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United States: Victory in Seattle inspires Chicago Socialist Campaign

Nearly 100 people met at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum on January 22 for the founding meeting of the Chicago Socialist Campaign. Photo by Isaac Silver.

By Andrew Mortazavi

January 24, 2014 -- In These Times -- If a socialist can win an election in Seattle, why not Chicago? That was the spirit at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull House Museum on January 22, where close to 100 Chicagoans gathered for the founding meeting of the Chicago Socialist Campaign.

Drawing on the example of Seattle’s Kshama Sawant—who in November became the first socialist in recent memory elected to a city council—the campaign seeks to run a socialist candidate for alderman in Chicago’s 2015 city council race. Activists also plan to use the electoral effort to amplify the demands of popular movements in Chicago, such as the call for a $15 minimum wage.

The January 22 meeting drew members of several socialist organisations—including Solidarity, Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organization—as well as members of community organisations and trade unions, such as Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union. Overall, the mood was hopeful. Shaun Harkin, a member of the ISO, called the campaign “an exciting opportunity” and his sentiment appeared to be shared by an ebullient crowd.

Inspired by Sawant’s victory, Chicago organisers first held an impromptu meeting last month to gauge interest in a similar effort in the Windy City. They emerged with a vision statement that calls for building a “people-centered” movement to “make real and lasting change” to the system.

On January 22, they turned to fine-tuning that vision statement and discussing organising and campaigning plans. The biggest question, of course, is who to choose as a candidate. The campaign plans to begin by deciding where to run a candidate, as aldermen must reside in their own ward. By February, the research committee plans to have identified four wards conducive to electing a socialist candidate based on community support and incumbent vulnerability. One ward will be ratified by vote in a February open meeting.

Attendees expressed belief that a suitable candidate would arise organically from grassroots organising. But organisers did identify the type of candidate they hope for—a socialist who would represent a multitude of community voices.

Ervin Lopez, a local teacher and community organiser, noted that the movement was seeking to represent a population that wasn’t necessarily in the room. “Right away my first observation was that it seems like another predominately white-left socialist group”, Lopez said of the event, adding that local labour and activist leaders from the south and west sides of the city weren’t present.

The Chicago campaign is also seeking an independent socialist candidate—someone without a socialist party affiliation. In doing so, it is making an important departure from the Seattle model, where Sawant ran as a member of the Socialist Alternative party. Chicago is home to many existing socialist organisations and independent socialists who, organiser Isaac Silver believes, must be brought together to achieve operational unity.

Organisers hope to have a candidate by late spring, but the deadline is August 26, 2014, when the campaign can officially begin collecting signatures for the ballot. A minimum of 473 valid signatures are needed to gain ballot access. Campaign organisers aim to secure at least four times that many, while also registering new voters, whom they see as key to the movement because many potential supporters do not vote for either major party.

The sense that the major political parties had failed to represent the masses pervaded the room on January 22. Organiser Eugene Lim said the campaign was not just about winning office, but reclaiming the word “socialist” to mean those who fight for the proletariat and the disenfranchised. “If we go forward in those arenas”, he says, “we have won”.

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