An Open Letter to John Laesch and Aurora’s Working Class
Over the winter and spring, Socialist Alternative endorsed the John Laesch campaign for Mayor of Aurora, and enthusiastically supported John’s campaign. Now that the elections are over and Richard Irvin has been re-elected in a relative landslide, a discussion is needed about the way forward for working people and the left. Ryan Hartson is a member of DSA and Socialist Alternative.
The socialist movement and the wider new left that’s been on the rise since Bernie Sanders’ first campaign has reached an impasse. After a pair of betrayals by the Democratic establishment, a pandemic neither party could solve, economic devastation, and an unprecedented rebellion for racial justice sweeping all 50 states last year, the stakes for working people and youth have truly never been higher.
With income inequality and poverty rates on the rise, job losses continuing, and the housing market remaining stagnant, conditions in Aurora will only be worsened by Richard Irvin’s second term, which is certain to bring more gentrification, corruption, and condescension. Both of Irvin’s victories are a product of suppressed voter turnout. Turnout overall was reportedly down from the 9% it was in 2017.
These election results are a stark contrast to the explosive BLM struggle that rocked Aurora last year, that included confrontations between protesters and police as well as the use of crowd control weapons by the Aurora police. Under pressure from the movement, the city council produced a weak civilian review board proposal which has no hiring or firing powers over the police, and can do little more than make recommendations. This is the kind of brazen cynicism we’ve seen from political establishments from Seattle to Minneapolis, where bold promises on dismantling the police departments and ending the use of crowd control methods have been made, only to be almost immediately revoked. At the same time, there’s no question the movement forced these victories through mass action, and mass action once again will be the only way we win real, concrete victories that go beyond guilty verdicts for killer cops.
What happened between last summer and this spring? BLM nationally ran into a blue wall, as the Democrats did everything they could to co-opt and push the movement onto “friendly channels” and focused all their energy on electing Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump. While millions felt a justifiable and urgent need to remove a right wing demagogue from office, the Democrats used that mood in the most cynical way possible to diffuse any and all movement in the direction of Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, a jobs program, or any number of programs that would benefit working people, the black community the most. When there’s no working class leadership continuing to plant their flag and keep up momentum, movements dissipate, which opens up political space for the right wing.
An election cycle filled with talk of subsidizing big business, changing zoning laws, and filling potholes cannot manage to mobilize ordinary people to vote. In fact it’s designed to do the opposite. Low visibility and low turnout in local elections are fundamentally structural issues, tied to the billionaire class’ stranglehold on society. On top of that, these elections in particular were set as an off year, non-partisan election, set six months after the draining 2020 race. A lull in movements nationally compounded the indifference of large sections of the suburbs. As a result turnout was around 10% across Kane County and there were Republican landslides across the Fox Valley at the township level.
These objective barriers: big business spending driving low turnout, no media visibility, non-partisanship (which confuses political differences in races, candidates should have to identify a party), have created the conditions for a low consciousness around local politics the ruling class uses to gain every advantage and make it almost impossible for grassroots campaigns to gain any ground.
This is the scenario that the Laesch campaign found themselves in.
The John Laesch Campaign for Mayor should be commended for putting up a heroic battle in a losing war. The activists on the campaign fought for every single vote, and took a genuine shot at winning an activist in the mayor’s office of the second largest city in Illinois. SA and DSA members both invested their time and energy, and it was a privilege to work alongside the dozens of activists we met hitting the doors. The future of the working class movement in Aurora is bright.
In this moment, however, it’s crucial we don’t give into despair and walk away from the fight. We should examine the campaign and see what lessons we can learn going forward. We have to learn from the defeats as well as the victories.
John and his campaign is not going to agree with everything I’m about to say. That’s okay. What I have to say comes from a place of wanting to strengthen the whole left, and I hope that some folks who read this at least consider my point of view.
The reason grassroots campaigns struggle to win, especially in small town America, are objective. There are multiple barriers that we’ve outlined. The main weakness of this campaign was that the Laesch team didn’t work to overcome any of them. Voter turnout was considered a mountain too tall to climb, new voters apparently could never be found and registered. This was a critical mistake. The most politicized layer of society, young workers and students, are likely not registered to vote, yet they’ve been fighting for a better world in the streets at this point for years. Failing to address the youth and working class directly was a key feature in why a broader layer of support for the campaign never materialized. The Laesch team instead oriented to a small number of registered voters in a limited way: ‘Democrats who vote regularly’.
