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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Garcia sets sights on mayor's post
by Matt Simonette
2014-12-03

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A seasoned veteran in Chicago political circles, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia announced his candidacy for mayor relatively late, just three weeks before the filing deadline. But he proved his political experience by filing more than 60,000 signatures to get on the February ballot.

Garcia is currently a member of the Cook County Board, where he's been President Toni Preckwinkle's floor leader. He also has served on the Chicago City Council, representing the city's 22nd Ward. And Garcia was the first Mexican American to serve in the Illinois state senate.

Garcia has received the endorsement of the Chicago's Teachers Union, a huge boon for a progressive candidate in the city. Calling Mayor Rahm Emanuel's governing style too "top-down," he contends that his administration would give more voice to the city's diverse neighborhoods and would more vigorously implement community policing strategies to boost public safety.

Garcia's campaign is also one to watch for the LGBT community, because he has been a longtime ally, including his support of the city's gay-rights bill when he was alderman in the 1980s.

Garcia sat down with Windy City Times to discuss his experience and ideas he wants to implement should he be elected. The full video of the interview is linked with the online version of this interview, and on Windy City Times' YouTube channel.

Windy City Times: What prompted you to throw your hat into the ring this election?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I think that Chicago is at a critical juncture in terms of which direction it can go. It's experienced a long tenure of a mayor who served for 22 years, coming from a political dynasty, of course. The last four years have been about a different course, to a degree, a different approach to governance. I think that because the leader of the city, the chief executive, has been someone who has spent little time in Chicago and Chicago's neighborhoods, the approach has been top-down in many policy thrusts that the city has moved. Consequently, those decisions have been seen as being imposed upon the city. I think the mayor's decision—for example, in the field of education—to close schools, to embark on the creation of so many charter schools, especially in minority communities, has not been well received. I think the decision to close that many schools is seen not only as being insensitive but perhaps being reckless because of the devastating impact that closing so many schools at one time in certain communities has had in those communities, literally snuffing out life in communities where the school was the sign of stability, consistency, safety—a place that parents and children could gather in. [Schools] provided a place full of security in those communities.

Another example would be in the area of public safety. The mayor said this would be a second great priority of this administration and the four years that he's been mayor, we've seen this uptick in violence—gang violence and gun violence in certain parts of the city. I think that's made everyone feel unsafe and that the strategy of a second police superintendent brought in from the outside to try new strategies hasn't been successful. People have become impatient and concerned that those strategies have failed, that they have not addressed the underlying causes of the violence and [realize] that new things need to be tried, new things that aren't so new and that have proven effectively nationally, things like community policing.

… A central component of community policing is that you build relationships of trust and respect between community members and the police so that you can have effective communication, information sharing, confidentiality, so that people have the willingness to report crime, to engage in proactive, preventive measures, in solving crime when it happens. People in their neighborhoods are really the experts in that neighborhood, particularly when it relates to crime—if people don't feel like the trust is there, they're not going to come forward. If they feel that sensitive information that is shared isn't kept confidential, they won't come forward, and I think that we suffer from that in Chicago, and that needs to change.

The third area the mayor said he would address is the city's fiscal state, and the state of finance in the city, and its future remains in limbo. It hasn't been addressed, so you have a significant deficit that has to be reduced and we have a very challenging pension problem.

In terms of those three areas, the mayor doesn't get an A, he doesn't get a B—I'd say he'd probably come up short in all three, and I think those are good reasons why I've decided to run. I believe the city is at a point right now that I haven't seen it at in a long, long time. I think there is a greater willingness and a recognition that only if Chicago and its neighborhoods come together can the city be reunified. I think people feel apart, and I think people feel divided. I think the mayor has done a good job at separating the prosperous city center from the neighborhoods in the outlying parts, low-income neighborhoods in particular. I think he's separated the very wealthy people from the middle class, the middle class from the struggling working class [as well as] the poorest folks in Chicago, and separated people along race and ethnicity at the same time because he's not a unifier. He doesn't have the disposition to engage people where they're at, to really listen and to incorporate people's ideas. You have to know how to accept other ideas and criticism and learn how to incorporate those things. I think Chicago is at a point where it wants to change courses, and I think …my history as a community builder and an elected official in city council, state senate, and in the county, has prepared me for this moment and I'm very excited about this.

