In 2015, Jesús “Chuy” García, longtime Cook County commissioner, former alderman, and state senator, became the only challenger to ever push a Chicago mayor into a primary runoff. Now García is running to represent Illinois’s Fourth District in the U.S. House of Representatives—a spur-shaped area gerrymandered to capture large Mexican and Puerto Rican communities on the west side of Chicago and in the western suburbs. Current congressman Luis Gutiérrez, in office since 1993, endorsed García’s candidacy in the same breath as he announced his retirement. But García says his decision to pursue national office wasn’t just a matter of a political upgrade.
To many people it might seem like you’ve been anointed to take over this congressional seat. How do you counter that general perception?
The decision to pursue Congress has to do with a sense of urgency in my mind to have an immigrant voice in Congress at this time in Washington, D.C., because of what Donald Trump has said and is pursuing in terms of seeking to criminalize the immigrant community. I think that because I’ve lived that experience since I came to this city 53 years ago, because of my involvement in immigrants’ rights issues for almost 45 years, I’m well suited to represent the district. Whether it’s DACA, protecting family migration and keeping it a pillar of our immigration policy, or defending gains that we’ve made to protect immigrants like the ICE detainer ordinance at the county, and of course protecting the sanctuary designation that the city has.
With respect to how this developed: It was Luis Gutiérrez first seeking to I think break the ice that had existed since the mayoral election. He and I had not had a face-to-face conversation since that time. It was obviously a very frosty relationship over the past three years. Initially I kind of laughed it off, I joked it off reminding him that he had thought about retiring ten years ago. . . . So when he when he finally convinced me that he was serious and became pretty emotional in conveying that, I said, looks like this guy is serious and began thinking about it seriously. I consulted with my family, my wife especially, and we felt that it was an important time to have a voice like mine in Congress.
Latinx folks tend to be lumped together in a monolith, and the way that the district has gerrymandered Mexican and Puerto Rican communities together is kind of a prime example of that. Talk about how you’re gonna advocate for each of these unique communities.
There are over 230,000 foreign-born individuals in the Fourth District. People like myself. It’s quite numerous when you factor in how many families are mixed status like my family: undocumented folks, legal permanent residents, citizens. With respect to the diversity I’m totally aware of that. We’ve got a significant Puerto Rican community on the northwest side especially. I have a long history working with the Puerto Rican community. I think I’m especially connected to it because of my long relationship working with the Puerto Rican agenda with housing groups, with cultural development groups, the Chambers of Commerce, the Puerto Rican Police Association, etc. The most important proponent of rebuilding Puerto Rico in addition to Luis Gutiérrez and Nydia Velázquez and the resident commissioner from the island is Senator Bernie Sanders [who has endorsed Garcia]. He’s put forth a bill to rebuild Puerto Rico. It includes debt relief, infrastructure, community development, and some additional relief to those that are there. So I will cover that. Don’t forget I am part of the family because my wife’s Puerto Rican and we have children from our marriage so there’s a long and profound history.
But I’m also cognizant that, you know, there’s also the communities in Logan Square where there are a lot of young people there, a lot of young professionals, and then you have the working-class belt in some of the other wards including the 30th and the 31st and the 36th and 26th Wards. So I’m in tune with them. I carried these wards when I ran for mayor. . . . I think that my history and my knowledge of these communities will help guarantee that I will stay rooted and be a voice for them.
Beyond immigration reform, I want to help pass a real infrastructure bill in Congress that rebuilds infrastructure that creates jobs that improves transit for people who have to travel to work each and every day. It’s very expensive to own a car, to gas it up, to maintain it, and then all the lost hours people driving back and forth. I understand the importance of workforce development and education. I’m a big supporter of Bernie’s college access and affordability for all. I think it ought to be free for people who need it at public colleges and universities.
You initially supported the soda tax, but then voted to repeal. Did part of the reason for flipping have to do with the fact that you were thinking about running for this office?
No, none whatsoever. My change in positions had to do with the impact that I saw that it was having on small mom-and-pop stores, smaller grocers in the community. It was really having an impact on those stores, and it was impacting other purchases. Some of the larger supermercados were being impacted significantly. . . . So I thought it made sense to reconsider it. And it’s part of the reason why I introduced an ordinance that would create a county economic and fiscal forecasting commission. The state of Illinois has one. I think we need that at Cook County.
How is the county supposed to find revenue for a well-functioning public health system and a fair criminal justice system without some sort of new sales taxes?
That’s going to be a challenge for the new board. Of course the property tax levy has remained frozen [since 1994], and that’s part of the reason why the board is in the predicament that it is in. Unless you generate new revenue you can’t have the programs that are expected of good government that provides good services to people.
Why not stick to your attempts to unseat Rahm Emanuel? Do you still stand by the criticism you’ve made of him in the past?
My positions remain valid. My policy positions, a variety of them have been addressed. Many of them haven’t: an elected school board, investment in the disinvested communities in Chicago have not been addressed. Violence continues to be a serious problem, especially on the west and southwest and the south side of the city of Chicago. I don’t see plans yet. I see proposals that are out there, including some big ones that purport to bring economic prosperity to the city. But I think most of what I have put forth remains as significant challenges. I will maintain my ability to criticize and to chime in on issues of importance to Chicago residents moving forward. I reserve that right. And don’t forget that no other elected official in Chicago has been fighting the machine as long as I have. v