Interview: Chuy García, Next Mayor of Chicago

The phone interview was scheduled for 7:30 am on a Friday, and my phone rings on the dot. “Good morning,” says the voice on the other end, in a distinctly Little Village Chicagoan accent, “this is Chuy García.” Later he comments on how early in the day our conversation is taking place. “Ya estoy bebiendo mi café,” I say, “so I’m good.” He laughs politely and tells me he’s already drank a cup.

Jesús García — who goes by “Chuy,” and who has a good chance of becoming the next mayor of Chicago — is apparently also a morning person.

His early-rising must be one key to what makes the 58-year-old a living legend in Chicago politics. He’s the city’s civic version of Forrest Gump: the man’s done it all, seen it all, and met them all. Since working as campaign manager for another Chicago icon, Rudy Lozano, García has been elected committeeman and alderman (in the 22nd ward), state senator (in the 1st district), and Cook County commissioner (in the 7th district); he’s been a strong ally of one administration and done battle with two others; he’s partly to blame for the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, and for the fairer treatment of poor citizens and immigrants alike across the Chicago area; he’s been appointed deputy commissioner in the city’s water department, as well as held the position of either president, executive director or chairman in a handful of community organizations; and his record of public service is known intimately by activists, businesspeople, alderpersons, state legislators and governors, members of Congress, and even the sitting president of the United States himself, with whom García has crossed paths innumerable times over the past two decades. Now García’s hoping he can serve the city in another capacity: as mayor.

Interestingly enough, however, this isn’t the first time there’s been buzz about García possibly becoming the next mayor of Chicago. In the late Nineties his supporters and colleagues were prodding the then-state senator to run for City Hall, recognizing García’s potential to be the late Mayor Washington reincarnate. Ultimately, even an independent firebrand like García was reluctant to directly take on the political machine. “You know, people bring it up and you kind of egg ’em on because you want them to continue to be optimistic about the future and you want them to continue to give of themselves to their neighborhood,” García said in 1998. “You can’t tell ’em all, ‘No, I’d never consider that because it’s so hard, Daley’s so strong, you have to raise a lot of money.’ I mean, you basically tell ’em to crawl in a hole and die.”

“I’m the best candidate to make a Chicago that works for everyone.”

So what makes this mayoral election different than any other? It seems García may have been awaiting the decisions of two women: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Preckwinkle, whom García serves as floor leader on the county board, announced her decision not to run back in July, saying she had unfinished business as county board president. From that moment on all eyes were on Lewis, who’s been riding a wave of populist support after her public skirmishes with Mayor Rahm over teachers’ rights and last year’s 50 school closings. (Lewis has dubbed Rahm the “murder mayor” for his handling of the city’s soaring murder rate, flagging public housing, crumbling education system, and top-heavy economy; not to be outdone, the mayor once cursed her out during a heated argument in his office.) But when it became known that a brain tumor would keep Lewis from running, it left an opening on the ballot for an independent, progressive candidate with street cred. Someone who has spent their career throwing stones at the political establishment; someone with a proven record of standing with Chicago’s working class and people of every background; someone who doesn’t want to be mayor just so he can someday run for president. Someone like Chuy García.

Still, given his credentials, I wondered why García had waited till now to run for mayor. “Chicago has become a world-class city,” he tells me, “and we deserve better leadership than the current administration.” The short declaration prefaces a lengthy pitch, one which gives me the impression that this seasoned politician is well-versed at presenting the breadth of his platform in under two minutes: “I think we’re at a turning point: we can either continue down the current path of becoming a Chicago that only works for a select few, or we can become a Chicago that works for all of its people, and all of its neighborhoods. I believe that I’m the best candidate to make a Chicago that works for everyone…”

I listen quietly as he delivers his spiel about his decades of experience, about the relationships he’s built with members of the community, about the current issues facing the city, and about what he’d do as mayor to improve those issues — all with the lumbering gusto of a circus elephant performing a trick for the 3,784th time. The man is clearly in campaign mode, but who could blame him? He’s running for mayor against an incumbent with $10 million in his war chest and friends with deep pockets. He’s given a ton of interviews during the last four weeks, with two tons more expected in the coming weeks. It’s before eight o’clock on a grey Friday morning in December, and here he is speaking to the most underrated writer from the most underrated magazine in the most underrated city. I can hardly bear promoting myself to someone, much less having to do it over and over again — and first thing in the morning, too.

