Op-Ed: The Chicago Mayoral Race – Why Jesus "Chuy" Garcia Has A Shot at Becoming Mayor


, ,

chicago chuey garcia
By Maria de los Angeles Torres and Teresa Cordova
The Chicago Mayoral runoff is in a dead heat despite pundits’ predictions  that  Rahm Emmanuel would easily win the majority of votes to avoid a run-off. Some of them now say that they had not appreciated the depth of discontent in the African-American community that did not come out strong for him.  Perhaps more importantly is their lack of understanding of the unaddressed challenges to the majority of residents — Black, Latinos, Asian Americans and Whites, brought forth by a globalization that is profoundly changing the lives and politics of Chicagoans.

 The Economic Context 

Since the early 1980s Chicago started the path to becoming a Global City. Globalization brought forth some positive developments particularly in communications and transportation, which shortened the distances among human beings. It has contributed to expanding financial and high-tech industries albeit with mixed results. Our downtown has come alive with entertainment venues and even high-end residential buildings.
However, these developments remain elusive to the majority of Chicagoans. for globalization has an underbelly, the deepening divide between rich and poor in all communities.
The foundations of the American middle class including in white ethnic neighborhoods have eroded as manufacturing jobs left cities while public service employment shrank. Instead, low-end service jobs with meager wages were created.  Neighborhoods throughout the city are devastated as anchor institutions — including local schools — are removed. Making matters worse are deep cuts in essential services, particularly public education including public universities, which have served as the primary bridge between low and high service jobs. The recession only made these matters worse.
Little wonder why respondents to this year’s Pew Research Center Global survey of people in 44 countries named deepening inequality and persistently jobless growth as the top two problems facing their countries. The third was a lack of leadership addressing these issues.  Sound familiar?

 The Invisibility of Workers and Immigrants

For those who work in the high-end service sector, receive medical care from private doctors, and whose children attend private schools, life is not so bad. Clearly this is Rahm’s Chicago. But missing from most pundits’ calculations are those whose lives are marked by economic insecurities, precarious pension public and private plans, low paying jobs, severe cutbacks in essential services including public safety and basic education, and disinvested neighborhoods. Many families cannot even reproduce for their children what they had thirty years ago much less dream of a brighter future. They have found a voice in Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Further adding to the misunderstanding of the Garcia phenomenon is that he comes from a community that is invisible in the national imagination, particularly in American urban politics.

 Changing Nature of Politics in Chicago

Politics has also changed in Chicago. There has been a marked decline of the machine that relied on patronage jobs to deliver votes, particularly in elections held in the coldest month of the year.  Globalization has had a hand in this as well, as city government privatized services and doled out contracts instead of jobs.  This translates to campaign contributions, which are then used to wage election battles on the airwaves. However, it does not always translate into votes.
One positive fall-out of the machine’s decline is that voters are not swayed by endorsements, including President Obama’s. Latino elected endorsements didn’t do the trick either including Luis Gutierrez’s, the champion of immigrants, who tried to extract favors from new citizens he helped naturalize by carting them to the polls and telling them whom to vote for. In fact some lost their aldermanic seats, others are facing run-offs, and some barely squeaked by.  Most emblematic of the weakening reach of the machine was Garcia’s victory in the 14th Ward, home of  Alderman Ed Burke, the most powerful Alderman in the City, described by Chicago Magazine as “[o]ne of the last of the old-school Chicago Machine pols.”

 An Election of Distinct Policy Choices

In five weeks, voters will have a unique opportunity to choose between two candidates coming from different sides of our Global City.  Rahm Emmanuel has a record that demonstrates that he has not successfully addressed the challenges of the underside of globalization and, according to many,  may have exacerbated them, particularly in education and public safety.  He has to explain why they failed and what he will do to remedy this. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, in turn, wants to address these challenges through a perspective that links the fate of the city to the viability of the downtown AND the neighborhoods. Indeed, this was the conceptual underpinnings of the programs of the Harold Washington’s administration, one in which Garcia learned his first public administration lessons.  However, he needs to spell out specifics.
Moreover, while Chicago has changed, some questions remain the same: will communities long separated by race and ethnicity cross these divides?  If economic interests influence voting patterns, then they should since what sets apart the candidates in this race is their distinct location in our global city and consequently their policy visions.  One fact to remember: there are a lot more voters in neighborhoods than in the downtown and lakefront wards.
Maria de los Angeles Torres (torresma@uic.edu) and Teresa Cordova (tcordova@uic.edu) are professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Torres is Executive Director of the Inter-University Program on Latino Research and Cordova is Director of the Great Cities Institute.
This article was distributed by the:
National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP)
25 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011