Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia Runs for Chicago Mayor Inspired by Harold Washington’s Legacy
Chicago mayoral candidate Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who got his start in politics with the assistance and support of the late Mayor Harold Washington, sees a good omen in the ballot draw for the February 28 mayoral election.
“I’m just delighted and feel some major backup in the fact that I was awarded with the Punch 9 ballot position,” laughs Garcia – the same ballot position that Washington drew in his history-making 1987 mayoral race.
Since 2019, Garcia, 66, has represented the Fourth Congressional District of Illinois in the House of Representatives. But his political roots go back to Mayor Washington and his battle for equal representation for black and Hispanic residents of Chicago.
“We went to federal court for relief, and we prevailed,” says Garcia. “It brought about a new ward map because the old map was found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”
With Washington’s backing, Garcia was elected 22nd Ward committeeman in 1984, and in a special election under the new ward map, elected 22nd Ward alderman in 1986. In subsequent years, Garcia served as state senator and Cook County commissioner before unsuccessfully running for Chicago mayor in 2015. He also has experience in the non-profit sector, having founded both the Little Village Community Development Corporation, now known as Enlace, and a Latino political action committee, the Latino Action Research Network.
“I’ve learned in my years in county government, and my four years in Congress, a whole lot about budgets, infrastructure, and economic development,” says Garcia. “With my local history here in the nonprofit sector, as well as in philanthropy and in various levels of government, I'm in a position to be the best steward of resources for Chicago in these challenging times.”
Garcia sees three major issues confronting Chicago: public safety, business development, and neighborhood development. “The public safety challenge sort of permeates the other two,” he says. “Unless we address people feeling unsafe, and that’s across neighborhoods and of course downtown as well, it’s hard to think about getting Chicago’s economic engines churning, which is the second biggest challenge. And the third would be neighborhood development, which includes everything from improving schools to providing mental health services.”
Regarding crime, “Chicagoans don’t feel safe and it’s hurting our city,” says Garcia. “ I don’t think Mayor Lightfoot has risen to the occasion. I don’t think she’s managed the police department and there’s been a tremendous lack of leadership on the superintendent’s part. She’s pointing fingers and hurling insults and says anyone who disagrees that things aren’t better is a hater.”
Garcia says his plan would create a modernized, fully staffed police department that engages in “real community policing and comprehensive violence interruption efforts.”
He calls the "federal consent decree" the roadmap to making that happen, creating a police force providing both greater safety and justice.
“For those who suggested I copied her plan … why would I want to copy failure?” Garcia asks. “My plan is based on my knowledge of Chicago neighborhoods, the public safety challenges, and my work in violence prevention. In my work with Enlate, previously known as Little Village Community Development Corporation, we made schools the center of the community while we brought down the level of gang violence as well. That informs where I’m coming from on public safety.”
Garcia says it’s critical to revive economic activity in Chicago’s Loop “because when it’s churning, especially when Rahm Emanuel was mayor,” economic benefits flow for everyone. But during Garcia’s 2015 mayoral run, he hammered Emanuel for focusing on downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods.
"I made the case that there was a tale of two cities,” says Garcia. “That’s why I’m saying to rebuild Chicago, equity has to be at the core of rebuilding. It means that economic activity at the city center can generate resources and capital; and the growth of green manufacturing and high tech businesses can be what generates economic opportunities for the neighborhoods. I think there’s an unprecedented disposition on the part of the larger business community to make development happen in the neighborhoods.
"They know that if we don’t change the patterns of development in the neighborhoods and make them more holistic then the potential of civil unrest will remain in Chicago. If you have a large number of unemployed black and brown young people, that means we are not developing equitably.”
Garcia says that goodwill exists among business leaders to accelerate the production of affordable housing on the South and West sides, linking housing development with schools, health care, and retail amenities. “That’s what I call comprehensive community development. Those are signs that people will see that we are progressing, that something new is happening in Chicago,” he says.
Garcia says not-for-profit developers like United Power and Lawndale Christian Development Corporation are ready to ramp up construction of affordable housing but City Hall has to be “a more able partner and not a bureaucratic obstacle.”
Regarding schools, Garcia says the next mayor is going to have to face the reality of downsizing the system. “We have to be honest about the reality that we’ve lost a whole lot of Chicago Public School students. It’s an extension of the shrinking of Chicago, especially the exodus of black families from Chicago to the suburbs or other cities because of violence and the lack of job opportunities. Chicago has also shrunk because you don’t have the levels of migration you had previously from Mexico and Central America. There’s a point of enrollment in schools where it becomes very challenging to sustain a school. That means we’re going to have to have some really challenging conversations with parents and residents in those areas about what to do.”
