Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia calls Obama’s former top aide ‘fairweather friend’ of growing Latino voter base ahead of tense election day
Mark Guarino in Chicago
Tuesday 24 February 2015 08.13 EST
As Barack Obama faces a Washington shutdown crisis over his controversial immigration policy, his former top adviser was barreling toward a potential election day upset Tuesday in Chicago from a Latino challenger accusing Rahm Emanuel of a flip-flop after he failed to push the president to enact it.
In an interview with the Guardian, mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia insisted Emanuel had “changed his tune” on immigration reform since leaving his position as White House chief of staff for Chicago city hall. With polls showing he could force the hard-charging first-term Emanuel into a runoff with high enough turnout, Garcia made national politics local by calling the mayor “a fairweather friend” of Latino voters, the fastest-growing voting bloc in Chicago.
“In both the Clinton and Obama administrations, he was not a friend of the immigration community,” Garcia told the Guardian on Monday. The progressive county commissioner and former alderman castigated Emanuel for switching his support toward “the third rail of politics” only when he arrived in Chicago from Washington in 2011.
“He advised President Clinton to take a hard line on immigration in creating stiffer penalties related to status and under Obama told Congress not to vote for immigration reform,” Garcia said.
The Obama connection has provided a lifeline for Emanuel on immigration reform, with the support of leading Latino officials such as US representative Luis Gutierrez, who opposed the mayor’s first run for office but has called him a partner, leading to a late surge among Hispanic voters. Gutierrez now says Emanuel was key to lobbying for Obama’s executive order behind closed doorslate last year, which lifted the threat of deportation for millions of migrants.
That action currently has the White Houseescalating a face-off with Republicans in Washington who are threatening to let funding for the Department of Homeland Security expire on Friday without changes to the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
But with only 33% of likely Hispanic voters planing to vote for Emanuel compared with 48% supporting Garcia in the latest Chicago Tribune poll, and Emanuel still needing an overall majority to avoid a “free-for-all” second election in April, the challenger was rallying his base ahead of a potentially historic moment.
Born in Mexico, Garcia moved to Chicago in 1965 and became immersed in neighborhood coalition building, rising to become an ally of Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s; he later served as an Illinois state senator and is currently a Cook County commissioner.
Over the years, Chicago’s population has grown to become about one-third Hispanic, yet only 17% of that bloc is registered to vote. “At the state and local level, Latinos haven’t voted up to their potential,” said Martin Torres, senior policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum.
Motivating Hispanic voters to get out on Tuesday has meant messages from Emanuel and his four challengers beyond immigration: public safety, affordable housing, jobs and the hotbed local issue of education.
In hoping to become the first Latino mayor in the third largest city in the US, Garcia has said he wants to hire 1,000 more police officers to fight mounting crime in some areas. He and Emanuel differ on costs, as critics like veteran police officer Rafael Yanez accuse the mayor of implementing “soft taxes” like a red-light program and speed cameras he claims have been used “as a slush fund” to divert money from minority neighborhoods to downtown development projects.
“We have a community still fighting to be recognized and to have the respect that is needed to have a good quality of life,” Yanez said, who is running for local alderman of the 15th ward, which is predominantly Latino. “It’s like a snowball effect.”
Emanuel campaigned primarily on improving crime and job numbers as well as a multi-pronged approach on advances in early childhood education and the community college system, plus efforts to extend the school day.
But local leaders such as Ricardo Muñoz, alderman of the 22nd ward, said Emanuel had failed to resonate with Latino voters because they see his efforts as focused on the affluent city center, with little investment in neighborhoods on the south and west sides.
“He has been out of touch with the Latino community,” Muñoz said. “The Latino demographic is mostly working class, but Rahm has focused on tech jobs and downtown jobs.”
Emanuel touted his first four years in office as making Chicago “the most immigrant-friendly city in America”, with the majority of those efforts connected to an office launched in 2012 and tasked with helping migrants cut through red tape of navigating city services.
The mayor also pushed through a 2012 city ordinance that prevents local police from turning over undocumentedmigrants to authorities unless they were connected to serious crimes. Cities including San Francisco, San Jose, Houston and Seattle have passed similar measures.
But as Garcia surged ahead of the other challengers to Obama’s former top aide – including Chicago alderman Bob Fioretti, businessman Willie Wilson and community activist William “Dock” Walls – the spoiler candidate was promising “a “full ground operation” on election day.
“Our target will be getting the vote out,” Garcia told the Guardian. “We expect to do very well with Latinos.”