Compared to the current mayor and his predecessor, who already carried hefty names by the time they decided to run for mayor of Chicago, most Chicagoans had probably never heard of García before he threw his name into the 2015 mayoral race. Voters of my generation are too young to remember his early glory during the Eighties and Nineties, before he was forced out of office by Chicago’s notorious Democratic machine nearly 17 years ago. Any mention of García’s position on the Cook County Board of Commissioners is unlikely to earn him an avalanche of approving nods — something he readily admits to during our conversation: “The county board doesn’t get much attention,” he titters. It’s just the kind of governing body whose work gets routinely overshadowed and forgotten in city like Chicago, despite the fact that it’s in charge of a range of policies for the second largest county in the United States.

Any lack of name recognition García suffers is no fault of his. García’s fingerprints on city politics date back at least 30 years, having been a major actor in the shaping of what it means to be an independent progressive in Chicago’s post-Washington era. What’s more, not only has García been an agent of change in post-Washington Chicago, he was also part of the multiracial, citywide coalition that helped Washington win City Hall in 1983. It was during the election that García worked as campaign manager for Rudy Lozano, who was hoping to be alderman of the 22nd ward and become the first Mexican American elected to the City Council. García and Lozano had helped found the 22nd Ward Independent Precinct Organization, which formed alliances with the West Side’s black community to support black and Latino candidates in the 1982 state elections. In 1983 Lozano ran against machine-backed incumbent Frank Stemberk; Harold Washington, a U.S. congressman at the time, faced the incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and a young state’s attorney by the name of Richard M. Daley in the Democratic primary. Though they’d lose to Stemberk by just 17 votes, the Lozano campaign encouraged Latinos across the city to vote for Washington, who beat Byrne and Daley, and then went on to defeat a Republican opponent backed by the Democratic establishment in the general election.

Washington took his seat as mayor of Chicago in April 1983. In June, Lozano was shot dead in his kitchen by a gang member. Daley, the state’s attorney who had just run (and lost) against Washington, never provided a motive for Lozano’s killing, leading many to believe it may have been retaliation for Lozano’s activism and politics. Their promising young leader dead and buried, the 22nd Ward IPO tapped García as their new captain.

“The priority comes from the top, but the participation comes from the bottom.”

Most of his mainstream biographies place the genesis of Chuy García’s political career here, as Lozano’s campaign manager and subsequent successor. Yet that a man born in the Mexican state of Durango in 1956, and whose family came to Chicago when he was 10 years old, would see his political life begin as campaign manager for a superstar like Rudy Lozano seems much too overnight celebrity to me. After all, García was only 27 when Lozano was murdered. Surely he’d been politically active before that. “We formed a student group at my high school, St. Rita,” García says when I ask him how he got into politics. “It was to help students with their studies — me in math.” García’s voice perks up as he shares more about the organization, as if reliving the feisty zeal of his youth. Though its founders were Latino, the group welcomed all of their fellow classmates at St. Rita, regardless of race or ethnic background. Later García would be part of a campaign against the numerous health and safety violations at a local theater in Little Village, demonstrating early on the community-based approach that would define his political career.

“The priority comes from the top, but the participation comes from the bottom,” he tells me. He’s referring specifically to the need for community policing, which he sees as a means for establishing a deeper relationship between police officers and neighborhood residents “based on trust and respect” — though a reprioritization in City Hall, coupled with increased community engagement, pretty much sums up García’s prescription for local government. He believes the already sizzling tensions between police officers and many communities are due to a “lack of communication, trust, and engagement.”

