It’s early April, the first warm day since October, but Robert Peters is pissed off. He’s speaking at an event at the University of Chicago, and responding to a student question. It’s not really important what the question is (something to do with the NRA), but what is important is it reminds Peters of a conversation he had with a friend, one in which “I lost my shit.” He was talking to his friend about cigarettes, his guilty pleasure, and how it related to his other addiction, progressive politics. “When a fucking cigarette company is given a tax, they all come together, and they fight back. But when we on the left are getting in some turfy fight, we all divide each other up, get broken up, get beat, and keep losing.” He pauses after this last line, just long enough to make it ambiguous whether his follow up is directed at his friend or at the crowd.
“Do you like losing? Because I hate losing. I’m tired of losing.”
Peters’ frustration that night was understandable. He had spent the past year on the wrong end of one of the most lopsided races in Illinois primary history: the Daniel Biss campaign for governor.
Daniel Biss, the state senator from Skokie, isn’t a likely politician. For one thing, the primary focus of the first half of his adult life was math. And man, he was good at it: graduated from Harvard with honors in three years, got his PhD from MIT, professor at the University of Chicago by 25. Mathematicians, even (and perhaps especially) good ones, don’t usually have much success in politics. Yet after realizing in 2003 that “politics wasn’t something I wanted to observe and discuss, but participate in,” Biss was able to buck that trend, earning himself a state representative seat in 2010, and a state senate seat in 2012.
Even so, Biss stands out in Illinois’ machine dominated landscape. He’s tall for one thing, lanky, with a narrow face and a poof of graying hair. He doesn’t have many “establishment” connections; his most influential friend is John Green, the young adult author and online personality who’s one of the best-selling novelists of the past decade. He still speaks hesitantly, like he’s thinking too much about what he’s saying; he’s still got a nerdy charisma that seems perfectly suited for the college classroom. In Peters’ words, “Daniel is awkward. Like me.”
John Green speaks about Daniel Biss on his Youtube Channel, VlogBrothers.
Awkwardness isn’t the only thing Peters and Biss share: both have a passion for progressivism that’s evident as soon as you meet them. Peters’ is rooted in his past: he’s biracial, born to a mother who, like so many in the 1980s, was grappling with an addiction to crack cocaine. Her use during pregnancy caused his partial deafness, a disability you can barely notice in his speech today. He was adopted by white Irish-Catholic liberals, one a civil rights lawyer and the other a social worker, and raised in Hyde Park. He’s since lost both parents, one to cancer and the other to addiction. In his words, he's lived "The story of most people on the South-Side. The system we're in right now is really abusive to people."
Biss’ is rooted in his political awakening. Before the State Senate seat, before any personal political success, Biss’ political career began with Daily Kos blog posts and local progressive meet-ups. As he put it, “I realized relatively quickly that democracy is what I most cared about, and that naturally leads you to more local races and local issues.” His first political campaign wasn’t his run for State Representative, but Debra Shore’s race for Water Commissioner. Her win, which he wrote glowingly about in a 2006 blog post, made him believe in “a more progressive Chicagoland.” As 2017 rolled around, he saw an opportunity to pursue that dream.
There’s plenty of good reasons not to run for Governor of Illinois, but in 2017, none loomed larger than Jay Robert (JB) Pritzker. Pritzker is American royalty, heir to a family fortune which was last estimated at around $3.5 billion. He’s a lawyer - a graduate of Northwestern law - and has spent much of his adult life working in Chicago politics while managing his family’s charitable foundation. In other words, when Pritzker decided to run for Governor, he had unlimited resources, extensive political connections, and decades of philanthropy-inspired goodwill.
Yet even in the face of this challenge before him, Biss decided to take on Pritzker for the Democratic nomination on March 20, 2017. And in doing so, he set out on a political journey that would show all the promise, and problems, of progressive politics in Illinois.
On June 5 2017, a full ten months before the primary election, Pritzker secured the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, the state’s preeminent labor group. The labor unions are arguably Illinois’ kingmakers, and while several notable ones withheld their support that June, the AFL-CIO endorsement meant Pritzker could run as the union candidate. Such a move, even for a candidate as well-connected as Pritzker, was unheard of.
Its intent was clear: Chris Kennedy (son of Robert F Kennedy) had entered the race, and with a name synonymous with civil rights and Democratic prestige, Pritzker had reason to fear the challenge. Locking up the unions was meant to end the race before it began. The road for any conventional Democrat, if it hadn’t been closed already, was blocked. Biss, meanwhile, was not even on Pritzker’s radar.
