Former ‘right-hand man’ to progressive pols, Garcia ready to take the reins
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In a local political career that’s spanned more than three decades, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has been a close ally of a mayor only briefly, during Harold Washington’s administration.
But years later it took the full force of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political machine to hand Garcia his only defeat at the polls.
By opposing the University of Illinois-Chicago’s expansion plans, Garcia became a target of Daley’s anger before Garcia’s 1998 run for re-election as a state senator from the Southwest Side.
Daley deployed what was the biggest cog in his machine — the patronage armies of the Hispanic Democratic Organization — to work for Garcia’s Democratic primary challenger, Tony Munoz.
“I was HDO’s first major trophy,” Garcia says.
Garcia stayed in the Little Village neighborhood, where he’s lived since he was 13, and finally began his second act in politics four years ago. Taking advantage of HDO’s demise in a corruption scandal, he won a Cook County Board seat in the 2010 election and now is Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader.
Now, Garcia says he’s ready to become the ultimate local political insider.
He’s running in the Feb. 24 election as the standard-bearer for the Chicago Teachers Union and others who accuse Mayor Rahm Emanuel of embracing the rich at the expense of regular folks.
While light on formal policy plans so far, Garcia’s late-starting mayoral campaign has sought to create a narrative that he’s the classic neighborhood guy who can help the rest of the city to thrive as much as its gleaming downtown.
Garcia readily admits he’s Plan C for the left-leaning segment of the local political scene he long has identified with.
“I hounded her to run,” he says of Preckwinkle. “I thought she could win handily.”
Garcia then helped CTU President Karen Lewis’ exploratory committee. When she withdrew from the race after being diagnosed with brain cancer, Lewis asked Garcia to take on Emanuel.
“He has been progressive since his college days, and he has never stopped being progressive,” says his longtime ally and alderman, Ricardo Munoz. “He’s lived the Chicago life. He’s able to build coalitions, not rule for the oligarchs by being a dictator.”
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Born in 1956 in a village in the northern Mexican state of Durango, Garcia moved to Pilsen at age 9. His father worked in Chicago and sent money home to Garcia’s mother before bringing the family north to join him.
As an immigrant boy, he says, “I was Jesse for a while.” He soon reverted to Jesus (or Chuy, the common Mexican nickname for Jesus) because his given name was “more Latino, more Mexican.”
“There is a history of cultural repression of Mexicans in the U.S.,” Garcia says. “To say you should assimilate says, ‘Accept things how they are, blend in.’ I reject that and want to work to make this place better.”
His teenage years coincided with the heyday for both activism and Democratic machine politics in Chicago.
“I’m sort of fortunate to have grown up in the ’60s in Pilsen, to witness the social movements of those times,” he says, citing the United Farm Workers, Black Panthers, anti-war movement and liberation theology among his influences.
After Garcia graduated from St. Rita High School and the University of Illinois at Chicago, he became politically active in Little Village, the working-class area where Mexican immigrant families were supplanting eastern Europeans.
The liberal optimism of the era clashed in the 22nd Ward with the machine’s man, an alderman named Frank Stembark, best known for once offering a $1-a-rat bounty and a Çhicago Sun-Times expose of his principal residence being in the suburbs.
Garcia’s first big role was managing labor organizer Rudy Lozano’s narrow defeat of Stembark in 1983. Lozano was murdered months later. A gang member was convicted of Lozano’s murder, but his family said the authorities did not pursue leads that could have led to antagonists of his political and labor activism.
At 27, Garcia became the leader of the ward’s political rebellion.
“He was my best friend, he was my compadre,” Garcia says of Lozano, who was godfather of one of his children. “Obviously, that’s a huge turning point in my life. It meant taking up the mantle, becoming a candidate. I didn’t feel the ambition. I was very comfortable being the right-hand man.”
