Chicago’s 11th Ward is the heart of the old “Chicago machine,” one of the largest, longest-running, and most powerful political forces in US history. For most of the twentieth century, the Chicago machine organized the political, economic, and social order of America’s second city. Patronage rewards like plum city jobs were awarded to lieutenants who could best turn out the vote for the Democratic Party, which in turn provided funds, connections, and gifts to the ruling Daley family and their inner circle.
Mayor Richard J. Daley, often called “the last big city boss,” ruled Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976. Daley spearheaded infrastructure and urban renewal projects that physically segregated white and black parts of the city with expressways and housing blocks and drove black displacement from desirable areas. He tangled with Martin Luther King Jr over school and housing desegregation, sicced the cops on antiwar protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and gave “shoot to kill” orders during the uprisings following King’s assassination.
The Chicago machine’s glory days are past, but the legacy of the Daleys lives on. Relatives and friends of Mayor Daley still hold office throughout Chicago, and his nephew, Patrick Daley-Thompson, had a strong hold over City Council as the 11th Ward alderman until July 2022, when he was convicted of tax fraud and lying to federal bank regulators and forced to resign.
Although the Daley family has lost direct control over the 11th Ward, their presence is still felt in the neighborhood of Bridgeport. While racial segregation is not explicitly enforced, the neighborhood still has a reputation among many older black residents as a “no-go zone,” and throughout the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd, white gangs roamed the streets with weapons questioning anyone who looked “out of place” — a callback to the racist mob violence perpetrated by the Hamburg Athletic Club, of which a teenage Daley was a member a whole century prior.
So what is Ambria Taylor, a socialist public school teacher, doing running for office in the backyard of this entrenched political fiefdom? Jacobin contributor Caleb Horton sat down with Taylor to discuss why she chose to run at this time and in this place, and how she is building a movement that can overturn the power of one of the nation’s most notorious political dynasties.
Taylor launched her campaign in October 2021, when Daley-Thompson was still in office. After a few months of campaigning, the 11th Ward began to undergo major changes. First Daley-Thompson was arrested and then convicted of fraud, and then the ten-year ward remap took place, removing parts of the old 11th Ward and adding parts of Chinatown and McKinley Park.
In just a few short months, Taylor was facing a newly-appointed incumbent, a new map, and six other candidates for alderman. Taylor is the only progressive in the race.
Why did you decide to run for office?
Growing up, I experienced poverty and homelessness in rural Illinois. I moved to Chicago when I was seventeen to escape that. I slept on my brother’s floor, shared an air mattress with my mom.
Chicago saved my life in a lot of ways. Urban areas have public transportation, they have dense development where you can walk to get what you need, where you can get to a job without a car. Public goods help people survive.
Experiencing all that defined me. It’s why I’m so committed to protecting public goods like affordable public transportation and affordable housing. It’s why I’m a socialist. It’s why I got my master’s degree and became a teacher.
I had a chance to grow up and live a decent life thanks to the strong public goods and services available in Chicago, but unfortunately that’s all been under attack due to neoliberalism, the hollowing out of the public sphere, and the assaults on unions.
That’s why I’m running. We deserve a city that works for everyone like it worked for me. We deserve a city that, in the richest country in the history of the world, provides for the people who live here and make it run. And here in Chicago we have been building the movement for the city we deserve through making the ward office a space for people who are marginalized to build power.
What do you want to do when you’re in office?
In Chicago the local ward office has a lot of local power. The alderman is kind of like a mini-mayor of their district. They have power to make proposals for spending taxpayer money, and they each get a budget of discretionary funds of about $1.5 million annually for ward projects.
Aldermen have influence in the committee that oversees Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. On TIFs, we gave $5 million in taxpayer money to Pepsi and $1.5 million to Vienna Beef.
We shouldn’t be taking money away from our schools to fund giveaways to megacorporations, period. But if we’re going to have TIFs, residents should have democratic input into how those funds are spent. We have dozens of empty storefronts in what should be our commercial hubs — why not fund small businesses providing needed services and quality of life to residents?
My dream is to, for one thing, involve the public in development decisions. But most of all, I want to ensure that money goes to things that benefit residents. Things they can see and experience, like cleaning alleys or tree trimming or sidewalk maintenance. In this ward, there’s a history of “the deal is made, and then they have a public meeting about it.” I want things to be the other way around.
I’m excited for the potential of what we could do here if there’s a ward office that’s open and collaborative and is genuinely trying to do things that benefit the most vulnerable.
Could you talk a little bit about the ward’s political history, and why it has been such an “insiders’ club” of decision makers?
We are on the Near South Side of Chicago. This ward now includes Bridgeport, Chinatown, and parts of a few neighborhoods called Canaryville, Armor Square, and McKinley Park.