But he was on Anna Wood’s. Wood, then a student at the University of Chicago and organizer with UChicago Student Action, was in Springfield that June. She went along with other activists to sit in on the state legislature and protest their failure to pass a budget for a third straight year. While there, Wood noticed Biss as one of the few state senators to acknowledge their presence. “Biss stayed the whole time, cheering us on” she recounted. “No one else did that. That takes courage.”
Anna Wood, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, speaks at an event for Biss on campus. Photo is courtesy of Anna Wood.
He was also on Andy Hatem’s. Hatem, also a student at Chicago, was “looking for a candidate who would challenge the machine’s grip in Chicago and across the state.” In Biss, he found that, someone he felt confident “would make sure ordinary people had the chance to get their viewpoints heard.” By that September, he was working in the field.
Hatem and Wood were among the earliest voters to register Biss’ presence, but their experience was far from unique. With the establishment road closed, Biss’ path to governorship rested on establishing himself as the best progressive alternative in the race. And for what Biss lacked in money and establishment power, he at least partially made up for with solid long-standing connections to progressive organizations. Things seemed to be going to plan.
And then September happened.
Daniel Biss picked Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa as his running mate on September 1. It seemed a savvy choice; Rosa has been political dynamite in Chicago for the past three years. He won his Alderman seat in 2015, becoming not only the youngest candidate to ever secure such a victory (he was twenty-five when he won), but the first openly gay Latino alderman to serve on Chicago City council. He’s also an open member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who have become a formidable force in Illinois politics. With Rosa on board, Biss gained wider appeal, a charismatic voice on his behalf, and the support of highly active progressive organizers.
Less than a week later, Biss dropped Rosa from the ticket. For those unfamiliar with campaign politics, dropping a running mate is an uncommon, and ill advised, maneuver.
Their divide was over Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS), a global campaign to boycott Israel for their role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The DSA adopted the policy at its national convention in 2017, and it has become one of their most controversial stances. Rosa, as a member of the DSA, has been a vocal a supporter of the campaign: in an interview from 2016, he described the U.S. government as having “subsidized the oppression of the Palestinian people, and it’s time that stopped.”
Biss, though he’s vocally supported a two-state solution, strongly opposes the campaign. And while the issue may seem as far from state politics as any, for Biss, a Jewish man with an Israeli grandmother, it was inherently personal. After Representative Brad Schneider, a key ally of Biss, pulled his support in response to the nomination, Biss and Rosa sat down to try and salvage a compromise. There was none to be found.
The damage was immediate. As Wood put it, “It was less about that issue, and more about a lack of trust.” Far left activists, like herself, felt betrayed by how Biss treated Rosa. The progressive coalition Biss was aspiring to build was rapidly undermined. The campaign, meanwhile, grew somber. When the news first came out “we looked like- the closet comparison I can give you is my father’s funeral” Peters remembered.
If there was anything to highlight the challenges of running as a progressive it was this. While Pritzker was able to virtually unify the Democratic establishment behind him ten months before a single vote was cast, the Biss campaign was forced to rebuild their shaky coalition from scratch.
But rebuild was exactly what they did. Two days later Biss landed Representative Litesa Wallace as a new running mate. Wallace, a state representative from Rockford, has deep roots in Chicago. She’s Black, from a predominantly Black south suburb of Chicago (Country Club Hills), and the daughter of two union workers. Between working in the state legislature and raising her son, she’s managed to get a doctorate in educational psychology. In other words, she’s an absolute ace. “The number one thing that helped us get back was the remarkable act of courage by Litesa,” Biss reflected “She did what she felt was the right thing, even though it was a very risky career move.”
While Biss landed a political powerhouse in Litesa, he was also pulling in savvy progressive strategists on the ground. Among them was Kandice Harris, who came on board in early November. Harris was no stranger to long shot campaigns; she’s the daughter of a strong Democratic family from Mobile Alabama, where “every Democratic race is an underdog race.”
Harris was put in charge of the campaign’s outreach in the south and west sides of Chicago, as well as the south suburbs. The task was immense, as she quickly learned: “It took me about a week to realize everything, as far as a volunteer base, wasn’t there.” She remembers her first organizing meeting, at the University Church: the room was empty, with the exception of Hatem and one other fellow. “I was like, oh shit” she recalled, laughing.
Hatem and fellow Hyde Park volunteers hold a phone bank in Sanctuary Cafe at University Church. Photo courtesy of Andy Hatem.
While the campaign got some endorsements in the south suburbs, South-Side Chicago was not particularly hospitable to Biss. Not one South-Side alderman endorsed Biss until February, when Sue Garza, from Ward 10, offered her formal support. “You get real scrappy” Harris said, explaining that with the absence of institutional support “It was just on us.”
