Electoral Victories in Chicago: How the Socialist Caucus Was Built

April 2 was a landmark day for the Left in Chicago and Chicago DSA in particular. Five DSA members, probably six when every vote is counted, won seats on Chicago’s city council. Many great comrades have already dissected what our victories mean for the Left and the future of the city. I’d like to examine how we got here: what our process was like, how it made our victories possible, and how it can inform future electoral campaigns across the country.

The quick version is this: a thorough and laborious process; democracy with as few edicts from the top as possible; as precise an understanding of our capacity as possible; trustworthy allies; and tight cohesion with our issue campaigns.

At some point in the last year I’m sure I’ve called our candidates and volunteers unbelievable, magical, incredible. But I’d like to make it clear: No miracles happened here. None of this was supernatural, none of it was magic, and none of it was preordained. Like everything else in the world, our electoral outcomes were built on labor.

Our Path to Six Seats

I was co-chair of the Electoral Working Group from February 2018 to February 27, 2019, the day after Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Daniel La Spata won their aldermanic races and Jeanette Taylor, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, and Byron Sigcho Lopez advanced to runoff races (Ugo Okere, DSA’s endorsed candidate in the 40th Ward, did not advance; Chicago DSA then endorsed DSA member Andre Vasquez in that race).

During my year in leadership, the EWG was immensely busy. We rewrote Chicago DSA’s endorsement process, vetted candidates, endorsed a successful campaign to defeat a county judge, wrote and distributed candidate questionnaires and reviewed candidates’ responses, interviewed candidates, debated their merits, and voted on recommending candidates to the Chicago DSA membership. Once candidates were endorsed, coordination between them and Chicago DSA was handled by a separate committee.

I’m very grateful to the Chicago DSA members who contributed to that work—and there turned out to be a ton of it, more than I realized. I delegated poorly and misjudged how much work was ahead of us. This is hardly new advice, but it bears repeating: Be ready for the work, share it, offer to help, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

In May, the EWG organized an Electoral Vision Forum where DSA members didn’t debate about candidates—it was far too early, and in fact three future candidates were there—but debated about our capacity, platform, expectations and plan for interacting with candidates. Comrades often referred back to this event an opportunity for democratic input into our strategy.

Democracy, Not Dictates

Throughout the process, we imposed very few rules or even guidelines on what members were or weren’t allowed to consider when they voted. We didn’t ratify a platform, for instance, which would have restricted members’ ability to consider candidates. Even without one, I was asked a few times, “Are we allowed to vote to endorse Daniel if he hasn’t openly stated XYZ?” or “Can we even endorse Jeanette if she’s not a member?” In those cases I told people to vote their conscience, which is a better guide than any document, platform or mandate.

We never formally passed, ratified or recommended any standards for endorsement. We only debated them, then asked members to apply whatever criteria they wanted, because those are political questions that should be debated and decided by the membership, not by a document.

If comrades wanted to be told what to do from on high, there are plenty of organizations that offer that experience. Our members deserve open democratic processes.

The Everlasting Mystery of Our Capacity

One of the toughest questions we grappled with was how many candidates we should endorse. We agreed before issuing any that we didn’t want our endorsements to just be a stamp of approval with no meaningful work behind it—one of the only rules we passed, written into our endorsement process—and we knew we’d receive more requests than we had the bandwidth to support.

Some members argued we should only endorse two candidates in October and wait to see how races developed before considering any others. The argument was that we’d need to save our capacity for important races and not overextend ourselves. I advocated for endorsing five candidates in October.

Ultimately, Chicago DSA successfully supported five races at once; we aimed much higher than just two and were rewarded for it. Unfortunately, we didn’t endorse DSA member La Spata in his race. He won without us, which is reason to celebrate, but it was a missed opportunity to build campaign experience for DSA members and build a stronger relationship with La Spata.

We must be prepared to fail, maybe many times. I certainly didn’t expect to celebrate five victories and six DSA aldermen. But in those races I wanted us to build DSA and build socialism.

