The latest battle in the war for the soul of the Democratic Party is led by a man named Chuy.
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the city commissioner of Chicago, is locked in a race for mayor with incumbent Rahm Emanuel. With the election set for Tuesday, Emanuel holds the edge.
But for a former congressman and White House chief of staff with close ties to the Clintons and Wall Street, Emanuel is in a surprisingly vulnerable position. Garcia has already forced him into a runoff—the first in the city’s history for a mayoral race. Now Garcia is trying to galvanize progressives and minorities to push him across the finish line and into City Hall.
His opponent has done much of the work for him: Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel has alienated Democrats by embracing austerity, bludgeoning the Chicago Teachers Union, and neglecting the needs of his poorest constituents. He has closed 50 schools on the largely poor, mostly black South Side, resulting in layoffs of teachers, janitors, and other staff. Like radiation fallout from a nuclear blast, the collective school closure contributed to many grocery stores shutting their doors; Emanuel’s draining of an educational reservoir helped create a food desert.
The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike when Emanuel attempted to introduce merit-based pay, using standardized testing as the tool to measure merit, and reduce pensions for retirees. The strike ended when teachers agreed to a new evaluation system not attached to standardized testing.
Emanuel’s appellation of Democrat is deceptive not just on education issues, but also criminal justice and due process of law. Last month, the ACLU issued a horrific report concluding that from May to August of 2014, Chicago Police made 250,000 stop and frisk assaults in which there were no arrests. African Americans accounted for two-thirds of the stops.
And in February, the Guardian reported that Chicago now has interrogation “black sites,” where police question suspects without supervision. Like a nightmare of the Pinochet regime of Chile, one 15-year-old has disappeared after police took him to a black site, according to the report. Another suspect who was lucky enough to survive his trip to the torture chamber explains that he was shackled for seventeen hours, beaten, and threatened.
Garcia says he offers a new, hopeful, and auspicious alternative for Chicago. His long history with philanthropic organizations providing assistance to poor, Latino Chicagoans, and his early alliance with Harold Washington, Chicago’s most progressive and first black mayor, gives him a history of authenticity. His record juxtaposed with his opponent’s failures has empowered him and mobilized many voters.
When I spoke to the candidate before a rally at Rainbow/PUSH, Jesse Jackson’s civil-rights organization, he said that he is the “only choice for young progressives.”
Referring to the challenge he poses toward Emanuel’s regressive and oppressive law enforcement policies, Garcia said, “We need to have policies that incentivize a disinvestment from violence among young people. The only strategy that succeeds is educational mobility.”
Garcia promises to work with teachers, rather than against them, while also making Chicago colleges more affordable. He then used a term that, tragically, is almost never uttered in American politics: “restorative justice.”
“My administration would engage with law enforcement to create a culture of restorative justice,” he said. For nine years, Garcia worked with the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Adler School of Psychology to resist policies of punishment that criminalize communities of color, and assimilate young offenders into employment and neighborhood networks of nurture.
Emanuel’s supporters say his fiscal record and experience qualify him for the mayoral position over Garcia. Reality remains uncooperative with Emanuel’s narrative. Since he took office in 2011, Chicago’s bond rating has fallen to just two levels above junk.
The fiscal policies of Emanuel are not supportive of solvency as much as they are about maintaining the vicious inequality that worsens the divide between rich and poor throughout a city with a long history of redlining, predatory lending, and race and class stratification.
Jesse Jackson was one of Garcia’s most vocal supporters from the start of the race, and moments before the rally, he offered insight into the combat for conquest of the Democratic Party. His analysis should double as encouragement for young activists – Black Lives Matter and Occupy – to engage the political system, rather than just create political theater.
“We win by fighting. When you’re swimming against the current, you’re not trying to win the race. You’re trying to change the flow of the river.”
David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky). He writes regularly for Salon and AlterNet. www.davidmasciotra.com