To Campaign or Not to Campaign (Part 1)

January 16, 2013

I don’t actually love working political campaigns. But I love community empowerment. And I love it when the underdog wins. So I’m especially drawn to local politics.  And the independent (read: non-Machine-politics) candidate.  And the rare politician who both looks out for the underdog and has tons of integrity. Let’s just say that I don’t actually work that many campaigns, because those qualities are hard to find. But I find myself pulled strongly toward those I’m passionate about.

My first up-close look at a political campaign came in the late 1990s in Chicago. I was working for a local community development corporation. We were struggling to gain approval from our alderman (city councilman) for a proposed affordable housing development that would take the form of a co-op. Low to moderate-income residents of the co-op would purchase affordable shares of the cooperative corporation. This model would provide residents with more stability and stake than simply renting. It was particularly important for low- and moderate-income families in a gentrifying community where many couldn’t afford traditional homeownership and were getting priced out of their long-term neighborhood as rents rose dramatically.

Though the alderman had been elected on the promise that he would support affordable housing, he changed his tune upon taking office. He also said out loud that poor people didn’t vote, so they didn’t count. And he went around the neighborhood blaming all of the gang problems on affordable housing.

That inspired a number of affordable housing residents and advocates to launch voter registration drives, hold candidate forums, and volunteer on the campaign of the challenger when the next election came around. But my employer didn’t allow me to work the campaign. My position in the organization was too high-profile. My participation might be seen as an endorsement of a particular candidate by our non-profit. So I watched intently from the sidelines as many of my friends and colleagues volunteered on their own time.

I finally was allowed to do a tiny bit of volunteer work—on election day. It was my job to give rides to the polls to those who couldn’t get there on their own. I picked up an elderly woman and accompanied her to the door of her polling place. We were stared at by a uniformed police officer who was wearing on his shirt a button supporting the incumbent alderman. He was standing right in front of the door—not beyond the perimeter where one must stand if one is displaying campaign paraphernalia. I was a bit intimidated. I can only imagine how the elderly voter felt. As I waited for her, I thought about all of the ways that cop was breaking the law on behalf of that campaign.

Unfortunately, inappropriate and illegal behavior was not uncommon during the campaign of that incumbent alderman—whose power was reinforced by an endorsement from the mayor. Businesses along at least one commercial strip were harassed if they chose not to display a sign in support of the alderman. One day a campaign worker came by insisting to businesses that they hang a sign in the window. Those who didn’t comply received multiple building code violation notices the next day. On election day, friends and colleagues who worked the polls reported numerous irregularities—too many to explain here. Late into the night, after the polls had closed, a campaign volunteer’s car was firebombed in front of her house. It was that of one of my friends from work, a community organizer, who had volunteered a lot of time on the campaign. It couldn’t be proven who perpetrated that explosion, but the police were sure it wasn’t an accident. Some folks later came out of the woodwork to say that they recognized the handiwork.

Affordable housing residents and advocates won in that we turned out a higher percentage of low-income voters from our affordable housing units than the percentage of all registered voters who voted in the ward. But the community otherwise lost that day. The incumbent alderman came away with 300-plus more votes than the challenger. I hesitate to say that the incumbent won. To this day, many of us are quite convinced that the incumbent stole the election.

It took us four more years, but we finally took that alderman out of office. I got to work that next campaign a bit more as I was no longer working for the same organization. During the same election cycle, I also volunteered for another challenger who unseated another mayor-backed incumbent. Two Chicago wards, side-by-side, in my life-long neighborhood, had stood up to the Chicago political Machine and won.

Both of these fights were (independent) Democrat vs. (Machine) Democrat, Latino vs. Latino. So this wasn’t about the party or race of the candidate. It was about democracy and justice. And community empowerment. Now we believed it was possible. We would fight to do it again and again.

Maybe now you can understand why it might be hard for me not to work political campaigns that I find meaningful. The powers-that-be and the purposeful scheduling of Chicago electoral seasons to coincide with cold and snow can’t stop me and my community from organizing to struggle against oppression and corruption.

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