Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez is running in next year’s election for City Council in Chicago, but her phone keeps blowing up over an election held almost 1,000 miles away. In New York City, there’s a different working-class Latina with Puerto Rican roots running as a long-shot socialist candidate against an incumbent in the Democratic Party.
The flood of notifications began in earnest the last Tuesday night of June as her flight touched down at O’Hare from Puerto Rico. Prior to starting a new job at Columbia College as a career and internship advisor, she and her partner, Robert, and three-year-old son spent six days visiting family and friends and touring her old neighborhood in Mariana—a small coastal neighborhood in the municipality of Humacao. It’s on the eastern portion of the island, the same side where Hurricane Maria made a direct hit in October.
The first alert that grabbed her attention was breaking news: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former Bernie Sanders staffer from the Bronx who last year worked as a bartender, had just won the Democratic primary election in New York’s 14th congressional district against longtime House rep Joseph Crowley, a prominent Democratic in the running for House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chair. The upset was exciting news for Rodríguez-Sánchez, who announced in May that she was running for office as Chicago’s 33rd Ward alderman, which includes parts of Albany Park, Irving Park, Avondale and Ravenswood Manor. “I’m so pumped to see another Latina, someone who is so young and so fired up, saying some of the same things we’re talking about in this campaign,” she says.
The next batch of alerts were similar in nature to social media posts by Micah Uetricht, an editor at the New York-based socialist magazine Jacobin: “If you like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for House, you’ll love Rossana for 33rd Ward Alderman!”
— Micah Uetricht 🌹 (@micahuetricht) June 27, 2018
Could the 39-year-old Albany Park-based activist and educator become the next Ocasio-Cortez?
Certainly, being elected one of Chicago’s 50 aldermen certainly isn’t in the same ballpark as knocking out a potential speaker of the House. And Rodríguez-Sánchez is careful not to draw a direct line between herself and Ocasio-Cortez.
But others in her orbit are doing it for her. “A lot of people are making the connection between us and saying, ‘Rossana is next’ and are getting really excited for the possibility for our campaign,” she says.
The candidates’s personal and political lives are following a parallel trajectory. Ocasio-Cortez is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Bronx-born father, while Rodríguez-Sánchez was born in the U.S. territory and lived there for three decades before migrating to Albany Park in 2009. Both are members of the Democratic Socialists of America and are running on a progressive platform of economic, racial, and social justice issues (disclosure: I am a DSA member).
Within 24 hours of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, 1,200 people joined the leftist nonprofit organization, and now there are 45,000 members in 220 chapters across all 50 states (including three in Chicago)—up from 8,000 in 2015. Last week, Cynthia Nixon, the actress turned politician running for governor of New York, told Politico that she too is a Democratic Socialist.
Rodríguez-Sánchez has a big head start on Nixon.
“I have been a socialist forever. I was a socialist before Bernie’s campaign,” she says.
Ocasio-Cortez and Rodríguez-Sánchez are also insurgent candidates taking on entrenched members of the Democratic Party. The New Yorker toppled ten-term congressman Crowley. The Chicagoan is trying to unseat the Mell family dynasty in the 33rd Ward. The elder Mell, Dick, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s father-in-law, held a firm grip on the seat for 38 years before relinquishing it in 2013. Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed his daughter, former state representative Deb Mell, as his replacement.
The 28-year-old from the Bronx won a major upset that sent shock waves throughout the political world. The day after her big win, Ocasio-Cortez made appearances on CNN, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The New York Times described her as a “an instant political rock star” and Fox News was quick to frame her as a bogeyman because of her open embrace of socialism.
High-ranking Democrats have tried to downplay Ocasio-Cortez’s win as an isolated occurrence.
Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth echoed comments from Pelosi when she cautioned Democrats that what works in New York City won’t fly in the midwest. “I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx,” Duckworth told CNN. “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the midwest.”
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward alderman, rebutted Duckworth in a recent column for NBC News, citing Chicago’s history of supporting socialists and movements ranging from Pullman strike organizer Eugene Debs to the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike to the success of his own campaign.
“I’m a 29-year-old member of the Democratic Socialists of America who was elected to the Chicago City Council in 2015. Did this bold political vision make voters skittish? No way. They chose it in a landslide.” Sixty-seven percent of voters in his ward, which is next to the 33rd and includes Logan Square, voted for him.
Other progressive Democrats, especially those who supported Sanders during the 2016 primary, say Ocasio-Cortez’s victory might be just the beginning.
“There is a hunger for generational change, for a new generation of leadership,” Democratic congressman Ro Khanna of California told the New York Times. “I think we’re going to see some of the most impressive young people being elected across the country.”
