Music blared from a maraca-shaking Latin band as a circle of women danced late into Tuesday night.
In the background a giant mustache was projected onto a screen like some kind of bat signal as signs reading “Chuy” abounded. The smell of ethnic food filled the air as disco-like lights shone on a crowd that stayed long after their candidate left the room.
This didn’t look or feel like the post-election party for the losing side of Chicago’s mayoral contest.
It was a celebration of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who launched his candidacy just months earlier, yet quickly built deep loyalty among supporters across Chicago.
What became clear after Tuesday night was that Garcia wouldn’t disappear from the limelight.
“That’s because it was a victory. It was a victory for opening up the conversation about Chicago’s neighborhoods,” said one of Garcia’s biggest boosters, Ald. Rick Munoz (22nd). Garcia captured 80 percent of Munoz’s predominantly Latino ward.
Garcia won 44 percent of the vote, according to unofficial numbers, falling short of ousting incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who garnered 55 percent. Still, Garcia fared far better than the polls had predicted, and in the meantime energized Latinos citywide, if not across the country.
“There’s a moment here that has created something. . . . I think we can still take advantage of that energy,” said April Verrett, vice president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana. “I think we will see Chuy be able to play a role in national politics, and I think that’s an amazing thing.”
Verrett and others who were part of the United Working Families coalition, a partnership of unions and grass-roots organizations, said there’s a larger stage, possibly on a national scale, that awaits Garcia.
For now, Garcia remains a Cook County commissioner who has acted as President Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader.
But Verrett also talked about the possibility of a speaking role for Garcia at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in 2016 to discuss a jobs program. “I think we still have to do that,” she said.
After making history by forcing Emanuel into Chicago’s first runoff election, Garcia raised more than $4 million in six weeks — including from groups in Los Angeles and New York City.
“What this election has done is continue to reinforce across the country is the rise of the Latino political power base,” Verrett said. “We saw folks from all over the country paying attention to this race. Not just because it was the race for the mayor of Chicago but that it was a viable Latino candidate, Mexican-born, who could become mayor of the third-largest city in this country. I saw Latinos within our organization, across the city, super energized. I think we’ve seen it in election cycle after election cycle where their power base is growing.”
The energy was evident on Tuesday night after Garcia had conceded and addressed supporters at the UIC Forum.
“To all the little boys and girls watching, we didn’t lose today. We tried today,” Garcia said to cheers. “We fought hard for what we believed in. You don’t succeed at this or anything unless you try. So, keep trying. Keep standing up for yourself and what you believe in, and one day, one of you will be standing here, where I am tonight.”
As he attempted to leave the auditorium, crowds swarmed Garcia, holding out signs for autographs, snapping photos and shouting out to him in English and Spanish. Garcia was able to dominate the Latino vote in Chicago, but could not win African-American wards that went to Emanuel.
Still, progressives say the discussion stemming from Garcia’s campaign and moving to the aldermanic races has changed the City Council moving forward and weakens Emanuel.
“The fact that . . . this campaign came as close as it did to toppling a candidate as well-connected to power and wealth as Rahm Emanuel, that is really a sign of strength,” said Jon Green, deputy director of Working Families Party. “The fact that progressive aldermen were re-elected and the Progressive Caucus on the council will grow is a sign of growth and momentum of this movement. The fact that this is happening in Chicago merits a little bit of comment — vibrant, participatory Democracy and Chicago are not typically used in the same sentence.”