Why is Rahm Emanuel's Challenger, Jesús 'Chuy' Garcia, So Happy?

Unencumbered by expectations or much of a program, Garcia is free in a way that the incumbent—and much of the city—are not.

on February 24, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

CHICAGO—The West Loop campaign headquarters of mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia has some fun touches, like the “emergency mustache” box—“You never know when you might need one”—and the supporter’s painting of Garcia as Superman propped up next to the basket of neighbor-baked banana muffins, each individually wrapped and stamped with a different Chuy-licious, go-get-‘em message.

But there is not much private meeting space in the converted restaurant, where several dozen brown, black and white volunteers of all ages are online and on the phone on Garcia’s behalf in the final days ahead of the April 7 runoff. And this, too, the candidate’s friend and three-time former campaign manager, Chicago Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, blames on the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel

"Nobody wanted to rent to us," says Muñoz, who'd volunteered to find his former mentor, now a Cook County commissioner, the right HQ. Owners really feared the wrath of Rahmbo more than an empty building? "It's the Chicago way," he says mildly. "Happens all the time." 

Whether it's wise to pump up the incumbent as so big and bad is debatable, but that Emanuel is more feared that loved is not, even as the most recent polling shows him opening a 48.5 percent to 32.1 percent lead—or 55.8 to 44.2 if the undecided option is taken out—in two surveys by Odgen & Fry. 

"Emanuel's heavily criticized attack ads continue to have an impact on the race," according to the pollsters, since "Emanuel has used his financial advantage to define Garcia, using his own words, as someone who would have made the same decisions." 

That would seem to undercut the argument that Emanuel is just enough of a @$!# to make the cuts and compromises that others wouldn’t have and won’t. And the surprise runoff has now forced Emanuel to show a softer side, too; in last week’s debate, he highlighted how important it is for him to hug the grieving parents of shooting victims. But the major split still seems to be between those Chicagoans who see 55-year-old Emanuel’s confrontational style as a marker for those “tough choices” he’s always bragging about, like closing 50 public schools, and those who wonder what those choices have really gotten their city.

Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia greets workers during a campaign stop at a linen and uniform service company on Feb. 23, 2015, in Chicago.

Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia greets workers during a campaign stop at a linen and uniform service company on Feb. 23, 2015, in Chicago.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago has $20 billion in unfunded pension liabilites, bond ratings downgraded to near-junk status, and a crime problem so serious that the mayor’s own 17-year-old son was mugged near his home in December.

On the airwaves that Emanuel’s campaign and the PAC that supports him are indeed blanketing, the anti-Garcia commercials would be almost comical if viewers could see the small-print disclaimers: That raise Garcia voted himself, because he’s “out for himself, not us,’’ was as a member of the state senate, in 1998. And his support for the “biggest property tax increase ever” was as an alderman in 1987, when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, tough choices were the only choice. 

In an interview in a narrow wedge of a space next to a freezer in the back of his imperfect HQ, the challenger cites those attack ads as proof that the mayor is “panicking.” Garcia, however, is not, and as proof of his own support, he evokes all of the folks at the two St. Patrick’s Day parades who were chanting his name: “They’re summoning me over, to come over and give them high fives, they want buttons -- we had green St. Patrick’s Day buttons, they went like hotcakes—so it’s been pretty phenomenal.’’