WCT: Since we're interviewing you the day after the non-indictment [of the police officer] in Ferguson, and you talk about Chicago being this city of different neighborhoods that somehow don't feel part of it, talk about how police need to operate differently in the neighborhoods to make sure that doesn't happen in Chicago.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: Ferguson may be one of the worst examples of community policing, or the lack thereof, where the relationship of trust and respect got so [far] out of being a reality, that people lost hope. There's a great distrust. The police may have come to be seen more as an occupying force there. Those who serve and protect, those who engage, those who solve problems, understand who the problem elements are, who the criminal elements are, those who are hurting the community are.

I think it's coupled with other things there, like the lack of political empowerment for the African American community, probably a legacy of discrimination and racism—probably in particular to Ferguson—[that] created this volatile situation, that, because of this very tragic shooting of a young African American man, people are looking to channel their discontent, their rage and their anger. It's further complicated in Ferguson by the arrival of outsiders who are there clearly just to agitate and to provoke people into violence and just make the situation that much more volatile. If there's anything to be learned, it's that we have to engage in activities that leave behind something positive. The parents of Michael Brown have expressed that people [should] engage in activities that build something, not destroy communities, not pull people further apart, but do something.

We all have the responsibility to engage in that, but once again, I think it's the lack of community policing, rooted in trust, respect and mutual support, that has caused the incendiary relationship that we see and view with the news reports that come out of Ferguson.

WCT: You have a long and impressive political resume, and have been active in politics at the city, state and county levels. Could you speak about your experience on the Cook County Board, and what that would bring to your role as mayor?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: First of all, at Cook County, a little bit over four years ago, when we took over, we inherited what was largely adrift, a government that was known for patronage, for privilege, for inefficiency, for corruption, and one that also came with a huge deficit, $487 million, as I recall, in the first year. Under the leadership of President Toni Preckwinkle, and a new consensus on the board that we needed to put it on the right track, four years later, I think we've made great progress in giving it a sense of purpose, a direction, making it much more transparent, making it accountable, establishing goals and objectives, measurable outcomes in terms of productivity, different departments and agencies. The information technology investments that we made to modernize the county government are also a huge step forward.

If I could briefly synthesize what I think Cook County government represents today, it's a government that has been turned around. It exists on much more solid footing. I think we've gone quite a ways in winning over the trust of taxpayers in Cook County. Lastly, I'm very proud of the fact that Cook County government is perhaps the only government in Northern Illinois that can claim we've cut taxes by repealing the [Todd] Stroger sales tax in Cook County, demonstrating that we can live within our means.

WCT: Were you to win, you'd be contending with what is possibly one of the city's greatest financial challenges when, in 2016, Chicago's mandated contributions to the firefighters and police funds jump. What steps will the mayor need to take in order to protect the city's balance sheet?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: We need to get an accurate assessment of the city's fiscal house. In the 2015 budget, we didn't appropriate for the payment that's due in the pension fund. We also have to look at a long-term solution—that means having to make some very difficult decisions on the revenue side of things. That will be critical in terms of long-term solutions. I have assembled a group of experts in municipal finance to look at what the tough revenue options would be. There are many measures on the table. We're mulling through those, pouring through a variety of difficult decisions that we'll have to make—those include a commuter tax, a stock transaction tax, maybe looking at looking at legalizing marijuana, looking at that very carefully with the legal implications of that [along with] the Colorado experience, because they've been on the cutting edge of this. Other measures I'm not that warm to [include] casino gambling—because of its regressive nature, I think, it attracts people who shouldn't even be in a gambling hall. All of those things, I think, are worth taking a very careful look and we'll be issuing more specific papers on my positions on the fiscal side of things.

WCT: Are you able to speak about any kinds of service cuts at this time?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: Not at this time. We're looking at a new set of priorities for the city, and the fiscal implications of putting neighborhoods at the center of city government. But at the same time, we want to engage people in those neighborhoods in a conversation about those new priorities. [They] will dictate some of these revenue actions that we'll have to take to make sure we begin reigning in these deficits, as we begin to address the pension challenge for the long haul.

WCT: You spoke earlier about your feeling that mayor Emanuel has divided the city, and we have seen the economic disparities, with massive income gaps between rich and poor, and a diminishing middle class in the city. How would work to address to unify them?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I think that my experience and training as a community builder in the Little Village area, also working with other people in other communities throughout Chicagoland, give me a good insight about how you build strong and vibrant communities. In Little Village, we've been able to—and that's a working class low-income community, with many immigrants in it—make schools the center of community by creating the only high school of its kind in Chicago. [It is] a campus with four small schools, each with its own principal with a local advisory school council with a curricular focus, whether it's social justice or math and science, cultural arts or foreign languages, with a population that's 70 percent Latino, 30 percent African American, serving the North and South Lawndale and Little Village communities—and we've been able to open up a series of elementary schools that stay open until nighttime. Those schools become the center of community as they serve kids, students, after school hours with everything from homework to the arts—dance, theater, singing, learning to play an instrument.

