US Rep. ‘Chuy’ García joins race for Chicago mayor; Lightfoot camp accuses him of ‘abandoning’ Congress while Democratic majority is at stake

CHICAGO — U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García will make a second run for Chicago mayor, posing potentially the biggest challenge yet for Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she seeks a second term.

García’s candidacy had once been considered a long shot because of his comfortable seat in Congress and behind-the-scenes success as a political power broker. But García, who has long dreamed of leading the nation’s third-largest city, decided to enter the mayor’s race in a risky move that could lead him to becoming Chicago’s first Latino mayor or mark him as a two-time loser.

Two days after winning another term in Congress, Garcia announced his candidacy for the Feb. 28 local election in a video Thursday and held a rally with dozens of supporters at Navy Pier, where he noted the difficult recent years of economic instability, the pandemic and a racial reckoning but portrayed himself as the candidate who can bring the city together.

“Now is the time to revitalize our neighborhoods, strengthen our schools and bring safety back to our streets because we believe in a Chicago for everyone, a welcoming Chicago, the same Chicago that welcomed me as a 9-year old immigrant boy and gave me a fighting chance to dream big,” Garcia said.

He also took a dig at Lightfoot without naming her, saying Chicago “needs a mayor that will bring us together and unite us instead of driving us apart.”

Lightfoot’s campaign responded with a statement calling García a “career politician.”

“While Mayor Lightfoot is doing the hard work of leading our city through challenging times, career politician congressman Garcia is prioritizing his own ambitions. Mr. Garcia spent months dithering on whether to get in this race, saying publicly he’d only run if Democrats lost the House,” the statement from spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said. “Now, a mere 36 hours after voters reelected him to Congress, and as Republicans prepare to use their new slim majority to strip away our rights, Mr. Garcia is abandoning ship and going after a fellow progressive Democrat. That’s not the tough, principled leadership our city needs.”

In 2015, García pushed Mayor Rahm Emanuel into the city’s first runoff. Though García lost the campaign, he became a progressive folk hero and jumped from the Cook County Board to the U.S. Congress in 2018 after Rep. Luis Gutierrez retired.

García enters the race with high name recognition and a long record as a progressive, but he will need to expand his support beyond his traditional allies as some of the unions who supported his bid against Emanuel are backing Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. He also will need to find ways to appeal to more Black and white voters than he got in his unsuccessful 2015 campaign.

The battle for progressive voters also represents a generational clash between García, who was an ally of former Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s, and Johnson, as well as others in the race seeking the progressive mantle, including Alderwoman Sophia King, activist Ja’Mal Green and state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner.

Born in Durango, Mexico, García was a young protegé of Latino community activist Rudy Lozano, who was a budding political star. García managed Lozano’s 1983 campaign for 22nd Ward alderman, where Lozano fell 37 votes short of ousting a veteran white incumbent at a time when Little Village was transforming into the center of Latino Chicago. Months later, Lozano was slain by a gang member, a tragedy that also changed the trajectory of Chicago politics.

With Washington’s help, García won election as 22nd Ward Democratic committeeman in 1984. He was elected alderman in a special election in 1986, a seat he held until running for state senate in 1992. He was reelected but lost a bid for a third term after being targeted for defeat by the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a political group allied with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

García then turned his attention to building a nonprofit community organizing group to press for voting rights, economic development issues, legal safeguards for immigrants without documents, violence prevention and other issues of concern to Latinos.

Now known as Enlace, the government-funded organization drew headlines in 2001 as it led a nearly three-week hunger strike by parents that pressured city school officials into fulfilling a long-delayed promise to build a new high school in Little Village.

Since winning a congressional seat in 2018, García has grown his political power far beyond his Southwest Side base in Little Village. The longtime progressive politician showed a practical side in recent years by building close ties with now-indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, which helped expand García’s influence, and his endorsement has been sought after by candidates all across the city.

García considered running for mayor in 2019 after Emanuel bowed out of the race but he ultimately decided against a bid. Instead, García helped Lightfoot become mayor that year by endorsing her in the runoff against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whose leadership team he served on while on the County Board.

Garcia timed his public challenge to Lightfoot to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Washington declaring his candidacy for mayor in 1982. As Garcia attempted to position himself as a similar politician who will be able to build a coalition, he was introduced by state Rep. Theresa Mah, whose district includes Chinatown, former Lincoln Park Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, and Stephanie Gadlin, a former spokeswoman for CTU President Karen Lewis.

Sitting aldermen Susan Sadlowski Garza, Gilbert Villegas, Felix Cardona and Mike Rodriguez attended Garcia’s rally.

In his speech, Garcia talked about the Mexican American commercial district on 26th Street and feeling at home with the hustle and bustle. But, he said, the city is at a “crossroads,” with crime and other issues that need to be addressed.

“We should be able to look across our skyline and see cranes and new growth as well as equitable development in our neighborhoods, bringing new, good-paying union jobs, new retail and new vitality to our city,” Garcia said. “I want to see our city grow and thrive. And I want to see our children and grandchildren raise families right here in Chicago, to be able to bring of starting a small business or buying their first home.”

Aside from Garcia, the race includes King, Buckner, Johnson, Green, Lightfoot, Alderman Roderick Sawyer, 6th, former CPS chief Paul Vallas, Alderman Raymond Lopez, 15th, and businessman Willie Wilson. Alderman Tom Tunney and former Gov. Pat Quinn are still considering getting into the race.