U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia inches closer to joining crowded race for mayor

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U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, shown at a City Hall news conference on Wednesday, is inching closer to another run for mayor of Chicago. He was at City Hall to endorse three candidates for the City Council, including Ana Guajardo (left rear) in the 10th Ward and Jeylu Gutierrez (right rear) in the 14th Ward.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

U.S. Rep. Jesus Garcia on Wednesday inched closer to reprising his charismatic 2015 race for mayor, saying the chances of him challenging a vulnerable Mayor Lori Lightfoot are now “50-50.”

Six months ago, Garcia all but ruled himself out as a potential mayoral challenger — even as he declared Lightfoot more vulnerable than any Chicago mayor in the last 40 years.

“I am not thinking about that whatsoever and I surely haven’t talked with my wife about it. I’ve got to think that she’d be very reluctant for us to do it, and we do everything together. It’s not on my radar right now. … I treasure that [2015] run. But I was a little younger” then, the Chicago Democrat said in March.

“The job is a huge bear and it will continue to be challenging and torturous on a daily basis, especially as [federal] funding dissipates and goes away. It will make it excruciatingly difficult to govern and provide good news to Chicagoans.”

On Wednesday, Garcia changed his tune in a way that could turn out to be a game-changer.

He said he was seriously considering joining the increasingly crowded field seeking to deny Lightfoot a second term.

What’s changed?

“The number of phone calls that I’ve received from people that understand the city and the challenges and who want to build the coalition that will bring people together and participate in moving the city forward over the next four years,” said Garcia, noting that he is consulting with his allies in the Chicago Teachers Union and with other labor leaders. 

“I can make the case of how I think I can make a difference and get our city to a better place — if I decide that I want to undertake this challenge. … People are urging me to do it. But I also don’t take lightly the challenges that we’re facing as a city. The public safety challenges. … The continuing challenges to our economy and jobs and being on a good financial footing. The needs that our schools continue to have. Our teacher shortage. … I’m taking a close look to see if I feel that I am best suited to lead the city in the event that I decide to take the plunge.”

With her 1-year-old daughter, Natalia, in her arms and her 4-year-old daughter, Aranza, leaning against her, 14th Ward City Council candidate Jeylu Gutierrez listens as U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia endorses her during a news conference at City Hall on Wednesday. At left is Ana Guajardo, who received Garcia’s backing for the Council’s 10th Ward seat.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Garcia pointed to Lightfoot’s 25% approval rating in polls done for other candidates and for two heavy-hitters who passed on the mayor’s race: U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“She’s got a tough climb — a very tough climb,” he said.

But the congressman acknowledged he is “conflicted.” He finds his job in Congress “exhilarating.” He “totally understands” why Harold Washington was “so reluctant to leave” to run for mayor.

“The historic and landmark legislation that we passed. My great desire to be a member of Congress when immigration reform finally becomes a reality makes it so difficult,” he said.

“My wife is not a yes. That weighs heavily on me. And I haven’t seen any polling that’s included me in the mix. … That could be another factor that influences my decision.”

Mayoral candidates started circulating nominating petitions last week. The deadline for filing petitions signed by at least 12,500 registered Chicago voters is Nov. 28 — and candidates typically submit three times that to avoid petition challenges.  

“The last time I ran, I filed more petitions than Rahm Emanuel, who was paying for signatures. So the network is large. That would not be a concern,” he said.

“I’ve got to decide soon. But I don’t want to pressure myself. I want to be as deliberate and as understanding of all of the issues that are facing the city of Chicago. The public safety challenges. The promise of new endeavors in the area of public safety is pretty exciting, given my background in violence prevention and intervention and community building. My network of community builders throughout Chicago.”

In 2015, the mustachioed politician fondly known as “Chuy” stepped up to challenge the incumbent Emanuel after Garcia’s longtime friend, then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, was forced to abandon her mayoral ambitions after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Garcia’s charismatic and energetic campaign — including “Chuy” signs featuring a mustache — forced Emanuel into Chicago’s first-ever mayoral run-off. Emanuel survived — with 56% of the vote — after out-spending Garcia nearly four-to-one.

Whether or not he reprises his 2015 mayoral campaign, Garcia is building his reputation as a political kingmaker.

He’s making the first of what he said will be a string of City Council endorsements that would, if his candidates win, ensure a solid group of allies to support his mayoral programs.

In the 14th Ward — represented since 1969 by indicted Ald. Edward Burke — Garcia is endorsing Brighton Park resident Jeylu Gutierrez, district director for Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya.

“I have not seen someone as good at door-knocking and engaging people as I’ve seen in Jeylu. She’s a natural. … She would be a dynamite member of the Council,” Garcia said.

Jeylu Gutierrez, candidate for the 14th Ward seat on the Chicago City Council, speaks during a news conference at City Hall Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In the 10th Ward, where Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza is retiring, Garcia’s choice is Ana Guajardo, a steelworker’s daughter, longtime community organizer and Ph.D. candidate with a strong labor background. 

In the 22nd Ward, Garcia is endorsing incumbent Ald. Mike Rodriguez, calling him “the Hulk of the City Council.”

In 2019, Burke fought off charges that he shook down the owner of a Burger King franchise in his ward to win reelection with 54% of the vote. To do that, the famously-proud politician had to humble himself, ringing doorbells in the Southwest Side ward once represented by his father, Joseph Burke.

If Burke chooses to seek reelection to a record 15th term — including the two-year term served after a special election to fill the vacancy created by his father’s death — he must find a way to survive in a ward re-drawn to reflect the 2020 U.S. Census.

In the compromise ward map approved by the City Council to avoid a costly referendum battle, about a third of the 14th Ward is different, and its voting-age population is now 87% Latino, up from 81%. Gone are Burke’s most favorable precincts in Garfield Ridge, a conservative, predominantly white area west of Cicero Avenue near Midway Airport.

For those reasons and more, Garcia believes the second time will be the charm for his effort to take down Burke, once a City Council giant and still the longest-serving Chicago alderperson. That is, if Burke even runs.

“Habits and routines keep people going. The alderman has been in the game so long that it might be hard to take up basket weaving, sculpting or woodworking. I totally understand that,” Garcia said. 

“What’s different is that more people know the ethical challenges of the incumbent. The new configuration of the ward chips away at some of the areas of the ward that were lopsided, pro-Trump and pro-Burke. So this is a new majority … of electors that can decide the fate of the 14th Ward. Chicago has elected numerous progressives, young progressives … over the last two rounds. And this will not be an exception.”

Ana Guajardo, candidate for the 10th Ward seat on the Chicago City Council, speaks during a news conference at City Hall Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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September 7, 2022 at 04:20PM

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