Bernie Sanders on Why He's Trying to Unseat Rahm Emanuel

The progressive challenge in Chicago.

SENATE SANDERS

Senator Bernard "Bernie" Sanders, an independent from Vermont and possible presidential candidate, speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 9, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

On Thursday, Vermont Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will become the first member of the upper house to stump in Chicago's mayoral election. Sanders will officially endorse Chuy Garcia, the Cook County commissioner running a progressive campaign against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. One practical reason for the visit: United Airlines was routing him through the Windy City.

"I was just talking to workers in California on Saturday and Sunday to huge turnouts, and then I was in Vegas for great meeting with 300 workers, and then Austin to talk to 500 workers," said Sanders. "It occurred to me that I was gonna fly through Chicago. So, I called Chuy, and I asked how I could help."

Sanders will campaign for Garcia and for Susan Sadlowski Garza, both of them opponents of the neoliberal governance that Emanuel has brought to Chicago. On the left, ending the former White House chief of staff's reign has become the year's first great cause. The reasons are many–Emanuel's fumbling experiments with privatization, the closure of 50 schools, the subsequent school bond program with Goldman Sachs, the friendship with a new Republican governor who is using executive orders to take on unions.

To their great frustration, Emanuel's opponents are struggling to get the press to cover what they know is true–that the "fiscally responsible" Emanuel has presided over five credit downgrades. In Tuesday night's mayoral debate, Emanuel portrayed Garcia as a typical liberal spendthrift who promised to undo fiscal pain without ever explaining how he'd pay for it. "You're walking along all over the place like typical career politicians promising everything like 'Hanukkah Harry,'" said Emanuel. That narrative has defined the race, not only in Chicago's media but in the reports that have been filed by national reporters.

"That 15 minutes I spent patiently laying out the facts for the Economist's reporter why under Rahm Emanuel bond markets have puked over the prospect of investing in Chicago, but Garcia actually has a history of closing fiscal holes, was wasted," wrote Rick Perlstein, the progressive historian and Chicago resident, over the weekend. "She couldn't see past her knee-jerk ideological prejudices."

Also on Bloomberg Politics: The Definitive Bernie Sanders Scouting Report, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

I asked Sanders, the ranking member of the Senate's Budget committee, if he saw Chicago's race as another way to prove that progressives could be "fiscally responsible," too. Yet when I asked about Emanuel's pension cuts and the city's credit rating, Sanders didn't really bite.

"I am not going to Chicago to attack Rahm Emanuel," said Sanders. "I’ve known him for many years. I believe in my very heart that we need a political revolution in this country, because virtually all political power rests with very wealthy people. And I see in Chuy Garcia a candidate putting together the coalition to fight that."

Asked about the school bonds program backed by Goldman Sachs, Sanders repeated that he was not getting into the weeds of the Emanuel mayoralty. "I'm going to support what has to take place, which is a strong movement of working class people," he said.

That's just why Chicago has taken on new significance for the left. There's a rational fear that the Republican narrative of governance, which the left hoped would be discredited in 2014, is being validated by the press. A trio of Republican governors who looked beatable after they took on social services and labor unions -- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Florida Governor Rick Scott, and Ohio Governor John Kasich -- came out of 2014 with new ambitions. All of them, at one point or another, pointed to Democratic Illinois or Democratic California as an example of end-times, budget-busting governance.

Progressives have struggled with their own narrative, and not because they didn't try. The Nation has profiled how California Governor Jerry Brown and a Democratic legislature stabilized the state's budget with tax hikes; Mother Jones did the same story, basically, about Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is attempting to make the 2016 Democratic primary a story of Clintonian drift versus the success of his blue state. (The 2014 elections saddled O'Malley with a parenthetical: His stumbling lieutenant governor managed to blow the election, and a Republican won a low-turnout race that has become seen as a referendum on the Democrats.) 

Sanders, in the Senate, has been trying to draw the same contrasts between the parties in budget votes and amendments "I’m the ranking member of the US Senate budget committee, and I’ve just seen a Republican budget that threw 27 million people off health insurance, okay?" he said. "That is what Republicans consider to be responsible. I don’t accept what the right wing accepts to be responsible. I think it’s time for austerity of billionaire class. I’m obsessed with a statistic I saw just the other day: Did you know that over the last two years, the 14 wealthiest Americans have made $157 billion?"

So Sanders would not take apart each item in the Emanuel resume. He wanted to stick to the basics. The wealthy were perfectly able to fill a city's budget holes if they were taxed fairly, and the perennial fear that progressives would turn cities into Detroit -- into dystopia -- was debunked whenever progressives won.

"Oh, when I was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, it was the same thing," said Sanders. "It was, 'Bernie is gonna destroy the city!' And eight years later it was one of the most of the livable cities in America. We are not a poor country. We are the richest country in the history in the world. When I say that the 14 wealthiest Americans have made $157 billion, you should understand that we have plenty of money; we don’t need to have 'Detroits.'"

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