Can Chuy Garcia build a new Harold Washington coalition?

James Carlton, a volunteer for the Jesus "Chuy" Garcia campaign, works to get out the vote Tuesday March 17, 2015 at the Garcia campaign office  in the Hyde Park neighborhood. On the walls behind him are maps of wards where the campaign hopes to gather more votes on April 7.

Photo by William Camargo

James Carlton, a volunteer for the Jesus "Chuy" Garcia campaign, works to get out the vote Tuesday March 17, 2015 at the Garcia campaign office in the Hyde Park neighborhood. On the walls behind him are maps of wards where the campaign hopes to gather more votes on April 7.

When Darrell Stanford stepped out the front door of his Calumet Heights house on Saturday into the warm spring sun, Perry Green, holding a clipboard and wearing a pin with a dark mustache on it, quickly crossed the street to meet him.

“Hi, I’m Perry, and I’m a field director for the Chuy Garcia campaign,” Green said enthusiastically. “Do you know who you’re voting for in the runoff election?”

Stanford said he was still undecided, and Perry kicked into high gear. “Personally, I just don’t think we can afford four more years of this mayor,” he said about Rahm Emanuel. Almost immediately, he brought up the 50 schools that Emanuel closed, most of them in black and Latino neighborhoods. He was trying to establish that even though Garcia is not black, he understands what issues are important to African-American communities.

“When Chuy was in the state Senate, he was the only non-black member of the black caucus,” Green said. “He was a part of the Harold Washington coalition that shook up the city council in ’83. He’s not just a fly-by politician.”

Stanford barely acknowledged the reference to Chicago’s first black mayor. But there’s a reason that the Garcia campaign is eager to recall the coalition of “black, brown and progressive” voters that helped propel Washington to victory in 1983: Garcia will need a similar alliance if he has any hope of defeating Emanuel and becoming mayor.

What were the elements that allowed the Washington coalition to form, and what are the chances that Garcia can revive it?

An underdog campaign

In February 1983, Washington won an underdog victory in the Democratic primary over two white, establishment politicians, incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and Democratic-machine scion Richard M. Daley, then Cook County state’s attorney. He won with just 37 percent of the overall vote and little support outside of the black community.

Two months later, in the general election, Washington narrowly defeated Republican Bernard Epton, 52 percent to 48 percent, with the votes of “All Blacks, Most Latinos, 17% Whites,” as the headline read in The Chicago Reporter that May.

“There was a lot of feeling of disenfranchisement in the city, and a lot of folks felt like they weren’t part of decision-making,” said Laura Washington (no relation to Harold), a political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who covered the Washington campaign as an editor at the Reporter and later joined his administration as deputy press secretary.

Four years before Washington’s election, black voters had overwhelmingly supported Byrne, who painted herself as an anti-machine reformer, to help her narrowly defeat incumbent Michael Bilandic in the Democratic primary. Byrne won 14 of 16 majority-black wards.

But Byrne had disappointed black voters during her term in office, Washington said. A couple of major missteps included replacing African-American board members with white members on both the school and the Chicago Housing Authority boards. In the 1983 primary, Washington won the majority-black wards handily, taking more than 80 percent of the vote in many of them.

During the general election, Washington was able to couple his overwhelming support in the black community with a strong showing of support from Latinos, which had previously been a reliable Democratic-machine constituency. This was a first, especially among Mexican-Americans, who were just starting to build political power. They were frustrated that there were no majority-Latino wards and only one Latino alderman, who was Puerto Rican and had been appointed by Byrne, said Jaime Dominguez, a lecturer in political science and Latino/a studies at Northwestern University.

“Latinos and African-Americans both felt excluded from the [political] process,” he said.

To get the support of most Latinos in the election, Washington had the help of community leaders like Garcia, who formed the first Mexican-American independent political organization in the city to combat the machine. Garcia and his proxies have been touting that relationship since the beginning of his campaign.

