Garcia says Lightfoot faces toughest re-election challenge of any mayor in 40 years

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said the incumbent mayor faces really long odds, but he all but ruled himself out as a possible challenger.

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Jesús ‘Chuy’ García, 4th Congressional District Democratic nominee and incumbent, 2020 election candidate questionnaire

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, shown at a 2018 campaign rally.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lori Lightfoot faces the toughest re-election battle of any Chicago mayor in the last 40 years, U.S. Rep. Jesus Garcia said Wednesday, even as he all but ruled himself out as a potential challenger.

In 2015, the mustachioed politician fondly known as “Chuy” stepped up to challenge incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel after his longtime friend, then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, was forced to abandon her mayoral ambitions after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Garcia’s charismatic and energetic mayoral campaign — including “Chuy” signs decorated with the candidate’s signature mustache — forced Emanuel into Chicago’s first-ever mayoral run-off. Emanuel survived — with 56% of the vote — but only after out-spending Garcia nearly four-to-one.

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Now that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken a pass on next year’s mayoral election, the field is wide open for other candidates to step up.

At least some of the behind-the-scenes speculation has focused on Garcia, particularly now that Latinos have bypassed Blacks as Chicago’s second-largest ethnic group in the 2020 U.S. Census.

During a telephone interview from Washington on Wednesday, Garcia was asked if he’s giving any thought to another mayoral campaign, particularly if his Democratic Party loses control of the House of Representatives in the November election.

“I am not thinking about that whatsoever and I surely haven’t talked with my wife about it. I’ve got to think that she’d be very reluctant for us to do it, and we do everything together. It’s not on my radar right now. … I treasure that [2015] run. But I was a little younger” then, Garcia said.

“If somebody could show me where there’s a significant pot of gold … to usher in a real era of equity in Chicago, that would be really moving and convincing to me. I don’t see that on the horizon right now. The challenges are just so huge for Chicago. … The job is a huge bear and it will continue to be challenging and torturous on a daily basis, especially as [federal] funding dissipates and goes away. It will make it excruciatingly difficult to govern and provide good news to Chicagoans.”

Duncan took a pass — even after his own polling showed Lightfoot was eminently beatable — because he didn’t have the fire in the belly to pursue elective office and abandon the crime-fighting organization he loves.

Like recent polls done for other politicians, Duncan’s poll showed Lightfoot’s approval rating in the 30% range — roughly 10 percentage points lower than Emanuel’s ratings when he abandoned plans to seek a third term.

Garcia wholeheartedly agreed with those polls. In fact, he gave even longer odds to what he called Lightfoot’s “very steep climb” to re-election.

“As I look back over the past 35, 40 years, she’s got the steepest climb of any incumbent as she seeks re-election,” he said.

“The pandemic, the calls for racial and social justice and greater equity have made things very, very difficult. With fiscal challenges. With huge social challenges. The frustration that people are feeling trying to come out of the pandemic. And, of course, the violence that we’re seeing across the city.”

Garcia said the “perfect storm” Lightfoot faces is, in part, of her own making. She has alienated even her closest City Council allies, as evidenced by this week’s break with Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th).

“Along with the perfect storm comes the factor of relationships and ability to create allies,” he said.

“Though she carried all of the 50 wards, it was tough to point to a base of support that would be there through thick and thin. It’s especially challenging for her right now, not having that.”

If he is so convinced Lightfoot is beatable, Garcia was asked to identify a mayoral candidate he could support.

“It’s too early to say where I will be. We have not had those conversations,” he said.

Garcia recalled his old friend Harold Washington, then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, was a reluctant candidate for mayor in 1983 and agreed to enter the race only after his would-be supporters blew past seemingly insurmountable voter registration and fundraising benchmarks he had set.

“I’ve come to see why,” Washington may have been reluctant, Garcia said.

“The issues that we deal with here are vast. They affect neighborhoods. They affect the world. We’re dealing with the foreign policy challenge now of war and peace. The last three years — no one predicted what would happen. The experience here has been exhilarating — much more than I ever imagined,” he added.

“I am completely focused on my work here in Congress. … I’m focused on getting something done in the immigration field. We really haven’t produced much. There are great expectations in the community. I’m really focused on that.”

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