Their parents are in the school doing what? Learning English as a second language, learning how to use a computer, learning workforce skills so that they can get better jobs. All of those things—wellness, physical fitness—can be done in a school setting if you invest in neighborhood schools. My embrace about the role of neighborhood schools providing safe spaces and becoming even greater assets in those communities is key.

We've also addressed the issue of public safety. Little Village was historically been challenged with the presence of gang violence there [and] high levels of high school dropout rates. By bringing the first set of community organizations, churches and schools, we were able to address gang violence and reduce the number of homicide rates over a period. My training as an urban planner resulted in the creation of the first Quality of Life plan in Little Village. And as we did it in Little Village, we did it in 14 other communities throughout the city of Chicago, from southeast Chicago to Logan Square. This is the new approach to community development on a pretty significant scale.

Much can be learned from that process thus far in Chicago's communities—that's the network of experience I will bring to the fifth floor in terms of neighborhood revitalization—how to be strategic in investments, by the city [and] the state, but also by the private sector. I think I can be a catalyst in getting the central business district leaders and the businesses there to understand that we can only have a great city if we build great neighborhoods. The two are linked very closely and I think that, given where we're at in Chicago's development, it's a critical time, and one where there can be some really creative partnerships to ensure that the prosperity in Chicago is shared more equitably.

WCT: The minimum wage in Chicago versus what's going on with the state—what's your position on that and where do you think Chicago can come in on that?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I like the idea of a living wage everywhere in Illinois because I think it raises families. It goes a long way towards reducing poverty and I think that's very important in a society where we've seen the concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer people. So I support that. Historically I've represented neighborhoods that are working class that are fairly low wage earners so I support the minimum wage. I like the city minimum wage because it's higher, thus it improves the quality of life for more people

WCT: Do you have a target that you would like the minimum wage to go to in the city of Chicago?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I've seen studies and reports that suggest that the $15 level is perhaps a good living wage for working families. But I think what has been presented in the city council as an increase in in the wage is a step towards that and it's a positive thing.

WCT: Three years ago, you championed a successful proposal wherein the Cook County Sheriff declined to detain persons wanted for immigration offenses unless the federal government reimbursed the county for their costs. What were your thoughts on President Obama's speech [on an immigration executive order]?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I welcomed the president's announcement with the executive relief, [and] that he has chimed in on the topic of immigration, especially undocumented immigrants in the country. It will help about four million people, we believe, and that's a welcome change to the inability of congress to act on this issue. It will help bring a reduction to the number of deportations of people who are contributing immensely to the U.S. economy, people who are revitalizing neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities [and] people who are contributing to the development of retail strips in many neighborhoods that were in decline. New activity, new stores opened up, they hired people. It's good for the economy. They make many contributions, so I welcome it.

At the same time, it demonstrates that the ordinance that we passed two years ago in Cook County saying that we should not selectively target for detention and deportation was right. Not only did we defend the constitution, we stood up for the constitution, and we were the first county to do so in the U.S. The fact that, through the president's executive action, the Secure Communities program is ending is a tribute and a testimony that we were on the right track in Cook County, so I'm very proud of that. We saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars by not complying with these ICE detainer holds that were being requested of us, and I was very happy to hear the president to say that the program of Secure Communities will end and that there will be a refocus of strategy under homeland security.

WCT: An interesting part of what Obama did was how it was related to children who are citizens and their parents who might be undocumented, but the LGBT community is concerned because a lot of us don't have children who tie them in that way. Do you have any solution you might propose on that front?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I'm disappointed that approximately 6 [million]-7 million people, maybe more than that, will probably not qualify for relief under the president's action. I'd continue to ask and implore the congress to step up and carry out its function under the constitution, which is to address immigration as it relates to foreign policy. Because of congress' unwillingness or inability to act, we wind up with patchwork solutions. With as good as there is in the president's action, it leaves out too many people, and these people remain vulnerable in the economy. They remain vulnerable to discrimination—the LGBTQ community is one of those segments of that class of people, of immigrants, who don't qualify, and that's unfortunate. Congress can still remedy this. They can act, and find the courage to understand today's realities, and they can prevent a lot of suffering for a lot of other people.

