The People Shall Rule

On April 13th, 1999, as the precinct workers brought in their tapes from the voting machines in Chicago’s 15th ward, the first returns for rookie political candidate Ted Thomas did not look good.

The mayor and his allies had mobilized against Thomas, the former Chicago ACORN board president, mailing out several impressive, glossy pieces in the last ten days urging voters to support Ted’s opponent. On election day, buses and city vehicles crisscrossed the ward dropping off over 400 well-paid veteran patronage workers and last minute hires from the mayor’s allies in the surrounding wards. Ted’s precinct workers were almost all volunteers.

At Ted’s campaign office, some volunteers tried to write a concession speech while others attempted to break the bad news to Ted in private. They were interrupted by a buzzing inside. The tide had started to turn. Volunteers from the pro-Thomas precincts started coming in with large majorities for Ted. But it wasn’t over yet. The far western precincts, the area in which Rev. Martin Luther King was stoned by a white mob in 1966, had been a worry. Still majority white ethnic, but changing fast, these high turnout precincts were unknowns; they had been won by other candidates in the primary, and were being worked by the machine’s veteran precinct captains, with help from adjoining white ethnic wards. But Ted took three of the four precincts by impressive margins. By this time, most of the precinct volunteers had reported, and as the last ones were being tallied a chant arose from the assembled volunteers from labor and community groups: “The People United, Will Never Be Defeated!” We had elected one of our own.

Politics as Accountability Strategy

In Chicago’s 15th ward, members of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and Service Employees International Union Local 880 decided to support one of their own members and leaders for office because other strategies for holding public officials accountable were failing. (Though ACORN as an organization does not get involved in partisan electoral politics, its members are under no such restriction.)

But would electoral politics be any better? Is there really any difference in accountability between electing one of our own or working for one of the candidates already running? How does a community, in this case an organized one, hold any elected public official accountable?

The decision by community residents to support one of their own for office came after trying other methods of holding public officials accountable, particularly after the living wage campaign.

The Living Wage Campaign: Learning About Accountability

In 1995, Chicago ACORN and Local 880 built a 60-member coalition that mounted the Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign. Their goal was to pass a “living wage” ordinance in Chicago’s city council requiring all subsidy recipients and contractors with the city to pay a living wage of $7.60 per hour, which would bring their employees’ pay above the poverty level.

Because the mayor was opposed to the ordinance, we knew that we would have a hard time with most of the city council members, known as “aldermen.” The campaign became a case study in the hard work of holding public officials accountable.

Knowing it would be a hard fight, we documented the campaign’s early success in winning support from aldermen. We got commitments in writing, with 37 out of 50 aldermen signing on to support the living wage ordinance. Then we got them on video, with Chicago Video Project documenting a majority of the aldermen as they signed on to support the bill. We got thousands of postcards signed, held prayer vigils, and passed out flyers to ask residents to call their alderman about the living wage. Most effectively, we held community accountability sessions in the wards, where aldermen had to make a public commitment to their own constituents.

Nevertheless, the living wage lost the first vote in July 1997. To beat us, the mayor had to lock 300 people out of council chambers and arrest six of us, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for him. In the end, the aldermen did not want to face an election having voted for a wage increase for themselves and not for minimum-wage workers, so the ordinance passed in July 1998.

We Want Our Own Alderman

Despite the victory, community organization and union members felt that the time had come to elect someone who could be counted on to listen to the people. Having seen their aldermen promise to support the living wage and still back down when the vote came, people wanted one of their own in office. “We need someone who won’t have to be dragged and pushed and pulled into doing the right thing,” said Denise Hardiman, one of the living wage campaign leaders with ACORN.

Many of the people in the campaign had developed a new idea of what they wanted in a public official. They began to break public officials into three categories:

  • Elected leaders who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into support: They say they will be with you, but when push comes to shove, they head in the other direction unless you bring them before the community over and over again to remind them who put them there.
  • Elected leaders who support the people: Congressman Danny Davis (7th Cong. Dist) is our favorite example of this type of leader. All it takes is for the community to meet with him to express its opinion. You can count on him to be there.
  • Coming out of the living wage campaign, ACORN and Local 880 members had a new category: Elected community leaders. If, they reasoned, you could elect a person from within your own ranks, wouldn’t you be more likely to have someone who would naturally be on the people’s side?

Elected Community Leaders

Before Ted Thomas ran for alderman, Chicago ACORN members had never elected one of their own members to office. But they had helped to elect other community activists, and the results were mixed. One good example of this strategy was Michael Chandler, alderman of Chicago’s 24th ward in the low-income African-American community of North Lawndale.

Many ACORN members had volunteered their time to elect Chandler to office when he first ran in 1995. Though he was not an ACORN member, he had joined with ACORN in numerous community struggles, and they were eager to support his candidacy. But once he was elected, problems developed.

