Given these are two guys who’ve prided themselves on fighting the Chicago way of politics for decades, the sudden announcement in November that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez would retire and wanted to pass his seat in Congress to Jesus “Chuy” Garcia looked like a textbook machine move.
Days before the filing period for this year’s congressional election closed, Gutierrez let it be known he wouldn’t seek reelection and was blessing Garcia to assume his coveted seat.
There could have been plenty of competition in the 4th Congressional District. This was a chance to run in a Democratic primary for a seat open for the first time in a generation.
And the district is drawn so that its representative essentially wears the crown of Latino politics in the Chicago area.
Gutierrez is the only person to hold the seat since the district was redrawn to all but guarantee that a Hispanic is elected. In a quarter-century on the job, he never faced a serious challenge.
Gutierrez has used the position to become one of the nation’s most prominent voices for immigration reform, though he’s found little real success on that in Washington.
The announcement by Gutierrez clearly caught potential candidates off-guard, leaving them with barely enough time to gather the support to even file paperwork for a spot on the ballot, much less raise the money needed to wage a campaign.
In the March 20 primary, the 61-year-old Garcia — who has held positions at City Hall, in Springfield and in Cook County government — faces just two opponents: Sol Flores, who runs a nonprofit community group in Chicago, and police Sgt. Richard Gonzalez. Neither was well-known before deciding to run.
Garcia has broad recognition with voters thanks to his strong showing before succumbing to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a runoff in 2015. He had talked of again challenging Emanuel next year.
But Garcia says the switch in his ambitions was “a real natural process,” not a trick to deter potential rivals, and came after discussions with Gutierrez that the candidate says surprised even him.
He says he had no contact with Gutierrez for years, the result of a falling-out over the 2015 mayoral election. Shortly before he announced he would challenge Emanuel, Garcia says, he called Gutierrez to let him know and was told: “Good luck, but I gave my word a long time ago to Rahm.”
Garcia and Gutierrez had been allies for over 30 years, since Garcia worked in Mayor Harold Washington’s administration and Gutierrez was an alderman who backed Washington during the “Council Wars” era.
Gutierrez endorsed Emanuel, and Garcia says he and Gutierrez didn’t talk much for a long time after his defeat.
“I don’t remember one conversation over that three-year period,” Garcia says. “Never anything about politics. Never anything beyond, ‘How’s the family?’ ”
Garcia says Gutierrez asked last fall if he’d go to lunch with him. Garcia agreed, and they talked a couple of times after that. In one of those conversations, Garcia says Gutierrez became emotional and told him he was “seriously thinking” of retiring.
“I literally laughed at what he said,” says Garcia, recalling how Gutierrez said he would retire 10 years ago, prompting several high-profile Latino politicians to begin raising money to seek what they thought would be an open seat, only to have Gutierrez change his mind. “I was, like, ‘Come on, bro. You did this before. You’re going to change your mind.’ ”
Garcia says it wasn’t easy to give up hopes of another mayoral run and accept Gutierrez’s support for the congressional race. With the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Garcia says he can play a bigger role in the national progressive movement.
Born in Mexico, Garcia has lived in Chicago since 1965, first in Pilsen, now in Little Village. He says he would bring the perspective to Washington of an immigrant and a member of a “mixed-status family” — with some relatives who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and others who are undocumented.
“A voice like mine is important because I’ve been a pretty good American, I think,” he says. “The city and the country have embraced me. People who run for Congress have to be compelling.”
Flores, 44, also feels she has a highly compelling story. Born here to parents from Puerto Rico, she says her father was a heroin addict who died when she was young. She moved from Lincoln Park to Humboldt Park at 13.
“We were there when Lincoln Park looked very different,” Flores says. “We identify as Afro-Latino. We look black.”
She says her family was active in the “black-brown coalition” that supported Washington. At the time, she says she was a “very precocious kid” who had to explain her “Stop Fast Eddie” T-shirt to classmates.
Fifteen years ago, after working as a management consultant, Flores helped found La Casa Norte, a social-service group that’s broken ground on a $20 million facility at 3533 W. North Ave. that will include a community health center, a nutrition center and 25 affordable apartments.
When Gutierrez announced his retirement plans, Flores says she got calls from others in the nonprofit world who felt “a strong woman should run.” She has the endorsement of Emily’s List, a national group supporting women candidates.
In Congress, Flores says she would “do more of what I’m doing — busting my ass for young people and families.”
“I want to be an elected official who has been on the other side, who gets stuff done and understands how it will affect people on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
Though she never ran for elected office before, Flores has been a mayoral appointee to city boards for years under Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
But she says: “I didn’t call Rahm Emanuel and ask for his permission. I talked to my mom and my aunts. So when they ask me, ‘Who sent you?’ — it’s the women on whose shoulders I stand on. That’s who sent me.”
Like Flores, Gonzalez has roots in Puerto Rico and leads a nonprofit organization, the Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.
Gonzalez, 55, is the only one of the candidates left in the race who had filed to run even before Gutierrez’s retirement plans were made public. He has received backing from state Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Northwest Side Democrat who has feuded with Gutierrez over the fate of Puerto Rico. Arroyo said Gonzalez shared his view that the tropical island U.S. commonwealth should be granted statehood.
In 2011, Gonzalez finished a distant third in a run for 41st Ward alderman with less than 10 percent of the vote.
But he says he will spring a “major upset” in the primary, saying he would be more effective than Gutierrez on immigration reform and at bringing more federal dollars to the district.
He says he had spent three hours with Garcia, asking for his backing to run against Gutierrez, just a day before the congressman announced his retirement plans and endorsement of Garcia.
Garcia “gave me absolutely no indication he was running for that office” then, Gonzalez says.
Three aldermen also had filed to run for the 4th Congressional District seat, but all ultimately dropped out.
Garcia knows he’s seen as something of an incumbent because of the Gutierrez endorsement and because he’s “been around for a long time,” with experience as a state representative and as a Cook County commissioner the past eight years.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Garcia says, “but you don’t know what is going to happen in these times until election day. There’s an anti-incumbent mood.”
Garcia calls Flores “high-energy,” calling her work at La Casa Norte “good stuff.”
Flores criticizes the way Gutierrez anointed Garcia as his preferred successor.
“It was definitely an old-school move,” Flores says. “People want and expect more than that. Voters want more choice, more candidates.”
She echoes Garcia in praising Gutierrez’s record in Congress, particularly his support for immigrants.
Still, she says, “While he did a good job, he doesn’t get to choose who my next congressman is.”