How campaigns helmed by women took down some of Chicago’s most powerful aldermen
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Before she could lead the campaign against 36-year incumbent 40th Ward Ald. Pat O’Connor, Jesi Peters had to figure out how to draw up a campaign plan.
So she Googled it.
“This is the first campaign I’ve run,” Peters said. “I ran for office in 2012 in Kansas, but that was nothing of this magnitude or size.”
O’Connor was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee and second in City Council seniority to only Ald. Ed Burke.
Peters’ candidate, Andre Vasquez, beat O’Connor, 53.93 percent to 46.07 percent.
“The gravity of the win and who we beat hasn’t set in yet,” Peters said.
Peters was just one of the women who led successful aldermanic campaigns earlier this month.
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Much of the media attention has understandably gone to the women running for mayor — and city treasurer and city clerk. But behind the scenes, women played key roles in numerous ward races.
Their levels of political experience vary. Their campaigns are scattered across all corners of the city. The races they managed ranged from taking on entrenched incumbents to successfully winning open seats.
But what they all shared was a desire to push the City Council to the left and the belief that their own life experiences could help them better connect with the voters they were trying to reach.
Part of the power in women running these races could be an ability to connect with communities concerned with displacement and gentrification, said Zoe Chan, who ran Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s successful campaign to replace outgoing Ald. Danny Solis in the 25th Ward on the Near Southwest Side.
“As a woman, and also as a woman of color or wearing other markers of identity, I think made it easier to do that, made it more intuitive, than a white man,” Chan said. “You can identify with the very people for whom the results of the elections would affect the most.”
Chan, who worked on youth outreach in Cicero for J.B. Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign, said it’s “people with a deep commitment to feminist principles driving this race.”
Three of the candidates who won aldermanic races Tuesday — including Sigcho-Lopez and Vasquez — were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and favor elected school boards, building more affordable housing and including community voices in ward-based decision making.
Vasquez’s campaign was the first one Peters managed, though she ran for state office in Kansas and did political work in that state.
She used that experience this time around, infusing into the candidate’s platform what she and others heard while talking to residents to make a campaign that wasn’t “based on polling or … one funder of the campaign coming in and saying, ‘This is what we need.’”
A member of the LGBT community, Peters said in the race she faced some of the same tactics she encountered while working on ordinances for Equality Kansas, an LGBT advocacy group. Her own candidate had made homophobic comments in the past as a battle rapper.
Peters says that she knew about Vasquez’s comments before the campaign, but she said O’Connor’s use of them during the runoff fight was “appalling.”
Managing Jeanette Taylor’s 20th Ward campaign on the South Side wasn’t the first for Candis Castillo, who worked on state Rep. Delia Ramirez’s campaign last year as well as others as organizing director for United Working Families. Castillo, a black woman, said she moved from being a union organizer to working on political campaigns because she “got sick of winning the workers and losing the politics.”
“We have to elect people who will stand up for working people, especially black and brown people, not just in Illinois but around the nation,” Castillo said.
Taylor is a community activist, so Castillo said getting her elected simply boiled down to letting Taylor be Taylor. An organizer at heart, Taylor would connect people to resources while canvassing and draw on her life experiences to answer questions and connect to residents.
Morgan Macfarlane has worked on 11 campaigns, the last three for women candidates.
Yet she is still often asked whether it’s her first campaign. She’s been called “little girl” and noticed that people first turn to her male colleagues when visiting the campaign office.
She ran Samantha Nugent’s successful campaign for the open seat in the Northwest Side’s 39th Ward and saw the sexism that was directed at the candidate, a veteran public official as well as a mother of three young children.
“People at the door would be like, ‘How are you going to be an alderman and a mom?’” Macfarlane said. “I’m more attuned to it now, when you experience sexism it makes you more cognizant, makes you want to help others who are going through the same thing.”
Despite those challenges, she hopes to continue running campaigns and to see more women doing so.
“Being able to visualize a role model helps bring more women into that career path,” Macfarlane said.
Jackie Anderson ran Maria Hadden’s successful campaign to oust seven-term incumbent Joe Moore in the North Side’s 49th Ward. She managed Sameena Mustafa’s unsuccessful run against U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) last year.
“We made our office friendly to mothers, we were able to have volunteers come in with their kids, [and] kids would go out and canvas sometimes,” Anderson said. “If you wanted a buddy to go out and canvas with for safety, you were given someone to go out with.”
In the nearby 47th Ward, Laura Reimers used her experience from national campaigns to help the civil rights attorney Matt Martin get elected.
“There’s a ton of new independent progressive folks coming into City Council, and for a long time the way the city has run has been a boys club,” Reimers said. “They’re bringing new people with them, whether that be women, people of color, queer folks, people from different economic backgrounds, and that’s gonna reflect the way not only the campaigns were run but the way the government is going to run.”