Some of those folks, of course, were maybe “not 100 percent sober,’’ as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would say. But even as Garcia is losing ground over a pay raise he got 20 years ago, he insists he’s heartened by the response he's getting on the campaign trail: “Probably the most curious thing about it is that little kids, children are tuned into it; they’re doing the mustache thing, the button thing, they like the name—I wasn’t sure whether the name would take, whether it was a big risk to roll out with ‘Chuy’ as a brand—and it’s been received phenomenally. You walk into a coffee shop, I’m at a bus-stop, walking down the street and it’s, ‘Hey Chuy!’ So that’s a surprise; I expected it would be ‘Hey, Garcia!’ but no, it’s ‘Chuy.’ ’’

Now that that’s settled, what about his plan if elected? He hasn’t said exactly how he’d address the city’s various fiscal crises, but that’s not, he says, because he doesn’t want to turn off voters ahead of the election, or because he’s incapable of making unpopular calls. Instead, it’s because he thinks the situation Chicago’s facing is even worse than advertised, and doesn’t want to fake it or over-promise: “I’m bracing for the fiscal realities,’’ he says, and clears his throat, “and what I will inherit. I sense that it will be worse than what has been represented. That’s why I say that the first actions I will take will be audits of the finances as well as performance audits of the departments. Because they’ve never been done and thus my reluctance to get into the details of the measures we’ll take, because we don’t have a baseline.”

Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia greets workers during a campaign stop at a linen and uniform service company on Feb. 23, 2015, in Chicago.

Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia greets workers during a campaign stop at a linen and uniform service company on Feb. 23, 2015, in Chicago.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the biggest challenge his campaign faces is also money; his first TV spot just went up last week, finally. But, he says, “our greatest strength of all will be Election Day when we’ll have a group of between 5,000 and 6,000 people on the street knocking on doors and getting voters out…so I’m feeling really really good that we’re going to win.”

If Garcia sounds a lot more upbeat than the newly chastened man who's so far ahead of him in the polls, maybe that's because insurgencies are a lot more fun than reelection bids. That's especially true given the collective sigh of resignation with which even many Emanuel supporters view the inevitability of a second term. And it's despite the self-fulfilling fear among some Chicago progressives that they don't want to come out publicly for Garcia and then spend the next four years getting the treatment from Emanuel. Similarly, some national progressives don't want to be seen as insulting Emanuel's former boss, President Obama, by supporting Garcia. 

Liberals long list of beefs with what Emanuel has done as mayor includes his decision to close six of the city's 12 mental health clinics three years ago—a consolidation, he called it—and recent reports that his Chicago Housing Authority put money into cash reserves that had been earmarked for affordable housing. And while Emanuel talks up his role in raising the minimum wage, the major rationale for his reelection is, as GOP Senator Mark Kirk put it earlier this month, "I would worry about the value of the Chicago debt if Rahm was not re-elected.'' Turnout and the under-polling of Hispanic voters are the two unknowns that Garcia's campaign is counting on, as he continues to make the case that “Mayor One Percent” is only interested in cutting deals for his corporate cronies and with his friend and former associate, the state’s new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.

When Garcia and Emanuel spoke for a minute just before debating last week, though, all was friendly, the challenger says: “We were carrying on; we were chatting; I hope the mics weren’t on,’’ he jokes, but no, “nothing improper or regretful was said; we talked about family and ‘Have you been home, other than to shower and sleep?’”

What Chicago would get with him as mayor, Garcia says, is the tough choices needed to keep the lights on, but also 1,000 new cops on the street, by reducing the outlay for overtime. But there would also be transparency and honesty about the options, he says, instead of Emanuel’s back-door increases of fees, fines and penalties, and red-light cameras justified on public safety grounds when “it was only about money.”

A Mexican immigrant who came here legally as a child, the longtime community organizer talks as much about personal responsibility and consensus-building as another former practitioner from around here used to. And though he doesn’t know that guy as well as Emanuel does, when Barack Obama first came to the state senate, Garcia says, “He asked me to help him learn the ropes of the senate and who was who. So I shared with him what I knew,’’ he says, with a self-deprecating laugh, “but of course he went on to kind of do his own thing and look what happened!

“No one saw that coming; anyone who says they saw it isn’t telling the whole truth.’’ Although “obviously I knew that he was talented and very intelligent. And he came from community organizing,'' he says, smiling, "so we kind of had that in common."

Should Garcia win on April 7, no one will have seen that coming, either.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.