The 2018 Illinois Democratic Party primaries have further revealed the pro-corporate Democratic machine’s weakening grip on politics in the state and in the city of Chicago. The establishment’s reduced position could be seen earlier in struggles like the Chicago teachers’ heroic strike in 2012 and the Black Lives Matter led “Rahm Resign” movement in 2016 — in the midst of which the New York Times called for “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel’s resignation. It was also reflected in the grassroots enthusiasm for the electoral campaigns of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in his 2015 mayoral bid and for Bernie Sanders in his near victory in the 2016 Illinois primaries. The enormous political polarization and shift to the left by big sections of the working class and especially young people following the Great Recession has created an historic opportunity to build a political challenge to the rule of big business politicians in Illinois, like Emanuel and the reactionary governor, Rauner.
With Bernie Sanders urging an effort to “transform the Democratic Party” as a means to take forward demands like a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and free college, a section of activists and progressive organizations have attempted to rally Sanders supporters behind a number of anti-establishment Democrats in the March 20 Illinois primaries. These primaries will pick Democratic general election candidates for the House of Representatives, governor, other state party positions, but not Chicago offices.
Sanders, who is making visits and endorsements in races across the country, came to Illinois in late February to a rally with candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, the organization he helped launch after his 2016 campaign. Our Revolution is making many more local endorsements than Sanders himself, but Bernie encouraged the crowd of several hundred assembled on February 22 to continue to make the Chicago Democratic establishment “nervous” with their efforts. Our Revolution-endorsed candidates in Illinois have incorporated sections of Sanders’ programs and these candidates have inspired a relatively small, but significant activist base to build their campaigns.
There is ample fuel for anti-establishment anger here. Billionaires and large corporations dominate the state and Chicago. In the last two years, four individuals have given over a quarter of all political donations in Illinois, amounting to an astonishing $177 million.
The Democrats largely control the state and city governments and their leaders, including Emanuel, and longtime State Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, are widely despised. However, it is also Democratic control of the state legislature that has prevented incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner, a right wing Republican, from carrying out a series of Wisconsin-style attacks on workers’ rights. The stalemate thus created has put the State in a deep hole financially, with massive cuts to social services and billions cut from higher education. Nevertheless, pro-business Democrats have failed to convince working people, that their opposition to Rauner is in any way linked to fighting for their interests. Madigan—polling at 21%–is even more miserably unpopular than Rauner who is polling at 31%. Both are more unpopular than Trump in this heavily blue state.
Millions in Illinois want an alternative in 2018 to corporate politics as usual. But the Democratic Party establishment, including most of the labor unions are backing an even richer billionaire, Hyatt Hotel heir J.B. Pritzker, to run against the billionaire Rauner. Both are self-funding their campaigns via their enormous personal wealth—$75 million from Rauner and $69 million from Pritzker. If they face each other in the general election, the race is likely to be the most expensive gubernatorial election in U.S. history.
Challenging the Corporate Status Quo
The Illinois Democratic Party establishment is an enormous barrier in the struggle against the right. It is also a barrier to implementing demands with mass support like an end to police violence in Chicago and a tax on millionaires (and the trillions of dollars in futures traded on LaSalle street) to fully fund education and social services. It would be encouraging to see the billionaires and their representatives in the establishment toppled in the Democratic primaries by anti-establishment challengers. Yet to represent the needs of working people, candidates must establish a clear break from the establishment and corporate cash and also prepare themselves to stand up to the inevitable wave of pressure from big business and its politicians. To win gains, winning elected positions is not enough but we need to actually build movements in the streets that will threaten business as usual. To successfully build in this way means creating a new, political force of working people that fights in the ballot box and on the street to overcome the billionaire class. The establishment would resist this with every tool at its disposal.
While we sympathize with those who want to turn the Democratic Party into a “people’s party” we need to be clear that this means a decisive struggle for the party as a whole to take no corporate money, and for measures to bind candidates to a democratically determined pro-worker platform. To do this would require internal democratic structures under the control of working people where none now exist. This process of testing the limits of what is possible within the Democratic Party, along with the building of a mass movement in society against Trump, the Republican agenda and for working class interests will lead millions to conclude that the real way forward is creating a new party.