When I press him for a concrete plan to ensure senseless deaths like Michael Brown’s in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s in Staten Island don’t happen here in Chicago, García points to a surprising exemplar: former Mayor Richard M. Daley. “The concept of community policing was there, but it didn’t go far enough, it didn’t go deep enough,” he says. The “it” is the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy — known as CAPS — Daley’s signature community policing program. Launched in 1994, CAPS sought to bring together police officers, community members and city officials to proactively address public safety issues instead of merely reacting to them. But instead of fulfilling its mission, García explains, “it fizzled.” He acknowledges that the program showed promising results in some neighborhoods; in others, however, CAPS became a forum for old folks to complain about minor nuisances. Today, CAPS lies dormant, awaiting fresh ideas and renewed commitment.

One such idea is the theory of restorative justice García advocates. It focuses on healing both the personal and communal damage inflicted by criminal acts, calling together all parties — victims, offenders and members of the community — to agree on proper resolution, which may or may not involve restitution, community service, or even a simple apology. Admittedly, the theory sounds like a load of hippy-dippy nonsense; still, given the failure of our current criminal justice system to tackle crime effectively and humanely, restorative justice may offer a better alternative. The residents of Little Village, Back of the Yards and North Lawndale seem to think so: they already have restorative justice centers up and running.

Back in 1984 García was elected committeeman in the 22nd ward, replacing Frank Stemberk, the man whom Lozano had challenged the year before. For his support, Mayor Washington made García deputy commissioner in the city’s water department, a position that came with a fancy title and a $50,000 salary. He remained a strong ally of the late mayor’s during the infamous Council Wars of the mid-Eighties, an ugly period of Chicago history in which the establishment-controlled City Council blocked every reform proposed by Washington and his supporters — a situation which might sound vaguely familiar to more than a few readers. (Privately, García isn’t anticipating a second Council Wars should he become mayor, maintaining that Chicago politics have evolved since the 1980s, making city government more open these days.)

The redrawing of ward boundaries following the 1980 census had carved up black and Latino communities, ensuring a white, pro-establishment majority in the City Council. While whites, blacks and Latinos made up 40 percent, another 40 percent, and 15 percent of the city’s population, respectively, 33 white men sat on the City Council, but only 16 blacks and one Latino. (The one Latino was Miguel Santiago of the 31st ward, who sided against Mayor Washington.) Washington’s team sued the city in federal court for what it claimed was racist gerrymandering. In December 1985 a federal judge agreed, ordering seven wards be redrawn to better reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the city. Special elections in those wards were scheduled for March 18. One of the seven wards was the 22nd, where García was committeeman. He decided (or was pushed) to run.

Curiously, incumbent Alderman Stemberk chose not to contest his council seat after his ward was redrawn to represent its large Latino population. (Stemberk was also catching hell after he let slip that, though his mother and he were registered to vote at a place on West 31st Street, his wife and kids lived in a Riverside home.) Instead García main opponent was Guadalupe Martinez, a supermarket owner and pawn of the Democratic establishment, and during the campaign she accused García of being “100 percent communist.” García won 55 percent of the vote, and he became alderman of the 22nd ward just a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

The March elections left Mayor Washington’s opponents with a two-vote lead on the City Council; but no candidate had earned more than 50 percent of the vote in two of the wards in which pro-Washington candidates competed. Runoff elections were held on April 29 in the two wards — the heavily Latino 26th ward, and the mostly black 15th ward. The two pro-Washington candidates won, resulting in a 25-25 split on the council between Washington’s allies and the Democratic machine. On such occasions, the law grants the mayor the tie-breaking vote: the Council Wars had ended. (The name of the pro-Washington candidate who won the runoff election in the 26th ward that year is Luis Gutiérrez.)

Photo: Jesus "Chuy" Garcia for Chicago Facebook page
Photo: Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for Chicago Facebook page

Only a few months in office, García backed a move to pass Chicago’s first human rights ordinance, which would’ve banned discrimination in areas such as housing, employment and education on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion, age and other groupings. His position on the issue was especially precarious in a ward like García’s, which was predominantly Catholic. When the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, came out strongly against the measure, García reluctantly withdrew his earlier promise to vote for the bill, though he later offered to join gay rights groups in putting pressure on the church leader. García eventually voted for the ordinance when it passed two years later, and he remained a firm voice for equal rights long after giving up his council seat in 1993 to become the first Mexican American to the join the Illinois Senate.