Rodríguez-Sánchez didn’t immediately leap at the idea of running for office.
“The people who know Rossana believed in her before Rossana believed in Rossana,” said Nick Burt, a spokesman for the 33rd Ward Working Families, a left-wing political organization backing the campaign. “Our idea of what she could accomplish has sometimes exceeded her own thoughts about it.”
She lacks the polished delivery and unflappable nature that typifies some politicians. She smiles and laughs a lot, even while talking politics. On a recent humid Sunday-afternoon fund-raiser held in the basement of a church in Albany Park, she hugged supporters rather than shake their hands.
When describing the destruction of Hurricane Maria, her dark brown eyes well up with tears under clear-framed glasses. Just before the tropical storm hit, she’d tried to get her mother off the island, but all flights out of Puerto Rico had been canceled. She vividly remembers a panicky phone conversation she had with her brother, Luis, as the hurricane made landfall. The windows and the skylight in his house were broken and water began to pour in.
“He was saying, ‘I am in the bathroom with my girlfriend, my cousin, and the dog, and it’s really a small bathroom,’ and the call suddenly ended as the hurricane disrupted cell towers on the island. Rodríguez-Sánchez didn’t know the fate of her family for two weeks.
“Like many Puerto Ricans here, I didn’t know if my family was alive,” she says. “The last thing I heard was that the water was coming inside of the house. I never want to go through anything like that ever again.”
Her family survived the storm and so did many of the island’s 3.3 million residents, but they’ve had to endure grim conditions in the ten months since, with a fraction of the federal assistance available to those affected by hurricanes in Texas and Florida.
“The government of Puerto Rico and the government of the United States have let people die,” Rodríguez-Sánchez says.
It’s one thing for a massive natural disaster to hit as the storm did in October, but another when so many of the island’s problems over the last nine months have been man-made. According to a Harvard study published in the New England School of Medicine released in June, Hurricane Maria killed at least 4,600 people. If accurate, that number—which is 70 times higher than the official U.S. government death count of 64—makes Maria the deadliest storm in modern American history.
Only a small portion of fatalities were the direct result of the hurricane. Many Puerto Ricans have died because of delayed health care and a lack of access to basic services such as power and water, the study says.
Rodríguez-Sánchez says FEMA didn’t show up to help Mariana until a month after Maria hit, and when they did, rescue workers brought junk food—cans of Vienna sausage and bags of Skittles. “Nine months after the hurricane there’s still no power in my community. And the running water comes and goes.”
The death toll might have been higher if not for community organizing efforts like the one started by her brother and his partner, Christine Nieves. They founded a grassroots relief project, Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana (the Mutual Aid Project of Mariana), building a communal kitchen and organizing brigades to clear debris. During her recent trip, Rodríguez-Sánchez watched as members of the group worked to turn her old elementary school into a community center.
In Naomi Klein’s new book, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, she describes Rodríguez-Sánchez’s brother’s project as “a symbol of the miracles Puerto Ricans have been quietly pulling off while their governments fail them.”
“I think my community would have disappeared if not for it,” says Rodríguez-Sánchez.
The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments have been failing the people of the island long before Maria.
By early 2017—months before the storm—Puerto Rico filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, and its capital, San Juan, already looked like it had been hit by hurricane, Klein notes in The Battle for Paradise. “Windows were broken, buildings were boarded up. But it wasn’t high winds that did it; it was debt and austerity,” she wrote.
“There’s a long history of colonialism there, and surviving it has been very hard,” says Rodríguez-Sánchez.
She started fighting back at an early age. She attended her first protest at age six—against a U.S. naval base that had been diverting water from her village. “My neighbors went directly to the river and closed the valve that allowed the water to flow their way. The water was ours. The powerful took it; we took it back.”
She’s found plenty to protest since then. The Great Recession of 2008 hit the island hard and the government drastically cut spending, particularly in public schools. The cap that had limited class sizes was lifted and Rodríguez-Sánchez, a middle school arts teacher, found there weren’t enough chairs for the dozens of students squeezed into her classroom. Burned-out, she resigned.
After Governor Luis Fortuño declared an economic “state of emergency” in 2009 and laid off more than 17,000 public sector workers, Rodríguez-Sánchez, like many Puerto Ricans, moved to the mainland United States for work. She’d just landed a position in Chicago as the director of the Albany Park Theater Project, a social-justice focused youth theater organization.
Her activism didn’t stop in Chicago. In Emanuel’s Chicago, she’s witnessed political and economic problems similar to those that brought her to the United States in the first place.
Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, she adds, offers a case study in how neighborhood schools have been neglected while selective enrollment and charter schools thrive. “Roosevelt has been starved of resources, and then they let go of good teachers and it gets labeled a ‘bad school,’ and then enrollment shrinks,” she says.
She’s also concerned that many residents of her ward—which is more than 50 percent Latino, and includes many immigrants and members of the working-class—are being pushed out by gentrification and rising rents. Others are being threatened by heightened immigration enforcement (approximately 15 percent of the 55,000 residents of the ward are undocumented, according to Rob Paral, a Chicago demographic consultant).
She’s heard their stories firsthand. One of her favorite plays from her tenure at the Albany Park Theater Project is the 2013 production I Will Kiss These Walls, a look at how the foreclosure crisis led many local residents to lose their homes.
Also that year, a pregnant Rodríguez-Sánchez and her partner were forced to move into a smaller Albany Park apartment after their landlord raised the rent by $200 a month. After moving back to Puerto Rico for few months in order to give birth to her son, she got a call from her new landlord in Chicago saying the building had been sold. When she returned, she discovered that the rent had again increased.
“Within the span between the time that I got pregnant and by the time that my child was six months old, I had to move twice because of hikes in rent,” she says. Local government, including current Alderman Mell, hasn’t done enough to help those being displaced, Rodríguez-Sánchez says.
“We’ve asked for [Mell’s] help, to sit down with developers so we can help these families, but she doesn’t do anything,” she charges.
Mell rejects that characterization. In an e-mailed statement, the alderman said she “didn’t know any other alderman that has taken a more active role in advocating for tenants and homeowners alike.
“I am committed to using every tool at my disposal to protect members of our community,” Mell wrote, “and I have a clear record of working to ensure the long-term housing affordability in our ward.”
She said she has pushed for on-site affordable housing in new developments and fought for greater protections for tenants.
The alderman—who calls herself “a strong independent voice in City Council with a proven record”—doesn’t recall ever meeting Rodríguez-Sánchez. “I don’t think I ever had the chance to meet Rossana, and I can’t remember her ever coming to one of the many community meetings or events I’ve held in the ward,” she says.
But after observing the Mells’ leadership, Rodríguez-Sánchez decided the only way to affect true change in the ward—similar to what her brother and community did in Puerto Rico—was to take things into her own hands: she decided to run for office.
“There’s no other way to do it,” she said.
“I live in a ward that is 52 percent Latino, and we have had Dick Mell and Deb Mell running that ward, and clearly our needs are not being met by the Democrats. I feel like it’s time for us to be able to step up and take leadership roles and spaces not meant for us.”
The Rodríguez-Sánchez campaign didn’t come from out of nowhere. It emerged from Tim Meegan’s unsuccessful challenge of Deb Mell in February of 2015.
That year, Meegan, then a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School and a union delegate, campaigned as a third-party candidate. He came just 17 votes from forcing a runoff against Mell—and that was only after absentee ballots had been counted.
Meegan believes he could have won if not for what he alleged was an election rife with shenanigans and voter manipulation. He claimed, for instance, that a poll worker was assaulted, electronic voting machines were unplugged on Election Day.
“It felt terrible because it felt like we had the election stolen from us,” says Meegan, who filed a lawsuit for a recount that was denied by the board of elections. Meegan, now a high school teacher in Minnesota, doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that he was laid off from CPS the following 2016 school year (“Everything they say about Chicago politics are true,” he says).
Some of Meegan’s campaign volunteers went on to start 33rd Ward Working Families, which has pushed for a $15 minimum wage, rent control legislation, and a moratorium on school closings and charter school expansions. It’s also involved in identifying and promoting progressive candidates, and they say they’ve found one in Rodríguez-Sánchez.
“We’re super thrilled to run a candidate that shares our values and has been involved with us—from showing up for marching with striking teachers to helping with neighborhood-level defense networks aimed at protecting Chicago’s undocumented,” said Burt.
Meegan believes that Rodríguez-Sánchez “has a better shot of winning than I do.”
It’s hard to say if that’s true. The election is seven months away. But the incumbent has a significantly bigger campaign war chest. According to June 30 campaign finance reports, Rodríguez-Sánchez had $13,400 in funds available, while Deb Mell has $183,000 in cash on hand. In the last election, Mell got $50,000 alone from Chicago Forward, a Super PAC affiliated with Emanuel.
But Rodríguez-Sánchez looks at the election of Ocasio-Cortez as a harbinger of what’s to come.
“I believe that we will win because we have people power,” she said. Although Crowley spent more money in New York last month, Ocasio-Cortez attracted “people who were passionate, and that’s what we have.”
“I get this feeling that all of these dinosaurs who haven’t been meeting the needs of the working-class, I think they’re done.” v