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Bernie Sanders Lost Illinois, but He Changed Chicago

Many of his campaign promises have already become law here.

Sanders campaigns in Grant Park on March 7, 2020.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is failing. After losing Illinois, Florida, and Ohio on Tuesday, the senator from Vermont has next to no chance to win the Democratic nomination.

However, the political movement that Sanders inspired is succeeding. The proof can be found right here in Chicago, where Sanders’s acolytes have transformed politics over the last five years.

In his campaign manifesto, Our Revolution, Sanders wrote that “real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up. It takes place when ordinary people, by the millions, are prepared to stand up and fight for justice.”

Which is true: Even if Sanders somehow won the presidency, he wouldn’t be able to bring about his revolution from that top-down office. During his March 7 rally in Grant Park, Sanders pounded the lectern in favor of Medicare for All, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and legal marijuana. There’s no way any of those proposals could get through the United States Senate, a body which is dominated by rural conservatives, and was designed to place a brick on radical change. A Sanders Administration would be a frustrating four years for the president, and for his followers.

But all of those proposals could pass city councils and state legislatures in progressive corners of the country. Some of them already have. The Sanders campaign, which he calls a grassroots movement, is slowly seeding those grassroots political bodies with like-minded legislators.

In 2015, before he even announced his run for president, Sanders came to Chicago to endorse two candidates: an obscure county commissioner named Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who was running against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Susan Sadlowski Garza, who was challenging a Machine Democrat for 10th Ward alderman.

“We know that when we stand together we can have local, state, and national governments representing ordinary Americans and not just the one percent,” Sanders said at a rally in a Southeast Side church. “That’s what this election is about. Yeah, Chuy is going to be outspent 8 to 1, but there are a lot more of us than there are of them.”

Garza won her election by 10 votes, and is now chair of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus. Garcia lost, but his campaign made him the de facto leader of the city’s progressive movement. He used his newfound prominence to win a seat in Congress, and built a political submachine that is now dismantling the Burke family’s hold on power in Southwest Chicago. Garcia’s own protege, high school counselor Aaron Ortiz, unseated state Rep. Dan Burke in 2018. On Tuesday, Ortiz was elected 14th Ward Democratic Committeeman, defeating Dan’s brother, Ald. Ed Burke, who has held that post for 52 years.

When Sanders ran for president in 2016, one of his local volunteers was a former rapper named Andre Vasquez, a son of Guatemalan immigrants who had never been involved in politics. Vasquez threw Sanders a campaign fundraiser, billed “Feel the Bern,” at the Wild Hare. Inspired by Sanders’s ideals, Vasquez became a community organizer. Then, he ran for office himself, and defeated 40th Ward Ald. Patrick O’Connor, Mayor Emanuel’s floor leader, who had sat on the City Council for 36 years.

Vasquez, who calls Sanders “the person who ignited my civic engagement and inspired me to run for office,” is one of six democratic socialists on the City Council. That caucus exists because Sanders brought socialism back into the mainstream of American political discourse. So far, the socialist aldermen have called for a 1.2 percent real estate transfer tax on sales over $1 million, a requirement that developers build up to 30 percent of their units as affordable housing depending on how likely a neighborhood is to gentrify, and a public takeover of ComEd.

All of Sanders’s Chicago allies have remained in his orbit: Chuy is his state chair, Garza appeared at a rally to open the campaign’s Roosevelt Road office, and Vasquez and other socialist aldermen endorsed him for president.

Rahm Emanuel has said he’s “not a fan” of Sanders, but transitively, he agrees that revolutionary reforms can best be achieved at the local level. Emanuel’s new book, The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World, argues that progress is only happening in cities because the federal government is too dysfunctional to make it happen.

Sanders is not going to be the next president, because, as William Rivers Pitt recently wrote, “Democratic primary voters … are not ready for a revolution in the middle of a pandemic.” When Sanders announced he wasn’t quitting after losing Michigan, he admitted that “while our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate over electability.”

In fact, some of Sanders’s campaign promises have already come true in Chicago. Marijuana is legal as of January 1, and the minimum wage will rise to $15 an hour next year.

The fact that Sanders commands so much support among young people — he won a majority of voters under 45 in the Illinois primary — means his ideals will become laws when today’s Sanders voters win tomorrow’s election. Ironically, Sanders has been compared to former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was as far to the right as Sanders is to the left. Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election was nonetheless the beginning of a conservative ideological movement that finally came to power when Ronald Reagan won the White House 16 years later.

“The Sanders coalition is in a very real sense the future of the Democratic Party,” wrote Noah Millman in The Week. “And that’s a reason to take notice of his primarily class-based politics, because they have shown far better ability to energize the demographic future than any of his opponents.”

Even as he’s losing, Sanders is winning — not in Washington, but in Chicago, and plenty of other blue cities.

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