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Anton Cermak, Chicago’s first immigrant mayor, was elected in 1931 after a mayoral race that, at its worst, captured much of the ugliness of the city’s early racial tensions. “Big Bill” Thompson, the incumbent and the city’s last Republican mayor, was defeated soundly—but not before mounting a vicious attack on Cermak’s Czech ethnicity.

I won’t take a back seat to that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name is.

Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at?

Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor?

With a name like that?

In 1890 Anton Cermak and his family settled in South Lawndale, a neighborhood that residents took to calling “Little Village” in the 1960s and a home to many Czech immigrants and their descendants through much of the twentieth century. After spending his youth building businesses in the community, Cermak would eventually set about building a coalition of minorities disenfranchised by Irish dominance of the Democratic Party. It was this alliance of Czechs, Italians, African Americans, Poles, and others that helped bring Cermak to victory and his place in the city’s history as Chicago’s first immigrant mayor.

His pithy response to Thompson’s slurs has long been treasured as an articulate summary of the immigrant experience: “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could.”

And so, thirty-four years later, would a ten-year-old Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who joined his own family—a mother and three siblings—on a journey from Mexico to Pilsen. There he reunited with his father, who had immigrated to the blue-collar community to work at a cold storage plant.

After four years of living in Pilsen, Garcia and his family moved to Little Village, where he has lived ever since. The neighborhood remains a home to immigrants—mostly Latinos like Garcia. The Czech community Cermak and his family joined has long since dissipated. But while the racial makeup of the Southwest Side—and the city—has changed dramatically since the 1930s, the basics of the city’s politics have not. Garcia realizes, like Cermak before him, the importance of establishing his history within a community and using his record to establish trust with voters.

But Chuy Garcia is not quite Anton Cermak, and this is not quite 1931. As given to repeating itself as history might be, this has been a race defined by the realities of Chicago at this moment. A collapsing budget. Closed schools. Dead youths. And yet the sidelining of Karen Lewis’s campaign—a candidacy that seemed inevitable until it wasn’t—seems to have shifted the race back in time. Ire and contempt for the Emanuel administration’s approaches to education, crime, the budget, and development all remain potent, but so too does the influence of two forces that have shaped mayoral politics for most of Chicago’s history: race and clout. These are also the forces that have shaped Chuy Garcia’s campaign.

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In a November appearance at Chef Sara’s Café in South Shore, Garcia spoke about the importance of equity between neighborhoods, a theme that has become central to his campaign.

“Neighborhoods have ceased to be the top priority of this administration, and we quickly need to change course in the city of Chicago to placing neighborhoods at the center of everything,” he told the crowd. “I am particularly troubled by the fact that the focus of the past four years seems to be primarily downtown Chicago, taking too much of our valuable resources and communities in terms of property tax levies and investing them in places that, oftentimes, don’t need it.”

This is an uncomplicated rendering of inequality—in access to quality education, in economic investment, in policing—across the city, a rendering that suggests inequality is primarily a product of poor public administration and, at worst, cronyism. Race and segregation—both historic and residual—are left out of the equation. And for good reason, at least politically: voters have long been responsive to simple, universally appealing anti-downtown narratives, and Emanuel has garnered himself a reputation as a downtown mayor.

“It’s no secret that Rahm is looked upon as the candidate of downtown and perhaps a few of the wealthier wards where his donors are,” says veteran political consultant and Garcia senior adviser Don Rose. “Compared with Garcia, [whom] Karen called in her first endorsement a man of the people. This has been a consistent theme and dichotomy in Chicago mayoral races.”

But Garcia’s experiences in Pilsen and Little Village suggest he knows firsthand that inequality and its associated challenges are more entrenched than an anti-downtown narrative conveys.

