Garcia: Harold Washington, center, posing with Garcia (left) and Cesar Chavez (right). (Submitted photo)

A lot has changed for Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the few weeks since forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into an April 7 runoff election. 

A poll conducted by the firm Ogden & Fry in early March showed the two candidates in a “dead heat,” with Emanuel drawing about 43 percent, and Garcia drawing about 39 percent, support among roughly 1,000 likely voters. An unscientific poll conducted by the African American publication N’DIGO magazine showed Garcia with about 64 percent support and Emanuel with about 36 percent support among roughly 440 respondents.

Garcia’s name recognition has increased both in Chicago and throughout the country. He’s been profiled by publications such as the New York Times, the Nation, the International Business Times and USA Today. The Daily Beast dubbed him the “Rahm Slayer.” He’s appeared on left-leaning cable shows, such as MSNBC’s the “Ed Show” and “Democracy Now!”

Garcia has also experienced a significant bump in campaign revenue. He’s raised more than $365,000 between Feb. 24 and March 7—that’s about a quarter of the money he raised throughout his entire campaign leading up to election night. Much of that money has come in the form of $1,000 contributions from donors whose listed occupations include doctor, homemaker, company president, software engineer, truck driver and professor. But most of it is owing to two donations—$250,000 from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and $25,000 from Yusef D. Jackson, the beer distributor and son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who officially endorsed Garcia last week. 

A race that was once mostly about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term has now turned into a contest of two wills and one dark horse.

As much as Rahm Emanuel’s team has mounted attacks against Garcia’s political resume, they’ve been much less inclined to touch his deep connections to historical populist figures such as Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Sr. (a la 1984 and 1988) and Harold Washington. That’s because if Emanuel’s team focuses too much attention on this aspect of Garcia’s history, they only risk playing into what could be the political equivalent of an uncontrollable brush fire.

“People haven’t recovered from the Emanuel administration’s 50 school closures,” said Jackson during an interview last year with In These Times. “That was one of the most devastating blows. Banks were charged with targeting and clustering black and brown families and found guilty of pushing subprime mortgage loans on minority communities, but not a single person was charged with a crime. That compounded the sense of alienation. And it is this alienation that amounts to dry chips, ready to ignite.”

Garcia’s brand of populism may have the potential to ignite a genuinely populist, multiracial, movement-based campaign in the mold of Jackson’s two presidential bids in 1984 and 1988, or Washington’s successful run for mayor in 1983. And Garcia himself—who served as one of Jackson’s delegates during his ’88 run and was a key figure in Washington’s reformist administration—is the only candidate in the race who can claim ownership of such a movement with any kind of sincerity.

If that were to happen, Mayor Emanuel wouldn’t be able to co-opt it by changing his pitch or making last-minute policy adjustments. The key to victory for Garcia is how effectively he can mobilize that sort of movement-based coalition. The key to victory for the mayor is how effectively he can stop this from happening.

Washington connections 

Garcia’s relationship with Washington evolved from a trip he made to Springfield in 1977 to lobby against anti-immigrant legislation. The state wanted to usurp the federal government’s role in regulating immigration policy by proposing a series of bills that would’ve proved disastrous to the Latino community.

“They attempted to deny public education to undocumented children, legislate employer sanctions on companies that might hire undocumented immigrants and deny immigrants emergency services in hospitals,” the commissioner said during an interview with Austin Weekly News at a campaign office in Woodlawn. 

The office was about four blocks from Hyde Park, the old reform-rich stomping grounds of Mayor Harold Washington and President Barack Obama, Mayor Emanuel’s old boss, close friend and, lately, political booster.

“It was just a group of Latinos, one of the first to go into Springfield to try to affect policy,” Garcia said. “We came back realizing how voiceless and invisible we were as a community in Springfield. It was the first time we thought about why there weren’t any Latino officials representing us there.”

Garcia, who would go on to become the first Mexican-American member of the Illinois state senate, said that, although he didn’t personally meet with Washington while in Springfield, members of his contingent met with the future mayor (who was a state senator at the time)—in addition to other independent progressive legislators, such as Richard Newhouse, Jr., Dawn Clark Netsch and Robert Mann.

Garcia’s first personal encounter with Washington came in 1981, at a dinner honoring the congressman for his work on behalf of Latinos and causes such as immigrant rights, labor rights and bilingual education.

“That’s where the incident happened,” Garcia said with a broad smile. Washington was eating guacamole when he began choking. Garcia applied pressure to the congressman’s back and his wife Evelyn got him some water. They walked him to the kitchen.

