Chicago is home to the U.S.'s second largest population of Mexican-born residents and one such resident, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, could be mayor for the first time in the city's history.
That potential is setting off nationwide interest in the race, particularly among Latinos who are seeing it as another major breakthrough for the largest racial and ethnic minority in the country.
“This is an opportunity to have this huge voice, not just for the city, but a national voice,” said Larry Gonzalez, a Washington, D.C. Democratic strategist with the Raben Group who considers Garcia his mentor and the man who gave him his start in politics.
“Everything is indicating that it’s time. Time for the Latino community to step up and allow its voice to be heard,” he said.
Garcia isn’t the first Latino to run for the office. But he’s being increasingly seen as having a real chance of beating incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the April 7 runoff.
In the five-way Chicago mayoral primary, Rahm took 46 percent of vote to Garcia’s 34 percent. Since neither won more than 50 percent, next month's runoff will decide the winner.
Garcia’s emergence as one of the two candidates to make it to the runoff was a surprise for many. He got in the race late when another candidate decided against running and he was not heavily financed. Garcia has to to convince Chicagoans he has the platform to tackle the city's myriad challenges. But his place as one of the runoff candidates is not an anomaly, said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic consultant in Washington, D.C. and founder of Solidarity Strategies.
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Latinos are pushing for greater presence among the political officeholders, demanding political representation that represents the growth and spread of the population of more than 54 million Latinos in office and that is being seen in major municipal races.
Consider Nelson Diaz, the first Latino to run for mayor of Philadelphia or Leticia Van de Putte, who sought, but lost a bid to be the first Latina elected to statewide office in Texas and now seeking to become the first Latina mayor of San Antonio. Add in the possibility that Adrian Gonzalez, Harris County, Texas, sheriff, and two other Latinos may run for mayor of Houston and that Angel Taveras was elected the first mayor of Providence, Rhode Island in 2010, Rocha said.
“I’ve been doing campaigns for 20 years and I’m one of only a few senior consultants in Washington and I’m seeing a whole new wave of Latinos bubbling up to higher levels,” Rocha said. “There’s something happening out there.”
Garcia may be carrying national Latino hopes with him through his campaign. But he’ll need financial backing and strong voter turnout to beat the better financed, better networked Rahm, who was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and the city’s first Jewish mayor.
Recognizing that financial need, invitations were sent out by Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Danny Davis, D-Ill., for a fundraiser at the end of the month in Washington, D.C. Grijalva chairs the U.S. House Progressive Caucus and Davis is a member.
But before that fundraiser, another is planned for Los Angeles on March 19 that is intended to draw wealthier Latinos in the television and film industry, such as Walter Ulloa, CEO of Entravision; film producer Montesuma Esparza, who backed “Selena” and “Milagro Beanfield War,”; Gil Vasquez, who founded Vasquez & Co. LLP accounting firm and Los Angeles City Council Member Gil Sedillo, said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org.
“Similar efforts are going to be happening across the country and all of these efforts really focus on supporting beyond Chuy Garcia, the Latino progressive community organizer-coalition builder that he is,” Carmona said.
Garcia, who was an early board member of the bipartisan National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials, is scheduled to attend its gala in Washington March 24, as a guest of Gonzalez’s. The gala draws Latino political activists, office holders and lobbyists.
“I’m watching this from 30,000 feet, but I’m also hearing from a lot of Latino organizations I’ve historically worked for who are calling and asking me about the race and to run numbers and probability. They are asking me is this a place to invest?” Rocha said.
Some García supporters cited the issue of immigration, contrasting him with the current Chicago Mayor's record. "Rahm Emanuel should always be remembered as the Democrat who has been the mastermind of policies that have inflicted the most pain and damage on Latino families, particularly immigrants, we have seen in a generation,” Carmona said.
Immigration activists and others in Latino political circles often repeat that Emanuel referred to immigration as the “third rail of American politics” and was the voice in Obama’s and other Democrats’ ear warning them that take up the issue would hurt them politically.
Emanuel has since worked on behalf of immigrants during his time as mayor, helping to build a coalition of business people, religious leaders and immigration activists. He won the endorsement of immigration reform champion Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. for the primary and still has his backing.
But Garcia has a long history of working on behalf of immigrants without legal status, said Maria de Los Angeles Torres, director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. While in college, he was part of student organizing at UI-C to support workers without legal status and before that was mobilizing for immigrant workers among activists, de Los Angeles said.
“He’s got the whole network of immigrant activists working for him,” she said.