Young progressives of color take on the City Council establishment

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Colin Bird-Martinez (center rear), candidate for alderman in the 31st ward, stands with campaign volunteers.

A generation ago, electing progressives in Chicago meant uniting black and Latino voters with white independents. Today the formula has to include turning out young voters in large numbers. In this month’s election, a surge in young voters ages 18-to-34 was a key to record turnout here.

Can the formula be applied in the city’s upcoming elections?

For mayor, there are multiple candidates appealing to a variety of constituencies –establishment candidates, black candidates, female candidates, candidates calling themselves progressive, and young candidates.

We’ll see who gets on the ballot, but it looks like there might be a double-edged generation gap. Establishment candidates seem to inspire skepticism among young people. Meanwhile, the younger candidates don’t have the public records used by older voters – who still turn out at higher levels – to judge candidates; indeed, while they demonstrate admirable enthusiasm, most seem to have little sense of what it takes to run a citywide campaign.

It may be at the ward level, in challenges to sitting aldermen, that a new generation of young leaders and voters will have the most impact next February. Given the outsized role typically played by the “donor class” at the top of the ticket, “we think independent leadership focused on community needs is going to have to come from the grassroots,” said Kristi Sanford of Reclaim Chicago. In its first round of endorsements, the coalition is backing five young Latino and African-American millennials who are running for alderman.

They include one incumbent, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and four challengers. Rossana Rodriguez, running against Deb Mell in the 33rd Ward, is the former director of a youth theater in Albany Park and has fought for rent control and immigrant rights and fought against school closings. Andre Vasquez, a utility company manager who became involved in Reclaim Chicago through his support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, is challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th). Maria Hadden became an activist during the housing crisis in 2007, organizing her neighbors to save their homes, and later founded Our City Our Voice to promote civic democracy; she’s challenging Joe Moore in the 49th.

Colin Bird-Martinez, 32, is an automotive market analyst and openly gay community activist running in the 31st Ward, which he says has one of the youngest populations – and lowest voter turnout rates – in the city. His “people-led campaign” uses what he calls a “deep canvassing model,” going door-to-door and engaging residents in extended conversations about community needs. His campaign is making use of online voter registration to sign up people on the spot when they encounter them on the doorstep.

His volunteers were out at 40 polling places on Election Day earlier this month, collecting signatures on his petitions and urging voters to support an initiative for a community-funded mental health center. (It passed with over 80 percent support.)

Bird-Martinez is running against Millie Santiago, who was elected four years ago and immediately reneged on her promise to join the City Council’s progressive caucus. She’s most noted for demanding discounted tickets to the Cubs World Series’ games in 2016.

“There’s a lot of cynicism about Chicago-style machine politics” among young people in the ward, Bird-Martinez said.

Bird-Martinez helped found the Hermosa Neighborhood Association and noticed that politicians showed up and took credit at ribbon-cuttings for projects – like a new school playground that residents built themselves – which they had done nothing to advance. He realized, “we need neighborhood associations but we also need more responsive government.”

The top concern among young people in the ward is “lack of opportunity,” he said. He advocates making City Colleges free, expanding access to skilled trades where mainly white male workforces are aging out, and making free full-day preschool a reality.

Gentrification is another issue, with “residents of the east side of the ward getting pushed out,” Bird-Martinez said. The current alderman has allowed new development, including 200 luxury units, “without much thought about the impact,” he said. In contrast, Bird-Martinez is refusing to accept donations from developers. He advocates higher on-site affordable housing requirements for developers, increased funding for public and affordable housing, and rent control. He’d like to see a home-grown community development corporation that could build affordable housing in the ward.

With a recent increase in shootings, crime is a big concern of voters he’s met, Bird-Martinez said. “People are scared to go out,” he said. He questions the standard response of hiring more police. “Chicago has more cops per capita than LA or New York City,” both of which have lower crime rates, he said. “But compared to other cities, we spend a lot less on social services, youth programming, crime prevention, and after-school programs for teenagers.”

He adds, “Police are by definition reactive; we need to be proactive.” He said voters respond well when he explains his position.

In general, he said, voters reached by his campaign “see a group of young people who are trying to do something” and agree that “we need young blood, because it’s been the same for so long around here.” And “with a new mayor, we need people who are going to stand up for the community and propose new ideas, push alternatives, if [the City Council] is not going to be a rubber stamp.”

Sanford said Reclaim Chicago is playing a long game. By electing young leaders and bolstering the council’s progressive caucus, “we can set a new direction for the city” in a way that impacts current decision-making and builds toward future elections.

And perhaps begins the long process of replacing the machine, ward by ward.

  • Orlando coombs

    Regardless of who becomes mayor after Rahm Emanuel leaves office is immaterial without the black agenda being at the forefront of all city government business in Chicago. Being that African Americans are disproportionately effected by gun violence, the lowest homicide clearance rate in America, poverty, unemployment, poor education, economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, and completely dysfunctional and disorganized community settings. Also there is also a strong African American middle and affluent class of black professionals and business owners to actually elect not only a black mayor but also a black senator. Someone who can push the black agenda to the front of the line. Why they aren’t doing it I don’t know. Chicago needs a new city government. Every single alderman in Chicago’s black neighborhoods needs to be fired. Every member of city government needs to be fired. Higher a new crew. Basically Chicago needs to drain the swamp.