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Chicago mayoral candidate Chuy García wants to make history — and unite a city divided over crime

The Democratic congressman, who would be Chicago's first Latino mayor, is well-liked but faces residents weary of crime, a progressive split and a crowded field.
Chuy Garcia greets commuters  during an early-morning campaign stop in Chicago.
Mayoral candidate Jesús "Chuy" Garcia greets commuters at a campaign stop in Chicago early Tuesday.Scott Olson / Getty Images

CHICAGO — A “deep love and passion for Chicago” are beckoning Rep. Jesús "Chuy" García back to the city where he hopes voters will reciprocate and put him atop a crowded mayoral race dominated by residents’ fatigue with crime.

García, D-Ill., who entered the race after he sealed his re-election to Congress last year, is a front-runner. But the Feb. 28 nine-candidate election, including incumbent Lori Lightfoot, is tight, making an April runoff between the top two vote-getters likely.

"It's probably going to be a runoff. I don't think any one of the candidates is going to win it outright," said Columbia College Chicago associate professor Wilfredo Cruz, the author of "Latinos in Chicago: Quest for a Political Voice."

Three years before he was elected to Congress, García, 66, waged a 2015 mayoral run that galvanized a cross-cultural coalition of voters, many excited about the possibility of the city’s first Latino mayor. He forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff. He lost, but his grassroots campaign energized progressives and Latinos

Now, he's trying to woo a pandemic-battered city where residents uneasy about crime are forcing him to reassure them he can keep them safe while not rolling back reforms brought about by violence against Black and brown residents.

The election has also pitted him against a string of other progressives, some of whom have lured away previous supporters.

García said in an interview that the city needs “more than ever before” the type of politics and community- and coalition-building he was able to achieve in 2015 “because of what Chicago has experienced.”

The illness, death and disruption of the economy caused by Covid, along with civil unrest in Chicago that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, “is forcing us to think deeply about how we build a more equitable city,” he said. 

“Given all the experiences that I have lived in Chicago, I feel I have the qualities to lead Chicago, to bring Chicago together and to get the city working again and restore a sense of peace, a sense of tranquillity and inclusiveness in Chicago’s life,” García said.

When García ran for mayor in 2015, Chicago was reeling from the death of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white police officer. Many thought García might have won had the video been made public before the election.

Years of increased violence in some parts of the city — although there were declines in homicides, shootings and other crimes last year — have made crime a top voter concern.

García has called for the removal of Police Superintendent David Brown, who was appointed by Lightfoot, and for adding more police. He is also calling for investment in neglected communities and funding for some of Chicago’s violence prevention groups. He said he wants to deploy police units in neighborhoods “so that officers get out of their cars, talk to residents in the community and work on building trust.”

Although his plan may mirror the plans of other candidates, García said he has the “positive” leadership skills to build support for it, a reference to criticism of Lightfoot’s temperament. A recent poll found Garcia with a 55% percent favorable rating, compared to Lightfoot’s 51% unfavorable rating. Lightfoot is the first Black woman and the first openly gay person to be mayor of Chicago.

The Chicago Police Department is also under a federal consent decree following the killing of McDonald. García said implementing the decree is “the key to modernizing the police department.”

In response to a question at last week's forum, García said the new leadership and establishing trust could swell the ranks of the police department with qualified Black men and women. But Ja'Mal Green, a community activist and mayoral candidate, chided García, saying, "If we're waiting on that to happen, we'll be waiting 100 years."

A neighborhood guy

García, usually referred to by his nickname, Chuy, said the city embraced him when he arrived from Mexico at 9 years old, knowing only “yes” and “no” in English. Chicago gave him multiple opportunities, from being the first in his family to graduate from college to serving in Congress.  

García was a member of the City Council when progressive icon Harold Washington was the city’s first Black mayor. He was elected to two terms on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

García, whose father came to the U.S. from Mexico through the Bracero guest-worker program, has a long history of community organizing and advocacy for working-class people, particularly in historic Little Village, a Latino and immigrant part of the city.

García was the executive director of the Little Village Development Corp. and grew the organization, which focused on housing and crime prevention. The nonprofit group, now known as Enlace Chicago, which has given a Jesus "Chuy" García Award, is not endorsing a candidate. But Cesar Nuñez, a co-executive director of the group, acknowledged García's familiarity in the community as a plus.

“If you didn’t know Chuy García and you didn’t know he was an elected official, you could bump into him in this space and feel he’s a regular neighborhood guy,” Nuñez said.

Guillermo Gomez, a Chicago social justice activist who ran unsuccessfully for state representative as an independent in 1998 with García, said "people should look hard at who's got the history with building Black, Latino and white coalitions, not those that say, 'I'm gonna do it.'"

"Chuy has worked over 40 years. That no one can take away. People know him," Gomez said.

Voters split by race and ethnicity, poll shows

Chicago’s population is about 33% white, 29% Latino and 29% Black.

A poll for Latino and Black groups by BSP Research found that García leads among Latino voters, at 35%. Former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, a grandson of Greek immigrants, comes in a distant second at 12% of Latino voters.

But almost a quarter of white voters support Vallas, who has pushed a law-and-order message and is backed by the Fraternal Order of Police. The endorsement has opened him to attacks from García and others.

Black voters have divided their support among the seven Black candidates, and Lightfoot has the largest share, at 22%. The poll found Vallas with 13% of Black voters, compared to García’s 5%.

As of Tuesday, Vallas had spent the most on television ads, at $3.5 million, compared to Garcia's $1.7 million. García has also been outspent by Lightfoot, at $2.9 million; Willie Wilson, a millionaire businessman, at $2.74 million; and Cook County Board of Commissioners member Brandon Johnson, $2.75 million.

García is the only candidate who has been spending on Spanish-language advertising — about $118,000 so far.

Latinos tend to have the lowest voter turnout in Chicago, said Roberto Valdez Jr., the Midwest policy director of the Hispanic Federation, which just opened an office in Chicago.

The nonpartisan group, which is not endorsing candidates, planned to launch its Latino get-out-the-vote program for the mayoral election this week. The program includes knocking on 10,000 doors, partnering with Latino neighborhood organizations in the northwest and southwest areas of the city, sending 260,000 text messages with voting information and making about 130,000 calls.

Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta gave García some help, joining him for some phone banking this week.

New progressives on the block

García's success advancing Chicago's political progressives may be working against him.

García, who was a campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary campaign, has seen groups like the Chicago Teachers Union, which backed him against Emanuel, take their support elsewhere. The union has endorsed Johnson, a former teacher and union organizer, whose standing in the race has risen in recent weeks.

Rocío García, the organizing director of United Working Families, said Chuy García, to whom she is not related, was a household name in her family’s home in Little Village. She respects him and supported him in 2015.

But she ticked off Johnson’s participation on issues the group has advocated and pushed for, including a moratorium on school shutdowns. “It’s about where we are going to go and who is there right now,” she said.

As of last week, about a fifth of Chicago voters were undecided, and a big factor for some, including Rigo Fernandez, an attorney, is who can win. He said he had not ruled out Johnson but is still looking at García.

"Chuy beats all of them in a race, and so that's something I'll be thinking about as I make my final decision," he said.