Darth Rahm vs. The Chuy Rebellion

Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s meteoric rise could land him the mayorship if only he can channel the force—record voter turnout among Chicago’s disenfranchised.

Ethan Michaeli

The force is strong with this one—that is, Jesús "Chuy" García. (Intiaz Rahim / Flickr)

One of the minor boondoggles in Rahm Emanuel’s tumultuous tenure as mayor of Chicago over the past four years was the proposed construction of a museum by Star Wars” creator George Lucas on the city’s lakefront. Last summer, Emanuel confidently announced Lucas’s idea to build the museum to house memorabilia from the film series and other items, proclaiming that it would be a tremendous educational, cultural and job creation asset for all Chicagoans.”

The Lucas Museum exemplifies Emanuel’s penchant for miscalculating the public mood and for making public resources available for all sorts of schemes involving his uber-wealthy friends and associates. And it also helps to explain why Emanuel is facing his own Rebel Alliance trying to dislodge him from his office, led by a resilient insurgent nicknamed “Chuy.”

But many Chicagoans disagreed, rejecting viscerally any further violation of the lakefront, most of which is a pristine park that stretches from the city’s northernmost edge to its southernmost, while deriding the actual design for the museum: a windowless, conical structure with an odd halo-like structure hovering above. This November, the Friends of the Park filed suit to block the museum, leading Lucas to threaten to take his collection, and the fortune he was planning to spend on construction and operations, to the West Coast.

While relatively inconsequential, as compared with the city’s homicide rate or its looming deficit, Emanuel’s opponent in the upcoming mayoral run-off, Cook County Commissioner Jesus Chuy” Garcia, seized on the Lucas Museum fiasco during their most recent debate, calling it the Monument to Darth Vader,” and citing it as an example of the incumbent’s autocratic management style.

You don’t make these decisions by fiat,” Garcia told Emanuel during their televised March 26 confrontation. You are not the king of the city.”

That a run-off election is happening at all in Chicago on April 7 is a shock to many who assumed that Emanuel, formerly President Barack Obama’s chief of staff after serving in a succession of top-level jobs, would coast to a second term as mayor. But the Lucas Museum exemplifies Emanuel’s penchant for miscalculating the public mood, and, his critics charge, for making public resources available for all sorts of schemes involving his über-wealthy friends and associates. And it also helps to explain why Emanuel is facing his own Rebel Alliance trying to dislodge him from his office, led by a resilient insurgent nicknamed Chuy.”

A guy named Chuy”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, whose plans to run for mayor were derailed when she discovered she had a brain tumor, recruited Garcia to run against Emanuel. She might have picked one of the announced candidates, but Garcia had a base in the Latino community and something even more important: A history that goes all the way back to the administration of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, which will be crucial if Garcia is to defeat Emanuel in the run-off.

For many in Chicago, especially progressives and African Americans old enough to remember, Washington’s tenure as mayor from 1983 – 1987 is the old Republic, a halcyon period when democracy and justice reigned. In 1983, Washington was elected only with record-setting black turnout and strong Latino support after an overtly racist campaign in which his white Republican opponent’s slogan was Before it’s too late.”

Once in office, he set about dismantling the patronage-based machine installed by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had died in 1976 but whose apparatchiks continued to control City Hall and its delegate agencies. Under Washington, no longer did city jobs go only to people who were loyal vote-getters. The new rule was, only qualified people got hired, and they weren’t expected to do political work on the side. Contracts were let out by competitive bid, rather than distributed as favors to more prominent supporters, giving many minority-owned companies their first crack at lucrative city business.

Chuy Garcia was Washington’s protégé in the Mexican American community, which was rapidly expanding into parts of the city that were being abandoned by whites. An immigrant who came to Chicago at the age of 9 in 1965, he won his first political office in 1984, becoming the Democratic committeeman of the 22nd Ward after the assassination of his close friend, the Chicano activist Rudy Lozano. Two years later, after federal courts ordered that two wards be re-drawn to encompass Latino majorities, Garcia was elected the city’s first Mexican American alderman along with Luis Gutierrez, who then became the city’s first Puerto Rican alderman.

Garcia and Gutierrez’s election gave Washington a 26 – 24 majority in the City Council, breaking a three-year-old blockade in which a majority of white aldermen stalled or blocked many of the mayor’s reforms and personnel moves. With their support, Washington was finally able to move at full speed, ridding the city payroll of patronage employees, including many who never bothered to actually show up for work.

In 1987, Washington won reelection only with overwhelming turnout from black and Latino voters once again, but his second term began more smoothly, as he was now working with a sizeable majority in the City Council. Tragedy struck just a few months later, though, when Washington had a heart attack at his desk and died, leaving a political void that could not be filled. Garcia spoke movingly at Washington’s funeral about the progressive, multi-racial, tolerant movement the mayor had awakened, but his African American allies quickly splintered into various factions, and soon thereafter, Garcia was effectively on his own.

