Can Latinos and African Americans take back City Hall?
Black and Latino voters are natural allies. At least, back in 1983, they were when they coalesced with progressive whites to elect Harold Washington Chicago’s first black mayor. At the height of Council Wars, Washington helped two Latino political activists — Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Luis Gutierrez — win special aldermanic elections that gave Washington control of the Chicago City Council.
Then Washington died in office. His historic electoral coalition perished with him.
Every mayoral election since resurrects rhetoric about getting the band back together, but successive mayors have skillfully deployed a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Now, thanks to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, Me-Too and Donald J. Trump, progressive aspirations are rising.
Blacks and Latinos comprise 67 percent of Chicago’s population. They could elect a progressive mayor who would vanquish our tale of two cities, insure economic and racial justice, and shift resources from downtown to the neighborhoods.
For the first time, Chicago has two accomplished, viable and progressive contenders. Only one can win. Therein lies the promise and peril.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia are burning up the phone lines and lining up chits. Both are seriously exploring a run.
Before she was elevated to the county board, Preckwinkle, an African American, was a longtime 4th Ward alderman based in Hyde Park. She has close ties to the labor movement and has focused on progressive policies, such as workforce diversity, criminal justice reform and access to affordable health care.
Unlike most black elected officials, Preckwinkle has pursued cross-racial alliances. She tapped Garcia as her county board floor leader. And to great political risk, she forged a tight bond with Joe Berrios, a Puerto Rican and controversial Cook County assessor who lost his seat amid charges he presided over massive inequities in the tax assessment system.
Garcia, a Mexican-American immigrant, has been a vocal proponent of black/Latino alliances since he was elected 22nd Ward alderman in the Washington era. As alderman, and later as a state senator and county commissioner, he worked with African-American allies on education equity, community safety and economic development.
Garcia, another union ally, campaigned hard for Sanders for president. Sanders returned the favor in 2015 when Garcia ran for mayor, forcing Emanuel into a runoff. Garcia lost the general election by 11 points.
The fault lines are clear.
Chicago is a long way from 1983. For many voters, Harold Washington is a faded historical figure. Africans American have lost significant population, while Latinos are gaining political ground.
In 2016, Census figures show, the proportion of Chicago’s population that is Latino surpassed the portion that is African Americans for the first time.
Garcia’s 2015 mayoral bid received only a lackluster response from black politicians, activists and voters. Latinos noticed.
When Garcia stepped up to take on Emanuel, Preckwinkle declined to endorse her floor leader. “We will remember,” a close Garcia ally told me back then.
Behind the scenes, supporters for Preckwinkle and Garcia grouse that the other side is not fully committed to their causes.
Some whisper that “blacks had their turn” at the mayor’s office. Latinos want theirs.
Progressives and their leaders must check the egos and recriminations, and coalesce around one candidate.
Or they’re in for another round of divide and conquer.
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