The Daley family is from this area. The home that’s been in the family for generations is here. The family has been powerful here for a really long time. They were also involved in various clubs and associations, like the Hamburg Athletic Club that took part in the racist white riots in 1919.
The 11th Ward is well known for being an enclave of extremely aggressive anti-black racism. In the 1990s there was a young black boy who dared cross over here from Bronzeville to put air in his bicycle tires from a place that had free air, and he was put into a coma by teenage boys.
One of those boys was well connected to the Mafia here. Potential witnesses for the trial who knew this boy and were present when it happened weren’t willing to come forward. This happened in the 1990s. Think about how old the fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-old boys would be now. Many people who are influential now were alive during that time and were wrapped up in that culture. This was considered a sundown town, and to some people still is.
Things are changing rapidly. People move to the suburbs, new people move in, things change over time. There still is a vocal conservative contingent here, but this is also a place where Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary two times. Because of where we stand at this moment amid all those contradictions, we have the chance to make monumental change.
There’s always been dissatisfaction with the machine, but we’ve started to cohere that dissatisfaction and the latent progressive energy into an organized base. We’ve brought together a base of people around progressive issues that many have said couldn’t exist here. We’re proving them wrong and proving the narrative about this part of the city wrong.
As socialists, narratives are often used against us. It’s that narrative of what’s possible. The “Oh, we love Bernie, but he could never win. . . .” We say that a better world is possible. And what we’re seeing on the doors is that people are very excited to see a democratic socialist on the ballot. As far as I know, I’m the only person in the city running for office who has “socialist” on their literature. That’s big whether or not we win.
In what ways is this a movement campaign?
We launched this campaign very early. We launched in October 2021 with an election at the end of February 2023. We did this because we needed time to organize.
We started by holding community meetings for months. We brought communities together to articulate their desires for the city — like for streets and sanitation, public safety, the environment — and made those our platform planks.
We engaged people with what they want to see happen in the ward: “How do you want an alderman to be working toward making those things happen? Let’s talk about how the city council works. Let’s talk about how the ward office operates and what budget it has.”
Our residents have an appetite to get into the nitty-gritty about what an alderman can actually do to make progress on the things they want to see in this community and for Chicago. They want to take ownership over their own affairs.
This is what political education can look like in the context of an aldermanic race. The people ask questions, articulate their needs, and we try to put that through the lens of what we can do as an aldermanic office and as organized communities.
One thing we’ve found impactful is coming together for creative events. For instance, we had a huge block party with the owner and staff of a business called Haus of Melanin. This is a black-owned beauty bar that was vandalized twice in the months after they started up. A hair salon for black people? You can see why that might piss racists off.
So we stepped in and built a relationship with them. We threw this huge block party, bringing a bunch of people together to say, “We’re going to celebrate that there are going to be black people in this neighborhood. There are going to be black-owned businesses that cater to black people.” And a lot of people came out in this neighborhood to say, “We support this business, we love that it’s here, and nobody is going to scare our neighbors away.”
The business owner had talked about leaving. She had stylists leave because of the vandalism that happened. Haus of Melanin might have been chased out if the community didn’t turn out to say that these racists don’t represent us and we’re not going to take it. All of that is what a movement campaign looks like.
This is the city’s first Asian-majority ward, and the current alderperson is the city’s first Chinese American alderperson. Some people have said that this is an office that should go to an Asian American or a Chinese American person — that you as a white person shouldn’t be running for this office. How do you respond to that?
We do remaps based on the census every ten years or so, and there was a big push to remap the 11th Ward to include Chinatown. Before the remap, the 11th Ward was 40 percent Asian, mostly Chinese. I think the biggest thing this remap did is unite a center politically that is already mapped culturally.
The incumbent I’m running against was appointed by an unpopular mayor and is backed by the Daley family. Her father worked for Mayor Richard M. Daley. Richard M. Daley and John Daley sent out a letter backing our current alderman.
It’s really exciting for this Asian-majority ward to have the opportunity to elect a representative they trust will fight for their interests.
My team has worked hard to do everything on the campaign the way we plan to run our ward office. We have made the campaign a space to build power for people who are marginalized. We have a huge campaign team that includes canvassers who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taishanese. Just today we used all three languages while we were at the doors.
We make sure that people who are multilingual are present at our community meetings. Also every single piece of lit we’ve printed has been translated into three languages: English, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish.
This election is not just about the candidate as a representative, but about electing someone who is going to focus on issues that matter to the people of this ward. This is bigger than one person, and we have been able to build a lot of meaningful connections.
For example, we’ve made deep connections with Chinese-language newspapers, and that relationship is going to go a long way. We’ve had Chinese-language newspapers commenting on union rallies I was going to, my Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsement, and so on, and we want to continue to nurture that relationship.
How has your experience as a Chicago Public Schools teacher influenced your politics?
Teaching in Chicago Public Schools was really hard. I kind of expected that, but you have to live it for it to truly sink in.
