In the next few weeks, the Gate will be publishing several features on Chicago’s heated mayoral race. On January 27th, Chicago editor Patrick Reilly spoke with Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia. With the backing of Chicago Teachers’ Union president Karen Lewis, whose own mayoral campaign was derailed by an unexpected illness, Garcia hopes to rally the diverse groups opposing incumbent mayor Rahm Emanuel. Here’s what he had to say:
The Gate: It has been about two months since you’ve launched your campaign. Have there been any moments during that time that have captured why you’re running [for office]?
Garcia: There was one experience that I found quite moving and inspirational. I was sitting in a circle with a group of youth from the ages of nine to thirty and I was listening to their stories about their greatest fears and aspirations and their daily life. I really came to appreciate how difficult it is for many of them to live more satisfying lives given the violence that many of them face. Many of them were youth of color and they related their stories about their fear of drive-by shootings – they felt that they always had to have their guard up. It is very difficult to them to access culture – music and the arts – and even in the parks that are closest to them, it is difficult to find free activities to be involved in. It’s a bleak picture. There aren’t many safe places for them to spend time – safety is an underlying theme that all of them shared.
They don’t feel like they have a place to be heard. The tables that are set up in government – committees, blue-ribbon panels, task forces – they never include young people. The only voices that they sometimes have are in high school councils. Those conversations were a real eye-opener for me. We have so many young people in Chicago and we often forget about them. We know what’s best for them so we make decisions for them, as opposed to asking young people what they think. That was a really humbling experience because it was a chance just to listen. We don’t create places where officials can just listen to them.
The Gate: Where did that meeting take place?
Garcia: This was at a church basement at Mount Disco Church, on the South Side.
The Gate: You’ve made it pretty clear how you consider yourself to be different from Mayor Emanuel. How do you consider yourself different from the mayor’s other opponents? Why should someone who doesn’t like the mayor vote for you instead of, say, Alderman Fioretti?
Garcia: When you look at my history, you can see that I’m rooted in Chicago neighborhoods. I have relationships with community organizers. I have a history of looking for solutions to the most vexing problems...If you look at the big picture, on questions of civil rights, public education – I have the longest record. I have a network of relationships that has been created over thirty years...If you look at the big picture on questions of civil rights, LGBT rights, issues like public education – I have the longest history on these issues. Others can claim that they’ve been involved, but my record of consistency speaks for itself.
The Gate: Are there any policies of the current administration that you would keep if elected?
Garcia: (sighs) You know, we’ve focused on the differences so much between us that I’m trying to think what is good [about the mayor’s current policies]. The Office of New Americans – I would keep it, but I would make it more robust and I would ensure that it responds to the needs of immigrant communities – the Asian community, the Polish community, the Muslim community, and Latinos. There will continue to be a lot of uncertainty about what Congress does about immigration reform. I would keep the office but would make it more robust, given the inability of Congress to respond to policy challenges.
The Gate: I’d like to follow up on the topic of immigration. A report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says there are approximately 183,000 illegal immigrants in Chicago. What words of advice or encouragement would you give them?
Garcia: Keep yourself well informed from credible sources about legislative changes going on in the next year that relate to immigrants. That will be critical. There is a high level of danger that scam artists will take advantage of them through false offers of assistance with getting legalized and preparing documents. My advice is to go to credible organizations that know what they are doing, like the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. I think churches are a very trustworthy source. Many schools will also likely be up to speed on what goes on. Be very careful about the information you’re getting, and get it from reliable sources. Some of the most reliable sources are nonprofit organizations. The information is free.
The Gate: How do you plan to work with Governor Rauner if elected?
Garcia: I plan to sit with him and get a sense of what he’s going to do and how he’s going to proceed. The sharing of revenues to the city is important – Chicago lost out with the extension of the income tax...it’s impacted the city’s budget. I’d like to have some of the money that came through the change in [income tax] formula so that we recuperate what was lost. Obviously, that will be tied to much bigger fiscal decisions that are made about how the state is moving forward, and we may not know that until his first budget address in February.
But I will try to establish a working relationship with him, one that is rooted in trust and a willingness to have an honest conversation about the future of [our state’s] fiscal health... I’d also want to ask him how we would move forward with respect to public education, and also how he’ll move forward with the Medicaid program and his plans on Health and Human Services. Those would be some of my top concerns, and I would want to have a very honest conversation with him about what his plans are and their implications for the people of Chicago.
The Gate: Do you expect Speaker Madigan to be a good voice for Chicago in Springfield?
Garcia: My sense is that he would be a strong advocate for the city and he’s familiar with the needs of the city. I think he’d be disposed to play such a role. Given his long history and influence in Springfield, he will put all of that to work for Chicago residents.
The Gate: On the issue of education, you’ve promised an elected school board. Chicago currently has fifty aldermen, which is more per capita than most other major US cities. Are you worried that adding an elected school board would make things too top-heavy?
Garcia: There is always that potential. We need to continue to push for ways to get money out of politics as much as possible so that big money does not come to dominate politics as much as it has, especially in the wake of Citizens United. We have to stay very vigilant to ensure that big money interests don’t prevail and don’t drown out citizens’ voices, and that we elect people to such a board that would be knowledgeable about policy and would be responsive to the needs of children and parents, and of course taxpayers. So yes, that is a concern. As is, in general, the fact that there’s just too much money in politics. I’m concerned that wealthy people have a disproportionate impact on how people are elected. There are lopsided contests where one candidate’s struggling to raise a million dollars and where one has ten million dollars. Probably not good for politics or government.
The Gate: Any specific reforms that you would put into place to reduce the influence of money in politics?
Garcia: We’re working with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and they have a series of initiatives that they’re pushing for. One is a referendum that asks voters whether the state of Illinois should reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns with small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money. I support those initiatives.
The Gate: City Hall isn’t an all-powerful entity. What initiatives would you like to see the citizens of Chicago take outside of politics if you were mayor?
Garcia: I would like my administration to embark on an initiative to get the people closer to the government in Chicago. I think that City Hall is just too distant from a lot of Chicago neighborhoods...Just compare Oak Park and Austin: suburban and inner-city communities. Oak Park has dozens of citizens involved in committees that give direction to the city. It has hundreds of employees focused on making Oak Park better for residents and businesses. Austin, just across the Boulevard, has active citizens and community organizations but they have no authority, and city government has hardly any presence. So Austin residents, like those of so many neighborhoods throughout the city, are sort of on their own. My administration would be committed to reinventing the way city government works to bring City Hall closer to the neighborhoods. I think a “Bringing People Closer to the City” commission that would examine best practices in other cities around the country would be a positive step. We could hold hearings around the city and listen to the recommendations of business groups and residents on how to make the city work for average residents. Citizens could propose reforms that make a more effective government. That has not occurred in Chicago. In my administration, City Hall will come to the people, rather than the other way around. That hasn’t happened in Chicago in quite some time.