And Then There Was Chuy

Feb 25, 2015
10:52 AM

When Jesús “Chuy” García entered Chicago’s mayoral race last fall, I immediately believed he would be the next mayor of the city. I was even more sure of it after I interviewed him in December. It’s not because he was Latino. I’m not the type to get excited over someone just because we come from the same background. Chuy’s chances of winning were a simple matter of mathematics.


You see, in Chicago, if a candidate fails to receive one vote above 50 percent, then the top two candidates head to a runoff election. And though he was able to avoid a runoff by earning 55 percent of the vote back in 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had sinned enough in the intervening years to antagonize half the city.

Rahm’s tendency to enact policies that benefit Chicago’s upper crust at the expense of the working class earned him the nickname “Mayor 1%” among blacks, Latinos and white progressives. He went to war with the teachers’ union in 2012, leading to a teachers strike and the closing of 50 schools a year later, mostly in black and Latino neighborhoods.

His rationale for the closings was because, according to him, the city was broke and drastic measures needed to be taken to cut costs. Meanwhile taxpayer dollars were being used to build a basketball arena for a private university and a pair of swanky hotels, all near the city’s already well-to-do downtown area.

When Rahm ran four years ago, he’d quit his job as chief of staff to a popular Democratic president who hailed from Chicago. Now Obama’s name doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did, especially among Latinos. We saw that firsthand last November when most Latinos, blacks and progressives in general decided to stay home on Election Day.

Because of this, and more, I figured the mayor was too unpopular this time around to win outright. Plus Rahm was running against a field of progressives who were pretty well known. Bob Fioretti had been an alderman since 2007, acting as a gadfly for both Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel until he was redistricted out of a job. William “Dock” Walls, a perennial candidate for mayor, and millionaire Willie Wilson both hoped to capture a base of black voters, which make up a third of Chicago’s electorate.

And then there was Chuy.

The more I learned about Chuy, the more certain I was that he was ready to be the next mayor of Chicago—not to mention its first Latino one, too. He’d cut his teeth as campaign manager for Rudy Lozano, a tragic hero in Chicago politics. García was part of the multiracial, multiethnic coalition responsible for electing Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. He was a member of the city council from 1986 till 1993, when he became the first Mexican American elected to the Illinois Senate.

Defeated by Chicago’s notorious Democratic establishment in 1998, Chuy headed a community organization that promoted development while fighting against gentrification in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Little Village. The group successfully pushed for the construction of a brand-new high school that opened its doors in 2005.

Chuy stepped back into the political arena in 2010 when he ran for and won a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, representing the second largest county in the country. As commissioner, García has spearheaded initiatives to protect “Section 8” residents from discrimination, as well as keeping local law enforcement from detaining non-serious immigrants wanted by federal agents for deportation.

Not only did Chuy have the résumé to be mayor, he also had the backing. It’s widely known that Chuy was pushed into the race by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, an eminently popular progressive who wanted to run herself but was forced out by a brain tumor. (She’s still sick, but she’s fighting the cancer with even more doggedness than she threw at Mayor Rahm during the teachers strike.) Plus, as a veteran of Harold Washington’s cadre, it was reasonable to believe that Chuy would have enough support among blacks and Latinos to at least keep Rahm from winning the 50-percent-plus-one needed to avoid a runoff—considering blacks and Latinos make up more than half of the city’s population.

But $15 million is a lot of money. That’s how much Rahm threw at the race. Joining late, with not nearly as many friends among the city’s corporate elite, Chuy was only able to raise a mere $1.3 million. He struggled to build his cred among the city’s non-Latino voters.

Then there’s the other truth of the matter, which is that Chuy didn’t come off looking like so great a candidate during the campaign. Regularly soft-spoken in the debates, he came across as amateurish, untested and not ready for the big time. Rahm, on the other hand, appeared steady—steady devious, maybe, but steady nonetheless.

As the 24th of February approached, Rahm’s re-election seemed increasingly in the bag. It looked as though, in the end, while most of the city hated Rahm’s guts, they weren’t willing to bet on one of the other candidates. Irritatingly enough, many people seem to prefer a potent prince to an impotent public servant.

Finally, two nights before Election Day, I was asked by a middle-aged Latina if Chuy was going to win. My face dropped as I shook my head, explaining how Rahm had shown himself to be a master at winning elections.

“Yeah,” she said. “Plus Latinos don’t vote.”

Yet, as fate would have it, my pessimism was shown to be misplaced. Because Rahm didn’t get the votes he needed to win outright yesterday, and now he and Chuy are headed for a runoff election on April 7.

Of course it’s exciting to think that we may be witnessing history should Chicago elect its first Latino mayor—and one born in Durango, at that. But we mustn’t fool ourselves into believing the city chose Chuy to run against Rahm, when in reality they simply chose somebody to run against the unpopular incumbent.

Not to mention that Rahm is still Rahm. He still has tens of millions of dollars in his war chest. He’s still friends with the president and the newly elected Republican governor. He still has plenty of friends among the city’s elite.

The cobra may be stunned, but it still has fangs.

That’s not to say García can’t win. In fact, he has a better chance of winning now than ever. No one running against Rahm expected to earn one vote more than 50 percent. Their only chance of besting the mayor was to force a runoff and either beat him one-on-one or stir up enough anti-Rahm sentiment to carry them into city hall.

The numbers show Rahm winning 45 percent of the vote to Chuy’s 34, with turnout close to its all-time low of 34 percent. Yesterday’s subzero wind chill didn’t help bring people to the polls, but I’m willing to presume there was still a lot of leftover apathy from the midterm elections.

Chuy can ride the anti-Rahm sentiment into the mayoral chair. But if he wants to win the city’s confidence, he must convince the voters to depose their prince and elect a person —one of them— who will govern in their interests. He must reawaken the old Harold Washington coalition of blacks, Latinos and white progressives. He must lead the way to a new era in Chicago politics, one committed to the working class and not the one percent, one committed to the neighborhoods and not the shiny downtown, one committed to the people and not merely profits.

“Today we, the people, have spoken,” Chuy told an ebullient crowd gathered at Alhambra Palace Restaurant. “Not the people with the money and the power and the connections. Not the giant corporations, the big-money special interests, the hedge funds and Hollywood celebrities who poured tens of millions of dollars into the mayor’s campaign. They all had their say. They’ve had their say for too long. But today, the rest of us had something to say.”

“We’ve got six weeks of hard work ahead of us and, believe me, these big-money interests are going to throw everything they got at us. They run this town, and they’re not gonna give up easy. But we’re gonna fight, and we’re gonna work hard, and we’re gonna win.”

It was a similar theme he addressed two weeks ago when NPR’s Maria Hinojosa asked Chuy about his chances.

Chuy believes he can win, and I for one am still willing to believe he’s right.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.