Though Chandler would ask community residents where they stood on issues from time to time, for the most part community people felt they had to push their way in to see him. When they took a stand on an issue and were very clear about it, they could count on Chandler to vote their way, including on the living wage campaign. But it was never as easy and natural as ACORN members had expected it would be. At one point in the living wage campaign, community residents called an emergency meeting when Chandler came out in the press sounding like he was wavering on the ordinance. They quickly brought him back around, but they never felt so sure of his stand that they could ask him to sponsor the bill.

Over the years, Chandler moved further and further away from the people who had worked so hard to put him in. He became a very visible symbol of what ACORN members did not want in an elected community leader.

A New Accountability Plan

When Ted Thomas was elected in the fifteenth ward, ACORN members felt that they had elected one of their own who would naturally be on their side, but they had learned through experience that they still needed an accountability plan. They had learned in the living wage campaign that public officials could say one thing and do something quite different. And they had learned in the 24th ward that a community leader could be elected who would be no more accountable than any other public official.

But they had something new in Ted Thomas. They had a longtime ACORN member and leader who was committed to the same goals that he had helped to set with other ACORN members: the right of the people to control their own communities; the importance of truly democratic decision-making in government; the importance of economic and social justice.

As a result, the residents of the 15th ward, along with their alderman, are developing a new understanding of the role of alderman in the community. Instead of seeing the alderman as the sole decision-maker, they are forging an understanding of the alderman as a community mobilizer. Ted brings the decisions to the community and lets them figure out the decision-making process. As a result, when it was time for Ted to turn in a list of streets for resurfacing, he announced a bus tour to visit the prospective streets. Any resident of the ward could go on the tour and submit their street for review. Then, as the bus bounced over the potholes on the nominated streets, the riders voted on which streets would get the funding. Similarly, when Ted discovered a pot of $1 million for community development in his ward, he called a community meeting to ask for proposals for spending. In both cases, ACORN helped to organize the meetings and turn out the residents.

Ted was breaking new ground as an alderman who was willing to use his position to help organize and mobilize the people in his ward. But how would he act when the people who put him in office asked him to take a stand on an issue of importance to them?

When ACORN members decided to push the city for more funds for home repair for low-income homeowners, they went to both aldermen Chandler and Thomas for support. In Chandler’s case, he refused to come out to the community press conference, and ACORN members marched on his office to deliver their demands to him instead. In Thomas’ case, his staff helped to publicize the ACORN meeting he was invited to, and he signed on his support for the campaign in front of 200 cheering constituents.

What Made the Difference?

Local strength. When Ted was elected, ACORN immediately set up an office in his ward and organized three areas of the ward that did not have ACORN neighborhood groups. In contrast, when Chandler was elected, ACORN continued business as usual with a strong organization, but not an aggressive push to become much stronger.

Interaction. ACORN members continued to treat Ted like an ACORN member and leader after he was elected. He was invited to remain on the Chicago board as a non-voting member, and did so. He continued to attend local ACORN neighborhood meetings in his ward, and sat down often with ACORN leaders to brainstorm and strategize. Ted rode the bus to Philadelphia with other ACORN members for the ACORN National Convention last summer. Chandler had never had those relationships, and none were set up. In retrospect, the organization needed to create a regular monthly or weekly meeting with Chandler, which never happened.

Conscious Support. ACORN has held joint rallies with Ted in his ward to mobilize residents around a number of community issues. At one, the planning department promised a groundbreaking for West Englewood’s first new library in more than 20 years. At another, banks came out to offer conventional lending products to provide an alternative to predatory loans. At still another, residents demanded and won a commitment for a new ward superintendent in charge of city services. All were ACORN issues, and at all three Ted was the hero in helping to deliver the goods to his constituents.

Planning for the Future

ACORN and Local 880 leaders held a weekend retreat last spring to think and talk about the issue of accountability. They were learning new things all the time, and wanted time to assess what they had learned and plan for the future.

Out of that weekend came a number of ideas that are guiding our planning to win accountability from public officials. They include:

  • Turning up the heat. There is no substitute for being able to move large numbers of people in direct action tactics in the public official’s district. Where an official is refusing to act, or has strayed from the fold, there is no substitute for confrontation on his own turf; but even where the official is friendly, a strong presence is the best insurance that he will remain so.
  • Developing more community leadership. It is much harder to hold a few leaders accountable to a community and labor agenda than a majority. With only a few, we are asking people to take stands on issues that may often lose in city council for want of a majority. It would be better to develop many more grassroots community and labor leaders who have the base and track record on community accomplishments that they need to win.
  • Developing a proactive agenda for progressive leaders. ACORN, Local 880 and our many collaborative partners need to put our elected officials to work on issues that will mobilize an increasingly large base. If we fail to continually move an agenda that we want our elected leaders to carry, someone else will always be happy to fill the void. We need to get much better at developing such a program – with our own elected officials at the table helping to develop it.

 

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Keith Kelleher is the head organizer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 880 and has been a field organizer, lead organizer and head organizer for ACORN, the United Labor Unions (ULU), and SEIU Local 880 for over 20 years.Madeline Talbott is the head organizer for Illinois ACORN and has been a field organizer, lead organizer and head organizer in many ACORN cities across the country. She recently celebrated her 25th year as an organizer with ACORN.

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