Rahm Emanuel's political nightmare: Jesus "Chuy" Garcia tells Salon why he'll oust the Mayor

EXCLUSIVE: Rahm's liberal challenger explains what the "out of touch and callous" Mayor's trouble means for America

Published March 4, 2015 11:30AM (EST)

Rahm Emanuel, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia         (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/Kiichiro Sato)
Rahm Emanuel, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/Kiichiro Sato)

Until he was drafted to run against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia was little known outside his Southwest Side district and the city’s progressive community, which still pines for the days when Mayor Harold Washington united African-Americans, Latinos and white liberals to defeat the well-funded forces of Machine bossism. Garcia was the progressives’ third-string candidate: Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle declined to run, and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis learned she had brain cancer. Garcia raised $1.3 million -- a twelfth of Emanuel’s $15 million -- but on Feb. 24, he and three other candidates held the mayor to 45 percent, less than the majority he needed to avoid an April 7 runoff between the top two vote-getters. Garcia finished second, with 34 percent.

Born in Durango, Mexico, Garcia moved to Chicago at the age of 10, after his father, a migrant farm worker who picked crops through the bracero program, found a steady job in a meat packing plant. He was elected to the city council in 1986, as an ally of Mayor Harold Washington, then spent six years in the state Senate, serving alongside Barack Obama. After his defeat by an ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Garcia spent 12 years as executive director of a community development program in Little Village, the Mexican-American neighborhood he now represents on the county board.

A competitive mayoral race is a once-a-generation experience for Chicagoans: Since the city adopted non-partisan elections in 1995, this is the first runoff. Facing an electorate disgruntled over the city’s most-in-the-nation murders, the closing of 50 schools, most of them in African-American neighborhoods, a 2012 teacher’s strike, and the installation of speed cameras that spit out $100 tickets, Emanuel lost 10 points off his 2011 percentage. This despite an in-person endorsement by President Obama, who came to Chicago on the Thursday before the election to declare the city’s Pullman Historic District a national monument. The latest poll shows the mayor slipping even further. He leads Garcia 42.9 percent to 38.5 percent, a margin the Chicago Sun-Times calls a “dead heat.” The fundraising, however, is unlikely to be close. Last week, the super PAC Chicago Forward announced it would be spending $110,000 to support Emanuel’s campaign, triggering a state law that lifts the cap on campaign contributions.

Garcia, 58, spoke to Salon on Tuesday. Following is a transcript of our conversation.

You weren’t well known outside your district, you were outspent 12-1, and Rahm Emanuel had the endorsement of President Obama. What are the conditions in Chicago and what is the message of your campaign that enabled you to force Mayor Emanuel into a runoff?

I think that the past four years in Chicago under Rahm Emanuel have really enabled people to see that this administration is disconnected from ordinary people, that the city has worked for the benefit of a select few, and that the neighborhoods have been left behind. I think some of the starkest examples of that were the mayor’s effort to break the teachers union by making it more difficult for them to have an authorization strike. He provoked the first teachers strike in 25 years. The massive school closures were another sign of how out of touch and callous he can be, and not listen to people when they plead with him not to engage in an action that makes Chicago a leader in one of the worst ways. The media coverage of how his contributors give to his campaign and then wind up benefiting through a variety of means, such as contracts, appointments to boards and commissions, TIF subsidies, etc., prove to people that this guy is a 1 percenter and that he doesn’t care about ordinary people. Ordinary people don’t matter in Chicago. My message in the first round has been that we need to make the neighborhoods in Chicago a priority, that having good schools in neighborhoods all over Chicago needs to be a prerequisite to making the city a better place, a fairer place. I’ve talked about the epidemic of violence that we’ve experienced -- 10,000 shootings.

You were talking about being a leader in the worst way. Chicago has become known as the nation’s murder capital. Why does Chicago have more murders than any city in the U.S., and what is your plan to reduce the violence?

It comes on the heels of his promise, four years ago, to hire 1,000 additional police officers, a promise he broke. I’ve proposed I’m going to hire 1,000 additional police officers to engage in community policing -- something that we need to make a reality in Chicago given the great gulf that separates community residents from police. There’s not a relationship of trust, there’s not a relationship of mutual respect. That needs to be there in order for the two to work together to reduce crime, to prevent crime and, of course, to change the perceptions that we learned exist in the aftermath of Ferguson and New York. I see many of the officers being hired being trained in community policing, giving them the flexibility and autonomy to really get to know community residents, community groups, from schools to churches to block clubs. I use my experience and my lens as a community organizer to say that that has to be a priority.

