Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is, by his own admission, “Plan C.”
When two better known contenders decided against taking on Rahm Emanuel and his $15 million war chest in the Chicago mayor’s race, it fell to Garcia, a Mexican born Cook County commissioner to carry the mantle for liberals upset with the current administration in City Hall.
And despite getting into the race late and raising only $1.4 million, Garcia forced Emanuel into the first mayoral run-off in Chicago history. But he’s more than a potential giant slayer: He now stands as the champion of a progressive movement looking for direction heading into the 2016 presidential campaign season.
“We denied Mayor One Percent a re-election bid in his first round,” Garcia said in an interview between campaign stops in a recent interview. “A newly elected mayor will put Chicago on a new course that will put the big monied interests of the corporations and the hedge fund managers out of business as far as their continued role in moving the city towards privatization and disinvestment in Chicago neighborhoods.”
Emanuel has never been a favorite of liberals dating back to his time as a congressman, leader of the House Democratic campaign arm and chief of staff in the Obama White House. As mayor, he angered many Chicago progressives in his first term by shutting down public schools, which set off a rancorous citywide teachers strike, and, in the eyes of many, favoring downtown business interests over long-neglected neighborhoods.
“Rahm is not a neighborhood guy. He is not really a Chicagoan,” Garcia said. “He came here because he wanted to run for Congress, and different parts of the Chicago machine elected him to Congress. He was an insider… when they got tired of him at the White House they sent him off to Chicago and crowned him mayor, but now the voters are rejecting that.”
Chicago-area political analysts had Garcia – a longtime leader in the Latino community - on the short list of potential contenders to be the city’s first Latin mayor.
But as the Chicago mayoral campaign got underway, it was beginning to look as if his moment had passed him by.
In 2014, Garcia, 58, was not among the handful of candidates lining up for what was destined to be a tough race.
Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County board on which Garcia has served since 2011, opened up a big lead in the polls against Emanuel.
When she decided not to run that summer, hopes fell on Karen Lewis, who as head of the city’s teacher union had outflanked Emanuel during the strike of 2012.
But she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the fall and dropped out too, and so the city’s restive liberals looked to Garcia.
He has a history of standing up against powerful interests.
Garcia got his start in politics working in the administration of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, and in 1984 ran for alderman against a machine-backed incumbent.
He defeated him and tipped the balance of power in the City Council in favor of Washington’s agenda.
From there, Garcia ran for the State Senate.
He won again, but angered many in his heavily Latin district by voting in favor of more liberalized abortion laws, and clashed with Mayor Richard Daley. When a candidate backed by the Daley machine defeated him in 1998 and so Garcia returned to his neighborhood in the southwestern corner of the city. He got a degree in urban planning and built a community development corporation that now has a $5 million budget used to build schools and housing in the neighborhood. In 2010, he returned to politics, beating another Daley-backed incumbent to win his seat on the Cook County commission.
Throughout his career, Garcia has faced suspicions that he is at least a half step further to the left than even most progressives. His first City Council opponent said that Garcia is “100 percent Communist, if not 110 percent.” Garcia denied it, but the charge has followed him throughout his career, in part because of his associations, and because some Communist news outlets have praised his work. At the CPUSA’s 2010 convention, his victory in the race for Cook County Commission was cited in a report about Mexican-American equality.
But that association hasn’t caused Garcia to shy away from an aggressive form of liberalism.
If Emanuel wins, “the specter of continued privatization in the public schools, additional charter schools, class sizes are likely to increase for children. Could there be more school closings?”
And he doubts that Emanuel will stand up to newly elected Illinois Republican governor Bruce Rauner.
“They hang out together in Montana at this exclusive wine club. That is who would be governing not just Chicago but the state of Illinois. Sure, one comes from the Democratic Party, one comes from the Republican Party, but the common ground they have is you know who they cater to—the big money special interests.”
When Garcia gave a fiery election night speech, dancing alongside his wife and in front of a multi-racial, and multi-generation tableau of Chicagoans, it showed a side of him that many observers had not seen.
“When you are talking about people that are colorful representatives of the city of Chicago, Chuy is not on that list,” said Thom Serafin, a longtime Chicago political consultant. “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.”
Don Rose, another Chicago political consultant, prepped Garcia for debates and media appearances in this campaign, and said “he was so laid-back you couldn’t even believe he a candidate.”
“I know I sound like I am writing one of his commercials, but he is really one of the sweetest guys you will ever meet.”
Garcia’s plan, if elected is to focus more on city neighborhoods, and less on downtown. “The central business district is thriving, and its going to continue to thrive.” He wants to add more cops, develop a restorative justice program for some offenders, and end “the charter school mania.”
“This is a rejection of the politics where the wealthy own City Hall and its run for special interests, for well-connected corporations and hedge fund managers.”
If Garcia is going to win, he has to overcome not just Emanuel’s deep war chest and well-connected backers, but the President of the United States, who is campaigning on his former staffer’s behalf.
But many Chuy-backers sounded like they were already turning against Obama, even though many have supported him since his days in the state legislature.
“I think the president loves the black community here for what they did for him politically, but if you are supporting Rahm Emanuel you do not have our best interest at heart,” said Delmarie Cobb, a political activist and strategist.
Asked if Obama’s backing of Emanuel would hurt him, Garcia laughed out loud.
“Rahm should have been elected already if the visit could have an impact. People understand who the stakeholders are, and this is the message they sent. People voted for changed and that is what we ran on and that is we are going to win.”