Democracy in Chicago

Christian Mitchell stood in front of a crowd of over a hundred people on Thursday evening to give his five-minute stump speech. Running for the 26th District seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, he was one of many taking part in Alderman Pat Dowell’s “Meet the Candidates” event for the upcoming primary elections. Just minutes earlier, U.S. Representative Bobby Rush spoke. After Mitchell, a handful of judiciary candidates rose to give their own plugs. Around the room, audience members wore pins and carried fliers, furiously scribbling candidates’ talking points into notebooks for reference at the polls.

Mitchell took a deep breath, focused his attention on a single point at the back of the room, and went for it. The 25-year-old mentioned his backstory–growing up in suburban Chicago with a single mother amid family turmoil. He talked about his experience as a community organizer. He hit on all the major policy points: curbing violence, creating jobs, balancing the budget. But the message he hoped would stick most with voters was the one Mitchell made at the very end: “Punch 61.”

On March 20, voters across Illinois will take part in primary elections to determine the candidates for each party on county, state, and national levels. All candidates hope for votes–such is the nature of a democracy. But for Mitchell, the election could come down to the votes in that room.

In the 26th District, where the only two candidates in the overall race are both Democrats (Mitchell’s opponent is local businessman Kenny Johnson), the winner of the primary will go unopposed on the November ballot. Notwithstanding unforeseen circumstances, the winner of this primary will be the next district representative.

Typically, voter turnout is low for primaries–the all-time low in Chicago was set in 2010, with 27.2 percent voter turnout citywide. While the concurrent Republican presidential primary might bring Republican voters to the polls, the voter turnout for Democrats is expected to be low again this year. And with only 89,000 people in the 26th District, every vote matters.

“It’s exhilarating,” Mitchell said after the event. “You know a lot of people are going to make their decision based on what you say up there.”

It’s not just a battle of rhetoric, though. The 26th District race has been, in large part, a race for endorsements. Mitchell’s opponent, Johnson, has found support from the likes of the Chicago Teacher’s Union and U.S. Representative Danny Davis. But Mitchell has picked up his fair share of big names as well.

On the wall of his campaign headquarters, white sheets of butcher paper are covered in handwriting listing the dozens of endorsements Mitchell has received, from the Sierra Club to Mayor Emanuel to Governor Quinn. Seated at a folded table beneath the sheets of paper, Mitchell allows the occasional “maybe” and “sort of” to slip into his speech. Yet beneath that hesitancy, a sense of conviction emerges.

“I think right now is the moment that our generation has to step up, I really do,” Mitchell says from behind black-rimmed glasses. “Because we are in such a difficult situation with our budget…the easy path is to start hacking away and chopping at stuff, to use the ax instead of the scalpel. But the question becomes for those of us who are my age, or really for a citizen of Illinois, period–what do we want our state to look like in the future?”

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The 26th District runs along Lake Michigan from Streeterville on the North Side to the abandoned steel mills of South Chicago, stretching from the empty pit of the Chicago Spire to the vacant lots along East 63rd Street. President Obama’s house is under its domain, as are numerous public housing facilities. Extreme contrasts and contradictions of wealth, race, and culture, all bundled up in a single polity. Representing the 26th District is no small task.

“You throw in farmland somewhere, and it would really be a microcosm of Illinois or a microcosm of America,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell focuses, then, on what draws individuals together rather than what drives them apart.

“When you look at a district like this, it’s amazing how similar people are,” he says. “Universally, there’s a concern about making this district and this state the best possible place to live. Maybe there are varying degrees or different iterations of that concern, but I think people universally want to make sure we start to move in the right direction.”

This is where Mitchell relies on his experience as a community organizer.

“The point of community organizing is to build power,” he says. “It’s to get people together, because the two sources of power are organized people and organized money, and more generally the other side has more of the organized money so you have to organize the people.”

He called his work as an organizer “both the best and the hardest job I ever had. It was door-to-door work, church-to-church work. It was mostly one-on-one interviews with people…trying to find common threads.”

