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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia Is Confident He’ll Force Rahm into a Runoff

In a wide-ranging interview, the former alderman talks about his son’s legal problems, how he saved Harold Washington’s life, and how he’s looking forward to an April run-off with Rahm.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia during the mayoral debate on January 27.  Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

With the Chicago mayoral election just one week away, Rahm Emanuel is working hard to get the necessary 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a run-off election in April. He has amassed a $30 million warchest and paraded around a string of endorsements—and this Thursday, he’ll welcome Barack Obama to Chicago to cap it all off.

The only impediment to locking up a second term is the campaign of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former committeeman, alderman, and Illinois state senator, and current member of the Cook County Board. Garcia, 58, entered the race in the fall after Chicago Teachers Union head Karen Lewis bowed out and, he says, pleaded with him to run. 

Garcia doesn’t face an easy task. He’s currently polling in the high teens or low 20s, depending on the poll, and he has to compete not only against Rahm but three other challengers: Ald. Bob Fioretti, businessman Willie Wilson, and community activist Dock Walls. My colleague Whet Moser also looked into the challenges Garcia faces and what Rahm needs to do to avoid a runoff. 

Still, when I met him for an interview on Friday at his West Loop campaign office, he seemed happy and confident he’ll force Rahm Emanuel into a runoff. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Has Rahm or anyone from his campaign ever approached you about getting out by offering you something or trying to make a deal with you?

Not that I’m aware of. If they did, it totally went by me.

Talk about your roots. When did you come to Chicago, and who were your parents?

I came here when I was almost 9 years old [the family moved to Pilsen and later relocated to Little Village, where Garcia still lives]. It was February of 1965, so this is the 50th anniversary of my being here. In [Durango] Mexico, my father worked on a farm before emigrating to the United States in the late 1940s because the countryside where we’re from is hilly and rocky and he didn’t have much land. He came north to Texas as part of a government program, then went to Kansas. When he was in Kansas he was an undocumented immigrant. When he came to Chicago he was undocumented. He became a permanent resident in the ’60s, I think it was ’64. That enabled him to petition for us.

What did your father do in Chicago?

He worked in a cold storage company moving meat.

Did your parents put you in the neighborhood school? Was there a bilingual program?

There were no bilingual programs, and my parents only spoke Spanish. I was saved by my 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Rivera, who was Puerto Rican. The next year my parents put me in Catholic school, and I was sent to another public school after school hours to practice my English. It was Mrs. Fulton, an African American teacher, who lived nearby who taught me. “You’re going to enunciate,” she’d say. So I try to enunciate every time I speak to overcome my accent. Later, my parents put me in a Catholic high school, St. Rita, and I graduated in 1974 from there.

What were you first jobs?

Paperboy, delivering papers early mornings on my bicycle. I was a part of Mayor [Richard J.] Daley’s summer youth job program. That must have been in 1967 or `68. We cleaned up alleys, we did some painting, and we fixed up around the schools. That was my first paycheck, because we got paid cash from the newspaper. I thought, “Ah, yes, it’s in my name, I’m worth something here.”

Did you have to go through a precinct captain to get that job?

No, they had a program at a church, so we filled out that paperwork and we were hired. …When my mother came here, she always did factory work. The job she retired from was a candy factory, Brachs Candy, in the chocolate department. I worked there after I graduated from high school. That’s where I became a man, because I worked the third shift in the hottest, hardest department in the plant. Punch in at 11 p.m. and work until 7 a.m.

With that memory in mind, you must get sick at the thought of eating Brachs candies.

I love it; my favorite is Star Bites, the little striped ones. I love them because I know what goes into them. We put the stripes on them. And I worked with these huge guys—Greeks, Italians, African Americans, Mexicans, Polish guys. You had to earn your stripes, and I was proud to say I work with these guys. They accepted me.

Are you a practicing Catholic?

Yes, I am now, but I was not practicing for a long time, about 25 years.

I had a life-changing experience with my younger son, Samuel. He almost died. When he was a junior in high school, he got meningitis and started having seizures. It happened in school the first time, Lincoln Park High School, and then again at home, so we hospitalized him. We were losing him, and it got to the point where we called the priest to give him his last rites. He was ashen; his lips were purple; he was dying. So it was a miracle [when] he just came back after receiving last rites.

You may have read that he has gotten in some trouble. My son grew up Little Village. A lot of his friends growing up became affiliated with one of the gangs in the neighborhood. He ran with those guys so he got in trouble with them, got arrested with them, hanging out, drinking, partying, etc.

Did you consider getting out of Little Village and moving to the suburbs?

We thought about it, but we also talked to parents who had moved and still wound up with problems and found out that there are gangs in the suburbs too. We had many sleepless nights; every time we heard gunshots, whenever we’d hear a siren, when we’d hear police vehicles come into the neighborhood, we were scared. We had many conversations with him about changing his friends, about not going out. He was having a good time. The lure of the friends and the excitement, the peer pressure, it’s huge on kids growing up. We had counselors talk to him; people who had been in jail; people who had been shot.

Were you a member of a gang growing up?

I wasn’t, but a lot of my friends were. And I ran with them. I had some close calls because of that. I’ve been with groups that have been shot at. I’ve been with guys that shot at people.

You have an older son, Jesus Salvador. Was he in a gang?