“It’s really where I came to understand Chicago, where I came to understand the U.S., where I came to grapple with the ABCs of color in America, where I came to understand racism, where I came to understand the struggle for socioeconomic justice,” he says of Pilsen in an interview at his campaign headquarters downtown. “It’s where I discovered Dr. King, listening to black radio. It’s where I learned about Cesar Chavez from a neighbor next door who was a follower and who worked with the United Farmworkers. It’s where I learned about the Black Panther movement in Chicago.”

Upon moving to Little Village, Garcia began working as an organizer and activist before attending college at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he earned degrees in political science and urban planning. After serving as 22nd Ward alderman during the late 1980s and in the Illinois Senate through much of the 1990s, Garcia returned to organizing in the neighborhood and was hired to head up the Little Village Community Development Corporation, now called Enlace Chicago. At Enlace, Garcia took a grassroots approach to addressing problems he calls “intractable”—youth violence and poor education, among others—and that he believes can only be solved by bringing different communities together.

“No neighborhood exists as an island,” he says. “[Each] is interdependent with the rest of the city, and unless we start to build relationships—across neighborhoods, across race, across faith, across ethnicity—we’ll continue to be in trouble in the city. The city’s best assets—people—can be best utilized and marshaled when there is collaboration, when there is trust, when there is a sense of reciprocity and common ground that is built.”

“Common ground” is the mantra of consensus candidates, and Garcia wants to be seen as one; his proposals on crime make this obvious. Garcia has pledged to fulfill Emanuel’s promise to put 1,000 new police officers on the streets, a plan that, despite mainstream support and assurances about improved training and community engagement, seems out of sync with the conversations about the role of policing that have been taking place in liberal circles in Chicago and around the country for months. The promise is a key part—the most mainstream part—of what he calls a “multipronged approach” to addressing violence. It sits awkwardly beside the progressive side of this same approach: his calls for the exploration of “restorative justice,” a community-led approach to crime that emphasizes harm restitution and community support as alternatives to the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

“It’s an alternative and it seeks to keep young people from being institutionalized,” he says. “The risk of institutionalization, as we’ve known, is that it can become a feeder into the criminal justice or juvenile justice industry or complex.” This is, of course, the same risk that putting a thousand new police officers on the street might pose.

Garcia’s stances on other issues are more thoroughly progressive. They are also not terribly unique. On education, both Garcia and 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti, Emanuel’s other main challenger, have called for moratoriums on public school closings and charter school expansion, voiced skepticism about standardized testing, and endorsed an elected school board and an expansion of pre-K education. On development, both candidates have criticized the current use of TIFs—Garcia has called for an audit and Fioretti has promised to declare a TIF surplus and redistribute funds—and have called for a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Until recently, the Garcia and Fioretti campaigns even refrained from attacking each other on policy, choosing instead to let the records of the candidates speak for themselves. A voter asking about substantive differences between Garcia and Fioretti is likely to be told by Garcia surrogates, or Garcia himself, about experience—about Garcia’s years of grassroots work in Little Village, his current tenure in the Cook County Board of Supervisors, his service in the Illinois Senate, and his work in City Council during the tumultuous final years of the Harold Washington administration. That latter role, and the context of Garcia’s election to City Council in 1986, are particularly important to Garcia’s backers and to historians of Chicago politics.

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Three years earlier, in 1983, Washington had been elected Chicago’s first black mayor. Soon after taking office, a bloc of twenty-eight white and one Hispanic aldermen—led by the 10th Ward’s Ed Vrdolyak and the 14th Ward’s Ed Burke—coalesced in opposition to Washington’s policies. The resulting period of gridlock, in which the aldermen rejected all of Washington’s proposals and appointments, was dubbed the Council Wars by local media. After a 1986 court order forced the redrawing of ward boundaries to re-enfranchise African Americans and Hispanics, special elections that put Washington allies on the council were held.

Chuy Garcia, then a Cook County Democratic Party committeeman, was one of those allies and would become, as alderman, a key part of Harold Washington’s coalition—a set of alliances that briefly upended the city’s Democratic establishment as Cermak’s coalition had decades earlier.

