New mayoral hopeful cheers Chicago’s progressives

There must be some kind of seismic activity below the surface of next year’s mayoral race because the ground is constantly shifting. This week, a new dynamic came into play when Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia announced his candidacy.

Progressives across the city say they’re cheered and energized by the news. With Mayor Rahm Emanuel facing mounting unpopularity, he’s vulnerable. But with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and then Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis withdrawing from the contest, and Ald. Bob Fioretti’s candidacy so far failing to gain much traction, it looked like Emanuel could coast to victory nonetheless.

Garcia will ensure that Emanuel has a fight on his hands. From what I hear, he has solid prospects for raising a competitive campaign fund. There are lots of voters who’ve been alienated by what they view as Emanuel’s divisive approach to governing. And there’s a citywide network of community and labor activists who’ve opposed the mayor on school policies and budget priorities — and who have long relationships with Garcia, whom they view as Chicago’s most stalwart and dependable progressive elected official.

That network’s first test will be collecting tens of thousands of signatures in the next three weeks to get Garcia on the ballot.

Garcia, who moved here from Durango, Mexico, at age 10, was a protege of Rudy Lozano, the charismatic young labor organizer who was a key ally of Mayor Harold Washington; Lozano is credited as architect of the black-Latino coalition that elected Washington in 1983. Lozano himself came within 17 votes of defeating a white machine alderman in the 22nd Ward in that election — and was assassinated in his home months later.

Garcia first emerged as chairman of a community commission to press for justice for Lozano, charging that then-state’s Attorney Richard Daley deliberately bungled the case by ignoring death threats Lozano had received connected with his organizing work. Garcia stepped up as leader of the 22nd Ward Independent Precinct Organization, which still operates today — the last of the IPOs founded in the Washington era. In 1984, at 28, Garcia won the 22nd Ward committeeman’s race, and two years later was elected alderman in a special election that broke the stranglehold of the Vrdolyak 29, the white machine faction that ran the City Council. He was a mainstay of the Washington coalition.

In 1992 Garcia was elected to the state senate — and eight years later he achieved the distinction of being the first target of Mayor Daley’s “new machine,” the Hispanic Democratic Organization. He turned to community organizing, founding the Little Village Community Development Corporation — now known as Enlace Chicago — partnering with financial institutions, universities and community groups to find concrete solutions to issues of housing, economic development, safety and youth development.

Four years ago he was elected to the Cook County Board, where he’s served as floor leader for Preckwinkle.

A key challenge his new campaign will face is reaching across ethnic divides, particularly tapping into deep discontent with the mayor in the black community.

“The most difficult part of a Latino running in Chicago is reaching out to the black vote,” said political consultant Delmarie Cobb. “That will be the largest variable in the race for mayor.” The top priority for Garcia “is making sure he tells his story directly to the black community.”

“If anyone can do it, Chuy can,” one adviser told me. “His middle name is ‘coalition.’”

His record as a trusted ally of Washington and Preckwinkle will be a factor. If his campaign is perceived as the “successor” to Lewis’, that will help. Possible support from community leaders and elected officials like Lewis and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis would help too.

In addition, Garcia is likely to align with a number of insurgent aldermanic candidates in black, Latino and white majority wards who are challenging mayoral “rubber stamps” in the council. In training sessions held by United Working Families involving a couple dozen potential challengers, a nascent multiracial coalition seems to be “bubbling up” as people share perspectives on issues that cut across communities, said executive director Kristen Crowell.

Crowell said the group is “thrilled” about Garcia’s announcement. “Chuy is a true progressive who has a proven record of working with labor and community organizations to champion the policies we care most about — workers’ rights, access to quality education for all children and racial justice,” she said. She added that, while UWF has yet to make any endorsements, members of the coalition will be among those collecting signatures for Garcia.

Email Curtis Black at cblack.tcr@gmail.com

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