Progressive heavyweight and Congressman Jesús G. “Chuy” García joined a crowded field of candidates for Chicago mayor Thursday, launching his campaign as the highest-ranking and most well-known public official to challenge Mayor Lori Lightfoot so far.
“Chicago is at a crossroads … Chicago needs a leader with a vision of our future, and the knowhow and the empathy to get us there together,” García told supporters at a kick-off event at Navy Pier.
Invoking Chicago’s first Black mayor – Harold Washington – García, who was a progressive organizer and ally of Washington’s as a Chicago alderman in the 1980s, said he will be the force to unify Chicagoans instead of “driving us apart.”
He did not mention Lightfoot by name, or the fact that he endorsed her in her 2019 campaign. García also did not address the fact that a large swath of the progressive union support he enjoyed during his previous, 2015 unsuccessful mayoral bid, has already endorsed his opponent, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in the race.
Instead, García leaned heavily on his resume that includes serving in every major local office in Chicago-area government.
“We replaced a divided city with a united, thriving community. And we ushered in an era of city government that worked for all of us,” García said of the tumultuous “council wars” era of the city council. “Mark my words: my values and my commitment to build a better, more inclusive Chicago has never waivered. I’m the only candidate in the race with the experience of serving the city at every level of government.”
The formal announcement comes just two days after García won a third term representing Illinois’ 4th District in Congress.
The Chicago Sun-Times was the first to report García’s candidacy.
García told supporters his priorities will be decreasing violence, investing in mental health, building a police department that is “deserving of support,” creating green infrastructure, combating environmental racism and investing in schools — though he was light on details about how he intends to achieve those goals.
Entering area politics in 1984 as a committeeman for the Cook County Democratic Party, García has held the offices of Cook County commissioner, Chicago alderman, state senator, congressman and is best known for his work on immigrant rights and immigration policy reform. García grew up in a small village in the Mexican state of Durango. The youngest of four children, he was raised by his mother while his father lived and worked in the U.S., including at a cold-storage plant in Chicago.
The fight for Chicago progressive voters
This is not García’s first time attempting to add Chicago mayor to his resume. In 2015 he was hand-picked by the Chicago Teachers Union to run against then-incumbent Rahm Emanuel, after the union’s first choice, then-CTU President Karen Lewis, became ill. García’s candidacy energized Chicago’s progressive base and forced Emanuel into a runoff election.
García’s relatively late announcement — he is the 10th Lightfoot challenger to enter the race — puts him at some disadvantage in terms of local progressive endorsements. In 2015, he had the support of the Chicago Teachers Union, their federal and state affiliates and of the progressive union SEIU Local 73.
All of those groups, as of Wednesday, have instead endorsed Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson — who jumped in the race at the end of October. The progressive political party United Working Families has also endorsed Johnson. The American Federation of Teachers recently pledged $1 million to Johnson’s campaign.
In a nod to the fact that he’s forging ahead in the race without CTU’s support, García was introduced at Thursday’s event by Stephanie Gadlin, the union’s former communications director of five years until 2016, according to her LinkedIn.
“Karen [Lewis] told me that Chuy, having served at all levels of local government… had the experience, the vision and the creativity needed” to lead Chicago in 2015, Gadlin said. “Karen believed in 2015 and I believe today.”
In a statement through the CTU, Lewis’ husband, John Lewis, objected to Gadlin invoking the name of his late wife.
“I’m sad to see the memory of my Karen being used the way it’s being used today … I support my family. I love my union. Brandon [Johnson] is my union brother,” John Lewis said in a written statement.
With much less name recognition than García, Johnson is vying for the top spot among a contingent of progressive candidates running for mayor, and has proclaimed himself the progressive choice as he publicly encouraged García not to run.
“I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the progressive candidate is the person who’s endorsed by progressives,” Johnson said after his October announcement. “I have been endorsed by progressives.”
Ald. Sophia King, head of the City Council’s progressive caucus, along with activist Ja’Mal Green, State Rep. Kam Buckner and Ald. Roderick Sawyer, is also running on a progressive platform.
The criticisms against García
García’s name recognition and progressive chops have grown since his 2015 mayoral loss. And his legislative experience in D.C.could help him overcome his perceived weakness in 2015, said veteran progressive political strategist Rebecca Williams.
“His big weakness in 2015 was that while voters really trusted Chuy’s motivation for running — that he wanted to do good things, and had the right values -– there was reticence about his ability to do the job. Can he actually run a city? Can he manage a really big city?” Williams said.
This time around, “how he performs in the debate space will be important, and whether he can articulate a plan,” she said.
Further, Williams said, García will have work to do to capture the trust and votes of Chicago’s Black community, which largely chose Emanuel over him in the 2015 election. But his relationships with or potential endorsements from influential supporters and friends in Washington, D.C., could help him there, Williams said.
García’s underperformance among Black voters in 2015 is already something critics – including allies from Chicago’s progressive community – are attempting to capitalize on.
An hour before García’s announcement, Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, the head of Chicago’s Democratic Socialist Caucus tweeted: “Anti-Blackness has no place in Chicago or in the Latino community.”
Explaining his Tweet, Ramirez Rosa told WBEZ he was “upset that Chuy chose to announce while Anjanette Young is at City Council testifying,” referring to a council meeting that occurred around the time of Garcia’s announcement in which Young, a Black woman who was the victim of a wrongful police raid, spoke.
“It tells me he’s disconnected from the progressive issues at City Hall [and] tone deaf.”
Ramirez Rosa has endorsed Johnson in the 2023 race, despite campaigning for García in 2015.
Lightfoot’s campaign also piled on the criticism against García.
In a statement, Lightfoot campaign spokesperson Christina Freundlich bashed García for “prioritizing his own ambitions” by announcing his campaign a “mere 36 hours after voters reelected him to Congress.”
“Mr. García is abandoning ship and going after a fellow progressive Democrat. That’s not the tough, principled leadership our city needs,” Freundlich said.
Some have warned that the wealth of progressive candidates this election cycle will only serve to split the vote in February’s election, which could help send one of the field’s more conservative candidates into a potential runoff in April.
Williams disagreed, saying a variety of candidates gives Chicago’s progressive community multiple perspectives to choose from.
“If you look at the last election cycle, you had two Black women who ran on progressive platforms — very progressive-as-they-get platforms — and made it into that runoff,” Williams said. “So it’s not quite a zero-sum game like that. Maybe with three or four total candidates, you can talk about a split. But I think a field like last time, with a lot of candidates, increases the chances of getting progressives in the runoff.”
Former CPS CEO Paul Vallas, businessman Willie Wilson, Ald. Raymond Lopez and Chicago cop Frederick Collins have all said they are also running — representing a slew of challengers running tough-on-crime campaigns to the right of Lightfoot.
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago government and politics at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.