In 1989, Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J., was elected mayor, and immediately began extending his influence into the city’s fast-growing Latino population. Alderman Luis Gutierrez joined Daley’s team and was rewarded with the mayor’s backing to run for the 4th Congressional District, which was redrawn to give Latinos a majority. But Garcia, by now a state senator, was targeted for defeat. In 1998, the Daley-created Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) selected a political novice as a challenger in the primary and deployed an army of precinct workers to Garcia’s district. They also ran another opponent on the ballot with the name Jesus Garcia” to confuse voters.

All these tactics worked and Garcia found himself out of office. They targeted him — they wanted to take him out,” said Harold Washington’s former press secretary Alton Miller, at the time. Garcia was and is a real threat to [Daley and his allies’] long-term aims, because he’s a good person and he’s a person who’s going to be out there blowing the whistle and keeping people mindful of what the real priorities are.”

With Garcia and other watchdogs out of office or otherwise neutralized, the HDO became an entrenched part of the new Mayor Daley’s machine, with many members working their way into important positions at the Department of Streets and Sanitation and other agencies. As they grew more sophisticated, many HDOers made the transition to pinstripe patronage,” focusing on securing city contracts for services or materials that were much, much more lucrative than mere jobs. It took until 2006 before federal investigators finally got around to prosecuting members of HDO, and then Daley, claiming that he was unaware of the work of his employees on his behalf, somehow escaped the public’s wrath, as he always managed to do until his unexpected retirement in 2011.

Garcia stayed active during his decade-long political exile, getting a master’s degree in urban planning and founding a non-profit community development corporation that built affordable housing in Little Village. In collaboration with mothers from the neighborhood, he helped organize large protests using civil disobedience to win a new high school and other education-based reforms. Garcia also served on the board of the Woods Fund, the same philanthropy where previously, then-state Senator Barack Obama and ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers had been trustees. (Full disclosure: Garcia and the other Woods Fund board members made several grants averaging $15,000 per year to the nonprofit organization where I am executive director, We The People Media.)

In 2010, Garcia won a seat on the Cook County Board, the level of government that runs a large public hospital, the largest jail in the United States and other municipal responsibilities in and around Chicago. In this role, Garcia had no plans to run for mayor and, in fact, turned Lewis down the summer before the election when she offered to back him. But Garcia could never resist a request from a fallen comrade, and he did finally agree to run after Lewis became ill, just as he had stepped up after Lozano’s death and continued to hold up the banner of reform after Harold’s death.

The decades of fidelity to the principles of community empowerment paid off in the first round against Emanuel, when Garcia, with just $1.5 million in campaign funds, took second place with 34 percent of the total, surpassing even his own staffers’ wildest expectations with overwhelming majorities in the Latino wards, more than one-third of the votes in many white wards on the Northwest Side, and just over a quarter of the votes in black wards on the South and West sides. The third-place finisher, businessman Willie Wilson, won just 10 percent of the vote overall and had totals equal to Garcia’s in many black wards, despite spending more than $2 million of his own money on television and radio commercials.

In the days since this awesome performance in first round, Garcia has picked up support from key labor unions as well as from Jesse Jackson, whose national influence emanates from his base on the South Side, and from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, whose organization is in the African American neighborhoods on the West Side. His former opponent Willie Wilson also endorsed him. Progressive Democrats including those from Move On, the Daily Kos and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s forces, Democracy for America, have deployed volunteers and phone banks, hoping to nationalize the race and take down Emanuel, whom they see as the ultimate corporate Democrat.” Many from this wing of the party argue that a Garcia win in Chicago, following on the heels of Bill de Blasio’s win in New York City, would encourage Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2016.

With just one one day to go until the election, however, Emanuel remains the favorite in the race, as he continues to enjoy celebrity-level name recognition, the overwhelming support of establishment Democrats and many Republicans, as well as virtually unlimited financial resources which allow him to saturate the city with television ads and to target specific populations with ads on community-oriented radio.

Garcia is concentrating his efforts, therefore, on generating record-setting turnout from Latinos, who make up nearly one-third of the city’s population but have historically delivered just 15 – 20 percent of the vote, as well as getting a majority of African Americans, who will make up something like 40 percent of those casting ballots, and as many of the whites as he can. In his daily visits to churches, community meetings, public gatherings and fundraisers, Garcia re-tells the story of his origins with Harold Washington and embraces the Star Wars” narrative as well, happily casting himself as the lone surviving warrior of the old Republic, now part of a rag-tag rebellion determined to break the iron grip of the merciless Empire.

Garcia knows that if he wins, it will be the equivalent of making that one perfect shot that destroys the Death Star. But he is hoping that even among black voters too young to remember Harold, as well as among whites, Latinos and Asians, projecting respect and understanding will be enough to contrast with Emanuel, whose haughtiness and indifference has been felt everywhere, but is most tangible in the neighborhoods with closed schools and dangerous streets.

Ethan Michaeli is the publisher of Residents’ Journal, a bi-monthly magazine written by and for Chicago public housing residents.
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