Score one for the people's machine|
NP chair elected to Chicago City Council
by Jon Green, Jun 15, 1999
The back room at the Suave Soul Food Restaurant on West 71st Street was full. A crowd of nearly 100 community activists and labor leaders enjoyed Alice's roasted chicken, string beans, and homemade rolls, while exchanging stories from the trenches of one of Chicago's recent political battles. Spirits were high. People came to celebrate the inauguration of Ted Thomas, the Chair of the Chicago New Party, as Alderman of the 15th Ward on Chicago's Southwest Side.
"There's a lot of things we need to do in the 15th Ward, and it's not going to be easy," the newly elected Alderman tells the crowd during his thank-you speech. "But when I think about all of the things I'd like to accomplish, there are three words that come to mind: more, better, and together."
Those are also the words that best describe the largest electoral effort the New Party has organized in Chicago. Thomas's election represented a breakthrough for grassroots organizations, unions, and progressive political activists in Chicago. It also culminated a year of NP victories, including the election of NP member Willie Delgado to the State Legislature and the passage of Living Wage legislation in Chicago and Cook County.
But it didn't come easy 3/4 in Chicago, beating the machine never does. In fact, with all 50 of the city's wards up for election, Thomas was one of only two newly elected Alderman who defeated a machine-backed candidate.
The 15th WardThe 15th Ward on Chicago's Southwest Side, like most low-to-moderate income areas in the city, had suffered from neglect and corruption for years. Streets and allies are in disrepair. Unemployment and underemployment continue to be chronic problems, and gang violence and crime are among the highest in the city.
The 15th Ward has a complicated racial and political history. It was in Marquette Park on the western edge of the ward that Martin Luther King was hit in the head with a brick during a desegregation march. Today, the Ward is about 80% African-American, though still home to a significant white population, mostly Eastern European. A rapidly growing Latino population in recent years has added to the ward's diversity.
Off To The RacesWhen Thomas announced his candidacy in early December, incumbent Alderman Virgil Jones had already been indicted for accepting bribes from waste contractors in exchange for political favors. By the time the ballots were printed in late January, Jones had been convicted, clearing the field for a 12-way horse race in the February primary.
The Thomas campaign mobilized more than 200 volunteers who did more than 1000 hours of doorknocking to identifying votes for Thomas. "This was an impressive grassroots campaign," said NP member Denise Hardiman, the 'precinct captain' for the 40th precinct and the Chair of Neighbors for Thomas. "Getting out and talking to people is what made the difference."
The heart of the campaign was a core of about 25 precinct captains, 15th Ward residents who canvassed their precinct and "got out the vote" on election day. "We were determined to win," said Emerson Pope, another precinct captain. "One Saturday, I offered to go into a precinct where we needed more help. I worked the precinct there until it started to get dark. But I knew we still needed to get more people, so I just canvassed my way home."
The Thomas campaign also successfully reached out to unions for both financial support and people power. As a key leader in the Chicago Jobs and Living Wage campaign, Ted had earned the trust and respect of progressive labor leaders throughout Chicago. More than 15 unions supported the campaign financially, including AFSCME Council 31, the SEIU State Council, UNITe, UAW Region 4, IBEW Local 21, UFCW L. 881, Teamsters L. 705, and Operating Engineers L. 399.
But no matter how strong your campaign, no election is safe when you're running against the machine in Chicago. In the last two weeks of the campaign, the machine began pouring its resources into the ward. Each Saturday, more than 150 city workers and seasoned precinct operatives were shipped in to canvass for their candidate, Carlos Hemphill. Powerful, high-profile city contractors pumped thousands into Hemphill's campaign for the final push. Hemphill yard signs began appearing everywhere, almost over night. The gap was narrowing.
Election DayBy the time the polls opened at 6:00 AM, each polling place already had a small army of Hemphill workers gathered outside. There were at least 250 machine workers throughout the ward on election day.
But our campaign wasn't far behind, mobilizing more than 200 supporters to work the polls. And what the campaign lacked in numbers it made up for in energy.
"They had more people than we did," said precinct captain Noel Liceaga. "But we worked harder. They would just wait for the voters to come and then give them a palm card. We went out and got the voters. I think that made a big difference."
For the last two hours of the day, the GOTV intensified. More reinforcements arrived as members who couldn't get the day off work went straight to their polling places to help close out the day.
And then it was over.
At headquarters, volunteers gradually filed in from the field. Within thirty minutes, precinct captains began calling in the results. The 35th called in first: Hemphill by 15. Then the 26th: Hemphill by 2. But things evened out. In the 17th, Thomas won by 4; in the 19th, he won by 25. Before too long, the tally had swung in Thomas' favor, as more and more precincts came in with large margins. Cora Coleman, deep in Hemphill territory, won 2 of her 3 precincts. And then the big numbers came in from the 39th and 47th precincts, where Ted lives. Thomas won overwhelmingly, 113-37 in the 39th and 127-29 in the 47th.
When all was said and done, Thomas won 34 of 48 precincts, with 56% of the vote.
Next Steps: GoverningAs hard as winning was, Alderman Thomas knows that being the Alderman will be more challenging than becoming the Alderman. Even after what was considered a reasonably successful year for progressive, independent candidates, there are still only a small group of 6-7 independents on the City Council, making it extremely difficult to make the kinds of changes that communities like the 15th Ward need.
"We need more resources in our community for street and alley repairs," Alderman Thomas tells his eager audience at the Suave Restaurant. "We need more after school programs. We need more economic development and businesses. We need better schools with high standards. We need better city services. We need better jobs. Not just minimum wage jobs, we need to keep fighting for Living Wage jobs." The audience applause grows as Ted's voice gains confidence. "We need to demand better leadership. And we need to do it together."
"There are a lot of things we need. But we won't get anything until we get together. It's as simple as that." The audience joins in with Thomas as he concludes, chanting in unison: "More! Better! Together! More!! Better!! Together!! More!!! Better!!! Together!!!"
Jon Green is the Chicago New Party head organizer.
More New Party news
Back to Front Page