“He said, ‘Jesus, you saved my life,'” Garcia recalled.

The choking incident was the start of personal relationship with Washington. In 1983, he helped recruit Washington to run for mayor and helped him get elected. Garcia was close to activists Rudy Lozano, whose campaign he managed, and Juan Velazquez, both of whom ran aligned with Washington—Lozano in the 22nd and Velazquez in the 25th. Both of the aspiring aldermen came close to forcing runoffs.

“This is where the relationship [with Washington] was really cemented,” Garcia said. “It was a good relationship already. We saw him as an ally, as a friend, as someone you could truly rely on. The relationship deepened profoundly.”

A few months after Washington’s election as the city’s first African American mayor, Garcia’s close friend and political influence Rudy Lozano was killed by a gang member. Lozano’s death meant that Garcia was now the 22nd Ward standard bearer.

He would go on to win a close race for 22nd Ward Democratic committeeman in 1984 before he successfully ran for 22nd Ward alderman in 1986. Garcia said that Washington’s work as a congressman to amend the Voting Rights Act was essential to his election.

“Harold Washington initiated an era of political empowerment for African Americans, for Latinos, for other minorities,” Garcia said. “At the core of the success of his ability to overcome the obstructionist majority bloc in the City Council was the Voting Rights Act. Harold’s work on amending the voting rights act while in Congress enabled us to challenge the Jane Byrne discriminatory ward map, which violated the Voting Rights Act.

After a lawsuit was filed on behalf of minorities in Chicago, who claimed that the ward map in the city unfairly diluted the voting power of African Americans and Latinos, city officials were ordered to redraw a new one “setting ‘supermajorities’ of 65 percent black and 70 percent Hispanic as the minimum guideline for determining minority populations in those wards,” according to a 1985 Chicago Tribune article.

“The court said supermajorities were needed to ensure that blacks and Hispanics would have effective voting strength in wards where they had been illegally denied political control by the regular Democrats,” the Tribune report notes.

The court order would pave the way for Garcia’s successful run for alderman in 1986. Several other black and Latino aldermen would be elected that year, including Luis Gutierrez. Their collective presence would be enough to defeat the staunchly anti-Washington regime of 29 aldermen led by City Council President Edward Vrdolyak.

Washington is remembered by many of the city’s political observers as Chicago’s last real reform mayor. After his death on November 25, 1987 from a heart attack, the movement he built died with him.

“The coalition he brought together was shattered in many ways,” Garcia said. “It really underscored how fragile that coalition was and how reliant it was on Harold to keep it together. The battle for succession after the mayor’s death created so many fractures in the black community and among Latinos. We were able to keep three of the four Latino aldermen together in the coalition through the special election in 1989. That’s where things got even more complicated. Luis Gutierrez decided to endorse Daley. I supported Gene Sawyer in the first round and Tim Evans in the second round. But clearly things were broken into so many pieces.”

A 21st Century coalition?

“I think there’s very strong support for my candidacy,” Garcia said. “It will only get stronger as we move toward April 7. With the additional momentum I am picking up, I will get additional support. I’m going to campaign vigorously in the African American community, in the Latino community, in some of the other ethnic communities—in the Muslim community, in the Asian community, among Poles and Irish folk. I think this is the coalition of the 21st Century.”

Precisely how that coalition will come about, outside of a series of very fortunate events, Garcia didn’t say. He didn’t go into details about strategy, but he did talk about how his campaign seems to parallel the one Washington ran in 1983. First, though, there are some key differences.   

Unlike Washington, Garcia isn’t heading into April at this point with near-unanimous support among minority voters.

Harold Washington won the April 1983 election with 99 percent of the black vote and 82 percent of the Latino vote in a year in which the minority voting base in the city had greatly expanded due to a virtually unprecedented voter registration effort. Washington had been recruited by community leaders to run against incumbent Jane Byrne, who, like Emanuel, had become deeply unpopular among African Americans.

But Washington, who was just getting acclimated to his seat in Congress, was reluctant. He had run unsuccessfully for mayor in 1977 and didn’t want to mount another losing campaign. He told the contingent trying to lure him into the race that he would only run again if they found sufficient funding and if they expanded the black electorate. More than 50,000 new voters had been registered by the time Washington announced his candidacy.

In February, Garcia garnered 52 percent of the vote in majority-Hispanic wards and 26 percent in predominantly African American wards in an election year when voter turnout was around 34 percent and even lower among majority-minority wards. 

