Come May, there will be six democratic socialists on the Chicago City Council, five of whom won election this year.
One of them, political newcomer Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez, toppled a Chicago political dynasty that’s held power in the Northwest Side 33rd Ward since 1975.
Rodríguez was propped up by a team of grassroots activists who want to see vast change in Chicago politics. She’s now calculating how to balance pushing that bold vision they see for the city with less glamorous, but critical, aldermanic responsibilities, such as providing ward services to residents or learning how the budget works.
“I think both parts of the job are going to be really important,” Rodríguez said. “I think a lot of the legislation that is going to take place at City Council is incredibly important because it affects everybody.”
Rodríguez said the 5,754 people in the 33rd Ward who voted for her voted for change. The 33rd is home to many immigrants. It’s a place where you can still get a $7 haircut, and where working class families can still afford to live. Rodríguez campaigned on preserving that affordability in the 33rd and across Chicago in part by pushing the big and, in Illinois, controversial idea of rent control.
But Rodríguez won the April 2 runoff election by just 13 votes. She also now represents the 5,741 people who voted for incumbent Ald. Deb Mell, the daughter of longtime Ald. Dick Mell. In her concession statement, Mell touted her record of keeping the ward clean and delivering “the best city services.”
Rodríguez wants to do the same, but she also wants to push changes she promised on the campaign trail. One example is rent control, a cornerstone of Rodríguez’s platform. Adopting rent control in Chicago would require changing the law in Illinois, where it’s been banned by the state for decades. Even if it were legal in Illinois, an alderman would need help from at least 25 allies on the City Council to draft and approve legislation. And there’s Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, who hasn’t expressed support for the idea.
Second-term 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas is chair of the Latino Caucus. He said freshman aldermen should work on building some political capital by stocking up on small wins in the first four years of their term.
“As aldermen run on certain things, they need to make sure they’re running on things and promises that they can keep,” he said. “Because when you get down here to City Council, government doesn’t run as quickly as it should.”
That lesson — that government doesn’t run quickly — is one Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, in the neighboring 35th Ward, said he’s learned during his first term in City Hall.
“I think I’ve changed in the sense that I’m more patient,” Ramirez-Rosa said, sitting in his ward office. “I still have that same sense of urgency and that commitment to justice, but I’ve seen, one, that four years is really not a long time, and two, how things change over time.”
Before this year’s municipal election, Ramirez-Rosa was the only sitting democratic socialist on the City Council. He’s gained a reputation over the past four years as a loud voice for the city’s activist community.
Ramirez-Rosa said he tried, but that it was impossible in his first year to build alliances with aldermen who were unwilling, as he saw it, to prioritize fundamental change. That made it difficult to push and pass citywide legislation and big-picture change.
“A lot of them told me, you know, you’re not here to change the world. Focus on what you can change in your ward and leave the citywide policy to the mayor,” he said.
Rodríguez said she plans to start by finding a new ward office, where residents can go for help when they need their trees trimmed or potholes filled, and by building a dependable team to staff it. After being sworn in on May 20, she plans to split her time between making sure ward services are delivered and at City Hall, bringing the concerns of community organizers to the floor.
“I am definitely a bridge-builder,” Rodríguez said. “I also strive to be an assertive person. So I think there are going to be times when I need to stand and speak my voice.”
Mariah Woelfel is a news producer at WBEZ. You can follow her @mariahwoelfel.