It’s not often that a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners is ground zero in Chicago mayoral politics.
But that was the case Wednesday as County Board President Toni Preckwinkle made her first public comments about possibly running for mayor, while her floor leader, Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, was emerging more clearly as someone who may be willing to challenge her.
As it turned out, Preckwinkle had little to say, other than that she’s “interested” in the job, which everyone already knew. Garcia had even less to say, avoiding reporters by ducking out of the County Board meeting early before later issuing a written statement about his plans to “take a closer look” at the mayor’s race.
Still, Garcia looked a whole lot more like a candidate than when the day started, thanks to his old ally, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who banged the drum forcefully for Garcia in the process of withdrawing his own name from consideration.
Clearing a path for Garcia in the mayor’s race won’t be quite as simple for Gutierrez as it was to anoint Garcia as his replacement in Congress. In addition to Preckwinkle, a possible campaign from state comptroller Susana Mendoza looms large as someone with whom he would be competing for some of the same support.
But Garcia was said to appreciate Gutierrez’s “draft” effort, even if it put more pressure on him to take on a difficult fight that wasn’t in his plans before Emanuel’s surprise decision not to seek a third term.
Like Gutierrez, Garcia has been viewed as a reluctant candidate, appreciating better than most the requirements of such a campaign.
There was a time when Preckwinkle and Garcia were also viewed as close allies, but sources say their relationship began souring four years ago, when Preckwinkle didn’t support him in his mayoral campaign against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not even when he forced Emanuel into a runoff.
In more recent years, Garcia and Preckwinkle have continued to part ways over local politics as Garcia has strengthened his ties within the city’s progressive political movement. Garcia provided key support to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and assessor candidate Fritz Kaegi, while Preckwinkle held fast to her alliance with the man Kaegi beat, former Assessor Joseph Berrios, whom she ultimately replaced as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Preckwinkle didn’t even support Alma Anaya, Garcia’s choice to replace him on the County Board.
Although Preckwinkle has a strong record on immigration issues, Garcia also has questioned her commitment to Latino political empowerment and to his own legislative initiatives.
Ironically, it was Preckwinkle’s decision four years ago not to run against Emanuel, followed by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis’ cancer diagnosis, that paved the way for Garcia to enter the mayor’s race, which elevated him to almost a cult hero status in progressive politics, despite his defeat.
If both Preckwinkle and Garcia become candidates this time, they would be on a collision course for some of the same voters, but also for the support from unions and other groups needed to mount a campaign.
Garcia had the backing of the city’s most left-leaning unions four years ago, including the teachers union, SEIU Healthcare — an investor in the group that owns the Sun-Times — and National Nurses United.
He would like to expand on that this time, but Preckwinkle and Mendoza are already ahead of him trying to line up commitments.
Preckwinkle’s experience managing the county would be viewed as a major advantage over Garcia, much as that was viewed as Garcia’s weakness in his matchup with Emanuel.
For her part, Preckwinkle tried Wednesday to avoid saying anything negative about her floor leader.
“We’re very grateful for the good work that he’s done in this body, particularly around criminal justice, affordable housing and advocating for working families,” she told reporters.
But she also said she and Garcia haven’t spoken about the mayor’s race, a sign of the strained state of their relationship.
Sources close to Garcia stressed Wednesday he hasn’t made a decision about whether to run, even as others say he’s sounding more and more like somebody who wants to do it.
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