Op-Ed: Chuy García Isn’t Running as a Progressive This Mayoral Bid


A Latino self-proclaimed progressive from the South Side of Chicago is in the race to run my city, and rather than be excited by this representational possibility, I am scared. I am frightened by what would happen if Jesús “Chuy” García were to win because of who Chuy has become since his last attempt at mayoral office. 

My mom always says “people tell on themselves.” With Chuy’s current mayoral bid, he tells on himself. So what is he telling us? The significance of Chuy’s mayoral run is that it’s his coming out party. Chuy’s coming out as an aspirational neoliberal leader who today is more like former Mayor Rahm Emanuel—who he squared off against in 2015—than not. 

Understanding the weight of this tragedy requires comprehending Chuy’s journey since he last ran for mayor when his political career really took off. Before 2015, García had been a Cook County Board commissioner, a state senator, and an alderman. However, he was little known outside Chicago’s Southwest Side Latino communities like Little Village where García was based. 

García was urged by late CTU president Karen Lewis to run for mayor when her candidacy was thwarted by cancer. Chuy ran as a “progressive” against neoliberal despot Emanuel. He entered the race relatively unknown, underfunded, and late. In the context of the election, Chuy was viewed as a quasi-symbol of “the people” against Mayor One Percent. He successfully took Emanuel into a run off, though he ultimately lost.  

I’d argue Chuy lost for reasons under his control: his campaign was poorly managed with no clear vision for change. Pandering to sensationalized news and polling, García centered his campaign around  fulfilling Emanuel’s promise for 1,000 new police officers. In doing so, he alienated his progressive community base, appeared out of touch in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, inflamed the Black and Brown divide, and seemed inexperienced as a leader. For example, while Garcia claimed to have a plan for hiring 1,000 more police officers he failed to provide any real specifics on how he’d do so during a city fiscal crisis. 

But even though he lost his bid for mayor, Chuy won in the end. Chuy became a household name in Chicago. Though he was an activist and then a politician for years, his political star didn’t skyrocket until his failed attempt at City Hall. Eventually, he rode the coattails of Karen Lewis, the animosity toward Emanuel, and rising tides of progressive fervor and social unrest to Congress. 

García could have used people’s confidence and the public profile he gained after his mayoral run to become the compassionate, progressive leader and beacon for change we all have been waiting for. But that is not what he did. 

So, what did Chuy do with new fame and influence? He exploited it, emulating politics-as-usual rather than model an alternative and increasingly sought to become a power broker. For instance, rather than align with the 99% that propelled a meteoric career rise, García convened with Latino elites to form the Latino Leadership Council (LLC). Garcia found the LLC with ally and dubious politician Luis Gutierrez who recently made headlines for allegedly lobbying former Speaker Madigan for a ComEd board appointment. At its inception, the LLC included among its members long-time Chuy buds Danny Solis who fueled gentrification and displacement of working-class people in Pilsen and was later outed as corrupt for monetizing his position on the Zoning Committee for personal gain among other misdeeds.

The aspirational LLC is more preoccupied with gaining Latino institutional power than the well-being of working-class Latino communities. Rather than endorse the bonafide progressive Byron Sigcho-Lopez in the 25th Ward, the LLC and Chuy endorsed Aida Flores whose campaign is propelled by Get Stuff Done, a corporate PAC formed by Rahm allies—deliberately targeting socialist candidates this election cycle to prevent the expansion of progressive power in City Hall. 

Chuy could have been the candidate we hoped for. He could have come out the gate, convening progressive leaders, creating a multiracial coalition, offering plans to fund our schools and resource our communities, delivering ideas on how to confront the economic fallout of the pandemic. 

Rather than become a steward for the progressive movement or work to bridge Black and Brown divides, he had Latino-only tunnel vision and leveraged his identity in predominant Latino communities to build a self-serving machine. For years now, he’s intervened in local elections to run his own candidates, ones who worked for him, often undermining community change efforts by not endorsing the candidates to emerge from them.  

In the 33rd Ward, García recently endorsed Samie Martinez, a Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) backed candidate running on a tough-on-crime platform. Martinez is running against incumbent Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, a progressive democratic socialist centering progressive reforms in her platform like Treatment Not Trauma.   

Chuy-backed candidates might not be an issue if they were truly progressive and made good on promises to look out for the people. Instead, Chuy’s mentee and 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez did little to stop HILCO from demolishing its plant and provided little notice to residents before the HILCO covered the predominantly Mexican Little Village and predominantly Black North Lawndale with particular matter during a respiratory pandemic. 