After a year of student teaching, I started my first lead teaching position in the 2019–2020 year. A month and a half later, we went on strike for almost two weeks. We came back to the classroom, and just as I was trying to get back into the swing of things, COVID hit.
I became a remote teacher of middle schoolers, and things were really difficult. We had to eventually juggle hybrid learning and lack of staff. I became the union delegate for our school and experienced horrible retaliation from my principal. But through that, I learned to organize people in my building around workplace issues even if they had different politics than me.
I saw how the workplace can unite us — it gives you something to convene around, and it’s hard to have anything interfere with that because your reality is informing it all. Public education is in a lot of trouble, and I firsthand experienced these schools unraveling at the seams.
The city allocates money to bullshit while lead paint flakes off the walls and our buildings fall apart. As teachers, we face the struggle of trying to get through the day while kids are being put in the auditorium a few classes at a time because there is not enough staff to supervise them.
That influenced me because a huge part of my campaign as a socialist is to fight against neoliberalism, austerity, and private interests’ attempt to narrow what the public sector does by choking these various public services and then saying, “It doesn’t work!”
What is happening with Chicago Public Schools is happening everywhere — at the Chicago Public Library, in our transit system. My dream is being part of a movement that will help save our public sector.
The Chicago political machine faced an unsuccessful challenger in the 11th Ward four years ago. What makes your campaign different?
There have been other challengers to the machine politicians in the 11th Ward. Usually it’s a person who has a few volunteers, and they raise less than $5,000. We’ve been able to raise over $90,000, and we have had over a hundred people volunteer for us. That’s something that challengers haven’t been able to muster up, and understandably so — it’s not an easy thing to do.
The people of the ward want to support this kind of effort, and despite their modest fundraising, we’ve seen previous small campaigns still give the machine a run for its money. We had a guy take Patrick Daley to a runoff election, and he raised less than $5,000. What that shows is that a strong campaign stands a chance, and we’ve made a strong effort here.
What are the biggest issues facing the 11th Ward?
Environmental issues are huge here. Our air quality is eight to nine times worse than northern parts of the city. Our city is very segregated. The further north you get the whiter it gets, and you will notice that the South Side has way worse air quality and way more heavy — or “dirty” — industry that pollutes our air and our soil.
We used to have a Department of Environment that ticketed polluters that were breaking the rules and causing toxic contamination. That department is gone now, and the ticketing has gone down. When ticketing does happen, it happens on the North Side.
So there is a lot we can do here, like reestablishing the Department of Environment and working with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that the polluters in this area are being held to the standards they should be held to; also, when it comes to developments, saying, “No, I will not support new dirty industry coming to this region which is already severely overburdened.”
Public safety has come up a lot this election. What do you believe the 11th Ward could be doing about this?
Public safety has become a major talking point this year. That’s not to say that everything is safe and everything is fine: we have carjackings, shootings, and assaults. People experiencing violence is unacceptable.
However, a lot of people have given in to saying, “I’m the alderman and I love the police.” What that does is absolve our leadership of any responsibility. We’ve had police officers responding to forty thousand mental health calls a year. There’s been a big movement in Chicago to shift things like mental health and domestic violence calls to other city workers instead of the police.
What we’ve seen is poverty and austerity are on the rise, and when you have high poverty, you have high crime. We need resources for young people, better social services, housing, and mental health care. A lot of people who we’ve canvassed agree that police are not enough and we need to address violence holistically.
What about affordable housing? Where do you stand on that?
Here in the 11th Ward, there has been a push for affordable housing, but it’s really hit or miss as far as enforcement goes. Also, when it comes to affordability, we need to be stricter on how we define it. Right now, developments can say there are affordable units in a building even if they are not truly affordable and are just a little cheaper than other units in the building.
We want affordable housing, and we want to hold developers’ feet to the fire as far as prices go. Having a resident-led ward gives us the opportunity to ask developers, “What do you plan to charge for the units?” and get them to commit to something truly affordable for people to live in.
We must also expand public housing. Chicago has lots of money for it, yet we’re selling land that belongs to the housing authority off to private interests. That needs to stop. I’m interested in partnering with residents who live in public housing to make sure it improves and expands.
I also support just cause for evictions and lifting the ban on rent control in Illinois. We have a ban on passing rent control — we can’t even introduce a bill on it. I very much support the effort to overturn that.
What are your plans for this progressive base that you’re building?
From here on out, if I’m the next alderman, we will continue to organize through the ward office and institute participatory budgeting and resident-led zoning and development boards. We will make serious changes to how the ward office is engaging with the people who live here.
And if we don’t win, we have movement institutions: we have the 11th Ward Independent Political Organization, we have DSA. We need to make sure we’re actually organizing people into groups where we can continue to grow what we’re doing. I’m really interested in where we are going to take this.
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