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Meet Jesús “Chuy” García, the Chicago Activist Aiming to Unseat “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel

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Jesús “Chuy” García, the son of Mexican immigrants, shocked the nation’s political establishment last week by forcing Chicago’s powerful Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff election. Now the race has turned into what could be the next big fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. Emanuel faces public dissatisfaction over his closing of 50 schools in mostly African-American neighborhoods, his handling of a 2012 teachers’ strike, and the city’s high murder rate and levels of gun violence. If García is elected, he will become Chicago’s first-ever Latino mayor. The runoff election will take place on April 7.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Chicago, where Jesús “Chuy” García, the son of Mexican immigrants and an immigrant himself, shocked the nation’s political establishment last week by forcing Chicago’s powerful Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff election. Now the race has turned into what could be the next big fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Many experts had predicted Emanuel would easily win the primary because of his political background as a former top White House aide to President Obama, who came to Chicago to endorse him. Emanuel also won the backing of Chicago’s major newspapers. By comparison, García was a little-known former city alderman, state senator, community organizer, and now Cook County commissioner. He raised just over $1 million in campaign donations, compared to Emanuel’s $15 million war chest. But on election night, Emanuel captured just 45 percent of the vote, below the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. Meanwhile, García emerged a close second with 33 percent. This is García addressing his supporters after the news was announced.

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Nobody thought we’d be here tonight. They wrote us off. They said we didn’t have a chance. They said we didn’t have any money, while they spent millions attacking us. Well, well, we’re still standing. We’re still running. And we’re going to win. We have something to say to all those big corporations and special interests who spent all those millions to install their own mayor: We want change!

AMY GOODMAN: Now, a new poll shows the gap between García and Emanuel closing to what the Chicago Sun-Times calls a “dead heat.” Emanuel leads by 43 percent, García has 39 percent. The incumbent mayor faces public dissatisfaction over his closing of 50 schools in mostly African-American neighborhoods, his handling of a 2012 teachers’ strike, and the city’s high murder rate and levels of gun violence. This week, Mayor Emanuel is going on the offensive. He’s running a series of new campaign ads.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: They say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. I’m living proof of that. I can rub people the wrong way or talk when I should listen. I own that. But I’m driven to make a difference. When politics stood in the way of a full-day kindergarten or tougher gun laws, I charged ahead. And when business interests said a $13 minimum wage was too high, I didn’t back down. Look, I’m not going to always get it right. But when it comes to fighting for Chicago and Chicago’s future, no one’s going to fight harder.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Emanuel is pouring millions into these runoff ads. For more on the possible unseating of the mayor, who some have nicknamed Mayor 1 Percent, we go to Chicago, where we’re joined by his challenger, Jesús “Chuy” García. We contacted Emanuel’s campaign and invited him to join us, as well, but they didn’t respond. If Chuy García is elected, he will become Chicago’s first-ever Latino mayor. The runoff election will take place on April 7th.

Chuy García, welcome to Democracy Now! Why are you running for mayor?

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Good morning. Great to be with you, Amy. I’m running for mayor of the city of Chicago because Chicago needs to go in a different direction. For the past four years, we’ve seen Mayor Emanuel arrive in town with a boatload of money, impose his policies on the people of the city of Chicago. They favored a select few in Chicago. Through the amassing of large sums of money, he thought he could get re-elected, while leaving behind Chicago neighborhoods, making Chicago a city that leads the nation in the number of school closings—almost 50—and making Chicago, at the same time, one of the most violent cities in the country. We’ve experienced in the past four years 10,000 shootings, for example. So people in the neighborhoods feel left behind. They have come together, supported me for mayor. We’ve forced him into a runoff by building a coalition that is truly multiracial, multiethnic, across faith and across geography in Chicago. We’re fighting back against the agenda that was imposed on Chicago, and we want some attention and resources and investment in Chicago neighborhoods.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chuy García, one of the big issues, obviously, in this race has been education—the mayor’s policies on school closings, on charter schools and his reform agenda. Could you talk about your differences with him on this issue and your own history in terms of seeking education reform?

