Jim Young / Reuters

Rahm Emanuel could lose re-election

Jesús ‘Chuy’ Garcia, a populist Mexican immigrant, is vying to unseat ‘Mayor 1 Percent’

March 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

In a recent television appearance, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, bedecked in a fuzzy sweater, apologized for his abrasive style. His political action committee accepted half a million dollars from billionaire Ken Griffin, adding to a campaign war chest totaling more than $30 million. And three aldermen and the city clerk delivered dollies heaped with financial records to Cook County commissioner and mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” Garcia — a stunt meant to highlight Emanuel’s contention that Garcia lacks the financial acumen to run the city.

It’s with measures such as these that Emanuel hopes to secure victory in the city’s April 7 election, after being embarrassed, as pundits put it, when Garcia forced him into a runoff in the February primary.

Garcia got 33.8 percent of the vote to Emanuel’s 45.4 percent in February. Polls soon after showed them in a dead heat. The latest polls give Emanuel a solid lead, but it is still anyone’s race. There is a good chance that a populist Mexican immigrant who still lives in a gritty low-income neighborhood will unseat President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff.

Emanuel has powerful Wall Street and Hollywood backers, the endorsements of major media outlets, seemingly unlimited funds and the ability to flood the airwaves with ads. But Garcia has a secret weapon: the power of excitement, a sense of possibility that is motivating scores of volunteers and evokes the legendary movement to elect Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. 

The undecided front

The election will likely hinge on voter turnout and currently undecided voters, particularly black ones. On both these fronts, Garcia’s grass-roots ground troops could clinch it.

Emanuel won office handily in 2011 in part because of black voter support. But in February even an endorsement and visit from Obama did not secure him an outright win. A recent Chicago Tribune poll gives Emanuel a 21 point lead with black voters. But that’s after Emanuel’s barrage of television ads, while Garcia’s camp only recently began airing them.

Garcia has the endorsements of important black leaders — including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Danny Davis, powerful former state Senate President Emil Jones and Willie Wilson, a multimillionaire African-American businessman who garnered 10 percent of the vote in February.

People have not forgotten Emanuel’s cavalier closing of nearly 50 public schools in mostly black neighborhoods. Similarly, they remember the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike and Emanuel’s ongoing battle with the union, whose president is an African-American woman, as are a significant number of its members.

There is a history of tension between blacks and Latinos in Chicago. But Garcia emphasizes his long record of working in black neighborhoods and with black leaders, most important, Washington, for whom Garcia was a key City Council ally during the racially charged council wars.

Latino support for Garcia is a given. A recent bilingual poll found 61 percent voting for Garcia and just 18 percent for Emanuel. And Latino voter turnout in April could be much higher than in the primary or past elections. Oscar Chacón, the executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, noted that polls often “don’t do a good job of accounting for people who are able to vote but don’t have a history of voting in recent elections.” Those voters are likely energized by Garcia’s candidacy, he said at the poll’s release event. “That’s one of the greatest unknown factors in this election.” 

In a city facing crises over pensions, schools and violence, scores of voters feel that Garcia understands and supports neighborhood assets.

Garcia’s history and standing with organized labor is also an important, underappreciated factor.

The Chicago Teachers Union, with its 30,000 members, is energetically behind Garcia. He was recruited to run by union President Karen Lewis, who was polling strongly against Emanuel last summer but withdrew from the race after a brain-cancer diagnosis. Garcia recently won the endorsement of the statewide Service Employees International Union (SEIU), including the powerful SEIU Local 1, which represents janitors in public buildings. SEIU had been neutral going into the February election. The endorsement shows that political winds have shifted and savvy labor leaders see Garcia as a likely winner.

Emanuel has backing from the city’s hotel and restaurant workers’ union and the building trades unions, which have long been aligned with Chicago’s Democratic machine. But the building trades don’t have the kind of grass-roots reach or organizing tradition that unions such as the SEIU and the teachers’ union do. It doesn’t hurt that the election is during the public schools’ spring break, when teachers can hit the streets in force. 

Sick of Emanuel

Under Emanuel, Chicago has become a symbol of the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in the U.S. He is known for beautifying downtown, promoting tourism and giving millions in property taxes to private corporations and a lakefront hotel, all while the city’s poor neighborhoods have floundered.

In the past year Emanuel has redirected his focus to low-income areas, appearing at playground ribbon-cuttings, supporting affordable housing and bringing a Whole Foods to an impoverished South Side neighborhood, among other efforts. He championed an ordinance increasing Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour. And he blasted Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, his close friend, for massive state budget cuts to social programs.

But many are not convinced. They note that Emanuel failed to support the widespread call for a $15 minimum wage, which Garcia supports.

Garcia recently called for a financial transaction tax, a way to raise public funds from people buying and selling stock. He is calling for the tax on a federal level and would not implement it as mayor. But the position is a highly symbolic statement in an election that has been cast in class terms, given Emanuel’s nickname, “Mayor 1 Percent.”

It has often been said that Chicagoans crave a strong, take-charge mayor, and Emanuel fills that bill. But the February election cast doubt on this hackneyed wisdom. Not only did Emanuel get tepid support, but a record 18 of the 50 City Council races resulted in runoffs, many featuring candidates backed by the same labor unions, progressive coalitions and community groups that are supporting Garcia.

“We keep coming back to the fundamental question, Why don’t we run Chicago?” said Amisha Patel, the executive director of the group Grassroots Illinois Action, which supports Garcia. “Why don’t we the people elect someone who shares our values?”

The ode of Chuy

On Chicago’s first warm day of 2015, employee-owners of the New Era Windows Cooperative on the city’s Southwest Side passed out “Chuy” campaign signs to visitors. The workers started the co-op after a long, headline-grabbing odyssey in which they occupied a shuttered window factory.

Garcia has visited New Era several times and purchased windows there. That was after the limelight of visits from Vice President Joe Biden and other luminaries and before Garcia had any idea he would be running for mayor. Such moves by Garcia, someone truly involved in the community, are commonplace.

“He knows our strengths. He knows our shortcomings. He’s lived amongst us for a while,” said Melvin “Ricky” Maclin, one of the leaders of the co-op. “He really knows us.”

In a city facing crises over pensions, schools and violence, many Chicagoans have little confidence that either candidate can work miracles. But scores of voters feel that Garcia knows them, will listen to them and will work with them to tackle these problems. That he understands and supports neighborhood assets, such as a window factory co-op. This kind of sentiment can’t be bought with campaign cash, and it could be the deciding factor. 

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago journalist and the author of “Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.” She is a leader of the Social Justice News Nexus reporting fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She was on the Northwestern swim team from 1993 to 1997 and was a U.S. national team member and two-time national champion in marathon swimming.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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