The problem with this strategy is that it appeals to people who already vote, which is 9% of people in Aurora. It is likely that this number represents the most reactionary 9%: the rich and middle class, especially those with business interests, who always make sure to vote Republican.
What was necessary in this election was a total overhaul of the progressive playbook. Kshama Sawant’s 3 elections in Seattle where we won and defended a city council city as an independent Marxist can be helpful on these points. In 2019 we knocked on over 100,000 doors in Seattle. Not all those folks were registered to vote. In every campaign we tabled in front of colleges and universities and had a clear strategy and program to turn out young people to both register and vote, and turned them out in record numbers. We snuck into apartment buildings we didn’t have permission to get into and we knocked on every door, because we knew our supporters were behind them and they needed to hear our ideas. We accomplished this by having an approach rooted in the class struggle, in movement building. We boldly demanded a $15 minimum wage, taxing Bezos and the billionaires, a Green New Deal, and rent control. These were the main points we campaigned on, in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood with less so-called “Seattle liberals” than one may suspect. Our aim as socialists is to build movements for the demands of working people, winning elected office helps us in that aim of building a stronger and more organized movement, but elected office isn’t an end in itself, and the socialist movement shouldn’t consider it one.
Connected to the bad strategy of mobilizing ‘reliable’ Democratic voters was the lack of clear slogans that originate from our movement. There was a lot of talk about “fighting corruption” and “a green new deal”, but there were never any clear slogans connecting the campaign with movements. The lack of discussion of movement building by John overall was a clear element in why the campaign never mobilized a wider layer of working people or youth, beyond a humble volunteer base. Directly linked is the lack of program on issues related to BLM, which is worrying as we move towards a new phase of BLM protests locally.
There were a lot of obstacles that the Laesch campaign would have had to overcome; but Socialist Alternative thinks that a better result would’ve been possible if the campaign had taken a movement building approach. A victory against a cartoonishly corrupt opponent with the total backing of the establishment like Irvin would’ve been extremely difficult regardless, but a strategy to mobilize particularly the youth would have transformed the campaign.
In SA’s endorsement statement we pointed out that the local Democratic party wasn’t endorsing a candidate in the race, and that the race is non-partisan. Even if this wasn’t the case, we would’ve made the demand that John run as an independent, but this was an unusual situation where an independent campaign would’ve been both easier to pull off and groundbreaking. The question of independent politics shouldn’t be seen as secondary. John has said he wants to break from the Democrats and form a new party. However, this campaign and it’s strategy of attempting to turn out Democratic voters and not the working class overall points back in the direction of leaning on the Democratic party ballot line, which after two Sanders’ campaigns that ended in betrayal and the right wing turn of the Squad, it is crystal clear that the Dem ballot line comes with a set of concessions attached that socialist candidates should never take. It speaks to the level of demoralization that after so many losses there’s no willingness to try anything new.
A major break from the Democrats and the formation of a new party won’t be an easy thing, but with all the dissent in society, the frustration with Democratic mayors in big cities, it’s clear that significant sections of the working class, especially the youth, are giving up on the Democrats and desperately searching for an alternative. As the saying goes, ‘someone has to go first’. The Laesch team even now is as well positioned as anyone locally to make this leap away from the Democrats. Even a local caucus promising to form a new party for working people would provide hope and clarity where there is currently fear and desperation. The vacuum of leadership has to be filled, or the right wing will do it.
Going forward, John Laesch is unfortunately using his next steps after the campaign to point in the opposite direction and launch “People for Aurora,” a confused coalition whose mission is to take up direct action on hyper local issues. Laesch and his team have taken a step back from their electoralism and are now depoliticizing what needs to be an urgent political discussion about what we do next. This is a mistake the left in Aurora can’t afford to make.
DSA and Socialist Alternative are looking to build the socialist movement in the Fox Valley. We want to unite BLM, the labor movement, immigrant legalization movements, and all working class struggles together for the strongest possible fightback against the billionaire class. A Green New Deal for Aurora, taxing the rich, and all our demands from the Laesch campaign can still be won by an organized movement with socialists in the leadership. We want the Laesch team and all his supporters in Aurora and the wider movement to join us, including John! Let’s make this a summer of struggle! We have a world to win!