Running for Chicago’s 99 Percent

January 22, 2019

Rossana Rodriguez is running an independent socialist campaign for one of the 50 seats on the Chicago City Council, where the Democratic Party machine has ruled over a one-party state for decades. In a city where the status quo means budget cuts, under-resourced schools, racist police violence and the greed of the city’s super-rich elite, hers is a voice for the 99 Percent. At a meeting in her campaign office hosted by the International Socialist Organization, Rossana spoke about why she decided to run for City Council and what she hopes her campaign will accomplish.

THANK YOU for being here tonight. I want to start by saying that it is really nice to have family in the office. It’s really nice to see a lot of you who I haven’t seen for a very long time. It’s really nice to see people who I respect and admire, and I love that you came through that door today.

It’s a very weird thing to be on this side of things as a candidate, because I feel like since I have a memory of being alive, I have been protesting. I have been trying to get basic access to things that we need. I went to my first protest when I was 6 years old.

I come from Puerto Rico, from a neighborhood in the mountains on the east side of Puerto Rico where we didn’t have water. We didn’t have water because our water was diverted to a U.S. Navy base in a nearby town.

So we would be without water for weeks. That’s how it was. It became normal. We took showers with buckets, and it was normal to do that.

Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez rallies with supporters at a campaign event in Chicago
Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez rallies with supporters at a campaign event in Chicago (Rossana for 33rd Ward Alderman)

And then my neighbors organized, including my father, who was a community organizer and one of several socialists in my neighborhood. And together, they realized that there was a valve that gave us access to the water. If the valve was open, the water went in the direction of the base. But if the valve was closed, the water came to us.

And that’s how we got our water back. Those were our resources, but we were banned from them. We weren’t getting access.

After we won that fight, I feel like life continued to be a constant struggle.

In college, I had to fight against budget cuts and the privatization of services at the University of Puerto Rico, and we were on strike several times.

On the day in 1998 when the Puerto Rico Telephone Company workers called a strike against privatization efforts, we, the students, closed the university and called a strike. We marched to the nearest office of PRTC and remained there until the strike was over. We slept at the gates and kept scabs out.

We were beaten and pepper sprayed by cops. But we knew we needed to defend the resources that belonged to us. That taught me a lot about what it takes. It takes so much struggle to be able to get access to the things that we need.

Before I came to Chicago, I was a teacher in Puerto Rico. I was making $1,500 a month, and I was buying all of my supplies. I didn’t even have a fan in my classroom, and I’m from Puerto Rico, where it’s hot as hell. I had to bring my floor fan from my house to my classroom, and then my students would argue about who sat in front of the fan.

That’s how it was before a law was passed that removed the cap on the number of students that we could have in our classrooms. After that, there was no way of teaching. It became clear to me that they didn’t actually expect me to teach. They wanted me to contain these students for an hour at a time inside of a classroom, and it was really inhumane for them and for me.

So I started looking for opportunities. I didn’t want to leave. Puerto Rico is my home, and all my family’s there.

But I ended up coming to Chicago, and when I got here, I realized that people were fighting very similar struggles.

I STARTED working with this theater company, and I was gathering stories of working-class immigrant people fighting deportations, fighting foreclosures and evictions and displacement, fighting to keep their schools open, fighting just to get access to food.

Every time that we did a play, I got involved with a movement, and we organized, and I saw people fighting back. So I decided to stay in Chicago because people here fight, too. People here fight hard.

But it’s always been a struggle. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to teach in Humboldt Park. I was teaching at an alternative high school, and one-third of my kids were gang-affiliated. My classroom was a revolving door of kids coming in and out of prison.

When I think about the way that we talk about safety, it makes me incredibly sad. Because they talk about these kids who are gang-affiliated as thugs and as people who have no morals and whose lives have no value, so the thing to do is just throw the cops at them. There’s no understanding of what creates that violence.

My kids were good kids, and I would say that to anybody at any time: Those kids were good, but they got broken. This society broke them.

Just to see that day after day, day in and day out, causes burnout. But it also gives me more of a reason to continue to fight. I got to a point where I just got so sick of this deprivation and misery.

When I was asked to run for office, I paused and I considered it. It’s hard to do this. But it’s also hard to live in this system. It’s also hard to see the things we see, day after day after day.

Some of you may know Tim Meegan. He decided to do this before me, and we got 17 votes away from a runoff with Deb Mell.

That was amazing because it was a very small campaign. We had no money, and we didn’t really know how to run an electoral campaign. We got so close, and there was so much enthusiasm.

AND NOW, it feels like running is the only thing we can do with this opportunity — where people are talking about socialism, and it seems like we can demand so much more than we have.

There is so much wealth in this city. This is such a great place to be rich — it’s amazing. All of that wealth is out there, and we’re dealing with schools not having nurses or fourth graders being arrested because there isn’t somebody who is a behavioral health specialist to handle that conflict. We are living in neighborhoods contaminated by pollution? Why? That shouldn’t be.

Having access to an institutional space like the office of the alderman means being able to open spaces for people to be able to organize — for people to participate, come together and demand the things that we need.

That’s the thing to do right now. So I said yes. And we’re going to win this.

This week, I went to the Chicago Sun-Times endorsement session, and I sat next to Deb Mell.

At some point, we were talking about projected revenue in the city, and I said: “You know, I feel like whenever it comes to getting revenue, there’s never a scarcity of ideas of how to tax working people. It’s amazing. They come up with so many ideas. But for some reason, no one can come up with any ideas about how to tax the rich. But we can do that — we can tax the rich.”

So I said that, and Deb Mell turned to me and said: “Oh, that’s your plan? Good luck with that.”

That’s what we’re going to push for and what we’re going to start saying out loud, because we’ve been in this miserable position for way too long.

Some of us have even lost the ability to imagine that there’s the possibility of living in a different society where we don’t have to be struggling all the time. Not just a society where we meet the basic needs of everyone, but a society where we can be happy and live a good life.

I want to fight for that, and I’m really grateful that you’re all here today. It gives me so much hope that so many amazing minds and hearts are coming together to support this campaign.

I am convinced that we got this one. We have so much enthusiasm on this campaign. We’ve recruited so many volunteers. There’s so much momentum, and the right people are on our side.

So I invite all of you to get involved. I invite all of you to continue to build this campaign with us. I think that we are very close to doing something incredibly important that is going to actually transform the way that we see politics in Chicago.

Further Reading

From the archives