How “Chuy” Got Into Chicago's Race for Mayor

Just a few months ago, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia began an unlikely run to become Chicago’s next mayor with what appeared to be too little time left, too little money, and virtually no name recognition outside of the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods.

Now, Garcia runs close to even with mayor Rahm Emanuel, about a month before voters will decide between the two in a run-off election.

How, exactly, did a Mexican-born, underfunded, relatively unknown politician manage to get to this point against one of the nation’s most well-known and well-funded politicians?

Garcia got his modest start in this quick campaign by leveraging some union backing, especially from former Chicago Teacher’s Union president Karen Lewis, who looked to be set for her own run at Emanuel and the mayoral seat until illness took her out of the running.

Garcia initially got the little publicity and money he had from union backing. Then, he managed to ride the crest of an anti-Emanuel wave, among voters irritated by matters like speeding cameras and concerned by issues like crime and school closings.

Where Garcia separated himself from the other many challengers to Emanuel in last months’ initial election, according to former Chicago alderman and the head of the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago’s Political Science department Dick Simpson, was his deft recruitment and organization of volunteers who then made personal contact with voters.

Still fresh off of the hard-working campaign for County Commissioner Garcia and his supporters successfully ran a few years ago in Pilsen and Little Village, Garcia’s team was sharp enough to run an effective outreach program in the initial election. That success is what helped propel him to the number two spot, according to the professor.

“There were two main aspects to Garcia’s success in the first election,” Simpson said. “First, there was a huge anti-Rahm vote that was split among several challenging candidates like Garcia, Alderman [Bob] Fioretti and Willie Wilson because of his handling of the government with concern over things like crime and schools. Secondly, Garcia was able to get a large number of volunteers to contact voters individually. He had people knocking on doors and making phone calls for him, and that’s what separated him from the other candidates.”

In order to build on his initial success and have a shot at beating Emanuel in the run-off election, Garcia will have to impress voters with the budget plan his campaign has said will be released this week, expand on his grass-roots voter contact, and appear mayoral in the three head-to-head debates he’ll be in, beginning Monday.

Simpson says that he’s observed more energy from Garcia supporters than Emanuel ones around the city and the UIC campus, especially since February’s initial election. “I have noticed that Garcia people are more active with posters, and buttons,” he said. "It isn’t at the height that Harold Washington had with his campaign before he went on to become mayor, but it is stronger than what he had in the primary. He needs to make more efforts to have his volunteers reach people through leaflets at homes, at train stops. Garcia needs to continue to mobilize even more volunteers so he can continue his calls, not robo-calls, but real person-to-person calls. He won’t have the money to go 1-1 with Emanuel on TV ads, so that is key."

“His proposed budget plan will be closely looked at, so that needs to be received well. And, lastly, he’ll need to appear mayoral, much in the same sense people talk about candidates for president looking presidential, in these three debates.”

Indeed, Emanuel’s campaign already has a negative ad out on Garcia, criticizing him for not having specific budget and revenue generating proposals during the campaign. The mayor, as an incumbent with, at the very least, a reputation as a strong and experienced individual, will try to make Garcia look like an unproven outside who is too small for a hard job.

Garcia has raised around $300,000 for the run-off campaign, but still trails the mayor by an exponential margin in cash. As such, his chances to reach a large audience and tell his story will only effectively come in the form of the three televised debates with Emanuel.

Many undecided voters will be getting to know Garcia for the first time, then, and his ideas and rhetoric need to be clear, and impressive to sway any of them.

Perhaps, as Simpson tells us, Garcia’s biggest opportunities to convince Chicago voters will be in much more intimate encounters he and his campaign volunteers will have with them through old-fashioned canvassing and phone calls.

Some polls show nearly 20 percent of voters as still undecided, with about five points separating Emanuel and Garcia. If he is to seal the deal, the challenger will need to not goof up his big-stage opportunities, as well as continue to grow the list of people his campaign personally makes its appeal to.

Garcia’s so-far successful grass-roots campaign has a long stretch of field left yet to cover, but he’s already a lot closer than most previously thought was possible.

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