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Is Bernie Sanders the Chuy Garcia of 2016?

He may not have a chance at the nomination, but he is already making the race more interesting than pundits expected, and his campaign could plant seeds for a national movement.

Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of more than 800 at the Park West on Monday night.   Photo: Emmet Sullivan

The 2016 election is already in full swing, months before the first primary vote is cast, but most of the media spotlight has been on the race for the GOP nomination—and all the wild statements coming from businessman Donald Trump. (The latest? Ending birthright citizenship.)

Meanwhile, the Democratic race gets more interesting by the day. Case in point: the fundraiser for Senator Bernie Sanders held in Chicago on Monday at the Park West. More than 800 people were in attendance, filling the venue to capacity. The line to get in wrapped all the way around the building, and the first attendees arrived hours early to get prime spots up front. This, just a week after Sanders drew more than 27,000 supporters to rallies in Portland and Los Angeles.

Sanders is challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the nomination, and most pundits have already deemed the race to go inevitably to Clinton in the end. But Sanders—who recently placed first in a poll in New Hampshire—could be more trouble in the race than anyone is expecting.

Long shot against the establishment

Chicagoans will be familiar with this story. An “establishment” candidate is basically guaranteed of winning the race, especially when an exciting, progressive challenger declines to run (Karen Lewis here; Elizabeth Warren nationally). Instead, another liberal enters the race with almost no hope—and manages to build a campaign and following that surprises everyone watching.

It was no mistake, then, that Jesus “Chuy” Garcia was who introduced Sanders at Monday’s fundraiser. Garcia was the Cook County Board Commissioner who forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff this past spring. Emanuel ended up beating Garcia, but most expected it to be settled in the general election.

And Sanders is speaking to crowds much like Garcia did. In his 50-minute campaign speech Monday, he didn’t seem to mention any other candidate in the race, instead focusing his energy on excoriating Wall Street, the establishment, and “the one percent”—all familiar themes to reporters who covered the Garcia/Emanuel race.

Sitting next to Garcia on the stage were two brand-new aldermen: Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th). Both beat incumbents in their respective races this past year, and Sadlowski Garza is the only member of the Chicago Teachers Union to serve on City Council currently.

Speaking of CTU, it was board president Karen Lewis encouraging members to attend the fundraiser, and more than a few showed up in their red CTU T-shirts. So if you’re wondering who makes up the Bernie Sanders constituency in town, look no further than the liberal wing that showed up to vote for Garcia and support the CTU this past election cycle.

But is there really any hope?

Garcia made more progress in the race than most people expected, but he still lost to Emanuel in the end—and despite the polls and record crowds showing up for Sanders, most people still believe that Clinton will win in the end. (The astounding money that Clinton has raised plays no small part in that calculation; Sanders has pledged not to use super PAC money.)

I asked Alderman Ramirez-Rosa about that comparison after the event. “People want change,” he said. “People are tired of politics as usual, and they want candidates that they know are authentic, that are principled, and that are going to stick up for something other than, oh, who gave me the most money.”

It’s a nice answer, and fits well with the theme of the Sanders campaign, but come on. Clinton brought in a $45 million haul in the first three months of her campaign and expects to raise $100 million by the end of 2015. Sanders, meanwhile, brought in $15 million. And polls may be tightening, but nationally Clinton is still leading the Democratic race with 51.6 percent on average, with Sanders coming in second at 19.2 percent. How does he have an actual chance?

“In August of 2007, Hillary Clinton was leading now-President Barack Obama in the polls,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “Anything can happen, but one thing that’s a good indicator is the number of small contributions that a candidate has received, and how crowds are responding to them in Iowa. I can tell you that Bernie is getting the largest crowds in Iowa right now, there’s a poll that has him leading in New Hampshire, and he really has the swell of grassroots support behind him.”

According to CNN, Sanders drew the largest crowd of all candidates at the Iowa State Fair this weekend, and the Washington Post details how he has raised millions from small contributions. So sure. But Clinton never broke 50 percent in the national polls at this time in 2007, and Obama was polling much better than Sanders is now. The comparison gives some hope to Sanders supporters—and probably every candidate ever who is not leading in a presidential race—but should not be taken as proof of a similar upset.

But even though Chuy Garcia didn’t win, he “started a movement,” as The Nation called it, and helped elect a slate of progressive and labor union-backed candidates, Ramirez-Rosa and Sadlowski Garza among them. It’s possible that, even in loss, Sanders could have the same effect with the Democratic Party in 2016.

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