Defeated at the polls 17 years ago, Chuy's real test was about to begin

Defeated at the polls 17 years ago, Chuy's real test was about to begin
Jesús “Chuy” García rallies supporters of his Chicago mayoral campaign March 28 in the city’s Little Village neighborhood. He’s running on his commitment to neighborhoods but there’s a chapter of his career that tested that commitment. WBEZ/Chip Mitchell
Defeated at the polls 17 years ago, Chuy's real test was about to begin
Jesús “Chuy” García rallies supporters of his Chicago mayoral campaign March 28 in the city’s Little Village neighborhood. He’s running on his commitment to neighborhoods but there’s a chapter of his career that tested that commitment. WBEZ/Chip Mitchell

Defeated at the polls 17 years ago, Chuy's real test was about to begin

Editor’s Note: A broadcast version of this story juxtaposed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s 1998 decision to move to a nonprofit job with Rahm Emanuel’s move around that time into banking. The comparison lacked context. The text on this page does not include that passage but we have posted the transcript of the broadcast version.

In the closing stretch of Chicago’s mayoral race, parts of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s past are under scrutiny. This week Mayor Rahm Emanuel accused his challenger of running up a deficit at a nonprofit group he once led in the city’s Little Village neighborhood.

But there’s a chapter of Garcia’s career that tested something more fundamental — whether he’s the neighborhood guy he makes himself out to be. Garcia told WBEZ about it between campaign events a few days ago.

The year was 1998, when Garcia was a two-term Illinois state senator in the 1st District, which spanned Little Village and parts of neighborhoods nearby.

Garcia was undefeated at the ballot box. In almost a dozen contests — for the senate seat, for the 22nd Ward committeeman post and for the ward’s City Council seat — no one had beaten him.

He assumed he would add another win to his record in the year’s Democratic primary as he sought reelection to the senate. He faced Antonio Muñoz, a little-known Chicago cop who did not have much political experience and did not speak much Spanish.

Garcia eventually discovered what Muñoz did have: “A massive army on the street.” This army, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, was part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political operation.

Some of the troops went door-to-door. “They would say, ‘Hey, is anybody here unemployed? Does anybody here need a job?’ ” Garcia recalled. “And if there was someone unemployed, they would say, ‘OK, we’re hiring you starting today. And then, once the campaign is over, we’re going to get you a city job.’ ”

On Election Day, HDO’s show of force was overwhelming. “There were tons of city workers, outnumbering us 40-to-1 at a polling place,” recalled Sonia Silva, then a state representative aligned with Garcia. “They wore city of Chicago gear and drove cars paid for by the city taxpayers.”

Muñoz won with almost 54 percent of the vote.

“There was a real shock,” Garcia said. “We were all at a loss to understand how it could be lost.”

After the election, Garcia’s neighborhood critics claimed he had it coming.

“He thought that he couldn’t lose because [he] thought that you had to speak Spanish to represent the Latino community,” recalled August Sallas, a former typographical union leader who ran against Garcia in earlier elections. “That, in my opinion, is arrogant.”

Sallas was not the only one blaming Garcia.

Howard Ehrman, a physician who helped form the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, pointed to Garcia’s tenure as 22nd Ward alderman beginning in 1986. Ehrman said Garcia ran the ward’s independent political organization top-down, which drove some supporters away, leaving Garcia more and more vulnerable.

By the time Garcia faced Muñoz in 1998, Ehrman said, “the organization probably had a fourth of the members going door to door for Chuy as compared to the first time he got elected.”

Garcia said his own people were pointing fingers too. “Whose fault was it? Who in the campaign went to sleep?” Garcia recalled the conversations. “Somebody should be held responsible for it. Somebody should catch the blame.”

Garcia took the defeat personally. “I took it as a rejection,” he said. “I said, ‘How could people reject someone who had worked to be a full-time legislator, not have any other employment that I was pursuing, working for a pretty modest salary, who speaks at community gatherings?’ ”

After the election loss, Garcia still had more than nine months in his Senate term. But Marcelo Gaete, his longtime chief of staff, decided it was time to pull up stakes.

“I’m not going to be there for the rest of your term,” Gaete recalled telling Garcia. “I’m going to just start fresh and go to Los Angeles. And he was supportive. But there was a part of me that felt guilt.”

Garcia’s whole world was upside down. He could hardly make sense of it. “I went through a lot of funk,” he said.

And then something helped Garcia put everything into perspective.

Garcia had gone one afternoon to his parents’ place for lunch. His father told him he kept getting asked a question in the neighborhood: “Why did Chuy lose? Why did your son lose?”

And Garcia’s father answered, “He lost because he had to lose eventually.”

“When he told me that,” Garcia recalled, “I thought, that’s just so simple, but it also came to be a practical way of looking at myself — to not take myself so seriously.”

“Sometimes circumstances and the environment play a role in your life,” Garcia said. “It doesn’t define you as a person forever. And the most important thing to do is to accept it and move on. And if you’ve got something good, still, to contribute, you’re going to be able to do that.”

After that talk with his father, Garcia said he started thinking less about the defeat and more about what he could still contribute. And, as he served out the rest of his Senate term, he started getting job offers.

He said a lot of offers would have made him a lobbyist and he would have earned “a lot of money quickly.”

“And some banks wanted to hire me to do outreach, to do public relations, to use my name,” Garcia said. “And I spoke to some people about it. I wanted to hear them out [and learn] how you begin being a lobbyist and what you have to do to keep the job.”

Garcia decided it was not for him.

He was talking, meanwhile, with people at the Little Village Community Development Corp., a fledgling nonprofit that later changed its name to Enlace Chicago after the Spanish word for “link.”

“They came to me and they started pitching to me: ‘Hey, this organization has a lot of potential. You could be the founding executive director. It’s going to do all kinds of projects in the neighborhood,’ ” Garcia recalled.

He took the job. Over the next decade, with Garcia at the helm, Enlace took on gang violence, helped folks learn English and get their GEDs, and helped win the neighborhood a new high school and new parks.

Enlace has come up in the mayor’s race. Debating Garcia on Tuesday night, Mayor Rahm Emanuel referred to the group. “It’s a great organization and it does good work,” he said.

But the mayor quickly added that Garcia “left it in deficit.” Emanuel pointed to red ink in 2009, the year Garcia stepped down as executive director. The mayor said that deficit raises doubts about his challenger’s ability to manage the city budget — a much larger responsibility.

Garcia responded that Enlace’s deficit was short-lived and that it stemmed from the recession, a time when many nonprofits were hurting.

The debate didn’t settle much about Garcia’s financial acumen.

And Garcia says it’s not the only issue on which to judge him. In the WBEZ interview, he pointed to the way he responded to losing his State Senate back in 1998.

“The fact that I didn’t go corporate,” Garcia said, “tells you that my interest in figuring out how to make neighborhoods more livable, more relevant — how you develop leadership in neighborhoods to be able to do that — has remained a passion of mine.”

A question for Chicago voters next Tuesday is whether a neighborhood guy like Garcia is fit to lead the whole city.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.