“I think the challenge for Chuy is that not enough people know who he is,” Laura Washington said. “He has to be more than just an old Harold Washington ally, because a lot of people don’t have a personal connection or even remember who Harold Washington was.”

Creating a larger electoral coalition

Parallels between Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Harold Washington abound. Like Washington, Garcia has painted himself as an outsider challenging the status quo, despite having served in the City Council, the Illinois State Senate and the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Like Washington, Garcia is up against a better-funded incumbent, with the backing of the political establishment (including Chicago’s most famous black politician, President Obama). Like Washington, if he wins, Garcia would be the first person from his minority group to serve as mayor of Chicago. They also share political personalities.

“Harold Washington was a very bright, articulate person who transcended in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and all of those things,” said Timuel Black, a community activist and historian who helped on Washington’s campaign. “Jesus represents a similar kind of character. He is able to communicate and has a record of operating across racial lines.”

Garcia has won high-profile endorsements from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and other black religious leaders, and businessman Willie Wilson, who won about one-quarter of the votes in majority-black wards in the first round of the election.

It is not clear that these endorsements are getting Garcia the support he needs in the black community. A Chicago Tribune poll published Friday showed that, if the election were held today, only 31 percent of black voters would vote for Garcia, compared with 52 percent for Emanuel.

Garcia also received the endorsement over the weekend of the Service Employees International Union Illinois State Council, which represents more than 150,000 workers, including janitors, food service workers, health care workers, and security officers. It had remained officially neutral until now. This, along with the strong support of the Chicago Teachers Union, has helped him shore up his progressive base.

Now “it’s a matter of getting them out to vote,” Black said. “Similarly the Hispanic vote, the Puerto Rican and the Mexican-American population, particularly the young people in all those groups, need to be stimulated and informed of the importance to them of his victory.”

Turnout in the February 24 election was 32 percent overall, a 10 percentage point drop from 2011.

One of the challenges for Garcia in re-creating the Washington coalition is that there is a perception among African-American and Latino voters that there is greater parity in representation on the City Council, Dominguez said.

“Back then it was a lot easier for these two communities to come together because administrations leading up to that point structurally had sealed off the participation of these two communities,” he said.

“It’s different now. Today, they are having some gains, both from a symbolic representation front, but also in terms of some policy.”

That means that, in order to win, Garcia needs to focus not on race in particular, but on neighborhoods where residents feel that they have been ignored by the current administration, Dominguez said.

“It’s going to be a question of using his platform as one that is not based on race, but rather based on this sense that the administration today is completely disconnected from the neighborhood,” he said. “He’s trying to use the narrative of the neighborhood to create a larger electoral coalition that can also pick up whites, who may feel disconnected, Latinos and African-Americans.”

Another challenge is that mistrust still exists between African-Americans and Latinos, Washington said. The endorsements from prominent black leaders may help, but only if they are out in public, campaigning for Garcia.

“I think [Garcia] has to reassure African-American voters that he is going to be fair and equitable, just as Harold Washington had to do when he was elected. He had to assure Latino voters that he would reach out and be fair,” Washington said.

Back at his home in Calumet Heights, Darrell Stanford no longer needs to be convinced. His conversation with Perry Green lasted no more than two minutes. By the end of it, Stanford had a “Chuy for Mayor” sign in his window.

“I’m just tired of the economy here and I want it to change,” said Stanford, who was laid off from his job at the Federal Reserve Bank a couple of years ago and is still unemployed.

Despite his desire for change, he voted for Emanuel in February. “I guess there was maybe a comfort level there,” he said.

Stanford says he doesn’t care that Garcia is Latino or that he helped get Harold Washington elected. For him, the biggest issues are jobs and those pesky red light cameras.

“The more I look at Chuy, the more I like him,” he said. “And I like him personally, too.”

If other black voters move to Garcia’s camp then he may have a shot at creating the multi-ethnic coalition that he needs.

But Green’s canvassing wasn’t as successful with Stanford’s neighbors. Of the three other residents on his block who answered the door, two quickly dismissed him; the third actually shut the door in his face.