No, they were very different. Chaba [the nickname for Salvador] was always home, more nerdy, listening to music. He was in the IB program at Lincoln Park, which is why Samuel went there; siblings got to follow. [Chuy and his wife also raised foster children, one of whom they adopted, as well as a nephew whose mother had developed mental problems. Their first child, a girl born with a neural muscular disease, died at 15 months.] Chaba works at the University of Minnesota. He does audiovisual stuff. He has a master’s degree from DePaul.

How’s Samuel doing now?

He’s a chef. He has a certificate from Kennedy-King Washburne Culinary School in Chicago. He works at the Virgin Hotel. He also worked at Gibson’s. He’s married, the biological father of two and step-father to two more that his wife had from a previous relationship.

And your wife?

I’ve been married to the same woman for 38 years. Evelyn is from Chicago—born in Cook County Hospital—but she’s Puerto Rican, so it’s a mixed marriage. She has worked as a CPS teacher’s assistant for a bit over 20 years. She retired because of a disability; she has Multiple Sclerosis.

You have a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in urban planning from UIC, but you earned them rather recently. What took you so long?

In 1999, the year after I lost my state senate seat, I went back to school. I actually went, to be honest with you, to finish my BA. I had two incompletes in political science courses that I didn’t finish because I didn’t turn in a final paper.

Why didn’t you get those papers in?

I was busy doing exciting things, like being an organizer, raising hell, running people for alderman, electing the mayor of the city of Chicago.

You mean Harold Washington? How’d you link up with him?

I saved his life. In 1981 he was member of Congress and he had been very supportive of immigrants, of Latinos. He had been outspoken against military intervention in Central America. He fought for bilingual education. He was for immigration reform and immigrants’ rights. He had a great record on labor issues, so a group of Pilsen community activists organized a dinner to honor him because he didn’t have much of a Latino constituency in his district. My wife and I were both volunteering, serving our guests. He started choking on some mole. He kept coughing, so my wife and I rushed him into the kitchen and I tapped him really hard on the back and he got better. And he said, “You saved my life. What did you say your name was again?” I said “Jesus,” and he goes, “JESUS, YOU SAVED MY LIFE!”

I told him that my name was Chuy and he thought that was awkward, so he continued to call me Jesus. I was a staunch ally. When I got elected alderman in 1986, I helped break the logjam [of the infamous Council Wars] and we got 25 votes so he could cast the tiebreaker. We plotted how to win the majority of the City Council at his apartment between 9 p.m. and 2 or 3 in the morning. And so we became very close.

After Harold’s death, did you consider running for mayor?

I had a lot of conversations with people who wanted me to run back then.

Why didn’t you?

I didn’t think that I was ready for it. I didn’t think I knew enough. I didn’t think I had enough experience.

Did you ever have a conversation with Harold about who might succeed him? Or did he plan to serve five terms?

That was his plan. I don’t think anyone ever had that conversation with him. He wasn’t grooming anyone, and he planned to be mayor for a long time. That would not have been an easy conversation.

Would you have run this year if Karen Lewis had run?

No, I was supporting her. I met with her for four hours on Labor Day at her house. And the next month she was hospitalized. After the surgery she called me and said, “Chuy could you come over?” So I went over and we got past the joking part—I said, “Can I take a picture of the stiches?” and she said, “Get out of here!”—and we sat down and she said, “I think you need to run for mayor.” I said, “Are you out of your mind? What did they do to you when they went in there?”

I asked her why me, and she said, “You got the history. People know you. You got your scars.” I took a week to think about it. I went home and talked to my wife. We struggled over it. We asked all the hard questions about what it would mean, the sacrifice, not having time to see our grandchildren. Everything would be scrutinized.

And you must have figured your son’s problems with the law would come out.

That was my biggest concern. We figured that at some point, if my candidacy jelled and if I became a threat, they would go there. [Rahm] would put me in a negative light to question my character, my integrity. It’s exactly what happened.

I struggled with wanting to protect my son’s privacy. I love him. I’ll always love him. I’m so grateful he’s alive. That’s why I go to church [Epiphany Roman Catholic Parish], because it was a miracle.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

My mother, Celia. She was a person with a third-grade education who also was a literacy teacher in the rural villages. She raised us because my father was here most of the time. Came home to Mexico maybe once a year for a month or so.

Which newspaper columnists do you like?

I like [John] Kass. He’s in tune with certain things that other guys aren’t. I like Laura Washington’s column …. I’m biased because I know her.

What are some of your hobbies?

I love jazz. Jazz is my first love. My wife accepts that. I run; I’ve run three Chicago marathons. I feel bad right now because I haven’t run in over three months. I run down Ogden Avenue to Douglas Park.

How about sports?

Baseball. Cubs. I’m a suffering Cubs fan on the south side.

We seem to have a two-man race next week. Can you imagine yourself, in your wildest dreams, getting 50 percent plus one vote and actually winning outright?

I can, but I think a run-off will happen.

As it is now, Rahm’s polling in the low 40s and you in the high teens.

I’ll get more than the high teens.

You think you’ll be in the 20s?

Oh, easily.

[Note: the latest poll, released on Saturday and conducted by Ogden & Fry, a Chicago company that is polling for Mayor Emanuel, shows Rahm at 49.2 percent and Chuy at 23.]

If you end up losing, will you run again for mayor?

I’m a happy warrior doing what I’m doing. I’m relishing it. It’s wonderful. It’s tough. This is the right thing to do, no matter what they come after me with it’s the right thing to do. We took a challenge and the challenge was to bring Chicago’s people together and impact the future of the city, and we will.

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.

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