A coalition in Chicago's 26th Ward plans to endorse City Council candidates who share their progressive ideals. [Shutterstock photo/Bahri Altay]

In the last two City Council elections, labor and progressive groups have successfully supported challengers to incumbent aldermen –­ their win rate in 2007 was dramatic — only to see the new council members they’d helped elect immediately flip and align with the mayor.

So progressives in the 26th Ward thought a different approach was necessary.  Rather than simply backing a candidate, they’re building an independent ward organization that will endorse and work for candidates — and continue working after the election to hold the winners accountable.

“People felt really burned after 2011,” said Nathan Ryan, a Humboldt Park resident and organizer with Grassroots Illinois Action who’s helping pull together GIA’s 26th Ward Committee.

“We want to build political power at the grassroots,” said Amisha Patel, GIA’s executive director.  “We’re tired of seeing our issues buried in committee, and when they are passed they’re so watered down we don’t recognize them.  We need new strategies to keep pushing on issues.”

GIA tapped into the network of activists around the group’s sister organization, Grassroots Collaborative, a citywide coalition of labor and community organizations. (Unlike that  coalition, GIA is organized as a 501c4, allowing it to engage in some political activity.)  These individuals formed the nucleus of the ward committee, and they began by knocking on doors, surveying residents about their concerns and registering voters.

One new member is Claudette Morin, a longtime Chicagoan who’s lived in Humboldt Park five years.  She’s never been involved in politics, she told me, but became disenchanted with Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) after she joined a large group of neighbors asking him to work toward saving and rehabbing a vacant home on their block. The building was demolished this summer.

A supporter of the campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, she was also unhappy when Maldonado did not back the proposal at a community hearing earlier this year.  (At the hearing, Maldonado said it was “a very difficult question.”) When a friend told her about the 26th Ward committee, she started attending meetings.

About 30 residents met recently to review issues as the group finalized its platform.  One woman listed difficulty getting garbage cans, along with concerns about school closings and tax-increment-financing abuse.  Business development, gentrification and public safety were recurrent concerns.  Several people expressed dissatisfaction with Maldonado.

The platform developed by the committee emphasizes a moratorium on school closings, charters and turnarounds, and calls for full funding for neighborhood schools along with an elected school board.  It also backs expanded affordable housing to protect the community’s diversity; a holistic approach to community safety; a $15 minimum wage; and an end to privatization and public-service cutbacks.

Last Saturday, Maldonado and one potential challenger, Juanita Irizarry, appeared at the committee’s endorsement session, each answering a series of questions.

A former county commissioner appointed alderman by Mayor Richard Daley in 2011, Maldonado was the picture of the affable, confident pol. He defended the closing of Lafayette Elementary School last year, said “decisions will have to be made” about low-performing schools and opposed an elected school board.  He supported Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal for a $13-an-hour minimum wage by 2018, but said he was “open to” a $15 wage level.

He noted new restaurants and a planned artists’ residence in the ward, and claimed dramatic decreases in crime rates in areas where he’d worked with police commanders.  He supported a financial transaction tax.  When asked if he would join the City Council’s progressive caucus, he demurred and cast mild aspersions on “reformers” he’s known, saying they accomplished little.

Irizarry, a state housing official and former executive director of Latinos United, touted her long involvement in community organizations, her background in urban planning and her commitment to social justice.  Her responses aligned closely with the committee’s platform: She supports neighborhood schools, an elected school board and a $15 minimum wage.  She expressed admiration for the City Council’s dissenters. She spoke with authority on strategies for economic development and maintaining diversity. Irizarry is a former board member of the Community Renewal Society, which publishes The Chicago Reporter.

A third candidate, Adam Corona, a superintendent for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, didn’t show.  Contacted later, he cited the connection of several GIA committee members to Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., where Irizarry was associate director years ago. “They have an agenda, which is affordable housing,” he said. “There are other issues.” Corona, who has worked on the campaigns of independents including Alds. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and John Arena (45th) and state Rep. Will Guzzardi (39th District), said he supports the progressive caucus.

The new committee is more focused on citywide issues than ward concerns, he said.  He may have a point.  One of the distinctions among aldermanic candidates in 2015 will be between those who emphasize ward issues exclusively and those who also call for a new direction for the city.  The committee’s question about joining the progressive caucus is really a question about whether the City Council should be a rubber stamp for Emanuel.

Will Emanuel’s unpopularity rub off on aldermen who have been mayoral loyalists?  The 26th Ward could be a test case: Maldonado is a staunch Emanuel ally.

After watching the endorsement session, I won’t be surprised if GIA’s 26th Ward Committee endorses Irizarry.  But it’s notable that they invited all the candidates to speak, a first stab at establishing an accountability process.  And it’s noteworthy that Maldonado thought it was worth his while to show up.

“I’m going to work hard to get [another] candidate elected,” said Morin.  “But if [Maldonado] gets re-elected, we have to continue pushing him to do what we need him to do.”

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.