Unfortunately, the Our Revolution campaigns in Illinois not only have a narrow focus on getting elected, failing to prepare a grassroots bulwark of support, they have also not clearly broken from the establishment and big business. This has critically weakened their appeal amongst working people, leaving it open for Pritzker and the establishment to muscle their way to victory. Although these candidates were not seen as a part of the establishment’s inner circle at the beginning of the race, they have based their careers in the party on making deals with it. These ties, in the case that a real challenge to big business was made, would be used to inflict massive pressure and to cut out Sanders supporters that have built the campaigns. On the eve of the election, this is already happening. As some candidates have gotten closer to winning, their relationships to the establishment and big business have strengthened.
Our Revolution Candidates
The main candidate that has channeled the mood to take on the establishment and Pritzker in the Democratic primary for governor is State Senator Daniel Biss. Other key candidates endorsed by Our Revolution include “Chuy” Garcia, now running for Congress in a vacant Democratic seat; business woman Marie Newman, also running for a Congressional seat; and millionaire asset fund manager Fritz Kaegi, running as a “clean government” reform candidate for Cook County Tax Assessor against a notoriously corrupt incumbent. That incumbent, Joe Berrios, is closely allied with Speaker Madigan and has used the Assessor perch to systematically overtax poor communities of color while essentially giving handouts to huge real estate developers.
Our Revolution’s endorsement of Marie Newman was part of a growing tide of opposition to the incumbent Dan Lipinski, a right-wing, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Democrat which was initially led by Daily Kos, followed by groups like NARAL and Moveon.org. Nancy Pelosi has backed Lipinski, but Newman is now fundraising at twice the rate of Lipinski and polling in a statistical tie. In the final weeks of the campaign, Sanders himself endorsed Newman, his first against a sitting Democratic incumbent. Kaegi is also looking to win, polling well ahead of Berrios. Yet, Our Revolution’s endorsements of him and Newman have been obscured by the rush of moderates Democrats from a sinking ship towards Newman, and business interests’ embrace of Kaegi, who is self-funding his campaign.
From the beginning, Chuy Garcia’s campaign has been laden with establishment links. Garcia was a Bernie delegate in 2016 and forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the first ever mayoral runoff under current rules. However, he was shooed into the nomination for the Congressional slot on the heels of incumbent Luis Gutierrez’ resignation and has a near lock on winning the seat in November, sparking rumors that a deal had been struck to keep him out of opposing Emanuel in 2019. Emanuel and Madigan have endorsed Garcia.
In fact, the only one of these four candidates whose election would cause serious problems for the Democratic establishment is Daniel Biss, due to his support of the “La Salle Street Tax”. This is a proposed tax on each transaction at Chicago’s commodities and futures exchanges, which handle a mind-boggling quadrillion dollars in transactions every year. A miniscule tax applied to each transaction could raise billions of dollars a year, easily freeing the state from its financial difficulties. Even more than the rest of Biss’ program — for a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave, Medicare for All, increased taxes on the rich and protecting workers’ pensions — this tax is implacably opposed by every section of big business.
If Biss were to win the Democratic primary and become the party’s candidate against Rauner in the fall, big business and the political establishment would bring massive pressure on him to abandon his key demands, and if he continued to advocate for them they would quite possibly realign behind the Republican incumbent. This was the fate of antiwar Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, abandoned by the party establishment, allowing Richard Nixon to win a second term.
As the recent movement of students against gun violence and the West Virginia’s teachers’ strike demonstrate, it is mass movements that can decisively gather the strength to uproot the dug-in positions of the establishment and force concessions. To beat back the forces that will move to eliminate any possibility of a program like Biss’s being implemented and to actually win gains, we’ll need to build a powerful movement as well. Biss’s most identifiable base of support during the campaign has been the National Nurses Union (NNU) and its allies, the People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago on the ground, with Our Revolution using its prominent banner to bring in national progressive media attention. These forces, already identifiable with a Biss’s platform, along with the progressive wing of the labor movement including the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, could play a huge role in building such a movement.
