If the Chicago mayoral campaign of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is remembered for nothing else, it might be the way he slapped down Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a recent debate with references to Darth Vader and imperiousness.
Garcia ripped into Emanuel, the first-term mayor and onetime chief of staff to President Obama, for offering protected land fronting Lake Michigan to “Star Wars” creator George Lucas for a movie memorabilia and art museum.
“The monument to Darth Vader I oppose,” said Garcia, a member of the Cook County board. He accused Emanuel of acting “by fiat,” adding: “You’re not the king of the city.”
By coming out swinging, the normally low-key Garcia may have given voice to voter qualms about the unabashedly brash Emanuel that denied him reelection outright in February and forced him into an April 7 runoff.
The question facing Garcia is whether the new in-your-face approach comes too late, after weeks in which his lightly funded campaign was unable to match an Emanuel advertising barrage depicting the mayor as a man of action and the lesser known challenger as a lightweight.
A new Chicago Tribune poll showed Emanuel gaining steam in the home stretch, with 58% of likely voters favoring his reelection, to 30% for Garcia. The results reflected a big racial and ethnic divide, with Emanuel the choice of 72% of white voters and 53% of black voters while 52% of Latino voters favored Garcia.
The contrast between the two candidates is stark as they debate who is best suited to lead a city beset by looming financial storm clouds, significant street violence and a deep divide between its vibrant downtown and economically depressed neighborhoods.
Emanuel is the short-fused political savant with gold-plated connections to political royalty like the Clintons and Obama. Garcia is the neighborhood guy with a lengthy but modest public resume who holds to the liberal values he embraced as an ally of the late Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor.
Garcia’s candidacy is a direct outgrowth of resentments over Emanuel’s stewardship of public schools that serve more than 396,000 youngsters, the vast majority of whom are poor and minorities.
In a cost-cutting move, Emanuel closed a record 50 neighborhood schools in one fell swoop, one of several controversial school actions he said were aimed at conserving scarce resources and improving an educational system that had badly shortchanged students. The moves antagonized many parents as well as the influential Chicago Teachers Union, which viewed them as steps toward privatization and union busting.
It was union president Karen Lewis who recruited Garcia into the mayor’s race last fall after a cancer diagnosis forced her to drop her own plans to challenge Emanuel.
The matchup between Emanuel and Garcia is one fraught with symbolism and irony.
Garcia, born in Durango, Mexico, but raised in Chicago, would become the city’s first Latino mayor if elected. His political career dates to the 1980s when, as a young community organizer, he drummed up Latino support for Washington’s mayoral bid and then, with Washington’s help, won election to City Council.
He later served two terms in the state Legislature before being targeted for defeat by a Latino political group allied with former Mayor Richard Daley. He then spent a decade at the helm of a nonprofit involved in an array of issues from housing to immigrant and voting rights facing residents of his West Side neighborhood, known as Little Village.
Garcia was the identity of the group, now known as Enlace, former officials said. “He was extremely charismatic,” recalled Jorge Cestou, the group’s former executive director. Enlace’s finances suffered over time and Garcia departed, first taking a state job and then returning to elected office as a county commissioner.
In his latest role as mayoral candidate, Garcia is seeking to frame himself in the liberal mold of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We are on the cusp of a major statement to be made to the rest of the country -- that we won’t tolerate the types of cronyism and corporate welfare that has come to exemplify the reign of Rahm Emanuel,” Garcia said during a fundraising swing earlier this month through Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
Garcia pursued the theme in a recent television ad: “The big money guys already have a mayor who listens to them,” he proclaims. “I will be a mayor who listens to you.”
Emanuel, to be sure, disagrees, arguing that he has been willing to do the unpopular to unravel an inherited financial and policy mess. The mayor has chided Garcia for offering up mostly vague policy prescriptions while also raising doubts about how the challenger could wrest money-saving concessions from the same public worker unions so crucial to his campaign.
That does point to an intriguing dilemma for Garcia as he argues his cautious and more collaborative personal style can deliver better results in a city where voters have grown accustomed to tough and forceful political bosses.
“He’s an odd bird in the sense that he’s got two traits you rarely find in politicians these days, which are honesty and humility,” said Maurice Sone, an attorney who oversees a Little Village community group that Garcia led years ago. “Don’t let his soft demeanor surprise you. ... He’s not confrontational. He just has a different way.”
Garcia is seeking to shine a spotlight on that “different way” as election day nears. During that recent debate, Garcia pledged he would be an “inclusive” mayor as opposed to Emanuel, whom he sought to depict as hard-headed and tone-deaf.
But Garcia’s message may not be sinking in with voters beyond his core supporters, based on the latest Chicago Tribune polling: Asked which candidate was more “in touch” with people like themselves, voters were essentially split.
The disparity in campaign fundraising could be fueling the widening gap in the polls. Emanuel has raised more than $20 million, much of it from donors who get some sort of City Hall benefit, to fund a relentless television and radio ad campaign. Garcia has raised more than $5 million and only recently began broadcast ads.