The clearest political winner of this past election season was the City Council’s Progressive Caucus. Every member running for reelection won their seats for another term, and when the new Council convenes on May 18, there could be as many as fourteen members of the Caucus, depending how negotiations go with new members and the results of a still unsettled 10th Ward race.
[Ed Note: The final counts for that race will be conducted today.]
With the Caucus’ ascending influence, Joanna Klonsky, the Caucus’ Communications Director, is also finding herself busier and more prominent. Besides fielding regular calls from Chicago’s political press looking for an alternative to the Mayor’s view, as the Caucus’ sole staffer, Klonsky is working hard to organize a policy framework for a group many accuse of being merely the “Anti-Rahm” Caucus.
Originally from Galewood and Oak Park, Klonsky matriculated through the hyper-liberal Bard College, worked briefly as a reporter in New York City before coming back to Chicago to work for Marilyn Katz and receive a “crash course in PR and public affairs.” From there Klonsky went to work on political campaigns, eventually becoming communications director for Miguel del Valle’s 2011 unsuccessful mayoral campaign.
The del Valle campaign wrapped Klonsky in with Ald. Rick Munoz (22) who invited her in early 2011 to help put together a structure for a more permanent Progressive Caucus. “There was always some group of aldermen that called themselves a Progressive Caucus,” says Klonsky. “But they really wanted to get organized in a new political environment in a new administration, to have a structure, a single voice and to meet together.”
Klonsky then helped a group of eight Aldermen, Munoz, Bob Fioretti (2), Leslie Hairston (5), Roderick Sawyer (6), Toni Foulkes (15), Scott Waguespack (32), Nick Sposato (36) and John Arena (45) write the bylaws, form a PAC and to create, “a statement of principles that serve as our north star for how we operate.”
The Caucus members then spent much of the next four years being shunned by the Emanuel administration and opposing many of the Mayor’s proposals. Progressive Caucus members vocally supported the 2012 Chicago teacher’s strike, opposed closure of the mayor’s schools, were usually the sole votes against the Mayor’s budgets and were vocal opponents of speed and red light cameras.
The Caucus’ unspoken mission, to create a loyal opposition to the Mayor’s policies, was sometimes Quixotic against a Mayor who could summon unlimited sums to defeat opponents in the next campaign cycle. And that seemed to come true when the Emanuel-allied Chicago Forward PAC was announced in late 2014 with millions of dollars to spend on, “supporting candidates who demonstrate a shared commitment.” Then, after Aldermen Fioretti, Foulkes, and Sposato, being mapped out of their own wards, the die seemed cast: the Progressive Caucus would be pared down and made irrelevant in 2015.
And indeed, soon after Aldermen Fioretti, Foulkes, and Sposato were mapped out of their Wards, the Emanuel-allied Chicago Forward PAC was announced in late 2014 with millions of dollars to spend on “supporting candidates who demonstrate a shared commitment”. The die seemed cast: the Progressive Caucus would be pared down and made irrelevant in 2015.
But voters returned seven Progressive Caucus members to Council (except Fioretti), three newly elected members (David Moore-17, Chris Taliaferro-29, Carlos Rosa-35) have announced plans to join the Caucus, one undecided candidate has announced plans (Susan Sadlowski Garza-10) and three other newly elected members (Milly Santiago-31, Gilbert Villegas-36, Anthony Napolitano-41) are openly mulling over plans to join. Rather than be put out of business, the Caucus could actually double in size.
As the Progressive Caucus’ influence grows, so does Klonsky’s, as the person tasked with building a cohesive organization and maybe even whipping votes outside the Caucus on big issues. “There’s a lot of opportunity for people to break out the silos and boxes they’ve been put in during term one of this past administration,” she says.
To get a better handle on Klonsky’s and the Progressive Caucus’ goals, Aldertrack met with her in a coffee shop in River North. What follows is a condensed version of our interview.
Aldertrack: What exactly does the Progressive Caucus stand for?
Klonsky: The Progressive Reform Caucus of the Chicago City Council is dedicated to creating a more just and equal Chicago, combating all forms of discrimination, and advancing public policies that offer genuine opportunity to all Chicagoans, especially those who have been left out of our society’s prosperity.
So, it’s about equality and justice. It’s about passing policies that support working families and the needs of working families. And it’s about good government. We’ve pushed a lot of legislation that’s been about strengthening the watchdog mechanisms of government.
Everyone should be a member of the Progressive Caucus based on that. I don’t think any member of City Council would oppose those things. So why are some people in the Paul Douglas Alliance, and some not in anything?
In the first term of the Progressive Caucus, this group served as a pole, everyone knows this. We were pushing stuff in a certain direction, trying to ask harder questions, trying to create an environment where there was some pushback to the policies that were harmful to neighborhoods, harmful to working families. The Progressive Caucus members stood up against the school closings and were very vocal, about their concerns about what the impacts on the neighborhoods would be, that stood up strongly with the teachers when they went out on strike for their new contract.
