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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Inside Chuy Garcia’s New York Fundraiser

The mayoral candidate headed to the Big Apple this week to raise funds for the April 7 election. Here’s what happened.

Chuy Garcia is flying around the country raising money before his Thursday night debate with Rahm.  Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

In the middle of the night I received an email from a friend who lives in New York. She sent me her “Field Notes” taken at Chuy Garcia’s early Monday evening Manhattan fundraiser. Patti Hagan, 71, is a journalist who wrote editorials for the New York Times and a gardening column for the Wall Street Journal—in which she somehow managed, occasionally, to cover the green stuff of pay-to-play politics as well as the green stuff of gardens. She was also a fact checker for The New Yorker back in the pre-Tina Brown, William Shawn days.

She paid her $100 last night (minimum entry fee) and went to the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers on Broadway to hear Chuy Garcia, dressed in a suit and tie, talk about why he should be elected mayor of Chicago. She described the candidate as “bright-eyed” and “warm” and “really appreciat[ive].”

She was impressed by Chuy’s speech, as was the audience, which erupted in applause when he used the phrase “pay to play” to describe the Emanuel administration. One of several introducing Chuy was Jonathan Jackson, a son of the Rev. Jackson, who has endorsed Chuy. Jonathan noted that he and his family are often in New York and that his wife, Marilyn Ann Richards, is from Brooklyn. “Chuy Garcia is a man authentically from Chicago,” Jackson said. “In all of my adult life I’ve found Chuy to be on the right side of history.”

“We were up against $14 million Feb. 24,” Chuy told the hundred or so people who came out on a cold spring night. “People said ‘How you gonna withstand all the street money?’ We celebrated a new victory on behalf of all the people in Chicago—there were 19 runoffs out of 50 seats in the Chicago City Council. [Chicagoans voted overwhelmingly] for an elected School Board in the city of Chicago.”

“In Chicago we suffer from a severe case of pay-to-play politics,” Chuy explained. “Emanuel wants to privatize our school system, the janitorial staff, make Illinois a Right-To-Work state… Chicago had 10,000 shootings in the past four years… My supporters are Latino, African-American, Irish, Polish, LGBT. I can hear Harold Washington saying, `How come it took you 30 years to put it [that coalition] together?’ And right now he is grinning from ear-to-ear. Chicago will become a democratic city once again—with a small ‘d’—as we move forward with democracy in Chicago, toward ethical reform. Thank you for investing in democracy in Chicago!”

Patti described the audience as “Jewish, black, white, Latino, Asian, young people and older people in their 60s and 70s, and lots of union people,” some of whom had traveled to Chicago to ring doorbells before the February 24 primary and some of whom will go again before the April 7th election. She said that the crowd, “a mix-up of everybody,” looked like her neighborhood, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, used to look before many of her long-time neighbors were priced out of their homes.

Absent from the event was Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom Patti compares to Rahm Emanuel and who—to me, not surprisingly—has not made an endorsement in the race. Patti, who was first in line in 2003 to oppose developer Bruce Ratner’s 22-acre Atlantic Yards project in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, calls de Blasio “the best buddy of all the big developers” and jokes, “He’s no man of the people; he’s a man of the Real Estate Board of New York.”

There were New York elected officials present, and Patti mentioned several in her email: “NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Tish James [she holds the job that de Blasio held before moving up to mayor], Corey Johnson (city councilman from the Village), Jumaane Williams (city councilman from Brooklyn). The teacher bond was very strong—especially as de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo have been duking it out over control of the schools.” (De Blasio wants to retain Rahm-like control.)

Patti received notice of the fundraiser from law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran unsuccessfully in the gubernatorial primary against Andrew Cuomo but managed, with extremely limited funding, to get 34 percent of the vote. Teachout is pushing the message, which I’m hearing more and more here in Chicago, that “Chuy can defeat Rahm and send shockwaves across the nation. His campaign has harnessed the popular outrage at Rahm’s agenda of school closings, privatization, and neoliberal economic policies. Think of the message a victory in Chicago would send to corporate Democrats across the country. It would prove that Democratic candidates don’t have to kneel before the power of Wall Street and corporate America in order to win. And perhaps nothing would do more to inspire someone like Elizabeth Warren to run for President than to see Chuy Garcia beat Rahm Emanuel.”

When Chuy Garcia, sinking in the polls as Rahm rises, finished his speech, loud applause was accompanied by the familiar words “Si, se puede. Si, se puede.”

Maybe, but if Chuy doesn’t do better in Thursday night’s debate, “No, we can’t” might be a more realistic refrain.

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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