(L to R) Members of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus. Alds. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward), Sophia King (4th Ward), Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), Carrie Austin (34 Ward) and Howard Brookins (21st Ward). Credit: David Elutilo for The TRiiBE

This article was co-published in partnership with The TRiiBE.

The Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus (CABC) is changing. So far this year, a total of 15 City Council members have either stepped down, announced plans to retire, or launched campaigns to challenge Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the 2023 mayoral election. And there’s also one alderperson, Patrick Daley Thompson, who was convicted of filing false income tax returns in February; another, Ed Burke, remains under federal indictment. 

Of those 15 alderpeople, six are members of the 20-person CABC, a group charged with “representing the needs and interests of Chicago’s Black communities,” according to its website.

Three Black alderpeople—Carrie Austin (34th Ward), Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), and Howard Brookins (21st Ward)—will retire at the end of their terms. Hairston was elected in 1999 and Brookins in 2003. Austin, elected in 1994, is currently the longest-serving Black alderperson; additionally in 2021, a federal jury indicted Austin and her chief of staff on bribery charges for allegedly conspiring to receive home improvements for construction contractors that sought city assistance for a development project in her ward. 

Two Black alderpeople have thrown their hats into the mayoral race: Sophia King (4th Ward) and Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward). The latter is the son of the late Eugene Sawyer, who was appointed mayor after the sudden death of former Chicago mayor Harold Washington in 1987.

Alderperson Michael Scott Jr. (24th Ward) retired from the City Council in May after serving since 2015. Out of 19 vying for the seat, Lightfoot appointed his sister Monique Scott to take his place. 

With Chicago’s municipal election season now in full swing, the aldermanic shakeup comes as self-styled progressive alderpeople appear ascendant in a City Council that is still finding its identity after decades of lockstep allegiance to machine bosses in the mayor’s office.

Such unprecedented shifts could attract young Black Chicagoans—and others disillusioned with politics—to vote in the municipal election, which has experienced low voter turnouts in recent years. But whether that will prompt the CABC to become more independent or progressive as well is yet to be seen.

“If you ask a person, a Black person in particular, what do you think we can do to improve public safety or how do you feel about people in your community having oversight over the police, most people would say that’s a great idea,” said Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana Missouri & Kansas. SEIU Healthcare is a union representing health care, child care, home care, and nursing home workers in the Midwest.

“That’s a progressive thing,” Kelley added. “But I wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘progressive’ if I were talking to someone like my mother, for example.”

Republicans and right-wing extremists have turned the word “progressive” into a derogatory term, using it as a dog whistle to describe cities with Democratic leaders like Chicago as “lawless.” 

The word, Kelley said, can elicit a certain reaction from older Black voters.

“I think we need to do a better job at explaining the issues and relying less on buzzwords like ‘progressive.’ This messaging isn’t reaching certain folks and they may be resistant because they are unfamiliar with the terms,” Kelley said. “So, our job is to communicate the issues without the labels.”

The TRiiBE reached out to Black political experts, City Council members, organizers, and labor leaders to weigh in on what a shift in City Council could mean for Black Chicagoans.

The consensus from the group is that candidates and leaders must not only be progressive in name, but also in action.

Think back to the administrations of former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. During each of those administrations, the CABC voted for controversial initiatives supported by the respective mayors, including Daley’s 75-year parking deal and Emanuel’s closure of half the city’s public mental health clinics and plans for a cop academy. 

During Mayor Lightfoot’s first term, the CABC has largely voted in agreement with her 89 percent of the time, according to an analysis conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s political science department. 

Those decisions have had long-lasting impacts on Black communities. For example, Black youth organizers with the #NoCopAcademy campaign pushed back against Emanuel’s $95 million cop academy for Chicago police in West Garfield Park because investing more in the police would mean more violence for Black and Brown communities. Instead, they demanded through their grassroots campaign that the city fund and provide resources for schools and youth. 

City Council voted 38-8 in favor of the cop academy in March 2019. In September 2020, Lightfoot’s administration asked for an additional $20 million for phase two of the cop academy, raising the cost for the cop academy to $128 million.

“That was a campaign largely driven by young Black people,” Kennedy Bartley told The TRiiBE. She is one of the lead organizers for the #DefundCPD Campaign and director of campaigns at the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services, trauma-informed resources, and community connection. 