“Creating charters just for the sake of having another tier of schools in Chicago … hasn’t really enhanced public education.”

During his two terms as a state legislator, García also carried on the fight for education reform he’d begun on the City Council. As he tells me over the phone, García’s work as 22nd ward alderman led to the building of more schools in Little Village to address overcrowding. He voted for Governor Jim Edgar’s bill to provide Chicago schools with $130 million in additional funds, as well as legislation to increase funding for daycare and after-school programs. I ask him if, as mayor, he plans to reopen any one of the 50 schools Mayor Emanuel closed in 2013. “I have a long history of being an education advocate that goes back a long time,” he insists. “It includes my vote against, uh” — he laughs — “the so-called ‘reform bill’ that gave us the unelected school board … That started the whole chartermania that’s occurred in Chicago: creating charters just for the sake of having another tier of schools in Chicago that hasn’t really enhanced public education.” After leaving Springfield, he would head a community organization that pressured Chicago Public Schools to build a new campus for Little Village Lawndale High School.

Despite being perhaps the most popular Latino politician in the state, García lost the 1998 Democratic primary to a machine-backed candidate, Antonio Munoz, who has held García’s old state senate seat ever since. The Democratic establishment — via its Latino cadre, the now defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization — had set its sights on eliminating the ever-independent García. Miguel del Valle, who served alongside García in the Illinois Senate and would eventually become city clerk before losing his own bid for mayor in 2011, explained in 1998 how the machine had gone after his colleague: “What people don’t realize is that there’s this roving band of City Hall Latino patronage workers who will go wherever they are assigned. This last time around they were assigned to concentrate … on defeating Senator García.” (The sheer ugliness of that primary was detailed exquisitely by Linda Lutton for the Chicago Reader later that year.) García, for his part blamed himself for abandoning the strategy that had won him elections early on. “We took our eye off of the formula that’s enabled us to get elected against great odds, to get reelected, and then to expand,” he told the Reader, “and that was framing the election as a fight between the neighborhood versus power brokers who want control — the machine. That’s how we first get elected, that’s how we get reelected, and this last time that wasn’t the message that we had out there. As a matter of fact, the message was pretty vague.”

“That requires putting neighborhoods first, especially ‘cause they haven’t been first for some time, in terms of the city’s priorities.”

Finding himself out of elected office for the first time in 15 years, García stayed committed to public service, becoming the first executive director of the Little Village Community Development Corporation — now known as Enlace Chicago — which advocates a grassroots approach to community development. He also served as founding president of the Latino Policy Forum and as a fellow at DePaul University, as well as teaching political science and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2010 he was named board chair of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an organization championing Chicago’s working-class community — and whose past board chairs include a Mr. Obama and a Mr. Ayers.

The day before our interview, I read an article published by In These Times whose headlined asked: “Is Gentrification Inevitable?” I thought it as good a question as any to pose to someone running for mayor of Chicago, so I ask García what he thinks. “I think if we make Chicago’s neighborhoods more livable,” he begins, “healthier, more diverse — you know, to break with the patterns of segregation that have existed in Chicago — we will have neighborhoods, good neighborhoods, all over the city. I think that’s what’s key in terms of having housing opportunities all over the city. Unless you do that — and that requires putting neighborhoods first, especially ‘cause they haven’t been first for some time, in terms of the city’s priorities — you’ll have this phenomenon of gentrification.” Here again, García’s all about a “priorities at the top, participation at the bottom” approach to solving the city’s problems.

Truthfully, my question was meant to be provocative. García’s whole career — his work on the City Council, his time in the state senate, and especially his work as a private citizen and most recently as Cook County commissioner — proves he’s a champion of fairer housing opportunities for historically neglected sections of the city. In 2013 the commissioner spearheaded the passage of an ordinance amendment that protected people with choice vouchers — commonly known as “Section 8” — from housing discrimination. At the time García called it “a great day in the history of Cook County Government,” saying that “after many years and a long battle we have done away with one of the legal methods of discrimination in our county. It means that people down on their luck, trying to provide the best for their families, can have the same access to safe, decent, affordable housing as anyone else. We are talking about veterans, the disabled, single-parent heads of households, senior citizens.” Returning to the issue of gentrification, García discusses the “need to reduce displacement” by working with community members to revitalize the commercial strips in their neighborhoods.