Why the campaign was unable to gain traction in the south and west sides of Chicago is a controversial topic. A popular narrative among some South-Side activists at the time was that Biss was unwilling to invest significant resources into these neighborhoods, fearing they were unwinnable. William (Willie) Calloway, an organizer who was running for state representative, shared this view: “Biss comes off like a commercial...he's been saying he's progressive and all that and I haven't seen none of them in South Shore except Tio and Kennedy. They're the only ones who've been in my neighborhood to talk to us.”
Peters, when confronted with this claim, pushed back: “There’s a narrative that we didn’t try hard or care about the South-Side. That’s not true.” He was, however, willing to acknowledge that the campaign was accounting for the challenges they’d face. “We had an understanding that Daniel had very little name recognition, was going up against a Kennedy, and Pritzker who got the entire machine support” he explained, “So a Kennedy, machine support, and little resources, meant we had to figure out a model that would allow us to win. We knew that the south and west-sides would be hard, figured we’d have a shot in the south suburbs, so we tried a little bit more in the south suburbs.”
Some of the South-Side of Chicago is poverty stricken, which can make it difficult for a relatively unknown candidate appealing to lofty progressive goals to earn voters' trust. As Peters remarked, “How can you promise someone free college when their school is closing? People don’t have grocery stores.” But Chicago is the country’s most segregated city. The accusation that Biss didn’t invest enough in the South-Side is by extension an indictment of the campaign’s appeal to Black voters.
The issue of undervaluing Black voters isn’t new to the progressive movement; their last mainstream candidate, Bernie Sanders, was often accused of it. A Black woman herself, Harris admits that “Last year this time, I wouldn’t have described myself as a progressive. I just didn’t feel like it included people like me.” Some of this, she acknowledges, has to do with her upbringing in Alabama, a state where the progressive movement is in its infancy. But some of it also has to do with branding. “It would help to have some faces that are publicly hailed as progressive leaders who look like us” she reflects, “A lot of our communities are progressive. Anything we are pushing is inherently progressive. We need to put women of color at the forefront of this movement.” Harris noted that Wallace, who’s from the South-Side, was rarely used in the campaigns outreach. “I had people who didn’t know who Litesa was, that she was running with Daniel” she explained, visibly exasperated. “She was our greatest and least-used asset on the south-side. She’s everything you could want.”
Biss, like Peters, disputed the narrative that his campaign under-invested in their South-Side operations, though he admitted “you could say we under-invested anywhere, and you’d be right.” It seems the issue of who’s to blame for the campaign's struggles in these neighborhoods will remain disputed. It’s worth noting though that while the Biss campaign staff had a good deal of racial diversity, according to their quarterly reports, Harris was the only Black women being paid. As one campaign member, who wished to remain anonymous, remarked, “If you don’t think you’re going to win a certain voter, it shows.”
One demographic Biss inarguably did invest in was young voters. His college tours became the things of legend. By the end of the campaign, Biss had visited fifty-three colleges across the state, many more than once. In mid-February, weeks before election day, he made one final push to fourteen colleges in eight days. One day included eighteen hours of driving.
Andy Hatem (right) marches alongside Daniel Biss and other college students. Photo courtesy of Andy Hatem.
The reasons behind this push are obvious. There’s the matter of untapped voters; young people are notoriously inactive in off-year elections, so a mobilization of them would help rattle the powers that be. Young people also are inherently more radical; as Rikki Keusch, the organizer partially responsible for Biss’ college tour, explained “Progressive values are always going to speak to younger voters.”
In Biss’ case however, there was extra incentive. Biss, for any political deficiencies, is perfect for a millennial audience. He’s worked as a college professor. He’s only forty years old. He’s friends with John Green. But beyond all that, Biss’ greatest advantage among younger voters is that when he speaks to them, any question of his authenticity evaporates. “I think honestly, more than anything else, I understand to speak to young adults as adults” Biss reflects. In an age of political pandering, this alone sets him apart.
Biss’ appeal to young voters is most evident in his staff. With a relatively low budget, the campaign depended heavily on volunteers, most of whom were college aged. Their hard work and perseverance was rooted largely in their attachment to the man at the helm. Hatem, though he initially joined the campaign for policy reasons, cited Biss’ character as a main motivator for his work. “He genuinely cared, and that shone through when I watched him interacting with people” he reflected, his voice cracking, “Whether that was voters or a volunteer who needed help with his math homework.”
Biss’ college tour coincided with a surge in the polls. As endorsements poured in through January and February, Biss closed within three percentage points of Pritzker, despite being outspent ten to one. National media started paying attention. The question became, as one headline put it, “Can you beat a Billionaire by mobilizing young voters?”