There’s a Mexican saying that translates to “Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” HILCO’s presence in Little Village was already well established by Chuy’s buddy and previous Alderman Rick Muñoz who finagled tax breaks for the polluter and was sentenced to prison for misuse of political funds. Despite progressive branding, Chuy’s allies have been his cronies and corrupt politicians. 

Sure, Chuy’s congressional office puts out statements on issues saying the “right” thing. But talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things. The chasm between the two for Chuy couldn’t be more apparent than in his current campaign for mayor. 

For a while, progressive organizations were wondering whether Chuy would run for mayoral office again. He downplayed the possibility and announced his candidacy after progressive organizations congealed around Brandon Johnson. 

It’s an odd move to call yourself “progressive” and then run without support of arguably the most progressive union in the country, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). But, perhaps that’s the point: García is signaling he isn’t running truly as a progressive. He’s signaling he has no intention of being accountable to the progressive movement or even the CTU that handed him the political star he now has. 

He launched his campaign with support from the white-male led union Local 150 IUOE that made headlines in 2011 for anti-Semitic remarks. García followed up with a campaign that exploits Chicagoans’ fears of “crime” and echoes his former campaign with promises for more police. It’s not progressive to push for more money for more cops when nearly $2 billion are spent annually on Chicago police that have yet to stymie crime and has recently been outed for Proud Boys from its ranks.

Chuy’s campaign is hardly progressive, but the truth is Chuy himself is hardly a progressive now. While sitting on the House Financial Services Committee, he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto-billionaire who would later be indicted for fraud. News reports have revealed dark money funding his campaign that’s been linked to Emanuel allies like Adam Gypalo and activist org Sunrise Chicago called out tens of thousands of dollars Garcia has taken from polluters including Howard Labkon who pushed to saddle working-class communities of color with the General Iron shredder. But betrayal of progressive possibility by Chuy isn’t relegated to shady campaign funding; he is openly dismissive of it. 

Chuy claims to be about racial unity but throws Black activists and their rallying cries under the bus at mayoral forums, saying about defunding the police that he’s “never supported such a movement.” He’s the guy that makes commercials violating ethics code to stroll with police instead of focusing on the roots of crime. For example, the most common crime in Chicago is theft, so it is no coincidence this is the case with growing unemployment in already struggling communities that can use the millions of City dollars funneled toward Lincoln Yards or a cop academy. 

Ironically, Chuy’s campaign disses Lightfoot even though Chuy endorsed Lightfoot and campaigned for her in 2019 when he went so far as to refer to her as “the change agent that Chicago so desperately needs.” Doing too little too late, Chuy conveniently expressed regret for his endorsement in a speech at City Club last month—after years of damage done by the candidate he fervently backed. But, Chuy’s more of a Lightfoot than he is a progressive alternative.

The image Chuy’s painting of himself isn’t that of the activist who worked with radical organizer Rudy Lozano or the man who was chairman of the Illinois Senate Black Caucus. He seems to have buried those aspects of himself. That’s because Chuy isn’t willing to make any promises that he’s going to do anything revolutionary or build a radical coalition. 

Sure, he made a commercial where he’s dressed down like a Mexican American Mister Rogers and talking to Chicago’s Latino residents in Spanish in a pandering tone like he’s selling pork skins at the Swap-O-Rama flea market. But that spot and its pastoral images of Latino life exist because whoever’s working Chuy’s communication strategy think Latinos aren’t smart enough to see beyond stereotypical representation and are betting he can secure the Latino vote. 

They need to do their research and take note of the growing number of Latinos who have come to see Chuy for who he’s become. Recently, over 100 Latino leaders and elected officials from across the city announced their support of Johnson who seems to be the only progressive candidate in the race. 

Now and then, Chuy has paraded figures like Dolores Huerta and Bernie Sanders for clout and to confer progressive cred onto himself. They may not be aware of Chuy’s local actions and questionable politicking. But, many here know better.

The dissonance between who we thought Chuy is and who he shows himself to be isn’t really a contradiction; it’s an admission. Chuy isn’t running as a progressive this mayoral bid. He’s running as an aspirational neoliberal mayor and, just like he’s already shown over the past few years, he’ll leave real progress and working people behind.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Ricardo Gamboa is a long-time Chicago artist and activist and works in film and television. Gamboa recently worked for three seasons as a writer and producer for Showtime’s The Chi. They are also pursuing their doctoral degree of American Studies in New York.

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February 27, 2023 at 07:28PM

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