“So, I think as far back as I can remember, but also as recently as the cop academy, as budget votes continue to increase police budgets and fund Black communities and Latinx communities and poor communities at abysmal rates, the Black Caucus has historically taken violent votes,” she added.

The term progressive has become a buzzword in recent years and election cycles—so much so that Lightfoot co-opted the language and concerns of young Black and queer organizers to aid her run for mayor in 2019.

Although the term dates back to the 1900s, according to NPR, the 2016 presidential campaign of U.S. senator Bernie Sanders breathed new life into it. “Progressivism is now a way for politicians to appeal to far left-leaning Americans, without alienating moderates and independents who reject the ‘liberal label,” NPR reported.

In 2019, a slate of progressive candidates joined the City Council. Longtime south-side organizer Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) won a runoff race to succeed former 20th Ward alderperson Willie Cochran. In 2016, a federal grand jury indicted Cochran on charges that he allegedly took money from a charitable fund that was intended to help families and children in his ward, according to the Department of Justice.

Before becoming an alderperson, Taylor served as an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and was a leading organizer with the Obama Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition

There’s also BYP100 board member Maria Hadden, who beat longtime 49th Ward incumbent Joe Moore, ending his 28-year career on the City Council. Moore identified as a progressive, but according to a Block Club Chicago article, he voted more than 98 percent of the time with Emanuel. 

Not only did Hadden become the first openly queer Black woman elected to Chicago City Council, but she also became the first Black alderperson to be elected to a northside Ward. 

And there’s Matt Martin, who was elected to the 47th Ward in 2019. Before joining the City Council, he served as a civil rights attorney in the Office of the Illinois Attorney General. He focused on issues including police reform, workers’ rights, health care, LGBTQ+ rights, and reproductive rights. He also helped to write the consent decree

Along with Taylor, Hadden and Martin serve on the CABC and the Chicago City Council Progressive Reform Caucus (CCCPRC). 

Then there’s Alderperson Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd Ward), a former community organizer who beat incumbent Deb Mell in the 2019 runoff. Mell was appointed to the City Council in 2013 to replace her father, who had served on the City Council since 1975. Rodriguez-Sanchez is a member of the CCCPRC and the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus. 

Taylor, Rodriguez-Sanchez, and Hadden’s roots in activism have kept them connected to the needs of their constituents. 

Recent progressive policies that passed through City Council include the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign in November 2019, the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance in September 2020, and the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance in July 2021.

Beginning in 2016, members of the CBA coalition—which Alderperson Taylor had been a part of—came together to protect residents in Woodlawn and neighboring communities from displacement due to the development of the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. Those efforts came to fruition in 2020, when the City Council approved the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance, which Taylor cosponsored. One of the ordinance’s key features is a requirement that for each redevelopment of 52 vacant city-owned lots, at least 30 percent of new apartments must be made affordable to “very low-income households.”

“It’s about the representation that goes beyond the identity of Blackness and represents the class interests and the social interests of Black folks in the city,” Bartley said. “I think it’s about getting organizers into office.”

With these new voices in office, Bartley said, then we can find ways to meaningfully challenge the alderpeople who have been in power for years. 

“We know that Black voters are loyal voters,” she said. “How are we providing material alternatives to the folks in our communities and neighborhoods and then organizing them to believe in bolder representation?”

For Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates, the mayor is an important part of the equation, too. Since the mayor sits atop the city’s governmental power structure, some alderpeople acquiesce to that power, she said. 

“If Black people want to be accommodated in the city, they’re going to have to be accommodated by a progressive mayor because that is the type of mayor who’s going to fully fund schools,” Gates told The TRiiBE. “That is the type of mayor that will go into neighborhoods like Chatham and make sure that it continues to be a place for the working class and the middle class. You need mayors to lead.” 

She pointed to the success of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and the causes he championed and enacted once he took office in 1983. As mayor, he opened the city’s budget process up for public input, fought to redistrict wards which provided more Black and Latinx representation, and created the Ethics Commission to check the power of the city’s administration.

“The greatest amount of transformation for Black people in the city did not come from a Black Caucus,” Gates said. “It came from a Black mayor through a movement of people who wanted more for all people in this city. But it was anchored in the hopes and dreams of the migrants from Mississippi.”

