation on who Democratic Socialist Caucus will support during the next mayoral election, Kachiroubas is certain that it will not be Lightfoot.

“This caucus has been very critical of the Mayor, they’ve been sort of coming at her from the left from the beginning,” Kachiroubas said. “I think it sort of opens the door for an argument that Lori Lightfoot isn’t as liberal as she says she is.” He said that could encourage a strong progressive—or a democratic socialist with political ambitions—to make a run at the mayor’s seat. 

The DSC could also attempt to pick up more seats as a caucus in the next election. “Right now, six members can’t really change a lot. But if you expand that, you can start to have a bigger stake in the negotiations or blocking of legislation or budgetary items in a future administration.” 

This piece was updated for print in the August 5 issue.

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Corey Schmidt is a DePaul University student and a senior associate editor at 14 East Magazine. He last wrote about family law accessibility for the Weekly

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