The Craft of Campaigns podcast highlights stories and lessons from issue-based action campaigns beyond one-off mobilizations and single election cycles. Campaigns channel grassroots energy to win concrete victories, build winning coalitions, and topple pillars of power standing in the way of justice. In each episode, we interview organizers about how a campaign unfolded, the strategy decisions they made, and the lessons we can draw for our current moment.

For this Craft of Campaigns podcast, I talked with Will Tanzman of The People's Lobby. You can read the writeup below or check out the full episode here or at Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 


Pending a last-minute judicial review, some time early this year, Illinois will become the first state to eliminate wealth-based pretrial incarceration. Right-wing operatives spent tens of millions of dollars to keep this historic legislative victory — won by a statewide coalition in January 2021 — from going into effect. The path to passing the legislation and then defending it from attacks holds lessons for organizers attempting to turn smaller, municipal-level reforms into large-scale victories that can change the lives of tens of thousands of people. 

The Illinois campaign began in 2014 when Chicago grassroots organizers with The People's Lobby started a listening project on how policing and criminalization impacted Black people in Chicago. Pretrial incarceration was a persistent theme of the listening project conversations. Many of the group's members expressed anger at the status quo: over 60% of the county jail's detainees were incarcerated solely because they couldn't afford bail. The organization began researching the issue, interviewing defense attorneys, attending court hearings, and learning about the arbitrariness of the hearings themselves. As The People’s Lobby’s executive director Will Tanzman told me, “No evidence is presented. The prosecutor says, ‘This person is accused of X, Y, and Z,’ and the defense attorney says one sentence about the person having a job or a family. And then the judge says, ‘Okay, bail set at $50,000.’ And that's it.” 

In power-mapping the issue, The People’s Lobby noted that Cook County’s State's Attorney Anita Alvarez was one of the key defenders of the money bail system and that she was running for reelection in the city's May 2016 primary. Alongside other groups like National Nurses United and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, The People's Lobby decided to back Alvarez's challenger, former local prosecutor Kim Foxx. Another key organization, Assata's Daughters, later joined the efforts to elect Foxx with their #ByeAnita anti-endorsement campaign. That May, Foxx won. 

Many of the same organizations simultaneously initiated the Chicago Community Bond Fund and the Cook County Campaign to End Money Bond. The bond fund was started to bail out protesters arrested demanding justice for LaQuan MacDonald, who was murdered by the police, but organizers soon realized they could repurpose it as part of the campaign to end money bail. They started using the bond fund to bail out people facing pretrial detention and publicized their stories to put pressure on elected officials and judges. The new bond campaign coalition — anchored by The People’s Lobby, Chicago Appleseed, and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation — planned to channel the anger on the streets into a campaign that could dramatically lower the number of people locked up. 

Money Bond Campaign members decided to target Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who they believed had the most power to influence the use of cash bail, given that he supervised judges at the county’s criminal courts. To build public support around the issue beyond the publicity generated by their bailouts, the coalition organized teach-ins, meetings with elected officials, and direct actions targeting Judge Evans, one of which involved shutting down the county’s central court building for hours. “Actually, the two times we got meetings with the chief judge, both involved people engaging in civil disobedience,” recounted Tanzman. The meetings allowed the coalition to better assess him as a target but did not immediately result in him agreeing to their demands. That wasn’t the goal: the coalition planned to use Evans to, as Tanzman told me, “draw attention to the issue and more indirectly push the legislature to act.” 

But Evans ended up taking action. In the summer of 2017, he issued an order recommending that all of the county's judges implement new rules limiting cash bail to what defendants could reasonably afford, which reduced its use by 50% over the next year. The coalition also partnered with a law firm that was suing the county on the grounds that wealth-based incarceration was unconstitutional. Organizers believe the lawsuit weighed on Evans’s decision, as did his desire to win re-election. As Tanzman put it: “we were doing direct actions on him at a moment when the 2016 state's attorney's election had changed the politics around [bail].” 

Following the order, The People's Lobby trained dozens of new volunteers to monitor its implementation. They observed that many judges were ignoring Evans’s order and still issuing unaffordable bail amounts or using loopholes that left many cases up to the judge’s individual discretion. The coalition decided they would need mandatory rules that took away carceral tools from judges, such as eliminating all forms of money bail instead of retaining money bail as an option for “exceptional cases.” And rather than continue to focus on improving bail in the state’s largest county, they decided to reach for a statewide victory that would take money bail away from the discretion of individual judges. 

The organizers ruled out a legislative pathway. Earlier in 2017, The People’s Lobby had drafted a bill banning wealth-based pretrial incarceration, only to be rebuffed by key Democrats. They turned their attention to the State Supreme Court, which coalition leaders believed could issue binding, statewide rules changes. But building power outside Cook County would require them to engage new coalition partners in smaller cities and suburban districts. 

They drew on the relatively new network of nine local bail funds that had started over the past three years to launch a statewide coalition. In 2019, they kicked off their statewide campaign with a convening in the state capital, Springfield, with 160 participants from eleven counties. They also tapped into the energy of progressive groups, like local Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign chapters that had continued to mobilize beyond the election. In addition to teach-ins and lobby days, the coalition used public bailout actions to educate the public on the issue. 

The new coalition successfully pressured the State Supreme Court to hold public hearings on pretrial detention and, over the course of 2018 and 2019, coalition leaders lined up former prosecutors, judges, and elected officials to lobby court leaders. But the court’s response essentially “punted” any solution to the legislature, as Tanzman put it. It was time for the coalition to shift focus again, this time to crafting and winning support for a state law to end money bail. They refined the original 2017 proposal, renaming it the Pretrial Fairness Act, and lined up co-sponsors for the bill across legislative districts where they anticipated #ByeAnita-style progressive electoral strategies would fall flat. 