Mayor Lightfoot led a proposal to sue gang members for their assets, despite criticism from the legal community who said the ordinance, if passed, would fail to reduce gun violence and would seize money, property, and other assets from vulnerable people not even alleged to have participated in violence, such as parents, grandparents, and other family members. Six Black alderpeople voted in agreement with her: Jason Ervin (28th Ward), Derrick Curtis (18th Ward), Greg Mitchell (7th Ward), Emma Mitts (37th Ward), Scott, and Christopher Taliaferro (29th Ward), who serve on the City Council’s public safety committee. Lightfoot delayed a final vote on that ordinance in February

When Mayor Lightfoot proposed to extend and expand the citywide curfew for youth following the shooting of a 16-year-old teenager in Millennium Park, despite critics saying the measure would disproportionately harm Black and Brown youth, ten CABC members voted in favor of it: Mitchell, Michelle Harris (8th Ward), Curtis, Brookins, Scott, Walter Burnett (27th Ward), Ervin, Taliaferro, Austin, and Mitts. 

For politicians, merely identifying as a progressive candidate is not enough. Bartley said the words, actions, and policymaking decisions must match, and voters must demand more and be clear about what they’re asking of their elected representatives. 

For Kelley, progressivism, as it relates to politics and legislation, includes policymaking that addresses the needs of everyday working people. 

There’s a widely held belief that millennials and Generation Z only mobilize on issues by leading demonstrations or protests. While some applaud their efforts, they are often criticized because they aren’t appearing en masse to vote in elections. 

More than 520,000 people voted in the general municipal election in February 2019; of that total, approximately 3.5 percent were between the ages of 18 to 24, 15 percent were between the ages of 25 to 34, and 17 percent were between the ages of 35 to 44. 

Overall, voter turnout was 35 percent in the general municipal election and 33 percent for the runoff election in April 2019. 

TRiiBE contributor Charles Preston wrote a 2019 opinion piece responding to criticism about millennial voter turnout. He noted that organizing and demonstrations led by young Black people did lead to wins for the movement and Chicagoans during the previous municipal election cycle. 

“Many activists who stood in front of Lori Lightfoot and Garry McCarthy at past Chicago Police Department Board hearings are now witnessing those very candidates reiterate (some would say co-opt) their talking points! The call for more mental health clinics, an elected school board, and defunding police in favor of more community-based programs is not an original thought by candidates. This is the result of the incredibly penetrating and revolutionary action by youth,” Preston wrote.

In order to attract new potential voters, lawmakers must have messaging and communication about progressive policies that are digestible for all constituents across ages and backgrounds. 

Although Brookins believes there is an opportunity to push Black people further left, he said many Black voters identify as Democrats while still supporting some conservative-leaning policies.

“My elections have shown that African Americans are, by nature, conservative, especially the older African Americans who are the bread-and-butter people that go out and vote,” Brookins told The TRiiBE on September 8.

Earlier that day, Brookins endorsed south-ide native and community organizer Ronnie Mosley’s campaign to replace him in the 21st Ward. In 2017, Mosley cofounded Homegrown Strategy Group, a policy and organizing firm that believes in community power and the idea that achievement comes through collective effort.

“With that said, there is room for a shift in liberal ideas, especially when it comes to things like policing, which I’ve been at the forefront of,” Brookins continued. 

He was one of the sponsors of the reparations ordinance for victims of disgraced Chicago Police Department Commander Jon Burge. The measure was introduced in 2013 and was approved in 2015

However, Brookins also voted in support of the cop academy in 2019.

“But I still believe there’s a strong contingency of people who believe that we should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, live a law-and-order-type life, and so forth. But there’s room to gently push people, not necessarily jerk them to the left,” Brookins added.

When candidates claim to be progressive, Bartley said we must ask them about their commitment to issues like affordable housing, mental health, and funding for education. And, once elected, it’s up to constituents to hold them accountable. 

“Do you commit to building 100 percent affordable housing in your ward? Do you commit to ‘treatment, not trauma’ in a way that defunds the police? Do you commit to fighting against education cuts?” she said. “It’s about just being sharper in our demands and what we’re requiring.”