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Chuy Garcia’s brand goes national

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia | Rich Hein/Sun-Times


His campaign ended a year ago, but Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is still running.

“So you’re becoming a national political celebrity,” I remarked over coffee Wednesday.

He laughed. “It’s funny. You know, I thought that, after the mayoral campaign, things would kind of settle down and I would begin engaging in on-the-ground relationships. … But with the [Bernie] Sanders campaign, it feels like the campaign didn’t end last year.”

Garcia forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a hotly contested runoff last year, arguing the mayor was failing Chicago’s neighborhoods by favoring downtown. It catapulted him to hero status among progressives around the nation.

OPINION

Garcia lost the April 7, 2015, election by 11 points, but the “Chuy” brand has gone national.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned for Garcia. Now, the presidential insurgent is deploying the Cook County commissioner as a campaign surrogate. Focusing on Latino and union voters, Garcia has campaigned for Sanders in Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Arizona. Garcia was in Milwaukee on the run up to Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, and plans to travel to New York City, to push “the Bern” in the Bronx.

“It’s been a gas,” Garcia says.

The mayoral loss was a disappointment in his lifelong campaign to build multiracial coalitions at the grassroots, Garcia acknowledged. But the March 15 Illinois primary was a new turn.

Sanders late surge in Illinois fell short by 2 points, but he won the Latino wards, Garcia noted. “I helped him carry the Latino vote in the metro area,” he said, including suburbs with significant Latino populations, Elgin, Joliet and Aurora.

Garcia played a big role in the multiracial coalition behind Theresa Mah, who won the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Illinois Legislative District, setting her up to become the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

“I think we’ve seen the political terrain shift some more,” he said. “We elected first Asian American to the house in my neck of the woods. She won the 11th Ward, without the committeeman or alderman’s support. She won the 12th Ward, she came within 2 points of winning the 25th Ward. … That’s pretty huge.”

A year after his mayoral bid, the state of the city is another story. “We’re worse off than I imagined, fiscally,” he said. “The state budget impasse has only aggravated conditions in the city, especially for poor people.”

The release of the Laquan McDonald video and high crime rates have “deepened the real crisis of confidence in the city.” And “it’s pretty clear that the neighborhoods continue to suffer, because there hasn’t been a plan to really invest in the neighborhoods.”

“So, are you saying, ‘I told you so?’ ”

Emanuel has adopted many of his campaign ideas, Garcia replied, from TIF reform, to LGBT health care, to economic development in the neighborhoods.

“Policy wise, [I’m] batting close to a thousand from a year ago, in terms of the platform that I offered while running for mayor.”

Next up to bat: On April 12, Garcia’s 60th birthday, he will convene a hearing on his proposal to create a Commission on Social Innovation, that “will help shape a role the county plays in economic development,” he said.

“Unless we begin to do something about economic development on the South Side and the West Side, the violence is just going to continue unabated.”

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