What The Gov: What Does It Mean To Have Six Democratic Socialists on the Chicago City Council?

A slew of democratic socialists now sit on the Chicago City Council. How did that happen, and what does that mean for city politics?

This article is part of a series called What the Gov, where BGA Engagement Editor Mia Sato takes reader questions and tracks down the answers. Ask your own question here.

At Mayor Lori Lightfoot's first City Council meeting, the new dynamics of the relationship between aldermen and mayor were evident with Lightfoot's swift shutdown of Ald. Ed Burke, 14th.

Some of the old guard returned to City Hall, most notably Burke, who has been indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges and has been urged by Lightfoot to resign. But along with powerful incumbents, first-time elected officials are also looking to push their agenda under a new, reform-oriented leader.

By the way, six of them call themselves democratic socialists.

What is the DSA?

Google "What is democratic socialism?" and you'll find millions of search results, ranging from dictionary definitions to YouTube videos featuring Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, one of the most visible self-proclaimed Socialists in the country.

The Democratic Socialists of America is the largest socialist organization in the U.S., with local chapters in Chicago and across the nation.

The Chicago chapter has ballooned in membership in the last two to three years following the election of Pres. Donald Trump, according to Communications Director Zach Shearer. There are currently 1,300 members, up from 200 to 300 prior to 2016.

Shearer acknowledges that DSA-backed aldermen are still far outnumbered, but is hopeful that an influx of progressive newcomers will have a ripple effect.

"I don't think we've transformed City Council. We're still a huge minority," Shearer said. "I think just having those voices there. Being a voice for the working class people is going to be can be really good for Chicago."

So, democratic socialism has proven quite popular in city politics, but what exactly democratic socialism means depends on who you ask. One commonality is that, from politicians at the national level to those here in Chicago, issues surrounding economic inequality permeate the pitches.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, used to be the only democratic socialist alderman. Since the recent election, he said he's fielded questions from his City Council colleagues about the phrase.

"I start with the first word, which is democratic. And I talk about what is democracy, it's control from the bottom up," Ramirez-Rosa said. "So I say, 'Look, we want to see a democractic public realm, but also we want to see democracy in the economy.'"

That's where the socialism part comes in, Ramirez-Rosa says.

"We want an economy where workers control the means of production, where the average person isn't dictated their entire life to them by a large corporation of their boss."

Practically speaking, the measures Ramirez-Rosa calls for echo what Progressives want: strong labor unions, worker's cooperatives and more regulation. But he believes the job of the Democratic Socialist caucus is to take Progressive measures to the next level. For example, if the Progressive Caucus (which also includes Ramirez-Rosa) is pushing for a $15 minimum wage for 2021, the Socialist Caucus would fight for $22.

"The Socialist Caucus would help move the Progressive Caucus to the left to pick up more, you know, bold ideals," he said.

Though the Chicago DSA most recently made headlines for its endorsements of a slate of winning City Council candidates, Shearer said most of the group's work is outside of elections, including advocacy for lifting the ban on rent control, increased access to healthcare and to bring power provider ComEd under municipal control.

Long Road to Office

DSA organizers, candidates and others involved in the election and re-election campaigns said the road to a decidedly more left-leaning City Council started long before the DSA endorsements.

One of the clearest examples is in the 33rd Ward, where a victorious campaign to elect Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez rose from the ashes of a previous progressive campaign, in some ways a precursor to the wave this year. Chris Poulos, chief of staff for Rodriguez-Sanchez, said the wheels had been in motion for years to topple veteran incumbent Ald. Deb Mell, whose family had held the seat since 1975.

In 2015, Tim Meegan, a teacher at Roosevelt High School, nearly forced Mell into a runoff election. Though he didn't win, activists and organizers involved in the campaign — including Rodriguez-Sanchez — formed 33rd Ward Working Families to keep momentum going as the group organized around issues, not individuals. Back then, Poulos said the group's platform made some squeamish: a $15 minimum wage, an elected school board and fully funded public schools, all issues that have since moved into the mainstream.

Now, Poulos said, decades of a lack of political vision from Chicago politicians on how to deal with the city's problems like affordable housing and school closures are coming to a head.

"We did a poll, and [Mell] was well-liked in the ward. She was a decent person," Poulos said. "But I think the fact that Rossana got elected, is that being decent and doing the right thing... is not enough for people right now."

City Council, but make it socialist

Some DSA members signify their membership using the rose emoji on social media — including Ramirez-Rosa, who voters elected to a second term.

First elected in 2015, Ramirez-Rosa has been a member of the Chicago DSA since early 2017, and until now, the only sitting socialist alderman. Along with Ramirez-Rosa, who beat his challenger by nearly 20 points in February, and Rodriguez-Sanchez, Chicago's Socialist caucus is composed of:

  • Daniel La Spata, 1st
  • Jeanette Taylor, 20th
  • Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th
  • Andre Vasquez, 40th

All DSA-backed candidates also joined the Progressive Caucus, bringing its membership to 16 — almost one-third of the 50-member Council and a sizable bloc that could have increased power under a Lightfoot administration.

Ramirez-Rosa said that since the election, he's had returning aldermen ask what it means to be a Democratic Socialist. He said that as an alderman, a key part of being a democratic socialist also puts him at odds with many colleagues — going to community activists for policy input. That means going to groups like Black Lives Matter when crafting legislation on policing, or undocumented business owners for issues around immigrant protection, he said.

"Oftentimes, [aldermen] view grassroots community organizers or people on the frontlines of these fights as rabble rousers," Ramirez-Rosa said. "I think that they're regimented, and taught to only listen to a lobbyist that comes in wearing a suit, and has the ability to sign a big check."

Don't be surprised if the line between community activism and law-making becomes increasingly blurred: many of the newly elected council members have activist roots, and show no signs of letting up. Just days after the runoff election in April, incoming aldermen protested outside City Hall against controversial development projects underwritten with property tax revenue (which were later approved).

But now that the DSA aldermen are in office, the question is how far they can move the needle given both Chicago's "dire" financial situation of a 2020 budget hundreds of millions of dollars in the red, and that they're still in the minority on the council — they'll need to build a coalition around resolutions that won't make others balk.

But Ramirez-Rosa said he thinks there's an awakening at the constituency level, where it matters.

"People are realizing that we need to change, that we need an alternative to the status quo," he said. "And that the only way we're going to bring about that change is if we organize ourselves."