WCT: The mayor of Chicago essentially handpicks the members of the Chicago Public Schools board. In late October, you said you were grappling with that issue, but [getting rid of an appointed board] is a key goal for many progressives in the city. Where do you currently stand on the idea of an elected school board?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I've been for an elected school board for a long time. For example, the bill in 1995 that gave the mayor of Chicago the ability to appoint the school board without even city council consent—I voted against it. This was the same bill that started the creation of charter schools in the city of Chicago and I think it's just gone way beyond the original thinking. We've had charter mania, and most of those charters have been located in poor communities, especially in African American and Latino communities, and there is no clear evidence that it is a superior school system or set of schools than the neighborhood public schools in Chicago, so I remain committed to the idea of an elected school board. I will be campaigning in favor of the referendum on the ballot. When elected I will go to Springfield seeking to change the law so that we can have an elected school board in Chicago. The Chicago school district is the only one in Illinois that doesn't have an elected school board. I think that there is an element of democracy and accountability in that and that we need an elected school board.

WCT: What would you do to combat youth homelessness in the city. A good number of those are LGBT youth. What sort of work would you do there?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: The homeless, and homelessness challenge, that we face in Chicago is a growing one, and we haven't been successful in addressing it like I think we should have by now. It's been the subject of conversation for a long time. LGBTQ members, especially young people under 21, comprise a significant segment in reports that I've read of this population. We need to look at this more effectively through a variety of housing programs in Chicago, whether it is public housing or other housing, young people who are LGBT need safe places they can stay. Part of the reason we don't have better data on this is young people are pretty resilient—they find places to stay [and] sleep—but it is a significant problem. I think we have a responsibility for their well-being and their safety, and to make sure that they're getting counseling services, [as well as] other services that are really key to ensuring that they live safely and securely. We have to look at our housing policies, and what types of housing arrangements are safe and secure, and responsive to the needs of young people who are LGBT.

WCT: What interactions have you had with Chicago's LGBT community in the past, and how will you be reaching out to them?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I've had a long history with them and one that I frequently celebrate. Many people may not remember, but I was a young member of the Chicago City Council when the first Human Rights Ordinance came before us, and that it was a challenging issue—a new issue that we had to grapple with in the city council. I represented a community that was and continues to be heavily Catholic, and the decision to stay consistent as a progressive leader, always seeking to learn and incorporate how human progress moves forward, and that it's important to make right decisions, even if they may be unpopular at a given point in time. So I'm very proud for my vote, the vote I took in 1988 for Chicago's first landmark ordinance … in favor of it. It opened up the doors to many new friendships, relationships that I've cultivated over the years with the LGBTQ community. As a state senator in Springfield, I voted for the human-rights ordinance that came before the senate on at least two occasions. It didn't make it out of the Senate [while Garcia was in] but I stood consistently in favor of the community.

And I have to tell you … I wasn't in Springfield to be a part of it, but the marriage equality legislation [passed in 2013] is a tribute to doing the right thing, to understanding how human society is moving forward and evolving, and it certainly is a testament to the vision and the courage of the LGBT leaders who wouldn't take no for an answer and continued to push the envelope and to say that marriage is a solemn institution, and that we shouldn't discriminate against people because of their their sexual identity or orientation, and that if people of the same gender want to get married that they should. So it's really a fascinating insight into how issues that at one time may be very unpopular come to be understood as we grapple with the fact that probably very family has a member who is gay, lesbian or transgender, and I think the realization that it really is a family issue gives people the understanding and the strength to embrace everything that is humanity.

[Note: In follow-up comments, Garcia added, "In the area of philanthropy, where I have worked with several foundations, I'm immediate past chair of the Woods Fund of Chicago, and we have funded LGBT groups, including Affinity Community Services, for LGB women on the South Side, and Gender Just."]

WCT: We have strong [anti-discrimination] laws on the books [in Chicago], but what can the mayor do to ensure those laws are enforced? Just because we have those laws does not mean they are going to be followed in many parts of the city.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I think the mayor has to be a leader, and you lead by example. You don't lead by doing a poll on how popular an issue is. You lead by doing what's right, and I think that being an advocate, being someone who engages communities, someone who recognizes and spotlights emerging leadership, someone who is willing to sit and discuss and dissect issues, someone who is willing to be a leader on important issues to all communities in Chicago is essential, because one is mayor of the entire city. You cannot bring a parochial view. You have to be willing to accept everyone and to lead by example. … You can use the office of the mayor as a bully pulpit, to challenge, and to educate, and to bring people around. If the city is embarking in a new direction, so it must involve all sectors and all communities as part of that process, so that we truly can build a new consensus and reach the greatest degree of common purpose so as to move the city forward.

