Chuy’s in: Garcia makes another run for mayor of Chicago
“Folks know me,” the 66-year-old Garcia told the Sun-Times. “They know what I’ve done.” In 2015, Garcia, now a Democratic congressman, forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into Chicago’s first mayoral runoff election.
Portraying himself as the “coalition builder” Chicago needs, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.) joined the crowded race for mayor on Thursday, determined to defeat the incumbent, Lori Lightfoot, with or without his lifelong allies in the Chicago Teachers Union.
Unwilling to wait for Garcia to make up his mind, the CTU has endorsed one of its own: Cook County Commissioner and CTU organizer Brandon Johnson.
Johnson has insisted he won’t drop out to make way for Garcia. Nor is the CTU willing to reconsider its endorsement of Johnson with Garcia in the race. Garcia forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a 2015 runoff with the CTU’s help.
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During a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Garcia said he would love to unite the progressive movement he has championed for a lifetime — but is prepared to go it alone if it’s too late for that in the first round of balloting. He’s confident he can force Lightfoot into a runoff and that the progressive family will reunite behind him then.
“Folks know me. … They know what I’ve done. I know we will eventually get their support. I’m the only guy left from the Harold Washington coalition. ... No one in Chicago politics today has been involved in fighting the old corrupt and racist and sexist Chicago machine [longer] than myself,” the 66-year-old Garcia said.
“I’m certain our movement will come together. We have a shared set of values. ... I’m not concerned about the future,” he added.
“But unions have a process. Some have decided before seeing the field. I’m seeking their support, and I’m expecting to be able to announce in the near future the support of labor, the support of small contributors, the support of other significant contributors as well. I will have the resources to run an impactful, effective and winning campaign.”
Garcia officially kicked off his campaign at Navy Pier Thursday morning, flanked by supporters during his speech and greeting supporters and taking selfies with them afterward.
Four years ago, Garcia gave Lightfoot a pivotal runoff endorsement that helped propel her to a landslide victory over County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Mayoral challenger Willie Wilson did likewise and has called that endorsement a “helluva mistake.”
Garcia knows the feeling.
“I gave Lori Lightfoot a chance to deliver on promises she made as it relates to reform, and she has not delivered,” Garcia said.
Like Johnson, Garcia cited Lightfoot’s broken promises to reopen mental health clinics, resurrect the Department of Environment and raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales to create a dedicated source of funding to reduce homelessness and ease Chicago’s affordable housing crisis.
He also noted that Lightfoot promised an elected Chicago Public Schools board, only to fight it tooth and nail and have a 21-member board she has called “unwieldy” foisted upon her by state lawmakers.
But Garcia’s predominant complaint against Lightfoot is her combativeness and her inability to get along with people.
Even retiring Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), one of the mayor’s closest City Council allies, once said she had “never met anybody who has managed to p--- off every single person they come in contact with. Police, fire, teachers, aldermen, business, manufacturing.”
Lightfoot’s “style of governing … has been confrontational. She’s caused unnecessary conflict. She has called people out in public instead of having difficult conversations in her office or behind the scenes, where all of these things are not exposed. People are tired of the conflict and the bickering and the fighting that they think is representative of her style of government,” Garcia said.
“Instead of that combative, unnecessary conflict that she causes, we need someone who is going to be a collaborator. ... I’ve had a lot of empathy for her during the pandemic because no one could have predicted how tough it would be. However, as I look at Chicago today, it’s very clear that new leadership is necessary.”
With violent crime foremost on the minds of Chicago voters, Garcia joined the chorus of mayoral challengers vowing to fire Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown and replace him with an insider who can regain the confidence of a demoralized rank-and-file and craft a strategy for reducing violent crime that does not rely on excessive overtime and canceled days off.
“We have the largest department, per capita, in the country, yet we’re not producing the results that we want. We still have an exceedingly high unsolved homicide clearance rate. People are afraid to go to school, to go to work, to send their children out for a walk in the neighborhood. That has to change,” Garcia said.
Pressed on how he would stop the mass exodus of police officers, Garcia talked about accelerating alternate response programs.
“Being a police officer is a tough job. We need to reduce the scope of their primary responsibility. If you see someone robbing your neighbor’s house, you should call the police and expect them to come. If your neighbors are arguing, there should be other resources. Domestic violence, mental health problems, household disputes … should be handled by non-sworn personnel,” he said.
In all, 10 challengers now are seeking to send Lightfoot into political retirement. But his background could help him stand out as a candidate uniquely qualified to bring home the bacon for Chicago when the avalanche of federal stimulus funds run out.
He is the only candidate to have served at four levels of government: the City Council, the Illinois Senate, the Cook County Board and Congress.
During the 2015 mayoral campaign, Garcia’s failure to articulate a plan to solve Chicago’s looming pension crisis may well have cost him the runoff election.
He appeared out of his element, almost like a deer caught in the headlights. Emanuel made mincemeat of that performance in a devastating commercial that warned voters not to roll the dice on someone who could not solve or understand the perilous state of city finances.
Garcia argued Wednesday he’s changed since then. He has a far better understanding of budget and finance after deliberately choosing congressional committees focused on business and finance, he said.
“This isn’t 2015. ... I’ve grown significantly. Most importantly, I’ve delivered in Congress. ... Putting my relationships to work for the wellness of the city, I’m coming home to be an effective leader and a good steward of Chicago,” he said.
To prove how much he has learned, Garcia argued city spending (up $6 billion) and borrowing (up $3 billion) has ballooned under Lightfoot.
“Almost half of the budget goes to debt and pensions. And when you factor in the $2 billion for police, it’s over 60 percent of all of the budget. It’s almost two-thirds of that amount. What is her plan for dealing with this?” he said.
Garcia built his reputation as a political kingmaker, in part by forging a partnership with now-indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
He makes no apologies for that alliance, saying his “good friend,” former CTU President Karen Lewis, asked him to endorse Madigan to help fight former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign to make Illinois a right-to-work state and block an increase in the minimum wage.
“She asked me to endorse Mike Madigan. Why? Because she had a challenger from the right supported by Bruce Rauner, and we saw that threat as something that was real. That’s why I endorsed him.”
Garcia said he has already talked to several veteran members of a City Council in transition who feel strongly “they should have more say-so” in the next term.
“I’ve told them that, having been a member of the Council, I understand the reality,” he said. “We’re going to have real dialogue. This isn’t about personalities. This isn’t about ego trips. This is about making sure that we take the next important strategic steps for Chicago to build a Chicago that’s good for all.”