“[Washington] had obviously strong African American support,” says Larry Bennett, a professor of urban politics and policy at DePaul, “but he was trusted by a cohort of younger Latino activists and politicos such as Chuy Garcia in those days, and the constituency that they could bring to support Washington. And Washington also had support among white progressives and what I call white ‘good government’ types.”

That coalition, built in part by Garcia’s clout within the Latino community and his outreach to Latinos on behalf of the Washington administration, would help Washington secure victory in the elections of 1983 and 1987 against the city’s establishment Democrats, divided then by loyalties to the Daley family, Jane Byrne, and Vrdolyak. But Washington’s coalition died with him: the Latino community and the African-American community have been divided constituencies since 1987. Garcia, the bridge-builder, would himself turn to strengthening the Latino community as an independent bloc during his time as president of the Latino Action Research Network, a Latino advocacy group founded in 2005 as an alternative to the Daley-backed Hispanic Democratic Organization, which worked to defeat him in the 1998 Illinois Senate election.

Now Garcia, once again, wants to be seen as a bridge-builder. Much of the support for his campaign is rooted in hopes that he can revive the Harold Washington coalition, both to defeat Emanuel and to cement progressive power in City Hall for years to come.

“His rhetoric is inclusive,” says Bennett. “People who know Chuy, I think, think of him as a genuine coalition builder. So I think there are a lot of pluses to his candidacy.”

But rebuilding that coalition may well be the work of months or years—not the five weeks Garcia has until the election. And the nonpartisan mayoral election system the city’s had since 1995, first proposed by a group of white Democrats in an effort to prevent Harold Washington’s reelection, as well as demographic changes and patterns in voting behavior, will make that work more difficult.

“Black registration to vote has declined,” Bennett continues. “Latinos are a large population block in the city of Chicago, but they are less impressive as a voting block. So I think that the challenge that Chuy faces is that to mount something in this nonpartisan world—in which you don’t have any kind of ready party apparatus but you have a lot of little apparatuses that need to be hooked up together—that takes a long period of time. And I’m worried that he hasn’t had enough time to do that.”

Rose, for his part, doubts the Washington coalition is even worth pursuing.

“Don’t forget white people,” he laughs. “You know, the reason I balk a little bit at the Harold Washington coalition is that at the time, the Harold Washington coalition was an overwhelming black vote with a modest group of whites and Latinos providing the margin. At the time the black population was, in fact, larger and a larger proportion of the city. So what was realistically the Harold Washington coalition can’t win an election because there aren’t enough African Americans. I mean, we’ve lost 200,000 African Americans, among other things. And I know that’s the cliché that a lot of people put in there.”

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Zane Maxwell / UChicago Institute of Politics

One of the most reliable promoters of that cliché is Chuy Garcia himself. At his appearance at Chef Sara’s Café, one of his campaign volunteers, an African-American woman, asked him directly about the apprehension toward his campaign—and towards Latino candidates—she had seen in the African-American community.

“The moment they see a Latino’s name on a petition, they say, ‘I’m not comfortable. I’m not sure I should sign the petition because those guys won’t look out for us,’ ” she said. “So I’m hoping you can respond to the sentiment.”

“That’s a half-hour response at least,” Garcia joked. “I will just say this. When I got involved in politics it was to change the politics of my community to overcome the domination of our community. I was part of an effort of community empowerment that was a part of the movement that elected Harold Washington mayor in 1983.

“That was a very transformative period in the city’s history—one that also caused tremendous polarization,” he continued. “There was a lot of tension, there were many questions in the air. It’s been over thirty years since that occurred. I think the city and its people have moved forward. That’s why I think that the potential for uniting people like never before in the past twenty-five, thirty years is immense.”