One project Mitchell worked on was a $425 million bill in Illinois known as the Urban Weatherization Initiative. It created a program that provides government support for basic energy efficiency upgrades in low-income homes across the state, done by local workers.

Mitchell helped develop the initiative as a way to increase employment in low-income areas while promoting green technology, and wrote the first draft of the legislation. Yet he says the idea was planted much earlier than his community organizing days, in Professor Sabina Shaikh’s Environmental Economics class at the University of Chicago.

“I was kind of a seller on the whole environmental movement when I first entered that class,” Mitchell says. “Sabina really challenged me on that, and tried to help me understand that, in trying to save our planet, we could also reinvest in our cities, reinvest in our rural towns, and use it as a mechanism to uplift poor people.”

The class was the beginning of an ongoing conversation between the student and his professor, who continues to praise Mitchell.

“I recall my first meeting with Christian after he graduated,” Shaikh says. “I was so impressed by how quickly he had engaged in local policy and how he had applied his intellectual curiosity as a student into real action on the South Side of Chicago.”

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Mitchell worked as an organizer from 2008 until 2011, when he went to run Will Burns’s campaign for 4th Ward Alderman. He then worked for Cook County Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle as she attempted to settle in and pass her first budget. In September, Mitchell started collecting signatures to get his name on the ballot. In the last few years, between his political and community commitments, Mitchell has made a major investment in public service.

This path wasn’t always so clear for Mitchell. When he began college at the UofC, Mitchell planned on majoring in economics and becoming a sports agent in southern California.

That changed when a “gangster”-themed party on campus flared racial debate and controversy. The graduate student assigned to oversee his dorm, John Eason (now a professor of criminology at Arizona State), inspired him to get involved in organizing on campus to try to work against the biases the incident made apparent. As Mitchell became more active, Eason introduced him to Burns, who then was working in the state capital as a staffer.

“It shifted my whole scope,” Mitchell said of the experience. “It made me realize that there was still a lot to be done…that I needed to dedicate my life to creating understanding, to driving change, to making the world a better place–as corny as that may sound.”

He switched from studying economics to public policy, and got involved with a group called South Siders Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), which he would continue to work for after graduation.

He remains close with Eason. And as a testament to his relationship with Burns, Mitchell’s campaign headquarters sit in an adjacent suite to Burns’s aldermanic office in Bronzeville.

However, for Mitchell, the impact of the UofC went beyond the powerful connections and influential mentors. On a philosophical level, the school changed his basic approach to life.

“If I had to sum up the value I got out of the UofC, other than meeting some really great people, I learned that, no axiom, no matter how long held, no matter how sacred, should be above scrutiny,” he says.

This principle of constant reevaluation seems to guide Mitchell’s campaign more than any single issue.

For Mitchell, a successful term would mean: “having made a substantive contribution to shifting the conversation about what it means to define success in Springfield on any number of issues, and having made real progress toward dealing with our budget situation, and starting to shift the conversation toward the front-end investments we need to make to make this state more competitive in the future.”

More than a change to any specific policy, Mitchell wants to see positive change on a fundamental level in the way the state government approaches policy-making itself.

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“You have to be a different kind of public servant to win here, to do well here, and even really to run here,” says Mitchell. “This district, in the demands of the people of their public servants, demands [you] to stay up on the issues, to read the bills, that you are publicly accountable.”

A host of impressive politicians have come out of the South Side in recent years, touting progressive policies and the promise of political change. In light of legacy, it is hard not to contemplate Mitchell’s future. With principled ambition, powerful backers, and the boon of youth, his future looks bright. But he, for one, is reluctant to speculate.

“Will Burns is one of my great mentors,” Mitchell says, “and one of the things he always says and that I believe very strongly is that, if you do the job in front of you well, the future takes care of itself.”

Open-ended and non-committal, it is the response of a politician. And, like the response of a good politician, it has more than a kernel of truth. Mitchell has set his sights on elected politics, and for now his focus is on getting people to the polls. Come March 20, Mitchell can do no more.