Garcia says Mayor Emanuel made the mistake of letting enrollment statistics drive the process when he closed 50 elementary schools, instead of engaging in a dialogue with the affected communities. “We have to engage in those tough conversations while at the same time look at alternatives like adaptation of schools into community centers. But there has to be intense engagement with those residents, with those communities, so they don’t feel abandoned.”
Mayor Lightfoot has criticized Garcia for accepting a $2,900 campaign contribution from disgraced crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried. Garcia’s campaign returned the personal contribution from the former FTX chairman, who is accused of misusing investors’ funds. But a PAC bankrolled by Bankman-Fried also contributed $200,000 to Garcia’s campaign, money the campaign hasn’t given back.
In addition, Lightfoot has portrayed Garcia as a crony of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is under federal indictment on racketeering charges. Garcia insists he fought Chicago’s political machine for decades but admits he came to Madigan’s aid when he was under assault from former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“My endorsement of Mike Madigan came when he was facing a shadow candidate put up by Rauner. I felt the Speaker was holding down the fight to protect workers in Illinois, protect unions, and that’s why I endorsed him for re-election as state representative. Rauner was trying to make Illinois a right-to-work state and several progressive labor leaders asked me to do it,” says Garcia.
Some observers have suggested that Madigan and Garcia reached a “rapprochement” of sorts on the Southwest Side as the Hispanic population surged in onetime white ethnic wards, with Madigan backing Garcia’s allies for seats in the General Assembly.
Garcia has close ties to organized labor, particularly to the Chicago Teachers Union, which was the major financial backer of his 2015 mayoral campaign. But in this year’s mayoral race, the CTU endorsed Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson for mayor, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who now works for CTU as a union organizer.
Garcia said this year, the CTU wanted to get out of the gate early but he couldn’t commit until the November elections were over. “I was clear that I wouldn’t jeopardize making a commitment to run if the House was in play. I told them that I wasn’t ruling out a run and I was inclined to run but they decided to do what they did,” says Garcia.
Johnson’s run on a tax-the-rich progressive platform stands to split the progressive vote in the mayoral race. But with a chuckle Garcia reminds voters, “I’ve been a progressive before it was popular to be a progressive. I’ve held progressive values over a 40-year period of concrete things that I’ve strived for.”
To that end, Garcia’s proposed a property tax plan to grant relief to low-income property owners who’ve been hammered by property reassessments in gentrifying neighborhoods.
“The proposal I rolled out is an example of the type of response Chicago should have had ready to go when it became clear last summer that the assessments would be going up, especially in areas like Pilsen and other areas that got walloped,” said Garcia. “At the same time we’ve seen a pattern of increasing delinquencies in low income neighborhoods like East Garfield Park and Englewood, where taxpayers whose bills didn’t go up are still seeing very high delinquency rates.”
For low-income communities, Garcia’s proposed a Neighborhood Preservation Grant of $250 for middle and working class homeowners living in buildings of six units or less. A second proposal is called the Taxpayers Assessment Protection Program, which provides a grant of $500 for middle-class owners of residential properties whether they live in them or rent them out. A third proposal is the Business Assessment Protection grant of $1,500 for buildings that have a first floor storefront with residential units above. “Those are some of the buildings that got hit the hardest,” says Garcia. “The city needs to be thinking of those folks if we are going to preserve small business and keep longtime residents in their neighborhoods.”
With nine candidates on the mayoral ballot, if no single candidate wins a majority the top two vote getters advance to an April 4 runoff. Recent polls show Lightfoot, Garcia, and Vallas in a dead heat, each with around 20 percent of the vote, and another 20 percent of voters undecided. Not surprisingly, Garcia had harsh assessments of his two main adversaries.
“I endorsed Mayor Lightfoot and I was very empathetic during the pandemic. But we’ve seen she’s not collaborative, she has a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude about doing things that’s not good for Chicago,” says Garcia. “On the other hand, Paul Vallas has a pretty bad record. He got run out of Chicago after denying the Little Village-Lawndale community funding for a new school. It provoked a 19-day hunger strike but we prevailed. Because he admits in his own words he identifies more as a Republican, that makes him an even bigger threat to Chicago.”
Garcia says he continues to be inspired by his mentor, Harold Washington, as he pursues his quest to occupy the same 5th-floor office at City Hall that Washington won in his ground-breaking mayoral campaign. “I’m a product of that transformative experience in the early 80s. Those values that gave black and brown communities this empowering experience, 1983 through 1987, have continued to inspire me and move me to action. Whether in local politics, state government or federal government. The values are timeless and the struggle for good government and good politics continues to this day.”
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