Major union endorses Chuy Garcia for mayor

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Jesus “Chuy” Garcia received a major boost Saturday in his bid to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as the powerful and big-spending Service Employees International Union’s State Council endorsed the challenger in the April 7 runoff election.

The union was divided in the first round of voting last month. While the SEIU Healthcare local has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Garcia, SEIU Local 1 — which represents janitors — had remained neutral and even disputed the validity of SEIU Healthcare’s support for Garcia.

But SEIU Local 1 officials began rethinking their position after Garcia won the right to face Emanuel in the runoff, and the State Council voted to back Garcia at a meeting Saturday morning.

“We think there is a clear contrast between Chuy Garcia and Rahm Emanuel,” Local 1 President Tom Balanoff told the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.

“Mayor Emanuel doesn’t understand that what made Chicago great was working people,” Balanoff said. “We think he has totally turned his back on that.”

He declined to say how much the union planned to contribute to Garcia. But labor sources said the vote Saturday could bring as much as $2 million to help counter Emanuel’s well-funded re-election campaign.

Garcia on Saturday said he was “excited” to learn that SEIU had backed him.

“It’s a major endorsement,” he said. “I think our message that addresses the plight of working Chicagoans is resonating throughout. I’m delighted that they are throwing in with us. I think they recognize this is a great opportunity for change. The city is not working for working people because the people in power get the breaks. Who better to help us make this case?”

He said SEIU officials had not yet told him exactly how much financial support they will give his campaign.

“We’re eager to find out what it will be,” Garcia said. “They have a lot of members and a lot of experience. It adds a lot of enthusiasm to our campaign.”

The challenger is scheduled to appear with union leaders at a news conference announcing the endorsement Sunday.

Emanuel had courted Balanoff’s support.

“Among membership, there was never support to endorse Rahm,” Balanoff said.

Asked about the SEIU endorsement, a spokesman for the Emanuel campaign alleged that Garcia has not yet revealed specific proposals to deal with the city’s deep financial problems.

“Now that SEIU is involved, perhaps they can share with Chicagoans the details of Garcia’s secret plan to tackle Chicago’s budget problem,” said spokesman Steve Mayberry.

The mayor has had the support of many trade unions, while Garcia’s main backers include the teachers union.

“Mayor Emanuel is very proud to have the support of dozens of labor organizations that represent tens of thousands of workers in every neighborhood across Chicago,” Mayberry said. “He has earned that support because he has been a champion of issues that matter most to working people, including raising the minimum wage and removing the job-killing head tax.”

Asked why his union had not backed Garcia in the primary, Balanoff said Local 1 officials began to reconsider their neutrality after the Feb. 24 primary, when Emanuel came up short of the majority needed to ensure a second term.

“We were surprised by how well Chuy did and how poorly Rahm did,” Balanoff said.

Under Balanoff’s leadership, SEIU has become one of the most powerful forces in local and state politics in the past 10 years.

The union has poured millions of dollars into the campaigns of President Barack Obama, former governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and many other Illinois politicians.

SEIU also has been the biggest contributor in City Council races in the last three Chicago elections. Beginning in 2007, the union has backed progressive candidates who have generally backed labor and have been among the more vocal critics of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Emanuel.

The most significant confrontation between SEIU and Emanuel came a couple years ago, when the administration signed a $100 million janitorial contract with a firm that replaced 400 union members at O’Hare Airport.

Balanoff acknowledged that the dispute factored into the endorsement of Garcia.

“When Rahm Emanuel came in, he went right after hard-working people,” Balanoff said of the O’Hare deal.

While Garcia now enjoys the support of SEIU Healthcare and Local 1, a third union local representing the greatest number of city workers has insisted on neutrality. SEIU Local 73 leaders have said it is against union rules for locals to independently endorse candidates.

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