“Congress has to act to make [Obama’s executive action] permanent, so that there’s a path for residency and citizenship.”

García made his triumphant return to public office in 2010 by defeating yet another machine-backed incumbent in yet another primary to become Cook County commissioner. (This time his opponent was Joseph Moreno, who is currently serving 11 years in federal prison for bribery.) Though he’s quick to tell you how his role on the county board is generally low-key, the policies he and the board have enacted over the past four years have improved the lives of countless local residents.

One such policy change came in 2011, when the county passed an ordinance refusing to detain immigrants wanted by the federal government. Being a Mexican immigrant himself, I ask García what he thinks about President Obama’s recent executive action to further apply prosecutorial discretion in deportations, a move expected to affect close to 5 million undocumented immigrants. “This is good,” he says, “but it’s incomplete. It brings temporary relief for these individuals and families, and Congress has to act to make it permanent, so that there’s a path for residency and citizenship. That hasn’t happened. It also excludes more than half of the population of undocumented immigrants who will continue to live in the shadows, continue to be subject to exploitation in their employment, and continue to be deported.”

In 2013 García was awarded the Premio Ohtli by the Mexican government, its highest honor recognizing the work of men and women who serve the global Mexican community. 

I mention to him that Chicago’s elected only two foreign-born mayors: Joseph Medill in 1871, and Anton Cermak in 1931. Given the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years — and much of it anti-Mexican — does he think his Mexican birthplace might be an issue in this election? “No,” he sighs. “Chicago’s a city of immigrants, and ethnic groups.”

“I have no doubt that Mayor Emanuel cannot achieve the level of votes that got him into office four years ago.”

García assures me he’s talked with people from all walks of life in every corner of the city and they all tell him the same thing: Rahm doesn’t have the votes to win outright like he did in 2011. Chicago elections aren’t your average winner-takes-all, wherein the person with the most votes wins. Instead, should Mayor Emanuel fail to receive more than 50 percent of the vote, then he’ll face the runner-up in a runoff election on April 7. “That means a vote for any candidate other than Mayor Rahm is essentially a vote for a runoff,” writes the always dead-on Ben Joravsky over at the Reader. Last I saw, eight aspiring men are taking on Rahm in 2015, which should be enough to keep Rahm under 50 percent in the first round. (A 31-year-old West Side wunderkind had been running all year, but she dropped out to endorse another candidate.) At the moment it looks like García will be the guy to face Rahm in a runoff election. He’s already been endorsed by Karen Lewis and Cook County Clerk (and mayor for a week in 1987) David Orr, with plenty more surely headed his way. And in a head-to-head with such an unpopular mayor, an independent progressive with a long career in city politics just might breeze into City Hall, no matter how many millions the incumbent tries to bury him under.

Artwork by Andrew Bashi
Artwork by Andrew Bashi

“I sense there’s a great dissatisfaction with the direction the city was put on, especially in the past four years,” García explains. “I have no doubt that Mayor Emanuel cannot achieve the level of votes that got him into office four years ago.”

There’s plenty more I’d like to discuss with him: I want him to talk about his boyhood in Mexico and about the recent events there; I want to ask him about bringing together the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the North Side and the Mexican neighborhoods of the South Side, and about building a wider, multiracial coalition in general, like the one he was a part of back in the Eighties; and I’d like to know how he plans to overcome the level of voter apathy — specifically among young people and Latinos — that resulted in crushing defeats for the Democrats during the recent midterm elections. But unfortunately my half-hour with the man is up. The man has other interviews, other people to pitch to. He’s the next mayor of Chicago, after all.

Before I thank him for speaking with me, I ask him one last question: is Chicago ready for its first Latino mayor?

“Hmm,” he starts. “I think it’s ready for change.”

[All images courtesy of: Jesus ‘Chuy” Garcia for Chicago]

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