Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Carol Felsenthal
On politics

How Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia Lost the Election

He was up against an unpopular mayor and had the backing of some very influential unions. So what went wrong?

Garcia giving his concession speech on election night  Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

It was over in a flash—from the time the first of Chicago’s 2069 precincts started to report, the split was roughly 55 percent for Rahm Emanuel to 44 percent for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and there it stubbornly stayed. (The final tally was 55.7 and 44.3; see the breakdown by ward and precinct.)

Could Chuy have pulled out a win over an unlikable mayor, seen by many as an elitist “Mayor 1%”?

Yes, I believe he could have. But he let the opportunity slip away.

The way forward seemed obvious. For starters, Chuy should have put names to the members of the commission that he promised to empower the day after the election that would fix Chicago’s malignant finances. Why not just name them? And while he was at it, why not name the members of his transition committee? Why not let voters see that he has people with credentials, people who understand municipal finance and governing, put some heft behind his weak assurances? Ask his experts to appear with him during interviews and campaign stops. Don’t go into a debate and mumble the name of two members and say you’re “not at liberty” to name the rest. If commission members he had in mind didn’t want to be publicly identified, find others.

No, Chuy didn’t have the millions that Rahm spent on telling voters in one way or another that Chuy hadn’t a clue how to keep Chicago’s finances afloat. (Rahm had $23 million in his war chest compared to Chuy’s $6 million). According to the Tribune, Emanuel “ran a nonstop stream of TV ads since November, more than 20 different spots that have aired more than 7,000 times.” 

But Chuy was running for mayor of a famous city. And because Rahm was also famous, a celebrity mayor, this election had the eyes of a nation on it.

Chuy could have held multiple press conferences seven days a week. He could have become the Chuck Schumer of Chicago. Or the Al Gore, issuing white papers by the score. He could have gathered and publicized plans to keep the city and CPS from sliding into bankruptcy. Yes, Rahm would have twisted his numbers, discredited them, put up ads with all the millions he was collecting from his billionaire buddies to mischaracterize those plans as ignorant and dangerous and naïve. But by remaining mute, he allowed Rahm and his aides to turn him into a caricature of looming incompetence and incoherence.

Voters saw this for what it was: a stall.

And had Rahm taken Chuy’s numbers and used them to strangle his candidacy, it would have been Rahm who looked defensive and weak, and who would have been called on to offer concrete plans. This was not a contest between Chuy offering nothing and Rahm offering everything. Neither of them offered much because neither of them know really how to fix the mess that Chicago has become. If Rahm knew specifically how to tame a $1.1 billion deficit that could send CPS into bankruptcy, or where to get his hands on the $550 million to fund the police and fire pensions, he would have shown some evidence of that during his first term. Who, after all, has been in charge for the last four years?

Why not grab a bullhorn and respond forcefully to editorials, like Tribune’s this weekend that noted Chicago is on a “dangerous slide” and suffers from “chronic financial fatigue” (but be sure to vote for Rahm before Chicago eventually turns into Detroit)?

Why not communicate somehow that it’s Rahm, not Chuy, who has been mayor the last four years. “Dangerous slide”? “Chronic financial fatigue”? On whose doorstep do those belong?

Chuy Garcia was Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader. She picked him for that job and the consensus is that she and her team have done pretty well in rethinking and managing the county’s budget—better than Rahm and his team have done in the city. Chuy presumably tried and failed to win the ultra-cautious Preckwinkle’s endorsement, but he could have talked up his role in that budget process and his close working relationship with a woman who many saw as Rahm’s most serious challenger.

Chuy’s performance in the first debate was so sleepy that he missed the opportunity to introduce himself to voters whom had never heard of him before Chicago Teacher’s Union president Karen Lewis tapped him to run in her stead. I have compared that debate to President Obama’s utter mess of a first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, but Chuy’s failure was much worse. Voters already knew Obama. They could chalk up his miserable performance to a bad night; perhaps he had some really alarming things on his mind that the public couldn’t fathom. Chuy’s a commissioner on the Cook County Board; what could he possibly have on his mind? Having sampled Chuy’s lack of a pulse and a plan that first meeting, some voters likely never gave him another look.

Given that Rahm Emanuel and the social-program-slashing new governor, Bruce Rauner, are close, personal friends, why not get that fact out? No money for ads? How about that old standby from Thomas Paine days, the leaflet, featuring a photo of the two vacationing in Montana where the governor owns hundreds of acres of ranch land. We’re talking here about a governor who just announced $26 million cuts to social services such as “funding to pay for the funerals and burials of public-assistance recipients, smoking cessation, teen programs, autism, and HIV and AIDS programs, funding for immigrant integration assistance…” 

And why didn’t Chuy blast out that if there was one person who impeded immigration reform, that person was Rahm Emanuel—in the Clinton White House, in the Congress, and in the Obama White House.

Normally absurdly self-confident, Rahm saw himself as vulnerable. If not, why in the world did he work so hard, so tirelessly, this election cycle? Because a loss could have spelled the end of his career in politics.

So, who is in the wings waiting to be mayor in 2020? Chuy Garcia has had his chance. Bob Fioretti came in fourth last February and then, in what sure looks like an effort to take up Rahm’s apparent offer to pay off Fioretti’s campaign debt, endorsed Rahm. Obviously he has earned no one’s trust. I’d say the leading contender for what I’m guessing will be an open seat—Rahm will move on to bigger political or business prizes—is 32nd ward alderman Scott Waguespack, who won outright in February despite the best efforts to defeat him by Rahm’s operatives and by Rahm’s very rich PAC, Chicago Forward.

At his concession party, Chuy was reportedly mobbed by his supporters. Not surprising. He was much more than a candidate; he was a cause. He was the “neighborhood” guy who was going to give the city back to working people, the people who built the gritty Chicago of steel mills and stock yards. To them, Rahm Emanuel and his friends Ken Griffin and Michael Sacks and Bruce Rauner were everything that they hated about politics, and part of the reason they felt so squeezed and even hopeless.

If anyone sees Rahm as a cause, I’ve never met that person. Rahm is an operative, a guy who gets stuff done. But he’s not, Chuy’s backers often said, necessarily for the benefit of the neighborhood guy and gal, some of whom run into trouble with the law, like Chuy’s son, who grew up in Little Village and who years ago was belonged to a gang.

It is, as Chuy never tired of saying, “a tale of two cities.”

But that was a theme that never caught on. Concretely proving competence and showing a multi-step plan to fix things was what voters wanted in the end. Chuy didn’t do it, and so he lost and lost decisively. It wasn’t even close.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

Share

Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Edit Module