Jesús “Chuy” García had a good excuse for waving a broom onstage at his election-night party like he was a zealous White Sox fan celebrating a series sweep. It was meant to symbolize a sweep of the electoral kind. The mustachioed congressional candidate had easily won his primary, and his slate of young Latino candidates from the southwest side—Alma Anaya, Beatriz Frausto-Sandoval, and Aaron Ortiz (plus Cook County assessor candidate Fritz Kaegi)—all stood victorious on Tuesday.
“We have made history. You’ve made history,” he told the cheering crowd at the Apollos 2000 theater in Little Village.
Politicians are usually full of hyperbolic bluster when they make proclamations about “making history,” but Chuy may have been on to something. On a night when a pair of aging white men with deep pockets grabbed the headlines in the gubernatorial race, three political neophytes—all millennial-aged people of color who align themselves closely with Bernie Sanders’s insurgent wing of the Democratic Party—staged a minor coup of the Chicago machine on the southwest side.
“[They were] young people of color who were first-time candidates. They took on big-money interests and the Democratic machine, and they won,” said Emma Tai, executive director of progressive organization United Working Families, the Illinois partner of the Working Families Party. The UWF endorsed all three candidates. “We stand ready to take on the corporate Democrats who have let incarceration, violence, gentrification and unemployment ravage our communities. And (the) results show that the voters are with us.”
Who would have thunk it?
Few gave Ortiz a shot in hell of ousting state rep Dan Burke in the First District. The incumbent and his brother, Alderman Ed Burke, are part of a powerful political dynasty that has endured for so long Ortiz wasn’t even born when Dan Burke first took office in 1991. Did a 26-year-old high school counselor from Back of the Yards really think he was going to beat an established cog in the Chicago machine while getting outspent three to one? The Sun-Times editorial board practically sneered at the idea, saying in an endorsement of Burke that Ortiz’s campaign “should be a wake-up call to Chicago progressives to put forth an even mildly experienced candidate who can beat an incumbent on the issues.”
It wasn’t the only time Ortiz was dismissed as a serious candidate—he heard a lot of criticisms based on his age or identity.
“The worst was on Election Day when I heard someone from the Burke team say, ‘If we get this young kid from Gage Park or Back of the Yards, he’s going to bring gangbangers into the neighborhood,'” he says. “I guess they have this mentality about me because I’m Latino and from the neighborhood. It’s very frustrating.”
Despite the long odds, Ortiz edged out Burke by about 700 votes, 53 percent to 47, which shocked almost everyone—including the winner of the contest. “Even right now, I still can’t believe it,” Ortiz said on Wednesday afternoon at the “Team Chuy” office at 3520 S. Archer, his voice hoarse from the previous night’s celebration. “We actually pulled this whole thing off.”
You could make a convincing case that Anaya—who worked for García before running for the county commissioner seat he was vacating—was an even more unlikely candidate than Ortiz. She’s a 28-year-old native of Guadalajara who immigrated to Pilsen from Mexico with her family at age six. During her high school years, she and her mother and sisters fled her father because of what she describes as a “domestic violence situation” that left them without a home for an extended period of time. Life as both an undocumented immigrant and a homeless teen left her feeling incredibly disenfranchised.
“I stayed in the shadows—I never told anybody that I was homeless and undocumented because you automatically have this stigma,” says Anaya, who has since become a U.S. citizen.
It wasn’t until her first fund-raising event a few months ago that she began speaking openly about these parts of her biography. Even García, her boss for the last six years, was unaware of how much she overcame, says Anaya. “He texted me after the fund-raiser and was like, ‘I can’t believe you said all that, thank you, I am inspired by you,'” she says.
Speaking out opened more doors instead of closing them, and Anaya eventually made her life story a central message of her campaign. “I was undocumented and homeless” began one of her video ads. “I had so many people coming up to me and saying, your story inspires me,” she says. “I’ve been through a lot. But I’m moving forward and I’m pushing. And I think that that is the spirit of an immigrant. That’s the same spirit of our community and the southwest side,” she says.
Even with a message that resonated with many constituents, Anaya faced an uphill battle against well-connected Democratic opponent Angie Sandoval, who had the political and financial backing of her father, state senator Martin Sandoval, and state senator Tony Muñoz. Pilsen and other parts of her district were blanketed with anti-Anaya mailers during the last couple weeks before the election, some of which struck an anti-immigrant tone (“Alma Anaya isn’t from here,” read one mailer in bold print). Yet Anaya pulled off a upset over Sandoval by a 3,500-vote margin—57 percent to 43 percent.
Frausto-Sandoval’s origin story has some similarities to Anaya’s. Her family was also from Guadalajara before moving to Chicago in the 1970s. Her career choice as an immigration lawyer was in part inspired by her father, a steelworker and union steward she described as suffering a lot of harassment and discrimination from his bosses and the police. “Unity between immigrants and African-American and white workers was important to him—that basically all working-class people needed to unite and organize for their rights,” she says.
As with a host of younger progressives, Frausto-Sandoval, 37, decided to run for office after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. “I think that this year we’ve been living under Trump, living with our immigrant communities under attack, all of us that come from immigrant families have felt the need to become more involved,” she says.
Her attempt to become the first Latina judge on Cook County’s 14th subcircuit wasn’t taken seriously in many circles. (“There was a lot of underestimation going around. Because of our age or ethnicity or where we’re from in the city,” she says.) The Chicago Tribune‘s endorsement of her opponent, Marina E. Ammendola, quoted a bar association saying that Frausto-Sandoval’s private practice “has not prepared her for the circuit court bench.” But that didn’t stop Frausto-Sandoval from being voted in by a significant margin, 58.1 percent to 41.9 percent.
The three Team Chuy campaignmates didn’t necessarily expect to wake up on Wednesday as elected officials, but they believe it’s part of a rising tide of transformational progressive politics in Chicago—one that Sanders himself noted last month when he spoke at a rally with García, Anaya, Frausto-Sandoval, and Ortiz. (“The political revolution is well under way in Chicago,” he said. “The establishment of Chicago knows you’re here, and they are getting nervous.”)
“I definitely think it’s a continuation of what you’ve seen starting with 2015 with Chuy’s (mayoral campaign) and Bernie’s presidential campaign,” says Ortiz. “A lot of people I spoke with while campaigning—some who can’t even vote asked me, ‘Is Bernie running again?”’
“A lot of people in our community now understand that it is possible to have progressive leadership in their communities. But the only way to actually accomplish any progressive movements here in the southwest side is that we need to work together. I think this is just the beginning.”