02/27/2015 02:35 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2015

People Power Beat Big Money in Chicago


Rahm Emanuel, with his $30 million war chest, may have been the headline in the build-up to Chicago's municipal election, but the real story in Chicago on Tuesday happened in neighborhoods. Here are the top lessons for populist progressives across the country.

Lesson 1: People power can beat big money.

Big-monied interests spent $8,168,898 to try and re-elect the Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the aldermen that routinely rubber stamp his agenda. Even flush with all that cash to spend on mailers and TV ads, they failed to defeat a single sitting progressive alderman.

Meanwhile, Reclaim Chicago, a partnership between National Nurses United and The People's Lobby (an affiliate organization of National People's Action Campaign), endorsed a slate of 17 Aldermanic candidates. They successfully defended five sitting progressive aldermen, won two new seats outright and pushed three incumbent corporate Democrats into the runoff election on April 7.

Lesson 2: Organizing works.

When neighbors talk to neighbors, progressives win. Reclaim Chicago volunteers put in more than 4,980 hours and reached out to 58,773 voters over the last four months. These volunteers didn't just give voters a canned pitch on the candidates. They started by asking voters what issues they cared about. This led to thousands of in-depth conversations about shared values and the ways in which corporate power and racial injustice are destroying the great city of Chicago.

Lesson 3: Progressives with a bold platform can win.

On a cold Martin Luther King Day, 650 Reclaim Chicago activists gathered on the south side. They shared their vision for a Chicago where the public controls the economy and corporations serve the public good. Where City Hall advanced racial equality, rather than furthering structural racism in our education and criminal justice systems. Each and every Reclaim Chicago candidate pledged: "With your support and agitation, I will fight for our shared vision." Then they ran on that vision, and won.

Lesson 4: A new candidate pipeline is in motion.

Coming out of the 2014 midterms, progressive populists bemoaned the tepid and unambitious agenda of many Democratic candidates. The good news is that a new pipeline of candidates is being built -- candidates who will stand up to abusive corporations and fight for racial and gender justice. While the big news (rightly) is that Mayor Emanuel will face a runoff on April 7th, the night's biggest upset may well have occurred in the 35th Ward.

On Tuesday night, 26-year-old Carlos Rosa won with 67 percent of the vote over a Rahm-backed old-guard alderman who had been in office for over a decade. Reclaim Chicago contributed roughly half of his door-to-door operation. Carlos is the first openly gay Latino elected official in the state of Illinois and he ran his campaign on standing up to big corporations and the wealthy.

A new movement to put everyday people first is rising across the country. Cynics said Rahm and his cronies on the City Council could not be beat. Plutocrats spent millions trying to make sure they were right. A group of dedicated grassroots activists just proved that they were wrong. The next test for an emerging political movement is the April 4 runoff. Look for organizations like Reclaim Chicago and candidates like Chuy Garcia and Carlos Rosa to beat the odds again.