In the 1984 race for 22nd Ward Democratic committeeman, Garcia beat Stembark by 59 votes out of nearly 7,000. Washington campaigned for Garcia, who became “the first independent Hispanic to be elected committeeman,” according to the classic 1988 book “Chicago Politics Ward by Ward.”
Two years later, after working in a high-level water department job for Washington, Garcia was elected alderman and, in 1993, he began the first of two terms as the first Mexican-American state senator.
Asked to name his biggest accomplishments as an alderman or state legislator, Garcia doesn’t describe any legislation that he sponsored. Instead, he says he is proudest of changing the political culture in a community where the Chicago way was much like what people expected from old-country politicians.
In other words, Garcia says, he had to spurn a lot of bribe offers.
“You have to explain you are insulted and they should never do it again, because it’s wrong,” he says.
But he didn’t turn down all the spoils of power. State records show Garcia gave a legislative scholarship to a state university to the daughter of close allies, and he voted to preserve the program, which was eventually dismantled because of rampant political favoritism.
Garcia says he had set up a committee to fairly select recipients of the scholarships, which were highly valued in his low-income district.
Having toppled the old Democratic machine’s vestiges in his ward, Garcia saw the rise of a new group that was organized to help Daley enforce loyalty from Latino elected officials. His March 1998 primary loss to an HDO candidate who had been plucked from obscurity shocked him.
HDO members lured by the promise of jobs and promotions at City Hall flooded into Garcia’s district, knocking on doors and offering city services in exchange for support.
Garcia alleges that the HDO members also accused him of “helping African-Americans too much.”
“I didn’t think they had as many people as they wound up having,” Garcia says. “I was pretty shocked. I thought people’s political consciousness was at a higher level. I didn’t know they could be that gullible to a loud rap on the door.”
During his 12-year exile from elected office, he founded a non-profit community development group in his neighborhood, chaired the Woods Fund of Chicago, agitated successfully for a new high school for Little Village, got a master’s degree in urban planning and worked for about a year for Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration.
He won re-election to his County Board seat unopposed last year and had little money in his campaign fund when Lewis asked him to run for mayor.
Garcia’s mayoral bid is relying heavily on the CTU and a couple of other unions for funding. He has only a fraction of Emanuel’s record-breaking war chest but more external support than any of the other three challengers.
Campaign help also has come from Cook County Clerk David Orr, an old ally from Washington’s coalition of blacks, Hispanics and liberal whites.
Lewis says she recruited Garcia to replace her because he “was the only person I know who was successful at building multi-racial coalitions.”
“I always thought Chuy was a gentleman,” Lewis says. “There is a kindness and compassion he has I don’t see around most politicians.”
Although Garcia opposes virtually every possible revenue-generating idea for the cash-strapped city, including a property tax hike or a new casino, he says a graduated income tax for the state is “a political imperative.”
Garcia has promised more police officers. Yet, when asked how he would pay for them, he is vague, saying, “The economy is improving. . . . There are some efficiencies to be had.”
Much of his campaign rhetoric centers on his modest lifestyle. Garcia drives a 10-year-old Dodge van. He and his wife, Evelyn, raised two sons and a foster daughter in a brick English Tudor home they still live in, next to a Catholic church and across from a boarded-up home with gang graffiti.
In the Garcia home’s basement, on the mantle above the fireplace, are photos of Lozano and Mexican revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Probably the most valuable item in the house is a painting by Pilsen’s Marcos Raya that Garcia bought for $500 long ago.
Evelyn Chinea Garcia was a CTU member when she was a teacher’s aide at CPS. She says she and her husband never gave Christmas or birthday gifts to their kids because she wanted their focus to be on the moments and meals they shared with family.
They are not “presumidos” (conceited), she says. “We didn’t grow up with material things. For us, it’s not important.”
Chuy Garcia says he nevertheless sees himself as an embodiment of the American dream.
“I represent the immigrant aspirational success story, but in a different way,” he says. “I did not amass property, money, material things. But it did mean getting an education and going against the grain on some of Chicago’s bad traditions, like racism and corruption.”