They have been very consistently outspoken, raising concerns about the abundance of fees, fines and penalties that put an unfair burden on working Chicagoans. So they’ve been that voice over and over again for folks who don’t always have a voice in city council. And then there’s stuff that Progressive Caucus champions, like the Minimum Wage Ordinance.
If the Progressive Caucus hadn’t introduced the $15 Minimum Wage Ordinance and created the pressure for it, I don’t believe we would have seen that $13 ordinance passed last year.
Is it accurate to say you’re the left wing of the Democratic Party in City Council?
Sure. These are not ultra-left wing policies. These are pretty mainstream, right? I don’t think it’s left wing to say you support raising the minimum wage, that’s the mainstream Democratic Party position. I don’t think it’s left wing to say you oppose closing 50 neighborhood schools. There’s nothing wrong with being left wing, it’s just these should be positions people of all ideological persuasions could get on board with.
But everybody wants to build more schools. When have a choice between building more schools and cutting taxes, then that’s where the rubber hits the road.
I think that’s right. It’s where the rubber hits the road. What I’m interested in in this new term is finding out how we can get more folks on board with taking votes on things that are consistently in the best interest of their constituents. That’s really what this comes down to. It’s not an ideological question. It comes down to, “Are you voting in a manner that’s consistent with what your constituents need and want.” And I think that’s what the Progressive Caucus has been pushing.
Let’s say you end up with 14 members on the Progressive Caucus, almost 30% of the City Council. What’s different? What should we begin to see?
I think you’ll see a lot more room for collaboration. I think there will be room for the Progressive Caucus to work with other groups and caucuses, to put forth legislation.
Will we see a Progressive Caucus ordinance? Will we see a Mayor’s version and a Progressive Caucus version?
Yes, I think sometimes that happens, like with the minimum wage. There was a Progressive Caucus ordinance for $15 and there was the one that ended up passing that was influenced by the Progressive Caucus version. I think that could happen, but there are also instances where it could all be one bill, where we sit down and hash it out and figure out what’s best for most Chicagoans and work to build a big majority.
I don’t see any reason that can’t happen now, in this environment. There’s always going to be stuff that the Progressive Caucus is doing. This is a new day, and we can work together.
Because you’re larger, should we expect some of the Paul Douglas Alliance to go your direction? Should we see people joining you, now that you’re a cohesive body?
I think there’s a lot of opportunity for aldermen to stand with the Caucus. Some of the stuff, like we said, it’s not complicated. It’s no-brainer stuff that everyone should be able to get on board with. There are times when various people have worked with the Progressive Caucus and raised red flags, stood in press conferences together and even introduced legislation together. I think you’ll see more of that in this environment.
Should we expect the Paul Douglas Alliance makeup change now that you’ve demonstrated some teeth at the ballot box?
It’s hard for me to speak for what the Paul Douglas thing does. Can the Progressive Caucus work with them? Yes.
Do you have an agenda for the next year?
That stuff is being hashed out right now. We’re in conversation. This group is getting to know each other.
Have you met yet?
We’ve had a few meetings. We’re going to have a few more in the next couple of weeks. I think we’ll lay out an agenda that folks can look forward to seeing.
A written document that you’ll distribute.
Yeah. I think you can expect to see that.
When should we expect to see that that? Before May 18?
I don’t know. Early in the new term you’ll see at least a framework on what the Caucus will be pushing.
How is it that you guys are different on schools and education from the Mayor?
The number one arena where there’s a very clear difference is on an elected school board. The progressive caucus stood up for an elected school board, tried to get it on the ballot, I think three different times, each time it was foiled. And then got it on with a massive petition drive and the item won by a big margin citywide. It’s quite clear where Chicagoans stand on the school board.
But that has to be passed by the state legislature, right?
Correct. So there have been numerous resolutions put forth by the Caucus expressing support signaling to Springfield this is how we stand. Chicagoans want an elected school board. Let’s get it done. I think the Progressive Caucus is hopeful it will be reintroduced in Springfield and pushed through the legislature. If that opportunity comes up, I would venture to say you’d seen progressive caucus members head down to Springfield to talk to their legislators.
This is of critical importance. What you’re seeing with the scandal at CPS right now is even more evidence of that.
CPS right now is in serious financial dire straits. Is this something that needs to be done before CPS straightens out its finances?
I think we needed an elected school board yesterday. This is an emergency. The current system does not work. 90% of Chicagoans know it. This is a mainstream, popular position. That’s ground zero. Subject number one.
Are you going to make a move for any committee chairmanships?
I don’t know the answer to that. But certainly I would say: Alderman Munoz has been in office for 22 years and Alderman Hairston has been in office for 16, who I think would be fabulous committee chairs. Definitely something to consider.