According to Tanzman, “Our broader power analysis of the state was that we could get a majority of legislative votes if we could move beyond the traditional progressive base in the city of Chicago, which included some inter-ring suburbs. We kind of figured we needed to add some swing areas in the further out suburbs that were up for grabs between Democrats and Republicans, places like DuPage County that were increasingly multiracial and economically diverse suburbs as well as some key smaller cities in towns like Rockford, Bloomington, Champagne, Peoria, and East St. Louis.” 

Coalition organizers knew that getting sufficient legislative co-sponsorship would require them to recruit unlikely organizational partners, like domestic violence advocates who didn’t come from abolitionist or decarceration-focused organizations — which would test their unity. “It really required a lot of trust-building between these folks that wanted to ‘shut shit down in the streets’ and the folks who were down to lobby their legislators in the suburbs and the folks who were the policy experts. And some of it was just a lot of time spent in rooms together hashing stuff [out] so that we could recognize that not everybody had to use abolitionist language, but that the bill that we were pushing had an abolitionist orientation,” Tanzman recalled. 

Other coalition partners spent time mapping Democratic Party leaders within state legislative caucuses and committees. “When our first bill sponsor moved into a position in the governor’s administration,” Tanzman recalled, “the person that we asked to be our next sponsor was intentionally the chair of the State House criminal law committee, Rep. Justin Slaughter, as we were working to build support within key committees and key caucuses, like the progressive caucus, the Black caucus.”  

Then, in January 2020, only months after the statewide coalition’s launch, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced his intent to help end cash bail, prompting the group to shift into high gear. “At that point, law enforcement started pushing back hard,” recalled Tanzman. The State’s Attorneys Association, among others, began lobbying the same Democratic legislators as the coalition to earn the legislative votes necessary to pass the bill. 

But it wasn’t until after the murder of George Floyd that the coalition was able to sufficiently expand legislative support for their bill. “Using the tailwind of the uprisings,” as Tanzman put it, they generated over 13,000 constituent emails to state lawmakers that summer. Then The People’s Lobby’s former political director, Robert Peters, was elected to the State Senate and subsequently named head of the Senate Black Caucus, where he pushed for the inclusion of the Pretrial Fairness Act in a package of criminal legal system reforms the Caucus proposed.  

In January 2021, both legislative chambers voted on the proposal to make Illinois the first state to end cash bail. The hearing preceding the vote lasted late into the night. Tanzman recalls, “I remember going to sleep at one point and thinking, ‘Man, I don't see this happening.’ I woke up at five in the morning, restless, and there's 300 text messages. Our bill got voted on in the middle of the night.” 

When we spoke in October 2022, Tanzman reflected on the winding path from the organization’s 2014 listening sessions to the early morning vote in 2021, noting that “all of the different pieces came together in a way we could not have possibly predicted back then.” But with the legislation not scheduled to take effect until 2023, coalition members knew the fight wasn’t over after they won the vote. Right-wing lobbyists were already beginning to telegraph their intent to force another vote rolling back the law’s implementation. “As it was passing, we were already starting to realize that we were going to have to do much more intense defense,” recalled Tanzman. “And so we kept the coalition going. We didn't miss a meeting.”

The group gamed out how law enforcement and local prosecutors might team up with Republican lobbyists to keep the legislation from going into effect. Tanzman remembered: “We had a set of strategic conversations between core coalition partners to think through the five or six elements of defense and implementation, from being part of the rule-making and implementation process to defending vulnerable legislators who voted for the bill in the next election to much broader public education so the people knew what was in the bill to winning the public narrative battle to come.” 

As they expected, in 2022, wealthy Republicans funded a multimillion-dollar misinformation campaign, attempting to use the Pretrial Fairness Act to sink the reelection hopes of many State House Democrats. And in November, sixty-two prosecutors filed suit to block the Act’s implementation. 

Some of the opposition’s tactics made national news. “They had a whole two-page spread in this fake newspaper that got mailed to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people — just showing mug shots of mostly Black and Brown men who they say would be released under bail reform,” Tanzman remembered. “They had a TV commercial that was Ring camera footage that had been doctored that showed a white woman walking down the street and attacked by three Black men. And she screams, and it's just this like ten-second scream. Apparently the scream was added to the footage.” But unlike in New York, where misinformation targeting the state’s bail reform law contributed to unexpected Democratic losses, Illinois Democrats won every statewide race and retained supermajority legislative control. 

Still, coalition organizers were unable to stop some changes to the original law. Just four weeks before the legislation was scheduled to take effect, the State Senate — responding primarily to the concerns of conservative Democrats — passed revisions to the Pretrial Fairness Act giving prosecutors slightly more leeway to designate a defendant as ineligible for bond. But bail reform advocates won even stronger protections for those detained pretrial, like the right to a hearing within 48 hours. 

Now in 2023, the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice has embarked on the next stage of the campaign: monitoring the Act’s implementation in courtrooms across the state’s 102 counties. As part of that effort, the group is recruiting additional volunteers to participate in court-watching programs in seven counties. 

Local grassroots organizers scouted their membership for possible campaign issues, eventually leading to a campaign in which they won significant countywide reduction in cash bail use. Those local organizers then set their sights on an even bigger goal: statewide legislative reform. Their victory would probably not have been possible without the momentum from the uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd, but it was also due to rigorous organizing and coalition building. The story of the campaign to end cash bail in Illinois also illustrates the importance of victory defense and implementation phases, as the campaign enters its third year defending a new law before it has even taken effect. 


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