Can progressive politicians pull in the same direction?

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Cook County Clerk David Orr, left, and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia | Sun-Times photos

“Progressive” is the most popular buzzword in big-city Democratic politics in these times when a socialist came close to winning the party’s nomination for president.

And Chicago’s left-leaning activists could be as good at resisting the right-winger in the White House as anybody in the country.

Often, though, it looks like progressives ain’t ready to join together and play power politics.

A prime example is Cook County Clerk David Orr’s announcement that he would not run again after completing his term next year.


For many months, the word among progressives was that Orr would step down in the middle of his term, clearing the way for County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to replace him and get a jump on the 2018 election. Orr had supported Garcia’s mayoral challenge from the left in 2015, which forced Rahm Emanuel into an embarrassing runoff election.

In the end, Orr gave Garcia little notice when he was finally ready to make his big announcement Wednesday, on the eve of the county Democratic Party’s slate-making session. Meanwhile, the very un-progressive county recorder of deeds, Karen Yarbrough, has maneuvered into pole position for the job-rich clerk’s office.

Looking at her office’s history of patronage hiring allegations, it’s safe to say Yarbrough is no progressive. As vice chair of the state Democratic Party, she’s very close to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

In the wake of this mess, one left-leaning Chicago politician grumbled that uniting his fellow progressives was as difficult as herding blind cats with no sense of smell.

“A blind cat can at least smell its way to its food,” the progressive pol said.

But Garcia says he doesn’t want to be clerk after all and may place a much bigger and more important target — the mayor’s office — in his sights again.

“It doesn’t make my blood circulate thinking what kind of clerk I could be,” Garcia told me Friday.

He confirms that he had discussions with Orr beginning about a year ago in which the clerk told him “he might resign early.”

As it turned out, Garcia said, he got a call from Orr informing him of his announcement only the night before the clerk publicly revealed he would complete his term and then call it quits.

“David’s announcement came up pretty suddenly,” Garcia said.

After thinking about the clerk’s job for a couple days, Garcia said, “It doesn’t move my spirit.”

Comments by Garcia’s current boss, county Board President Toni Preckwinkle, foreshadowed his pivot.

“Chuy Garcia is the floor leader of mine,” Preckwinkle said on WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight” on Thursday. “I hold him in very high regard. I’m not sure what he’s going to decide to do. I’ve heard rumors he has other interests as well.”

“Like running for mayor?” asked the interviewer, Paris Schutz.

“He has other interests as well,” Preckwinkle repeated, circumspect as ever.

Garcia laughed when I read that line back to him.

“That’s classic Toni,” he said.

But Garcia didn’t hesitate to say, “I’ve been seriously looking at taking another run [at the mayor’s office] in 2019.”

How would a 2019 effort succeed where the last run came up short?

“Many who didn’t support me have expressed buyer’s remorse,” Garcia said. “There’s a lot of remorse, particularly in the African-American community.”

Pointing to violent crime and to the bleak financial outlook of city government and Chicago Public Schools, Garcia said, “I think the city is not better off than we were two years ago.”

Still, he would not commit to running for mayor because, he said, it would be the toughest task facing any mayor in 35 years.

“The challenges for somebody seeking to move the city in a different direction are very serious,” Garcia said.

And before he could try to herd the whole city onto a new path, he would have to find a way to get Chicago’s progressives to move in the same direction.

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