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Yes. The mayor has total control of the Chicago public school system. It was a bill that gave the mayor that exclusive control in 1995. I was a member of the Illinois Senate. I voted against that bill, thought it was a bad idea. It also ushered in the era of charter schools, and Chicago now has 125 charter schools.

The mayor appoints people who have been loyal to him. Some of them have had conflicts of interest while serving on the school board. Their companies have profited. The business that they do, that the companies that some of those board members have, has grown tremendously over the past several years. It’s indicative of the mayor’s opposition to having an elected school board in Chicago. That question about an elected school board appeared on the ballot a week ago last Tuesday, and it received 88 percent of the vote in support. People want greater accountability, they want a say-so, and they want an elected school board.

What we’ve seen in Chicago is a policy of inequality, a lack of equity. You have some parts of the city that have really good public schools, other parts of the city that don’t have the resources that you need to have successful education occurring. Those schools happen to be located in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. And, of course, the schools that were closed in Chicago are primarily in low-income areas that are predominately African-American and Latino.

There’s another issue in the school system, which is standardized tests. Teachers focus so much time and energy in teaching students how to pass tests that they’re not able to educate them. So our students are overtested and undereducated.

And those are some of the issues that are being debated with respect to schools in Chicago, in addition to, of course, the issue of how you invest in having a robust system of public schools and, of course, stopping the charter mania, the rush to open up as many charter schools as possible without demonstrating that in fact charter schools are superior to the neighborhood schools in Chicago, which means a siphoning of money. I recognize that there are some good charter schools in Chicago, but the charter mania, the rush to create additional charter schools, has just created a second tier of schools in our system. I will put an end to that. We will, of course, guarantee that all students, including those attending current charters, receive a good education, but we should not continue to just open charters and create a two-tier school system in the city of Chicago.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you again about your own history in this area. Back when you were leading a major—Enlace, a major community organization in Chicago, you led a protest and hunger strike by parents to build a public school. And my understanding is somebody by the name of Arne Duncan was the one who eventually caved in and agreed to build the high school that you were seeking?

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Yes. We had to engage in a fight in 2001 in an area known as Little Village in the city of Chicago. The Chicago public school system had promised to build a new high school by 2001, the year that it should have opened. No high school had been built yet. Parents and other leaders in the community decided they had to do something really unconventional. They engaged in a hunger strike that lasted 19 years—pardon me, 19 days. It was a group of mothers. It was a group of students, other leaders in the community. And it really forced the Chicago Public Schools and the mayor to come to the table, to sit down and negotiate.

It resulted, in part, in the exiting of the CEO of the public school system at that time. There was a change in leadership. After Arne Duncan came in as superintendent of the school system, we sat down, we negotiated. And a new high school, a very innovative high school, with four small schools in one shared facility, that educates children who are Latino, many of them immigrants, and African-American, about 30 percent of them—it is a very successful school, it’s a very peaceful school, and it is graduating students and sending them to colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers, thereby showing that you can have great schools in low-income neighborhoods and working-class neighborhoods in Chicago. And if we’re able to do it there, it means that you’re able to do it in other parts of the city, thus underscoring the fight for public education. If we have the resources to have good schools, we can have great schools everywhere in the city of Chicago, and educational equity.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of education, we interviewed Karen Lewis several times, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and she told us about a private meeting she had with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This was back in 2012 we had this discussion. The meeting was about the city’s plan to shut down seven schools and fire all the teachers at 10 other schools.

KAREN LEWIS: When I first met him, we had dinner together, and he said, “Well, you know, 25 percent of these kids are never going to be anything. They’re never going to amount to anything. And I’m not throwing money at it.” And I was like, “Wow! You know, even if you believe that, you can’t say that to me.” So, I just watch how he has used black and brown and poor children as props to push an agenda that is all about privatization and all about so-called accountability, but it’s really the status quo, because once schools get put on probation here in Chicago, the Chicago Public Schools takes over, takes away the democratically controlled local school councils, takes that power away from them to hire and fire and evaluate principals and to spend discretionary funds. So, we see this culture of punishment and culture of disinvestment, and it is rampant and obviously spreading throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the former head of the teachers union, Karen Lewis. Talking to The Daily Beast at the Democratic convention that same year, in 2012, Chicago Mayor Emanuel defended the city’s proposed education reform.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I started school yesterday at three different schools where Chicago started school day. After a decade of discussing it, we now finally have the full school day and full school year. We cheated our children for over a decade an hour and 15 minutes every day, two weeks out of the year. That used to be things that we didn’t give our children. Now we’re giving that.

