Mueze Bawany, who is running for alderman of the 50th Ward, is a high school teacher, a son of Pakistani immigrants, and a Muslim who keeps a prayer rug in his campaign office, a converted used-car showroom on Western Avenue. If he succeeds in his campaign to unseat Alderman Debra Silverstein, though, it may not be because of any of those qualities, but because he has the support of the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. Every Sunday, in a tactic borrowed from the machine, a dozen socialists from around the city knock on doors in West Ridge for Bawany.

In 2019, six democratic socialists were elected to the City Council, tying Chicago with New York City for the largest such municipal caucus in the nation. This year, in the February 28 aldermanic elections, the DSA is running four more candidates, trying to take advantage of a record number of aldermanic retirements and an electorate that has been radicalized by Donald Trump’s presidency, the pandemic, and protests over social injustice. Besides Bawany, the DSA has endorsed Óscar Sanchez in the 10th Ward, Angela Clay in the 46th, and Nick Ward in the 48th — all open seats.

“I think they have a good chance,” says former alderman Joe Moore, now a City Hall lobbyist. “They’re running candidates all over the place, not just simply the far north lakefront and Wicker Park–Bucktown, traditional bastions of far-left liberalism. They clearly have the energy right now. It’s a continuation of the reaction to the politics of Trump and the right-wing Republicans.” (In a sign of that momentum, two democratic socialists won offices in November: Rachel Ventura for the Illinois Senate and Anthony Quezada for the Cook County Board.)

Bawany and his fellow socialists want to shift funds from policing to mental health services, build more affordable housing, and impose taxes on real estate and financial transactions. Will such a platform appeal to the 50th Ward, which has some of the most conservative voters in the city, including a precinct Trump won by 44 points?

Bawany believes it will. The 35-year-old sees his heavily immigrant ward as “the essence of the working class — a home for gig workers, home health care workers, nurses, social workers.” Half of the ward’s South Asian community lives at the poverty level, he says — an experience he went through as a child, when his father struggled to support the family by driving a taxi. “We have no affordable housing here,” Bawany says. “Me and my brothers, together with our parents, we lived in a studio for six years. We used curtains to separate five people.” Bawany wants to bring in a development of 100 percent affordable housing, similar to the Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Apartments built in the 35th Ward under democratic socialist alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.

That’s a success at the ward level, where socialist aldermen have been able to wield some power. But they haven’t passed their citywide priorities, because their numbers are too small and their goals too “pie in the sky,” as one committee chairman termed their proposal for canceling ComEd’s franchise agreement and placing the city’s utilities under public ownership. However, if they add a few aldermen and the city elects a progressive mayor (Brandon Johnson is their candidate of choice), their so-called La Salle Street tax, a levy of $1 or $2 on transactions at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, would be “a done deal,” says Moore. “If there’s a dozen of them, they could have real influence.” Then he adds a dig: “They might not get everything they want, because they don’t have a foot in reality.”

The socialists may also be held back by two issues that have always hampered left-wing movements. One is a doctrinaire insistence on the party line. Last year, the DSA censured Alderman Andre Vasquez after he voted for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget, which socialists condemned for its “austerity.” Vasquez still calls himself a democratic socialist, but he did not seek the group’s endorsement for his reelection. The other is money. The Chicago DSA claims 3,000 members but had only $10,806 in its campaign coffers as of September. (As the saying goes, a socialist is someone who has nothing and wants to share it with everyone.) The group plans to distribute 60 percent of that among its nine endorsed candidates, says cochair Steve Weishampel. That’s an average of $720. Four years ago, the typical aldermanic campaign cost about $177,000.

Nick Ward, one of ten candidates running for the seat being vacated by Harry Osterman, became politically active during the pandemic. Working with the Uptown & Buena Park Solidarity Network, he delivered groceries to elderly shut-ins and propane tanks to homeless people under the DuSable Lake Shore Drive viaducts. “I think the pandemic and the social unrest in 2020 really brought into sharp focus the ways in which we just don’t have enough resources for people in our communities,” Ward says. “That there were neighbors coming together to make sure that people were stabilized and alive was incredibly moving. The fact that our local leaders weren’t doing that was very frustrating.”

Ward, 41, a waiter and a member of the storytelling troupe 2nd Story, declared his candidacy in February, before Osterman announced he was retiring, and sought the DSA endorsement because “they’re really activated around the issues that help support working families in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.” (He cites Alderman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez’s “mutual aid work” in the 33rd Ward, where she used her office to collect and distribute resources to the needy.) Ward is seeking to represent an Edgewater-based ward where a one-bedroom apartment rents for an average of $1,447, up 12 percent from a year ago. For that reason, he supports the Bring Chicago Home ordinance, which would increase the real estate transfer tax by 1.9 percentage points on home sales of more than $1 million, generating $163 million a year toward housing for the homeless. And he favors increasing the requirement for affordable housing from 20 to 30 percent whenever a development goes through a zoning change.

Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a democratic socialist elected in the 25th Ward in 2019, believes the time could be right to get such proposals passed: “Maybe we can double the size of the caucus. Ultimately, with a greater majority of socialists and progressives, we can push forward the vision we have and the platforms we’ve seen [that] have popular support but have so far failed to gain political support.”

Leftists always claims to speak for the people, but the people don’t always vote the left into power. Perhaps this year, the people united will not be defeated.