If Jesus "Chuy" Garcia is going to have a shot at upsetting Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in an April runoff, he'll need to quickly solidify a coalition of minorities, union members and progressives reminiscent of one that buoyed his mentor, Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor.
Emanuel enjoys big advantages in money and experience, having raised millions more than Garcia, a Cook County commissioner who jumped into the race just three months ago. The ex-congressman and White House chief of staff also has the backing of his former boss, President Barack Obama, who recorded ads for Emanuel and stumped for him during a stop in Chicago last week.
But a beaming Garcia remained optimistic Wednesday, a day after voters not only denied Emanuel an easy second term but put several established Chicago politicians — including a grandson of former Mayor Richard J. Daley — on the ropes. He said the election was a message from working people — including in transit, education and health care — who believe Emanuel puts the interests of business and the wealthy before them.
"It's very clear there's something going on in Chicago that says that we need to go in a different direction," said Garcia, who spent the morning thanking voters at a downtown commuter train stop and doing a flurry of interviews from the campaign office.
One countertop displayed a caricature of Garcia in a Superman costume and the caption, "Si se puede." The expression is commonly used by pro-labor and immigrant rights groups, and an English translation, "Yes we can," was the slogan of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
"Working class folk who stepped up in this campaign feel that Chicago needs to be responsive to the neighborhoods and toward ordinary people and we delivered. It may be the retooling of a Democratic coalition, maybe with a small 'd.'"
Garcia, born in Mexico and largely raised in Chicago, billed himself as the "neighborhood guy."
While the city's minority populations have grown and changed, Garcia's approach harkened comparisons to Washington's three decades ago, which relied on coalescing black and Latino support. The difference now is that voters, particularly younger ones, are more willing to cross racial boundaries to support a candidate.
"There is a much more diverse multicultural youth base ... this is what their life experience is," said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum. "They resonate with the candidate."
Emanuel needed to win a majority of the vote in the five-candidate field to avoid an April 7 runoff, but fell far short, getting only about 45 percent.
His support was strongest in the city's downtown and on its North Side, home to some of Chicago's more affluent neighborhoods. Garcia, the second-highest vote getter with about 34 percent, did well on the West Side, particularly in heavily Hispanic areas.
The mayor lost support in the city's largely African American wards on the South Side, compared to his first election in 2011. He headed there first thing Wednesday morning, shaking hands with commuters at a train station before addressing voters at a senior center.
Emanuel said the spring runoff will be about which candidate has the "plans and the perseverance" to make progress in the city.
"It's no longer a multiple choice," he said. "It's a clear choice between two different visions of the future and how to get there. One way is about the old politics of deferral. And one is about confronting our challenges head-on by being clear about what they are, being honest and forthright about the choices we have to make."
He did not address questions about why he thought he wasn't able to win outright, opting to point out the wards where he captured a majority. And though he's often been criticized for his tough style and controversial decisions such as pushing to close dozens of schools in 2013, Emanuel said he had no plans to change his approach because voters don't want someone who's not true to themselves.
Garcia drew on his contacts with community organizers and support from the Chicago Teachers Unions, whose leader, Karen Lewis, considered a mayoral bid before being diagnosed with a brain tumor. He also had the backing of national progressive groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, a political action committee started by former Gov. Howard Dean.
Puente said Garcia's grassroots connections were effective from the beginning, gathering roughly 60,000 signatures in a matter of days to help him get on the ballot.
Political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who opposed Emanuel's re-election, said Garcia will now get national attention from media and outside groups which will help counteract Emanuel's millions of dollars.
"The mayor is weakened and it's anybody's ball game," Cobb said.