No more rubber stamps: How city council’s new left is embracing socialism and calling for change

Aldermen Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th, and Daniel La Spata, 1st, address residents’ concerns ahead of the budget vote at a town hall in Logan Square. (Beth Stewart/MEDILL)

By Beth Stewart
Medill Reports

Mayoral budgets have a history of sailing through the Chicago City Council with little to no opposition. Rahm Emanuel’s first budget saw unanimous support, and in his last year the controversial mayor had a lone dissident. Only one year of his contentious time in office did opposition rise above single digits, as a result of a four-year property tax hike.

So when Mayor Lightfoot’s inaugural budget, which overcame an $838 million deficit with a marginal property tax increase and millions in efficiencies, was approved last Tuesday by the Chicago city council, the 11 no votes signified a sea change.

“I think it sets a precedent that this is not business as usual,” asserted 40th ward Ald. Andre Vasquez, who voted no on Tuesday. “We can’t just rubber stamp things, because we think it’s easy. We didn’t get elected to do the easy things.”

Vasquez is one of the six Democratic Socialists who took City Council seats earlier this summer, all of whom voted no on the mayor’s budget. Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th), Daniel La Spata (1st), Jeanette Taylor (20th), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), and Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) round out the new political left on the council. These aldermen now represent 10% of the governing body, a larger Democratic Socialist representation than any major city in the U.S., and are seeing their influence grow.

Joining these six aldermen casting no votes on the budget were other members of the progressive caucus, which grew from 10 to 18 aldermen this year. By voting against what many called an easy budget, they hope to send a message to the mayor, who campaigned on progressive reforms, to keep her promises.

“We have an austerity narrative that’s been put forth to us, that is a false narrative,” argued 1st ward Ald. Daniel LaSpata at a town hall prior to the budget vote. “If those who can pay are made to pay, then we can create the city we want to live in.” Taxing the wealthy and investing in infrastructure, these are the priorities of the Democratic Socialists on the Chicago city council.

Not long ago the word socialism instilled fear in many Americans. However, this latest wave of American leftist sentimentalities resembles a platform more akin to a Roosevelt than a Stalin. The aldermen ran on platforms addressing wealth inequality, housing and homelessness, and increasing government accountability to working people. Their message clearly resonated with Chicagoans as three candidates unseated longstanding incumbents, and all six won by an average of 12.8 percentage points.

According to Robin Peterson, co-chair of the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the goals of the organization are to “build the power of the working class, and raise peoples class consciousness, and raise their expectations of what the government can and should do for them.”

At a time when wealth inequality is at its highest and Chicago’s affordable housing deficit is reaching near crisis levels, Peterson contended that it was easy for all six of the DSA backed candidates to send a message that resonated with Chicagoans. She explained, “people no longer feel represented by their government, and that’s part of why progressives have been able to win in such great numbers.”

Chicago’s DSA chapter has 2,000 dues-paying members, and according to Peterson that is four times the size it was prior to the 2016 election.  This growth locally is reflected in DSA’s national membership, which according to CNN grew from 8,000 members to 56,000 since 2016.

American sentiments toward socialism are changing significantly as well. In a Pew Research poll published in 2019, 42% of Americans now have a positive view of socialism, compared with 31% in 2012 and 25% in 1942. Of those with a positive view, the definition of socialism has also shifted from the idea of a government-controlled market to a “fairer more generous system” that “builds upon and improves capitalism,” according to the study.

These changing sentimentalities are not only helping to get more democratic socialists elected across the country but building support for progressive legislation.

During the CTU strike, which won $30 million in extra spending on schools with the support of all six DSA aldermen and $30,000 from the local DSA chapter, the teachers sought unprecedented demands. Not only were teachers asking for smaller class sizes, more staff, and increased wages, but they wanted to tackle larger social issues to include affordable housing and homelessness.

While the teachers did not see these legislative demands come to fruition, the DSA aldermen continued that fight in budget negotiations. About 40% of the revenue in this year’s budget comes from one-time funding sources, including $200 million from debt refinancing and $148 million from city staffing efficiencies. If Lightfoot wants to fulfill the ambitious reform promises of her campaign, future budgets will have to rely on new revenue solutions.

The progressive aldermen see this as an opportunity to implement their revenue proposals. They are whipping up support for a corporate head tax on businesses larger than 50 employees to cover the cost of infrastructure, a payment in lieu of taxes from universities and other property tax-exempt institutions, a TIF surplus ordinance, and a higher real estate transfer tax on properties that sell for more than $750,00.

“The great thing is that our numbers in terms of progressives are growing. And so that means that our capacity to lobby our colleagues to build coalitions is growing,” 35th ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa claimed. “I will say that thus far this council has been more independent and more willing to ask hard questions then the council that I was part of for the past four years.”

Eleven voices of dissent on a seemingly uncontroversial budget may suggest he’s right.

Photo at top: Aldermen Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th, and Daniel La Spata, 1st, address residents’ concerns ahead of the budget vote at a town hall in Logan Square. (Beth Stewart/MEDILL)