You were responsible for some anti-gun ordinances on the county board, although Chicago seems to be swimming against the tide of the courts on this. Is there anything more you can do as mayor, or are the city’s gun laws as strong as the courts are going to allow them to be?

The gun lobby has been successful in using the courts to enable them to pretty much be able to have access to guns so readily. The problem is that many illegal guns continue to flow into the city from suburban areas and other states, because they’re so readily available and relatively inexpensive. We’re going to continue to work to toughen gun laws in Illinois. I think the fact that I have grown up in neighborhoods in Chicago that are plagued with gun violence gives me additional standing, certainly more standing than Rahm Emanuel to lobby the state Legislature for measures that will get more guns off the street. Why? Because I’ve seen gun violence in my own neighborhood, near my house, on a regular basis. I hear gunshots at night.

The Chicago Tribune has accused you of peddling “fairy dust” for promising to put 1,000 new police officers on the street and reopen schools. They say you have no plan to pay for them. Sen. Mark Kirk says Chicago will follow Detroit into bankruptcy without a mayor who has the “gravitas” to deal with the bond market. In light of the fact that Chicago’s bond rating was downgraded last week, what is your plan to fund your plans and also fund the city’s $20 billion pension obligations?

Look, once again, we see a Republican endorsement of Rahm Emanuel. It’s not the first. We know that [Illinois Gov.] Bruce Rauner wants him to continue to be the mayor of Chicago, and now Republican Sen. Mark Kirk does the same thing. It’s very clear that the mayor bears direct responsibility for the downgrading of Chicago’s finances last week. One of the three promises he made four years ago was to put the city’s fiscal state in a better place. It isn’t. It’s in a worse state. Our level of indebtedness has only grown over the past four years. He doesn’t have a solution. This occurs while he’s providing tax dollars to benefit his rich friends, like the Marriott Hotel chain in the South Loop, an area that doesn’t need Tax Increment Financing to make a hotel development a reality in one of the hottest real estate markets in the city. Those are the priorities of this administration: wanting to build a DePaul [basketball] arena while we have the levels of violence that we do in the neighborhoods is another clear example of this administration’s misguided priorities in Chicago, when the city is suffering from closed schools and the violence that goes unabated.

But the biggest criticism of your campaign is that you’ve been vague about how you’re going to pay for more cops and more schools and deal with the $20 billion in pension obligations.

We’re spending $100 million on [police] overtime at present. Because we’re understaffed in the Chicago Police Department, we begin by taking a portion of that overtime to hire additional police officers to begin getting us to the 1,000 additional police officers that we need on streets. We also look at efficiencies within the city budget, because the expenditures over the past four years increased by $1.4 billion. We need to see exactly what is in the budget in order to figure out how to find the money to hire police officers. We can find it. It’s a matter of political will and we will make it a reality, because Chicago cannot be a world-class city unless the neighborhoods are safe.

This decade has seen the election of a number of progressive big-city mayors: Bill de Blasio in New York, Ed Murray in Seattle, Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh. Would you consider yourself part of that movement, and why do you think so many big cities have been turning to progressive leadership in the last few years?

It’s become clear to people that cities in America cannot be good places to raise families as long as inequality continues to undermine working people and the middle class, and that leaves the poor behind. They want a course that is more equitable, that is sustainable, and one that addresses the daily needs of the families in those cities.

Let me ask you about the Obama Presidential Library. First, you said you oppose using parkland near the University of Chicago for the library. Now, you say it should be up to the neighbors. What’s your position, and are you worried your uncertainty will hurt the city’s bid? The New York Daily News is saying that if you win, New York will get the library.

Obviously, someone planted such a story in the New York Times to create fear, just like Republican Sen. Mark Kirk endorsed the mayor and tried to instill fear in Chicagoans, but remember who got us here. They got us here and they gave us the Great Recession, their friends who contribute money to people like Rahm Emanuel, the millionaires, the billionaires, the investment bankers who acted irresponsibly, so let’s be clear on that. What was your question again?

First, you said you opposed using parkland for the Obama library ...

