Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia was in Austin Tuesday at the monthly meeting of the LEADERS Network, held at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson.
Garcia, the sitting 7th District Cook County Commissioner, juxtaposed the skills he gained at the grassroots community level, particularly through his nonprofit and antiviolence work in the Little Village neighborhood, with what he described as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's more brusque brand of politics.
When he came into office, Garcia said, Emanuel noted that his three top priorities would be to improve schools, improve public safety and put the city's fiscal house in order.
"If I'm not mistaken, there are three strikes presently [on the Mayor's record]," Garcia said. "But I believe the greatest mistake was not listening to the affected communities."
The candidate said that community organizing hones skills that Emanuel has lacked throughout his tenure.
"[Community organizing] teaches you to listen, to set a broad table…to be respectful of other people's ideas [so] you can bring focus and build consensus," Garcia said.
Garcia fleshed out the contrast between his leadership style and that of Emanuel during his discussion of the city's appointed school board.
Garcia said that he wholeheartedly supports an elected school board and was one of the dissenting voices, and votes, in Springfield when the General Assembly voted to hand then-Mayor Richard M. Daley the unilateral power to appoint board members. At the time, Garcia was a state senator representing Illinois's 1st District.
"I think we need to try something new," Garcia said. "As a matter of fact, I believe had there been an elected school board in place, we would've had a real robust debate about the practicality, the wisdom, or lack thereof, of closing almost 50 neighborhood schools."
Garcia's roots in community organizing span back to his days at the Legal Assistance Foundation, which provides legal aid to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it, and his work as the founder and executive director of the Little Village Community Development Corporation.
He also touted his experience with violence prevention efforts in his home neighborhood, claiming that the product of various grassroots initiatives and collaboration with "officials all over the city" has been a reduction of homicides among youth in Little Village by 34 percent "over a period of several years [which] we think is sustainable," he said.
Although a longtime politician, Garcia, who migrated from a small village in Durango, Mexico to Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood in 1965, said that his most important qualification wasn't necessarily his time spent in halls of power.
"Being a West Sider is one of my primary affinities," he said. "I've lived in two neighborhoods [since 1965]—only a mile apart. So, I'm a lifelong West Sider."
He did, however, proudly reference his role in taking down 10th Ward Alderman Edward Vrdolyak during the famous "Council Wars" of Harold Washington's era. Garcia won a special election in 1986 to become 22nd Ward alderman, which is considered by many political observers as pivotal to tipping the balance of power in City Council away from Vrdolyak and toward Washington.
Garcia said that, if he gets elected, he would leverage the kind of multicultural, interfaith coalition that lifted Washington to power in the 1980s to help muscle through a new era of economic development on the West Side, particularly along major economic arterials such as Madison Street and Chicago Avenue.
"I believe that arterial retail districts are reflections of the vibrancy, the life…the full expression of health, in a community," he said. "Where those are missing, something is wrong."
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