At our May meeting we debated the number of candidates Chicago DSA could support across the city; as the race went on, I started to recognize that capacity couldn’t really be debated citywide, since our membership is spread unevenly across a large city and we can’t assume members would turn out for a candidate in Garfield Park as readily as they would for one in Wicker Park.

It turns out that as we endorsed more candidates, our capacity grew rather than shrank. We endorsed Okere in December, running on the Far North Side; that brought in DSA members who live up there. Before that, some were staying home or volunteering for leftist candidates in their neighborhoods, not coming down to help with our other endorsed campaigns.

Ugo vs. Andre, Which We Didn’t Screw Up that Bad

Endorsing Okere over Vasquez, both DSA members running in the 40th Ward, absorbed a lot of Chicago DSA’s attention early in the race. It was tempting to pass a rule or resolution to dictate what members were allowed to do, or just stay out of the race altogether.

Before the October meeting, as part of our process, the EWG voted to recommend an endorsement for Okere and not for Vasquez, primarily based on Okere’s stated commitment to make his campaign a DSA-controlled campaign. At the October meeting, members chose not to endorse Okere by a small margin after several members spoke up for a smaller slate.

At various points during the process, some members suggested endorsing both candidates; some, including Vasquez, suggested we endorse neither and sit out the race. I argued for endorsing someone in the ward because it presented an opportunity to reach thousands of voters with an openly socialist message. I backed Okere because of his commitment to DSA, because Vasquez had recommended we stay neutral, and to send a signal to Okere campaign volunteers—primarily young, involved in their first campaign, and obviously open to socialism—that DSA supported them.

I want DSA to develop a bench. For now, we might meet candidates for the first time when they come to us for an endorsement; one day, the opposite will happen, and we’ll approach experienced candidates and organizers and put together a DSA campaign team. Endorsing Okere was a step along that path because we could give him and his campaign staff valuable experience.

You Can’t Do Socialism Alone

Almost every analysis of our victories has mentioned that we didn’t accomplish this alone, and we worked closely with movement allies and ward-level organizations to win these races. Spun negatively, some have said we couldn’t win races on our own.

That is true. We couldn’t do it on our own, and we shouldn’t. Why would we take on a candidate with no movement allies or ward-level organization behind them? We needed those supporting organizations for practical reasons, since it’s a big city and our members are scattered, for political reasons, since we have a better chance of winning if we aren’t doing all the work in a campaign, and for philosophical reasons, because if a candidate only has us then that’s a clear sign that they’re not fully engaged in the movement and haven’t built anything yet.

Lots of left-liberals in Chicago love to talk about “independent” candidates, candidates not beholden to various “machines” in Chicago politics. They can keep them. Give us movement candidates, ones who are most definitely beholden to the working-class movements that get them elected.

Electoral Campaigns Must Back Our Issues

We were very fortunate to work with a group of candidates who foregrounded our issues in their campaigns without hesitation. In fact, our candidates ran their campaigns on our issue campaigns—lifting the ban on rent control and implementing rent control, civilian oversight of the police, ending all deportations in the city, eliminating the gang database, taxing the rich.

This was incredibly valuable. Electoral work cannot detract from the issues DSA is working on, and electoral campaigns cannot contest with issues for members’ time. If electoral campaigns aren’t aligned with the issues the chapter has prioritized, dump them.

I feel confident in saying Chicago DSA will not consider any candidates who aren’t “good”: rock-solid on our issues, grounded in the movement, and willing to openly identify as democratic socialists. Chicago DSA soundly rejected any candidate who looked even remotely like they’d be a detour from our issue campaigns.

On that note, membership rejected a mayoral candidate’s request for endorsement by a huge margin. There were too many inconsistencies between her platform and DSA principles that members just did not accept. I hope we can replicate the results of 2019, but even more than that, I hope we can replicate the decisions we made. I’d much rather back a loser than back a candidate who doesn’t fly the red flag.

Steve Weishampel is the former co-chair of the Chicago DSA Electoral Working Group.