At least, that was the initial conclusion post-election. Biss was trounced by Pritzker, who won 46 percent of the vote compared to Biss’ 26%. He narrowly beat out Kennedy, who’s late surge earned him 24 percent of the vote. What’s more, young voters, the focus of so much of the campaign’s efforts, seemingly took election day off. One CBS Chicago article, which went viral on social media, contained a shocking stat: only 3 percent of registered millennial voters in Cook County showed up to the polls.
But as is commonly the case with initial conclusions, the real answer is more complicated. First, the CBS Chicago article was wrong. Completely wrong. Though the article still stands, unedited, the authors misread polling numbers which showed that 18-24 year old voters only made up 3.6 percent of total votes. In reality, turnout rates among young people were much higher: for 18-24 year olds in Cook County, it hovered around 15 percent, and for 25-34 year olds, 20 percent. If these numbers still seem low, consider 2010, the most comparable recent election; the turnout rate for 18-24 year olds in Cook County hovered around 8 percent, while 25-34 year olds were barely higher at 12 percent. While voter participation was higher overall in 2018, the biggest percent growth was seen among young voters. And the two counties Biss won, McClean and Champaign, were home to two state universities. Clearly, there was a payoff.
Data used in graph is courtesy of Chicago Elections.
What’s more, while almost all analysis post election focused on millennial turnout rates, little was said of Biss’ struggles on the South-Side of Chicago. In these wards, Biss’ support mostly hovered between 8 and 12 percent, while Pritzker dominated with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote; Kennedy split the difference. This was largely to be expected, given the challenges before the Biss campaign. But, whether or not it was justified, it seems clear Biss suffered for the notion his campaign hadn’t done enough to appeal to Black voters in these neighborhoods.
Data used in map is courtesy of Chicago Elections and Rob Paral.
And of course, there was the issue of money. As Biss closed in on Pritzker, his campaign, feeling the heat, revealed just how much political firepower $70 million can buy. Their ads, which already dominated any entertainment medium you can imagine, shifted in tone. They began hammering Biss’ record, in particular an infamous 2013 vote to cut pensions in response to the state’s budget crisis. Biss himself acknowledges the vote as “irresponsible”, which almost seems an understatement given that the law was later struck down by the Illinois supreme court as unconstitutional. Of course, it’s worth noting that that same year Pritzker was donating $20 thousand to a PAC dedicated to supporting candidates who’d cut pensions.
The Pritzker campaign also accused Biss of being incapable of winning the general election against incumbent Bruce Rauner. In one particular petty move, they began referring to him as “Dan Biss”, while simultaneously buying up all URLs which included “danbiss” and re-directing them to attack ads. With a family fortune behind them, the sky was the limit. As Hatem put it, “You can’t outsmart being outspent ten to one.”
The former homepage of "danbiss.net", a URL owned by the Pritzker campaign; the site has since been deleted.
There’s multiple narratives that could be written about the Daniel Biss campaign. There’s one, in which the perfect progressive candidate is dominated by a wealthy machine Democrat, showing the limitations of progressivism in major elections. There’s another, in which a small-time state senator was able to spark a movement that rattled the powers that be. The differences mainly rest on how one takes a loss.
But the campaign, for its part, doesn’t seem particularly concerned with writing one. Their eyes look forward. Wood and Hatem continue to work in Chicago activism. Biss, though he leaves public office in just a few months, assured me he’d “remain involved in building a progressive Chicagoland.” Wallace continues to serve in the Illinois state house (though it seems clear she’s angling towards a run at higher office soon). And Harris seems set on finding new progressive candidates in need of her talents. “I’m definitely tired, but I still want to continue the work we started” she remarked at the end of our interview.
Peters however, who’s gone back to Reclaim Chicago, the activist organization he worked for before the Biss campaign, was willing to indulge in some mythologizing. When asked what the story of the Biss campaign should be, he pondered for a minute, before settling on this: “The slightly awkward lanky math professor from UChicago took on royalty in capital, and royalty in politics, and forced them to give every punch they could to shut him down.”
He smiled. “I take a lot of pride in that.”
The featured image is courtesy of Andy Hatem. All other images are credited and licensed appropriately. All graphs and data analysis are courtesy of the author.
Jacob Toner Gosselin
Jacob Gosselin is a rising fourth-year, majoring in Math and Economics and minoring in Creative Writing. He is interested in health policy and criminal justice reform. He's currently working as a data journalist with Injustice Watch, a non-profit newsroom in Chicago. He's previously interned at the Brookings Institution's Center for Health Policy, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. On campus, Jacob is the Captain of the Varsity Cross Country team, and competes in Track as well. He enjoys reporting on local issues, running with his friends, and tutoring at Chavez Middle School with the Chicago Peace Corps.