PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday April 8th, 2015, 3:08pm

After Chicago's Runoff Election, Progressives Talk Next Steps For Grassroots Movement

Following Tuesday's runoff election in Chicago, leaders with the political group United Working Families discussed the next steps for the grassroots, progressive movement in the city.

The grassroots, progressive movement that swept across Chicago this election cycle is just getting started, leaders with the United Working Families (UWF) organization said Wednesday.

Although progressive candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia fell short in Chicago's first-ever mayoral runoff election on Tuesday against incumbent Rahm Emanuel, the grassroots mobilization behind him sparked a new political movement in the city to build upon, UWF officials said Wednesday morning. They also pointed to several progressive victories at the aldermanic level.

"We truly have changed our city, and we're going to press forward to continue to push an agenda and make real change for working people all over the city of Chicago," said April Verrett, executive vice-president of SEIU* Healthcare Illinois Indiana, which launched UWF with Action Now, the Chicago Teachers Union and Grassroots Illinois Action last July.

Jon Green, deputy director of the Working Families Party, a progressive political party operating in New York and several other U.S. states, offered his take on Chicago's election, saying: "The fact that in just a few months this campaign came as close as it did to toppling a candidate as well connected to power and wealth as Rahm Emanuel is, that's really a sign of strength."

"The fact that progressive aldermen were re-elected, that the progressive caucus on the council will grow, is a sign of growth and momentum of this movement," he added.

In addition to UWF, the group Reclaim Chicago, supported by National Nurses United and The People's Lobby, were among the cadre of individuals and organizations that worked to unite Chicagoans around Garcia and a slate of progressive aldermanic candidates this election cycle. 

"This was not just about one election--it was about a movement created by people who have felt relegated to the sidelines for far too long," CTU President Karen Lewis noted in a post-election statement. "This coalition of individuals and their values and ideas that united around Chuy and our candidates for alderman is going to be a force in Chicago politics for generations to come."

All but two of the seven Progressive Reform Caucus members seeking another city council term won re-election outright during the February 24 election. Progressive aldermen forced into runoffs were John Arena (45th Ward) and Toni Foulkes (15th). Foulkes ran in the neighboring 16th Ward due to the city's most recent remapping process.

Arena, considered to be Emanuel's most outspoken critic on the council, was declared the winner in yesterday's 45th Ward runoff election. Arena won re-election despite coming under attack from the Emanuel-friendly super PAC Chicago Forward.

Foulkes claimed victory last night in the 16th Ward runoff, but her challenger hasn't conceded defeat. Unofficial election results for the 16th Ward runoff showed Foulkes leading Stephanie Coleman at 50.96 percent to 49.04 percent, with 35 of 36 of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning.

The Progressive Reform Caucus picked up two new members in last month's election, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who unseated Ald. Rey Colon (35th), and David Moore, who won outright in the three-way race for the open 17th Ward seat, being vacated by Ald. Latasha Thomas.

The caucus is poised to gain other new members.

First, there's a possibility the progressive caucus will pick up UWF-backed candidate Susan Sadlowski Garza. She went up against incumbent Ald. John Pope in the 10th Ward runoff, which was too close to call as of Wednesday. Garza is leading incumbent Pope by just seven votes, at 50.03 percent to 49.97 percent with 35 of 36 precincts reporting.

Other UWF-endorsed candidates were not successful in Tuesday's aldermanic runoffs. However, at least two other candidates with labor backing who defeated incumbent aldermen on Tuesday -- challengers Milagros "Millie" Santiago in the 31st Ward and Anthony Napolitano in the 41st Ward -- have expressed interest in joining the progressive caucus.

Even with the progressive pick ups, Emanuel will still have a majority of votes on the city council. So, in that case, what's going to be different on the city council?

On Wednesday's conference call with reporters, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey acknowledged little has changed at the "institutional political level ... in terms of who holds the levers of the power in the city" following Tuesday's election.

"But on a political level," he said. "It's clearly changed, which is that there's [a] tremendous price to pushing through school closings, and institutionally (the powers that be) might be able to do that again, but no one will think that there won't be a real political price to pay, and we expect the political climate to be different, much more two sided."

Grassroots Illinois Action Executive Director Amisha Patel added: "I think we were clear from the beginning that this is going to be a multi-cycle fight. We're going to continue to have these real battles, continue to fight to have our legislation moved out of committee that Rahm Emanuel still controls, but I think ... the political advantage that aldermen thought that they had for sticking 100 percent with the mayor is definitely shaky at best."

UWF leaders were asked what they will do to ensure candidates elected with their support remain progressive allies on the council over the course of their terms.

"I think we learned a lot of lessons from '07 and 2011, in that we can't just keep electing folks and then walk away when we're done post-election and move on to other fights," Patel responded. "And that's frankly what happened in the last two election cycles in the city.

"That's part of why we're organizing and building differently in this round," she continued. "We need long-term, permanent infrastructure to be able to make sure we're not only electing candidates, but we're making sure that those candidates are continuing to be engaged by our leaders, by our grassroots base, to make sure that they stay aligned with the values that they won their elections on."

As for what Emanuel could do to mend the rift with progressives, Verrett said the mayor "needs not just to listen, but he needs to change his failed policies."

Patel added that progressives will be waiting to see what solutions Emanuel puts forward for tackling the city's pressing fiscal issues.

"Is it going to be solutions that continue to burden working families, continue to steal money from retirees, continue to give very vital tax dollars to downtown corporations and his buddies in the boardrooms? Or is he actually going to take on the real tough fights of going after ... where the revenue really needs to come from -- the folks who aren't paying their fair share," Patel said. "And I think if he doesn't do that, it will be more of the same. And I think, frankly, we'll continue organizing to push against that, because that approach is taking the city in the wrong direction."

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