Jesus Chuy Garcia turned in his nominating petitions on Monday.
  • Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photos
  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia turned in his nominating petitions on Monday.

I can think of nine million reasons Jesus Garcia can’t beat Rahm Emanuel, a number that grows daily as the gifts to the mayor’s campaign fund roll in. On Monday, Emanuel’s committee reported the arrival of a contribution from billionaire former hedge fund manager (and charter school advocate) John D. Arnold, who lives on Lazy Lane (really) in Houston, but cares enough about the mayor’s race in Chicago to put a hundred grand down on Rahm. Garcia’s following among Lazy Lane billionaires is thought to be smaller.

But money doesn’t always prevail, and “Chuy” Garcia is a formidable candidate. He’s been an elected official at the city, county, and state levels, and been highly regarded at each.

“He’s the real deal—a true progressive and a quality human being,” Gary Rivlin told me recently. Rivlin lives in New York now and is working as a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, but he covered politics for the Reader in the 1980s, and saw the start of Garcia’s political career. Garcia was campaign manager when Rudy Lozano ran for 22nd Ward alderman in 1983 against the machine incumbent in Little Village. Lozano, a 31-year-old union organizer and community activist, narrowly missed forcing the incumbent into a runoff. Four months later, he was shot to death in his home on 25th Street near Pulaski by a young gang member. (The motive was never clear.)

Lozano’s supporters pressed Garcia to carry on the antimachine fight. He was a “terrible” speaker at first but grew into his public role, Rivlin recalled. Garcia was elected Democratic committeeman in the ward in 1984, and alderman two years later. Mayor Harold Washington considered him “principled and trustworthy,” and he served as the ranking Latino in Washington’s City Council coalition, Rivlin wrote in Fire on the Prairie, his book about Washington and that memorable era.

In 1992, Garcia became the first Mexican-American to be elected to the Illinois state senate. “He’s never been a guy with a big ego, he’s always willing to help other people,” Cook County clerk David Orr told Linda Lutton in 1998, for a Reader story. Orr, who served with Garcia on the City Council, called Garcia “one of the most outstanding elected officials in the state.”

By the time of Lutton’s story, however, he was no longer a state senator: Lutton was writing about the forces aligned with Mayor Richard M. Daley, who’d managed to defeat Garcia.

After that loss in 1998, Garcia stepped out of politics. He founded Enlace Chicago, a nonprofit community development organization in Little Village, and taught political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He got back on the ballot in 2010, winning a spot on the Cook County Board, where he currently serves as floor leader for president Toni Preckwinkle.

At a 1997 tribute to Harold Washington on the tenth anniversary of his death: from left, the late mayors half brother,  Ramon Price; his former press secretary, Alton Miller; Jesus Garcia, then a state senator; and Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Washingtons pastor.
  • John H. White-Sun-Times
  • At a 1997 tribute to Harold Washington on the tenth anniversary of his death: from left, the late mayor’s half brother, Ramon Price; his former press secretary, Alton Miller; Jesus Garcia, then a state senator; and Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Washington’s pastor.

Can Chuy beat Rahm? The question is premature, I know. The initial matter is whether Garcia, Alderman Bob Fioretti, community activist Amara Enyia, and six others can deprive Emanuel of a majority on February 24 and force him into a runoff in April with one of them.

But with his experience and shining reputation, and the endorsement of Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, Garcia, 58, has the best chance of being that challenger. So let’s look down the road and consider another hurdle for Garcia besides Emanuel’s fat and swelling purse. Of Chicago’s 55 mayors, 53 have been white, and two have been African-American. Garcia is Mexican-American. Is Chicago ready to elect a Latino mayor?

Of the city’s 2.7 million residents, the vast majority (93 percent) are black, white, or Latino. And the split among those groups is fairly even, according to the most recent estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (for the years 2008 through 2012):

African-American: 35 percent
White (non-Latino): 34.5 percent
Latino: 30.5 percent

But among the voting-age (18 and older) population, the Latino proportion is smaller:

White: 40 percent
African-American: 33 percent
Latino: 27 percent

And the Latino proportion is notably smaller among adult citizens:

White: 43 percent
African-American: 38 percent
Latino: 19 percent

Much more so than Emanuel, Garcia needs to win the support of voters outside of his own racial/ethnic group.

In an equitable city, race and ethnicity might not be a factor in a mayoral election. But in an equitable city, median household income wouldn’t be $68,000 for whites and only $40,000 for Latinos and $30,000 for African-Americans. The poverty rate wouldn’t be 11 percent for whites, 23 percent for Latinos, and 33 percent for African-Americans. Enrollment in the city’s public schools wouldn’t be 46 percent Latino, 39 percent African-American, and only 9 percent white (and 85 percent low-income). Crime wouldn’t be so much more common in black and brown neighborhoods. There wouldn’t be neighborhoods so sharply divided by race and class.

But in Chicago the way it is, most African-Americans and Latinos live on the south and west sides, and they have more in common with each other than with the whites who live on the north side. And that’s what gives Garcia a chance. Yes, there are many more voting-eligible whites than Latinos; but together, there are many more voting-eligible Latinos and African-Americans than whites.

The backing of white liberals—both their vote and their financial contributions—will help Garcia, and he hopes to win the support of middle-of-the-road white voters as well. But his chances hinge on his support from minorities. Latinos helped African-Americans (and white liberals) elect Harold Washington in 1983, and they were pivotal in his reelection in 1987. The city’s Latinos and African-Americans haven’t come together much, however, since Washington’s death in 1987. Will they unify for Chuy?

“He’s going to have to make sure African-Americans know his story—that he’s not a Johnny-Come-Lately, that he’s been there with us all along,” says Delmarie Cobb, a veteran Chicago political consultant who’s African-American. Cobb says Garcia also has to find a way to energize younger African-Americans, “because we have a whole generation now that doesn’t even know a coalition once existed between African-Americans and Hispanics.”

Garcia has been there all along. When he managed Lozano’s run for alderman in 1983, the campaign’s volunteers passed literature for Washington, even in precincts where supporting the black candidate for mayor wasn’t popular. That support may in fact have cost Lozano the votes he needed to get into a runoff. In the General Assembly, Garcia served as chairman of the predominately black senate minority caucus.

When he campaigns in African-American neighborhoods especially, Garcia likely will invoke Washington’s name often, and highlight his Karen Lewis endorsement, and mention his role as floor leader for Preckwinkle, Chicago’s most prominent African-American politician.

Many black voters are angry with Emanuel for closing 50 elementary schools, most of them in their neighborhoods. But will they support a Latino candidate for mayor, or will they just stay home?

If anyone can overcome the hurdles for a Latino mayoral candidate in Chicago, it’s Garcia, Rivlin told me, “given his lifetime commitment to a multiracial coalition—not just talking the talk, but 30 years of walking the walk.”