Garcia did not initially mention that the “tensions” he refers to were—and are—racial tensions. He moved on to speak about the African American and Latino divide more explicitly, touting his later membership in the Senate’s Black Caucus and his record on civil rights, support for minority businesses, and other issues. But the caution of his initial remark seems to indicate a strategy. Garcia seems keen on having conversations about race that are not really conversations about race. This, again, is among the benefits of his de-racialized and broadly appealing “neighborhoods” rhetoric. Garcia speaks as if he can increase his chances of bridging the gulf between Latino and African-Americans once again by downplaying the depth of that gulf to voters. And perhaps he can: African Americans could be willing to back Garcia if they believe others in the African-American community will do so in large numbers. This is evident in his remarks to me on the collapse of the Harold Washington coalition, which, despite the doubts of Rose and others, he seems intent on coaxing back into existence.

“Since Harold Washington died, the idea that there can be a viable, cohesive, strong multiracial ethnic coalition has struggled,” he says. “It’s been challenged. In part because of money entering the political fray and having too much influence, the creation of the submachines in Chicago that have kept down real political empowerment for a long time and created a sense among people in different communities that you can’t fight City Hall, you can’t elect good people to office. It’s all about the money.”

He’s partially right. The power of the Hispanic Democratic Organization that defeated Garcia in 1998—a group used by the Daley administration to co-opt the Latino vote through patronage jobs—was proof that racial politics in Chicago can be partially understood by following the money. But only partially. The divide between African-American voters and Latino voters is not “all” about the money.

It is in large part about the forces that push minority groups—marginalized throughout this city’s history by politics and policy—to vote for candidates who look like them and share their experiences. It is about the security those voters find in doing so—about the trust they can place in candidates that come from their communities. Garcia has been around long enough to know this.

But Garcia also seems to believe bringing the coalition within reach requires distancing himself from the same history—and its racial realities—from which he hopes to draw. And he gets that distance. He touts his record of service on the City Council while obscuring the depth and nature of the divisions that make his record impressive to begin with. He describes his years of grassroots work in Little Village on the “intractable” problems affecting communities across the city without describing the history of segregation and exclusion that produced that intractability.

Garcia and his campaign seem to think his odds of beating Emanuel and rebuilding a coalition that can reinvigorate progressivism in City Hall could depend on making these kinds of moves—avoiding difficult conversations about race could help Garcia with middle-of-the-road Democrats in the runoff.

Though the dynamics of Garcia’s campaign are not those of Cermak’s or Washington’s, his odds will depend on history and the strength of relationships established in those races. Chicago historian and Columbia College Chicago professor Dominic Pacyga’s certainty about how votes will swing in his own community of Beverly makes this clear.

“I think the 19th Ward democratic organization has worked very well with Rahm Emanuel and the Daleys,” Pacyga says. “And I think they will support him. [In Beverly] we do get a lot of city services. I’m getting a new gas line, I’m getting a new sewer line, we’re getting new sidewalks—so people are not going to be complaining that much.

“Chicagoans are very practical people,” he continues. “ ‘Pick up my garbage, clean my street, patrol, I’m happy.’ And I think that’s been true in the 19th Ward for a long time.”

It’s been true in neighborhoods across the city since the beginning. The structural advantages of the establishment Democrats—beyond the millions in donations incumbents like Emanuel and Richard M. Daley have been able to pull in—reside in the long term relationships they have built in communities like Beverly. Garcia’s own structural advantages reside in the relationships he has been able to build everywhere else—both in literal neighborhoods like his own Little Village and also in the broader Latino and African-American communities.

These are relationships firmly molded by the past, and there is little any candidate can do to establish deep and abiding trust with voters in the space of a month. But the little Garcia has done—de-emphasizing the racial divisions of the Washington administration and the city’s history while also invoking the legacy of the Washington coalition—suggest that he and his campaign want to build trust and support by reckoning with Chicago’s past in delicate ways. They hope that Chuy Garcia will make history. It is clear to them that history will make or break Chuy Garcia.