WCT: On that front, the transgender community has a lot of issues, with the overpolicing and harassment, probably like it used to be for the gay community 30 years ago. Have you had much interaction with the transgender community and, in particular, its … relation to the police?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I'm aware, in speaking with police officers, and individuals who are transgender. I live half a block from a club in Little Village. It used to be La Cueva—I'm not sure if they changed the name or not, but it used to be La Cueva—so I've encountered many members of the transgender community over the decades, so I've had the opportunity to chat with them on the street, at the restaurant, where I cut my hair. They frequent that shop at 26th and Keeler and I've been able to get a better understanding of their reality, their challenges, their bullying, the ridicule that they're subjected to.

I've also had conversations with police officers who have shared with me the evolution in the thinking, and the practice and the treatment of this community so it's one that is evolving. I think the presence of more police officers who are lesbian and gay helps in that regard and I have to commend people like Sheriff Dart at the county jail issuing policies for the treatment of individuals who are transgender. I think the police department, in some places, is also moving in that direction, and I embrace it. It's part of accepting people for who they are and being accepting and responsive to equal treatment of those individuals, so I recognize their plight in society and what they have to live with. It's part of the challenge of, how do we be as humane as possible to everyone?

[In a follow-up remark, Garcia added, "On public safety, as we seek to make community policing more robust in Chicago, part of that would be insuring the safety of the LGBTQ community, especially the transgender community, the new group to be picked on and targeted for bullying. So part of community policing would be to make the transgender community safer."]

WCT: What do you you think needs to be done to stem the number of HIV/AIDS infections, which remains a problem in the city and in the rest of the country?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: I think we need to continue to educate people. Popular education on the street level is key, but I think public education through the media, social media, is very important. We must ensure that groups and organizations that provide services and education, like in my backyard, Little Village, Project VIDA has done a great job of making condoms readily available throughout the community. Doing away with the taboo of showing a condom and how it's used, and having them available, has helped people really come around with their views, and get real about it.

I think that groups that provide assistance and do work to prevent HIV infection and work with people living with AIDS need to be supported. I've heard that sometimes they've had problems with the money not flowing on a timely basis, and that's really critical because sometimes cash flow for these organizations is particularly sensitive, and, as someone who's had to run a nonprofit, you need to have reliable sources of funding…

WCT: You were a great champion of Mayor Harold Washington, and very active at the time of his administration, which many regard as the halcyon days of progressive politics in the city. Will Mayor Washington be an influence on you, and how?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: You know, Harold Washington was a breath of fresh air. A great innovator and catalyst for the city of Chicago, with significant controversy because people who shake things up tend to be that way. He helped move the city forward, with embracing of communities that were not recognized [and] invisible to many Chicagoans. He opened the doors of government to many communities—women, Latinos, the gay community. There was a public embrace of the community. It was a great time—tumultuous and great. That's a long time ago. Chicago is a different city. To want to build a new coalition at this time requires new strategies. We've learned a lot since then. Chicago is not the polarized city it was in the '80s. It's much more diverse in so many ways. Engaging all the neighborhoods is so much easier. The technical advances help in that regard. We didn't have social media in the '80s. It's critical, young people relate that way. Certainly there are still ethnic groups and concentrations and enclaves throughout the city but I think there is greater willingness to understand that Chicago only moves forward when all of us can reach out and try to reach a greater consensus on more topics as it relates to improving the quality of life for everyone.

WCT: What's your overall strategy on fighting an incumbent who has such a huge war chest? What are your steps to getting to that win in February?

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia: First of all, people. We demonstrated when we filed yesterday that about a thousand people circulated my petition—that's huge. Before we spent one dime, we collected fifty thousand-plus signatures, with a thousand people circulating them. That's huge—no one else did that. Two, we won't raise $10 million but we will raise enough to deliver a message on television, and radio, and on social media, and many door knockers. I think that's our greatest asset. But that's not to say we're going to do it on a shoestring budget. We're working hard to ensure that can get on television and radio and deliver a message. If we do that, we can win this election with less than half of what the incumbent has in his warchest at the present time. I think Chicago wants to move in a different direction, and a recipe for victory can cost a lot less than what we may be conventionally thinking is necessary to do.

This interview was conducted by Matt Simonette and Tracy Baim. The full video of the interview is at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .


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