U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez on Wednesday kicked off a drive to draft Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to run for Chicago mayor, deciding not to run after mulling his own bid.

Gutierrez’s public push for Garcia — whom he tapped to replace him as congressman — prompted Garcia to say, in a statement, he will “take a closer look at the Mayor’s race.” Garcia pushed Rahm Emanuel into a runoff four years ago before losing the mayoral race.

At a news conference in Chicago, Gutierrez, D-Ill., said, “I assure you that Chuy is going to circulate petitions to put his name on the ballot, or I will. I intend to do everything I can to make sure that he is a candidate.”

Gutierrez said he’ll help form a exploratory committee for Garcia and begin getting signatures to put Garcia on the ballot as soon as this weekend.

“And if Chuy doesn’t have them ready by this weekend, I will print them myself,” Gutierrez said.

In pushing Garcia to run, Gutierrez is attempting to use his heavy influence to narrow the swelling field of candidates considering jumping into the race.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the non-partisan election in February, the top two contenders vault to an April runoff.  With a large number of names on the ballot, the top two candidates in the first election could advance with a relatively small percentage of the vote.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez at a news conference Wednesday. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Preckwinkle circulating mayoral petitions

Among those eyeing the race is Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Gutierrez’s announcement came during the County Board’s Wednesday meeting.  Garcia was not present for that meeting, though he did go in and out of the board’s morning committee meetings.

At a news conference after the meeting, Preckwinkle refused to say if she’s in or out — even though she has petitions circulating and has met with unions to shore up support for a potential bid.

“You’ve heard over the past few days from my political director that I’m interested, and I’ll leave it at that for now,” Preckwinkle said.

She also wouldn’t comment on Garcia — her floor leader — potentially joining the race.

“We’re very grateful for the work he’s done for this body,” she said.

Garcia’s other colleagues had more to say. His seat mate, Commissioner Richard Boykin, said Garcia has “the right temperament, the right kind of experience and, having sat next to him, he’s a true progressive.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is considering running for mayor. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who withdrew her name from the list of those considering a mayoral run in July, said he was qualified and “a tremendous colleague.”

Should either Preckwinkle or Garcia decide to run, labor support could be crucial to the race.

Preckwinkle, thus far, has received a tepid response from labor unions, a source told the Sun-Times.

When he ran against Rahm Emanuel in 2015, Garcia garnered labor endorsements that helped buoy him into the April runoff.

Last April, Preckwinkle became chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, the first female and first African American to hold that post.

She is running for re-election to the board in November and has the luxury of focusing on a potential mayoral bid because she faces no Republican opponent.

Gery Chico, Susana Mendoza still in the mix

Gery Chico also garnered plenty of union support in his 2011 bid for the city’s highest office. And Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, too, could also pull in major union support. Mendoza last week would not confirm she’s weighing a run, although sources said she’s making calls to secure donors.

After announcing that he’s considering a bid last week, Chico — a former CPS chief — has gotten supporters to commit to donating more than $1.4 million, according to a source close to the campaign.

News of Garcia potentially entering the race didn’t bother Chico. He’s continuing to put the pieces into place to mount a well-resourced campaign.

“Whoever ends up being on the ballot doesn’t concern me,” Chico told the Sun-Times. “I remain confident that at such a serious time for the city of Chicago, voters will want a mayor who has the ideas and depth of experience to tackle the job starting day one.”

Will Garcia jump in?

Although Garcia forced Emanuel into a runoff, he lost the general election in April with Emanuel winning 56.2 percent to 43.8 percent.

Garcia is poised to replace Gutierrez in Congress after he won the March primary. Since the Fourth Congressional District is heavily Democrat, his November election is a near certainty.

Sources close to Garcia said his wife Evelyn’s health is always a concern for him in deciding whether to take another political plunge. She suffers from multiple sclerosis.

But there are political factors as well.

Even Gutierrez noted that Garcia did not have enough financial help in his runoff election to defeat Emanuel. Will he get that now? Or will the multitude of mayoral candidates shift the flow of contributions?

Garcia and Preckwinkle have little to lose since each faces an easy November election, and neither has to give up an elected position to run for mayor.

In a plurality contest, a candidate starting out with an established political base has an enormous advantage.

Clem Balanoff, a Garcia political advisor who has talked to the county commissioner about a potential mayoral run, told the Sun-Times that Garcia would be able to build a coalition from multiple bases: labor, Latinos and progressives.

“You’d have to look towards the Bernie crowd,” Balanoff said. Garcia was a leader in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in Illinois in 2016 and went on to campaign nationally for him as a surrogate.

While others will likely run as political progressives, Garcia’s progressive “roots are longer and deeper and his level of commitment more pure. You’d have to look to the Harold Washington people. He is the only one with the Harold Washington legacy,” Balanoff said.

In a statement, Garcia said, “As I take a closer look at the Mayor’s race I will continue to dialogue with Chicagoans from across our great city to talk about solutions that will both unify us and improve everyone’s quality of life.

“While we have great challenges ahead of us we also have an opportunity to bring peace to a city that has been too much at war with itself. And, I look forward to forging that peace together.”

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