Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Opinion: Chicago Looks Ready For Its ‘Progressive Moment’

Forces and candidates are setting the stage for progressives in Chicago.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Look out, Bill de Blasio—here we come! 

    While no one can predict the outcome of the 2015 city elections this far in advance, it seems clear something unusual is brewing in Chicago politics.
    For the first time in a long time, the political power structure in Chicago appears to be gaining some serious opposition. And that opposition isn't coming from an established political party like the Republicans.
    Instead, it’s coming from what’s essentially a loose coalition of candidates, community groups, activists and citizens searching for a viable alternative to the direction the city has been going in for more than a few decades.
    Even more important, it’s being powered by a political philosophy that runs counter to national trends and the wishes of those who’ve held office on the 5th Floor of City Hall for more than 25 years. A political philosophy that runs to the left of what’s supposed to be a big-city, liberal Democratic base.
    And while it goes too far to say this movement represents an actual political party, all of the pieces are falling into place for what looks like the most serious challenge to politics as usual in this town since Harold Washington won in 1983.
    For example, it looks like two different progressive candidates—Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti—are getting ready to throw their hats into the ring.
    As well, the groundwork is being laid for a potential sea change in the makeup of City Council, with the majority of challengers calling themselves progressives or open to progressive ideals.
    Further, donors big and small—from the head of the American Federation of Teachers to individual, grassroots donors—appear ready to open their checkbooks to make donations to progressive candidates.
    For the right candidate, there’s a 30,000-strong army of foot soldiers lurking in the weeds, battle-tested and ready to work for someone able to take on Rahm Emanuel and the policies he represents.
    And speaking of Rahm, as polls show there’s little doubt a significant chunk of Chicago voters are ready for a change. And are willing to consider more progressive approaches to solving the city’s problems.  
    All in all, it adds up to what political scientists and others like to call a “Progressive Moment”: a time when voters, faced with failing, middle-of-the-road policies and politicians, are ready to embrace more populist and progressive candidates, programs and solutions.
    In Chicago, those policies include items like an elected school board, responsible pension reform, new and progressive tax strategies and a different approach to policing the city’s crime problem.
    In fact, it’s a little-told story in big-city and national politics across the country. Increasingly, opposition to existing power structures in big cities is coming not from the political right, but from the left. For proof, just look at New York’s de Blasio, Newark’s Ras Baraka, Seattle’s Kshama Sawant or Minneapolis’ Betsy Hodges, to name a few.
    Undoubtedly, there are a whole host of reasons why the potential for progressive political movement in Chicago could pass by, unrealized. Or that progressives could take on the existing power structure and lose.
    Take the millions of dollars in Rahm’s campaign war chest, for starters.
    But what’s clear is that as far as progressives go in Chicago, the opportunity for a historic moment is upon them.
    And, whether progressives win or lose, Chicago looks like it’s not ready to let the moment pass.