DAILY BEAST REPORTER: Didn’t make you popular with the teachers unions, obviously.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: But I know what it’s going to do for children’s lives.

DAILY BEAST REPORTER: All right, Rahm Manuel, [inaudible].

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: No, but—no, no, wait a second. Number two—yeah, this school year, the core curriculum, the most rigorous academic standards. This year, five new science and technology and math high schools, that go all the way through community college, don’t stop in high school. They go to two years community college, so it’s 19—14th grade, associated with five of the top technology companies of the country. We also added 6,000 kids to magnet schools, 6,000 kids to early childhood pre-K, as well as kindergarten programs. And we also now made available to parents for the first time online—every principal used to get a report card on their school how it was doing. We never gave it to the parents. You can’t ask for parent involvement who don’t get information. The most comprehensive, sweeping reform in schools. And why? Because if I get those kids educated, they have a future.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Rahm Emanuel speaking in 2012 and, before that, Karen Lewis, the head of the teachers union, who might well have run against Rahm Emanuel this year, but she was diagnosed with brain cancer. And, Chuy, she turned to you, is that right?

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Yes. She approached me shortly after she came home after her surgery, her brain surgery that removed a tumor, and she asked me if I would consider running for mayor of Chicago. She didn’t just ask me; she said, “You’ve got to step up, and you have to do this.” And I asked her, “Well, why are you asking me? I’m headed to a re-election victory without an opponent, first time in my life.” And she said, “You have a history. You have been a coalition builder. You have been a steady progressive over three decades in Chicago. You have relationships across the city. You can build a multiracial, multiethnic coalition across state. And this is the time for you to step up. The city needs you. And I hope that you’ll consider it.” So I went home and talked to my wife. And we slept on it, we prayed on it, we contemplated it, and we asked for inspiration. And, of course, I decided to step up.

And here we are, a month out from a runoff election, having denied the mayor a re-election bid in his first effort and, of course, shaking things up in Chicago, saying that the neighborhoods in Chicago will be addressed. The neighborhoods in Chicago deserve a voice. We want to put an end to the mayor’s style and approach and policies in Chicago, to favoring a select few, giving tax breaks and tax incentives of our property tax dollars to rich corporations and wealthy individuals. We want democracy in Chicago. We want change. The voters, 55 percent of them, voted for change a week ago last Tuesday, on February 24th. That is unprecedented in Chicago. Folks thought that this was a conventional election. It has not been conventional whatsoever. Even though only 33 percent of the voters turned out, a majority of them voted for change.

And we’re now in a dead heat as we approach April 7. There’s a fight here for the heart and soul of Chicago. This is about whether Chicago will be a city that is inclusive of all of its people or whether it will continue to work for a select few of rich and powerful people. We overcame the money deficit. They threw everything that they had—negative ads, a barrage of propaganda. They outspent us 12 to one. But Chicagoans were clear on what they wanted: They wanted change. And thus Chicago is now at the forefront of a national debate about how you govern. Do you continue to let the powerful interests run your city, or do citizens fight back, unite and demonstrate that they can have a voice, they can chart a new course that is inclusive of the interests of all the people of Chicago?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chuy García, you mentioned this whole issue of the favored treatment of the city’s elite. I want to read from a Chicago Tribune investigation of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top 100 donors, that found, quote, “a pattern of mutually beneficial interactions between the mayor and his major supporters. … Nearly 60 percent of those 103 donors benefited from his city government, receiving contracts, zoning changes, business permits, pension work, board appointments, regulatory help or some other tangible benefit.” Yet, despite this, the Chicago Tribune went on to endorse Emanuel for mayor. This whole issue of pay to play, could you talk about that?

