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Garcia’s neighborhood legacy not as big as bio boasts

Before Tuesday afternoon, mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s campaign biography said he rapidly transformed a nonprofit community group in his working-class, Southwest Side neighborhood into a $5 million-a-year organization.

That exaggerated the impact of Garcia’s leadership of the Little Village Community Development Corp., the group now known as Enlace Chicago.

OPINION

At no point in Garcia’s 11 years as executive director did the group raise or spend anywhere near $5 million in a year, according to publicly available audits and federal tax returns filed by Enlace.

A few hours after I pointed out the discrepancy to Garcia’s campaign manager, Andrew Sharp, he readily acknowledged the error.

Almost instantly, the campaign deleted this sentence — “Within a year, the organization had 27 full-time employees, 120 part-time workers, and an annual budget of $5 million” — from its website.

In its place in Garcia’s bio now is a new assertion: “By the time he left, the organization had 27 full-time employees, 120 part-time workers, and an annual budget of $2.9 million.”

Sharp said the $2.1 million misstatement was made innocently, by a volunteer in Garcia’s effort to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the April 7 election.

Garcia’s time at Enlace (pronounced “en-LAH-say”) has been a key chapter in the outspent challenger’s campaign narrative of a neighborhood David taking on the downtown political and corporate elite’s Goliath.

The campaign has sought to contrast Emanuel’s highly lucrative interlude as an investment banker with Garcia’s time at the neighborhood group, a job that never paid him an annual salary of more than $78,750 to serve a violence-plagued, heavily immigrant community.

Garcia and his backers often cite his time at Enlace to counter the mayor’s criticism that he lacks the sort of executive experience needed to run a city with deep financial problems. Garcia is in his second term as a Cook County commissioner, and his only other elected offices were legislative posts too, in the City Council and in Springfield.

Garcia, who has lived in Little Village for decades, landed at the community group soon after losing his state Senate seat to a rival supported by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s machine in the 1998 Democratic primary.

He stayed with the organization until July 2009, leaving to resurrect his political career by running for the county board.

During his time with Enlace, the group relied largely on funding from a variety of sources, including the Chicago Public Schools, the state and the city as well as the Chicago Community Trust and the Local Initiatives Support Corp.

The money paid for programs such as “community learning centers” at schools and an event called “Healing the Hood,” at a site disputed by gangs. The highlight of Garcia’s tenure at Enlace was the successful push for a new high school in Little Village.

Now Enlace has a $4.7 million annual budget and more than 30 employees, officials with the group say.

But in 2007 and 2008 — the last two full years of his time as executive director — Enlace ran deficits totaling more than $470,000, public records show.

Garcia was traveling on the East Coast on Tuesday to raise funds for the mayoral race and could not be reached for comment, said Sharp, the campaign manager.

Enlace leaders, however, were eager to praise his leadership of the group.

“There were a couple of lean years, that is true,” said the organization’s board president, lawyer Maurice Sone.

Sone blamed the shortfalls on the recession that coincided with the final years of Garcia’s time at Enlace.

“I think he did a fantastic job,” Sone said. “He breathed life into the organization and pretty much built it up to what it has become — the premier community organization in Little Village.”

Garcia may have done well by his neighborhood. But cleaning up City Hall’s financial mess is far more complicated.