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Chicago’s New Progressive Boss

Chuy Garcia may be headed to Washington, but his local influence is bigger than ever.

Illustration by Miles Donovan
Illustration: Miles Donovan

It’s a long-standing tradition in Illinois politics to pack do-gooders, liberals, and other troublemakers off to Washington, D.C. Everybody wins. The idealists get to pass progressive legislation, protecting civil rights or the environment, and enter high-minded speeches into the Congressional Record — and they get to do it hundreds of miles from City Hall or the State Capitol, so they can’t stick their noses into the dirty business going on here. It happened to Paul Douglas, Paul Simon, and Barack Obama, three straight arrows who began their careers with ambitions to run for mayor or governor but were exiled to the U.S. Senate.

That’s not going to be the story of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is heading to Congress almost four years after he failed in his left-wing bid to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel. That campaign gave Garcia the cachet to succeed Luis Gutierrez as Illinois’s Latino congressman and established Garcia as a leader of two important factions in Chicago politics: Latino voters, who are clamoring for representation on the City Council that matches their growing numbers (they recently surpassed African Americans as the second-largest ethnic group in Chicago), and white liberals, who admire Garcia both for challenging Emanuel and for his endorsement of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Garcia passed on a second run for mayor after labor unions and other progressive groups gravitated to Toni Preckwinkle. Instead, mayoral candidates will be seeking his endorsement: “It’s enough to make a difference,” says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Garcia has yet to choose a candidate for mayor, but he is using his influence to work toward a goal that goes all the way back to his days as an alderman under Mayor Harold Washington: building the progressive bloc on the City Council.

“He’s definitely going to play in a couple of aldermanic races where we want to elect some progressives,” says Alderman Ricardo Munoz, a Garcia protégé who succeeded his mentor on the City Council. “We want to fatten up the progressive caucus. Chuy’s not just a Latino leader; he’s a progressive leader. His progressive credentials bode well for his ability to influence elections outside the community.”

Erika Wozniak and Aaron Ortiz
Chuy Garcia has put his political muscle behind both Erika Wozniak, who’s running for City Council in the 46th Ward, and Aaron Ortiz, a candidate for the Illinois House in the 1st District. Photos: (Wozniak) Courtesy of Erika Wozniak; (Ortiz) Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

In his own 22nd Ward, where Munoz is retiring, Garcia is supporting Committeeman Michael Rodriguez, a former executive director of Enlace Chicago, the community organization Garcia founded. In the 46th Ward, which covers part of Uptown and Lake View, Garcia chaired a fundraiser that raised nearly $12,000 for Erika Wozniak, a teacher at Oriole Park School who is running against Alderman James Cappleman, an Emanuel ally. If Wozniak wins, she will join the council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, a group of independent aldermen that now has 11 members but is expected to grow after next year’s elections — both because the presidency of Donald Trump has radicalized Chicago voters and Emanuel’s retirement will make it more difficult for him to protect his allies. Currently, the multiethnic group includes Munoz, 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, 4th Ward alderman Sophia King, and 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. Its primary agenda: police reform, limiting the use of tax increment financing districts, pushing to make the city more environmentally sustainable, and building more affordable housing. Wozniak says Garcia’s team encouraged her to run for alderman; she finally decided to do so after seeing the caucus push back against Emanuel’s Board of Education and secure funding for 65 special education teachers. Garcia’s support makes her challenge to an incumbent credible.

“Folks know who he is; they respect him,” Wozniak says. “It certainly shows how serious of a candidate I am: I’m an elementary school teacher, and a congressman takes me seriously.”

Then there’s the 14th Ward, which for the last half century has been represented by the quintessential machine alderman: Ed Burke. Garcia and Burke have been political enemies for decades. They were on opposite sides of the mid-’80s Council Wars. Then, in 1998, Burke supported a candidate who ousted Garcia from the Illinois Senate. After that defeat, Garcia spent a dozen years in the political wilderness. Now he is using his newfound prominence to dismantle the Burke dynasty. In March, Garcia’s handpicked candidate, Aaron Ortiz, won a legislative primary against Burke’s brother, state representative Dan Burke. In that same primary, Garcia’s successor on the Cook County Board, Alma Anaya, defeated another Latina candidate who was backed by members of the Burke family and the old Hispanic Democratic Organization. Now Garcia would love to defeat the Man himself, using the same ammo he used to beat Dan: Ed Burke’s representation of Donald Trump in real estate tax reduction cases from 2006 until this year.

“Clearly, he has lost touch, if he had it, with the community,” Garcia said of Burke in May. “The audacity of being Trump’s lawyer, attacking the largely Mexican American constituents of his ward. He put his interest in collecting attorney’s fees ahead of the people he represents.”

The 14th Ward is 80 percent Hispanic. So far, two candidates are challenging Burke: Jaime Guzman, an attorney at the Pilsen Law Center, and Jose Torrez, a 33-year-old adviser at City Colleges of Chicago and a former Enlace intern. Torrez is seeking the support of Garcia, whom he considers a “mentor.” “That’s the biggest endorsement you can get [in the 14th Ward],” says Torrez, who as an alderman would align himself with the progressive caucus and support such independent causes as aldermanic term limits and restoring budget-writing powers to the City Council.

There’s a malady called Potomac fever that is said to afflict congressmen who go to Washington and forget about the places that elected them. Garcia isn’t likely to catch it. He’ll still be a die-hard Chicago politician, building his own progressive machine back home.

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