The energy and excitement in the South Side union hall last Saturday was palpable, as hundreds of people gathered in small groups, preparing to go out and knock on doors to urge voters to support change at City Hall in February’s municipal election.

About 400 supporters of Reclaim Chicago, a new coalition of the People’s Lobby and the National Nurses Union, had just heard short presentations by a dozen insurgent aldermanic candidates endorsed by the group.  They went out and knocked on 2,500 doors that afternoon, according to organizers.

As Mayor Emanuel unveils his first series of campaign commercials, a small grassroots army is assembling to challenge him and his “rubber stamp” aldermen.  What’s shaping up is the classic confrontation of the basic community organizing analysis: the power of people versus the power of money.

The candidates who were endorsed included four incumbents who are members of the Progressive Caucus and nine others with long records of community involvement — “just really solid people who care about their city and their community and have a solid base of support,” said David Hatch, interim director of Reclaim Chicago.

All of them support a $15-an-hour minimum wage and redirecting budget priorities to neighborhoods. All oppose privatization and school closings, and all back an end to mayoral control of the school system.

Progressive incumbents Rod Sawyer (6th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nick Sposato (currently alderman in the 36th Ward and running in the 38th Ward) and John Arena (45th) “have been consistently good on the issues we care about” and “willing to take on the mayor,” Hatch said.  Sposato and Arena face challengers, and Reclaim Chicago expects to provide foot soldiers for their campaigns.

On the South Side, the group endorsed four candidates.  Lashonda Curry is an activist with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, a group that has fought Walmart, opposed corporate tax loopholes and pushed for rehab of vacant homes.  She’s running in a crowded field challenging 7th Ward Ald. Natasha Holmes, an Emanuel appointee and dependable mayoral vote in the council — who also seems to favor a developer-run planning process over a community-driven effort for the massive Lakeside Development, as we’ve reported.  But some say Greg Mitchell, IT manager for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, has the inside track for Emanuel’s support.

Tara Baldridge is facing off against 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris, a top Emanuel ally who chairs of the council’s Rules Committee, where the mayor buries proposals he doesn’t back — including, until recently, a living wage for airport workers and Sawyer’s ordinance to protect taxpayers and workers in privatization deals.  Harris is now under investigation for violating the Open Meetings Act when she filled the February ballot with Emanuel-approved referenda in order to block Chicagoans from voting on an elected school board.  Baldridge is a CPS parent with extensive involvement in school issues, including funding reform and efforts to rein in standardized testing. She supports an elected school board and an end to school privatization.

Further south, community activist Michael LaFargue is taking on 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, the Walmart champion, charging him with neglecting neighborhood businesses.  In Bridgeport, Maureen Sullivan, a founder of the Bridgeport Alliance (profiled here in September), faces Patrick Daley Thompson, scion of Chicago’s one-time ruling family.

Three young Latinos with roots in community organizing were endorsed. Educator Byron Sigcho has used his research skills to help school groups understand the role of the scandal-plagued UNO charter schools; now he’s challenging 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis, who founded UNO.  Juanita Irizarry has an impressive resume and broad community experience; she’s up against mayoral loyalist Roberto Maldonado in the 26th (see our September post on that race).

In the 35th Ward, immigrant-rights organizer Carlos Rosa is challenging Ald. Rey Colon, elected as an independent (he was one of the few votes against the 2008 parking meter deal) but who this term has been a fairly dependable Emanuel vote.  Rosa is questioning the use of TIF funds to spur gentrification and displacement.  He would be the first openly gay Latino elected official in the state.

Two activist teachers also got the nod.  Tim Meegan is challenging Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), who was appointed by Emanuel to fill out her father’s term, in the fine Chicago tradition.  Dianne Daleiden is talking on Emanuel’s floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th).  Both Meegan and Daleiden support neighborhood schools and go further with critiques of the neoliberal policies that have characterized Emanuel’s first term.

Grassroots energy going in the coming election is high, Hatch said. “I haven’t felt anything like this, particularly citywide, since the days of Harold Washington. … I think folks feel like nobody is representing them, elected officials don’t care about them and their struggles.  There’s an energy level motivated by anger, and people realize this is a moment to seize. But it’s going to take some effort to organize it.

“Emanuel is so out of touch, he’s everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party today and why they just got wiped out two weeks ago [in the November midterm election],” Hatch said. “We need people who are really in touch with our communities to take back our government from these politicians who really represent big corporations and big money.”

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.