According to Scott Kennedy at Illinois Election Data, “If the size of the runoff electorate in April shrinks as has historically been the case then Emanuel moves closer to victory simply by holding his current coalition together. Garcia has to find the raw votes to make up that difference, either by winning over the supporters of other candidates or turning out new voters.”

But it isn’t clear that Garcia has the force of personality, or that the historical conditions are ripe enough, for that electoral expansion to occur.

Many observers claim that the laid back commissioner and community activist doesn’t have the charisma of Washington or Karen Lewis, the dynamo Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president who recruited him into the race—that could anchor a 21st Century rainbow coalition.

“When you are talking about people that are colorful representatives of the city of Chicago, Chuy is not on that list,” political consultant Thom Serafin told the Daily Beast. “Some people walk into a board room and they immediately take a seat at the front of the table. He is not one of the people that can do that.”

Moreover, the kind of reform campaign waged by Washington may arouse the city’s progressives, but may not be sufficient to prompt the kind of black-brown response that was generated in 1983. Washington, with his calls for reform, was able to channel the resentment that many working class blacks and Hispanics had toward the white ethnic Democratic machine—which blocked minorities from accessing the jobs, contracts, grants and services that were dispensed to machine loyalists.

It remains to be seen whether or not Garcia’s calls for reform will be enough to smoothen the historic tension between blacks and Hispanics, born from competition over scarce resources. Washington could easily point to white patronage workers to illustrate his argument for reform. So far, there hasn’t emerged such compelling political imagery that Garcia can hold up to blacks and Hispanics as the source of their mutual economic depravity and as a reason to oust the incumbent.

It doesn’t help Garcia that Emanuel has people like President Obama and Congressman Gutierrez touting the city’s progress under his leadership, or that most of the city’s black aldermen think that the mayor would be better at resolving those historic tensions.

During a meeting last Wednesday with the City Council’s Black Caucus at his downtown penthouse, black businessman Willie Wilson said that the majority of the aldermen are for Rahm. Wilson, who finished third in the Feb. 24 race mainly due to his strong showing among African Americans, has been wooed by both Emanuel and Garcia.

Alderman Deborah Graham (29th), who was in the majority at that meeting with Wilson, said that she’s supporting Emanuel because of his work with her on infrastructure projects, parks and welcoming schools in her ward. Graham is preparing for a runoff of her own with police officer and attorney Chris Taliaferro.

“Yes tensions do, in fact, exist,” she said of the racial animosity between blacks and Hispanics. “When we’re out in the community that’s what you hear. There are no African Americans working. There are all Hispanics working in our neighborhoods. Mayor Emanuel has worked hard to spread out benefits to all groups. Everyone deserves a piece of the pie. We’d just like to see people working in our community who look like us.”

What Garcia does have in his favor are the rumblings of what could be a national reaction against the politics of austerity that he says makes Emanuel’s policies not much different from Reagan’s austerity policies. That wave of reaction is, in part, what buoyed progressives such as New York City’s Bill de Blasio and Seattle’s Ed Murray into their respective city halls.

“In 1983, we were fighting against the Ronald Reagan budget cuts and an agenda of austerity and severe cuts to cities that hurt Chicago tremendously,” Garcia said. “Cuts in community development grant funding, cuts in transportation, cuts all the way around that have had a profound effect on Chicago and other cities in the country. That’s one of the reasons Harold Washington became one of the leading critics of Reagan’s economic policies.

“And now, as this election cycle comes around, we’ve had a mayor who has had trickle-down economics at the heart of his policies in Chicago—favoring a select few, identifying very closely with those who have amassed great fortunes and wealth. He’s aligned very closely with the Wall Street types on the other one hand and then at the state level we learned of Gov. Rauner’s proposed budget cuts, unprecedented, deep, affecting children, people with disabilities, healthcare, daycare, every aspect of the quality of life for community residents. So, the parallels are quite similar in terms of government wanting to shun poor people and people who have the greatest reliance on government for their quality of life.”

Garcia said he believes what happens in Chicago has national significance, particularly with respect to the direction the Democratic Party takes in 2016. Perhaps by generating enough national attention and by framing his candidacy in moral terms that might appear to voters to transcend the mere political, Garcia could generate the expanded base of support he needs.

“There’s definitely a groundswell of ordinary people coming together all over America not only questioning, but challenging the policies emanating from Washington, D.C. and from state capitals. Policies that perpetuate inequality. Policies that don’t address poor people and vulnerable people. Policies that show a real callousness—whether in services for children, public education, wanting to create right to work laws—just really wanting the social safety net to disappear … the tensions in Chicago are representative of a larger dynamic in the country.”


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