Bringing the pressure of mass movements to electoral politics is decisive if left candidates are to push forward their platform once in office, surrounded by the establishment. This is how Socialist Alternative was able to make huge gains with city council campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis. When elected in Seattle as an independent socialist in 2013 after a campaign in which she took no money from business interests, Kshama Sawant faced ferocious opposition from the city establishment to passing a $15 minimum wage, which was her campaign’s key demand. It was through building street action and the grassroots organization 15 Now that the pro-business politicians were forced to concede. But Kshama’s complete independence from and uncompromising hostility to the corporate establishment were also decisive. Similarly, Socialist Alternative helped built a movement for $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis. In an election year, faced with the threat of Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen, the establishment move to pass $15 in early 2017.
In contrast, Our Revolution’s approach to Illinois campaigns has consistently been candidate-driven and, in reality, a process of picking “winners” from an existing cast of characters all of whom come with their own political relationships to the Democratic machine. Most troubling, none of the candidates endorsed by Our Revolution have committed themselves to Bernie’s approach of only accepting individual donations. Candidates cannot have two bosses. Taking corporate donations, as Biss and Garcia have, inevitably privileges the interests of big business over working people. Bernie Sanders based himself unambiguously on the latter, and this was decisive for working people to feel confident in his campaign. These ties to big business and the establishment will be used to try to force Garcia and especially Biss to betray the ambitions of Sanders supporters.
Biss’s candidacy sums up the weakness of Our Revolution’s Illinois campaigns. On one hand, a defeat of Pritzker and the legitimation of his strong program would force a crisis on the Democratic establishment. Yet nothing in Biss’s past points to a commitment to fight in a way that could overcome their ferocious opposition.
Biss is undoubtedly, a “reinvented” candidate, who in the 2016 primaries endorsed Clinton over Sanders. Before that, as a state representative he was a close ally of Speaker Madigan, and one of the lead sponsors of a contentious 2013 bill to slash state workers’ and teachers’ pensions. He has now apologized for that disaster, but Pritzker’s backers continue to disingenuously attack him for it despite Priztker having supported the same bill. This effectively cut off the rising support Biss started to receive in February as the progressive elements of his program began to get a wider hearing. Although Biss is now backing anti-Madigan state party candidates, as recently as 2016 Madigan trusted Biss to lead a $10 million PAC whose goal was to link Bruce Rauner to then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Biss has ultimately not been successful at overcoming deep suspicion of his record. His previous campaigns took corporate donations from venture capitalists and payday lenders, and early on in the present campaign Biss also caved to hawkish pro-Israel Democrats when he dumped his original running-mate, Democratic Socialists of America member, and Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa over his mild support for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). All of this raises serious doubts about his real intentions and has damaged his ability to recruit volunteers from the left.
A Looming Billionaire Battle
In the face of the likely “battle of the billionaires” in the November governor’s race, working people will have to rely on our fundamental strength: we make up and run the vast majority of society. Our movements are capable of shaking the political system to its core. It’s worth remembering that the “Rahm Resign” movement actually came closer to removing Emanuel from office for his cover-up of the police murder of Laquan McDonald than Chuy Garcia’s mayoral challenge.
Socialist Alternative urged Bernie Sanders to run as an independent in 2016 but nevertheless we welcomed his challenge in the Democratic Party because his program and refusal to take corporate money were a clear challenge to the corporate establishment. As it became clear that the Democratic primaries were rigged, we called on him to run as an independent. A huge opportunity was missed when he did not do this. A powerful, independent campaign in 2016 could have led to formation of a new political party to act as a powerful weapon against the right wing and also a campaigning force to fight for Bernie’s program in local areas.
Similarly, anti-establishment forces like Our Revolution and the NNU should join with other unions like the Chicago Teachers Union, the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) and grassroots community organizations to support independent candidates that refuse corporate donations, basing themselves firmly in working class communities. Mass action in the streets combined with determined, independent electoral campaigns can make historic breakthroughs in the fight to transform working people’s lives when the Illinois Democratic establishment is already damaged and unpopular.
We can challenge the rule of the billionaires and struggle for an anti-racist, anti-sexist program that’s based on working people’s needs — taxing the rich, rent control, fully funded education, state Medicare-for-All, defending immigrants against deportations — but this requires a fresh start, unencumbered by the rotten political alliances that bind the Democratic Party.