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Well, you know, as you pointed out, Juan, the two-part series that showed a clear pattern of pay to play, unethical conduct, of favoring the rich and powerful in Chicago, came out the Sunday and Monday of February 1st, 2nd. By the end of the week, they had endorsed the mayor for re-election. So it’s highly ironic that that took place. But, you know, you have to understand, you know, Chicago and who favors a mayor like Rahm Emanuel. I think it’s, you know, highly ironic that that happened, but at any rate, it didn’t affect people’s understanding of how they fare under this mayor. There have been many, many instances of those types of abuses and conflicts of interest. But Chicagoans want change. They voted for change. And as we move to April 7, they will get change.

We will generate even a stronger troop base in Chicago, a wonderful coalition that will overcome the 1 percent and all the rich and wealthy folks who want to keep Chicago working for the select few. The coalition will grow. This will be a tremendous battle that will also put Chicago at the forefront in terms of an agenda in what cities all over the country need. They need the attention of the federal government. We need to address our crumbling infrastructure system. We need more support from Washington, D.C. In order to address the violence in our cities, the disinvestment in many Chicago neighborhoods, we need a national work program that will enable us to put young men, in particular, and women in many parts of the city back to work so that we can have neighborhood revitalization. You can’t have successful neighborhood revitalization in some of Chicago’s poorest communities, especially the African-American community on the West Side and on the South Side, if you don’t put people back to work. These—

AMY GOODMAN: Chuy García, we don’t have much time, but I want to stay on this issue of African-American community and also the Latino community. In 1987, you spoke at the funeral of former Mayor Harold Washington, who became the first African-American mayor in Chicago in 1983. This is a clip of what you said.

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: To learn what makes us go, there’s no place you wouldn’t go, from the beaches of San Juan to the mountains of Mexico. And now that you’ve gone, we, the people, vow to stay strong. The unity of our coalition is a tribute to the Washington tradition. Today, today in '87, we know that you're in heaven. Adiós, amigo. Adiós.

AMY GOODMAN: Chuy García, speaking at the funeral of former Mayor Harold Washington. For those watching on TV, you also saw a flash to Luis Gutiérrez. And I want to talk about the black-brown coalition of Chicago. Luis Gutiérrez, who is the first Midwestern Latino congressmember ever to be elected, is actually endorsing Mayor Emanuel. I wanted to get your comment on that and also how you will pick up support within the African-American community.

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Well, first, to my old friend, Luis Gutiérrez, he apparently committed to the re-election of the mayor some time ago. They did serve together in Congress. There is a relationship there. I think the conventional thinking in Chicago was that Rahm Emanuel would coast to an easy re-election victory. But that was overlooking some of the major issues in Chicago—the school closings, the levels of violence, the disinvestment in many of the neighborhoods. It’s unfortunate that my old friend Luis Gutiérrez could not be with me in this election.

Nevertheless, in Chicago there is a real desire on the part of people everywhere—in the African-American community, in the Latino community, in working-class white communities—to want to come together and establish a new path for Chicago that is rooted in greater equity, that recognizes that we are each other’s future, and unless all of us have a voice and say-so in how our government is led, that we cannot have a sustainable city. In order for Chicago to be a truly world-class city, a truly great city, it needs to have great neighborhoods. You can’t have great neighborhoods unless you have good public education, good public schools within reach of those neighborhood residents. And we have to reduce our terrible violence in many of the neighborhoods in Chicago. Ten thousand shootings over the past four years is intolerable. We need a mayor who will be about the neighborhoods, who will have the disposition, the willingness to sit with neighborhood residents, who will be receptive to the need for mental health services in many of the neighborhoods in the city of Chicago. So, a mayor who is really in tune with ordinary people, with Chicago neighborhoods and with working people in Chicago is what residents in Chicago have said they want. And I intend to be that mayor for all of Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesús “Chuy” García, we want to thank you very much for being with us, running for mayor of Chicago, after—a runoff election that is set for April 7th.

JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Thank you, Amy and Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: He is running against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Thanks so much.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we head north to Massachusetts to talk about the Boston Marathon bombing trial. Stay with us.

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