On the Obama library, my position has been I’ve expressed concerns about building -- first of all, I want the library in Chicago. I’ve expressed concerns about building it on parkland. There are only two proposals pending: the West Side, University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago site. What I have said is this: we don’t select the site. The Obamas and their committee will make the selection, and I’ve stated that because the only two sites pending, that the goal being to get it in Chicago, whichever site they select, I will support.

Why do you think President Obama’s endorsement of Rahm Emanuel was not as effective this year as it was four years ago?

I don’t think the president’s endorsement made such a difference because people have had a chance to experience Rahm Emanuel, to understand his agenda and his priorities, and they clearly do not see Rahm Emanuel caring about everyday people, about the neighborhoods, about critical issues in Chicago, like having good public schools, and of course, the horrific problems of gun violence that people experience in a real way on a daily basis.

This race is being portrayed by some as a proxy for a larger struggle between the populist wing and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, or between the policies favored by Elizabeth Warren and those favored by Hillary Clinton. Do you see it way, and if so, what implications does this race have for the 2016 elections?

I’ve been focused on what's going on in Chicago, because I’ve been a neighborhood activist and community builder for a long, long time. There may be a larger pattern of how cities have gone in the last couple of years. It makes sense. Why? Because people aren’t seeing the recovery in the aftermath of the recession, and people want to see a government that is responsive to a neighborhood agenda and the problems of everyday Chicagoans. It may fit a larger pattern of people wanting to get away from a corporate agenda, which certainly Rahm Emanuel epitomizes.

Last Tuesday, over 80 percent of the voters favored a referendum for an elected school board. Rahm Emanuel doesn’t want it. Why does Chicago need it?

Chicagoans have arrived at the conclusion that we need more accountability over the Chicago public school system. The legislation that gave the mayor absolute authority over the school board has been rejected. People no longer have faith that complete control over the school system should lie in the hands of the mayor. They want an elected school board just like all the state of Illinois has, but for Chicago. It clearly shows the mayor being out of step with the citizens of Chicago.

What have been the consequences of an appointed school board?

The consequences are that you wind up with Mayor Emanuel appointing people who wind up on the school board with conflicts of interest. People like Dave Vitale who come from the banking industry engaging in exotic financing deals that can jeopardize the assets of the Chicago Public Schools. People don’t want that. People want elected representatives who care more about the policy rather than using the assets of the school system once again to benefit their friends.

You say you want to study Colorado’s experience with recreational marijuana. Rahm Emanuel says, “You want revenue? Grow jobs, don’t grow pot.” Is encouraging marijuana use worth the expanded revenue?

I haven’t said that I want marijuana to be legalized. I said that we ought to study the experiment that’s going on in Colorado, looking at how it impacts crime, if there are any health impacts. We should also look at the revenue side of what happened in Colorado. I’m not saying we're going to follow that road, I’m saying that we shouldn’t shut the door on it, because it could be a source of revenue.

Over at the county, you’ve been encouraging the police to issue tickets for marijuana possession, because marijuana arrests have been clogging the jail.

That’s right. We have, for small amounts of marijuana, the way that the laws are implemented does result in people of color being arrested for those offenses, moreso than other people, and I have a problem with that. I believe that justice needs to be blind. I don’t believe that people should be sitting in the county jail because they got busted with a joint or two. It doesn’t make any sense, and it only continues the school-to-prison pipeline.

In your election night speech, you said you overcame “the hedge funds and the Hollywood celebrities who poured tens of millions into the mayor's campaign.” That was to get a third of the vote. With all the spending caps lifted now, how do you get a majority against a candidate as well funded as Rahm Emanuel?

I think the election of last Tuesday created a lot of new believers. I think it made voters who stood away, who thought that the elections are rigged by big money -- it’s opened up the minds of people in Chicago and it’s a brand-new ballgame. We will win in April because of the coalition that we’re building, because of the message that people are responding to, and that, I think that Chicagoans will reject the corporate attempt to hijack the city away from ordinary people and the neighborhoods for another four years. People want a city’s that’s more equitable, that’s inclusive, and that will be sustainable into the future.

According to the latest poll, you’re on the way up and he’s on the way down. How did those results change the perception of each of your campaigns?

I think that people may have been cynical about politics and thought that we’re stuck with these guys for the foreseeable future, have now seen an opening, and I think that they’re excited about the prospect for change, about an administration that will have as a bedrock ethics and a sense of purpose, an administration that will be transparent, and one that will truly be inclusive of all Chicago. I think that message resonates with people.

By Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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