The Progressive Movement and Chuy Garcia’s Campaign for Chicago Mayor

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Many progressives, and leftists, disillusioned with, some even ideologically opposed to, the two-party system, were excited about Chuy Garcia’s campaign for mayor of Chicago. In the end, Chuy lost the April 7 run-off election, receiving 44.3% to Rahm’s 55.7%.

Chuy’s greatest backer was the Chicago Teachers Union, which led an exemplary and heroic 2012 strike against Mayor 1%, Rahm Emanuel. This strike, which blocked the Mayor, former Israeli soldier, from effectively busting their union, galvanized solidarity here and inspired to the progressive labor movement in the US.

Karen Lewis, President of the CTU was running against Mayor 1%, but had to withdraw early on due to serious illness. She then asked Chuy Garcia, Democratic Party Cook County Commissioner, to run for mayor. The CTU’s money and organizers enabled Chuy to force Rahm into the April run-off. Chuy Garcia also played a role in the coalition that elected Harold Washington mayor back in the 1980s. [1]

This covered Chuy Garcia’s greatest campaign assets: he was not Rahm, the much disliked, obnoxious mayor, he was a pleasant, friendly guy, he was chosen by Karen Lewis, highly respected in the progressive community, and he was backed by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Chicago, like many other cities, faces serious financial problems. Chicago’s total debt has reached to $63.2 billion. Illinois’ is $321 billion, the fourth most in debt state after California, New York and Texas.[2], [3]

The new Republican governor now plans on cutting funds to Chicago, which will make Chicago’s debt crisis worse.

Meanwhile, corruption costs the taxpayers of Illinois more than $500 million per year, with Chicago called the most corruption city in the nation. [4], [5]

What to do? Karen Lewis said what Chuy Garcia didn’t, “Chicago can take a different route [from Rahm Emanuel’s] to stability by closing corporate loopholes, taking legal action against banks engaged in predatory financial deals and raising taxes on the wealthy.”[6]

Chuy Garcia did not plan to raise the taxes on the rich or the corporations. He did favor a financial transaction tax – but on the national and state level, not a Chicago one. What was Chuy’s program? Getting rid of the outrageous red light and speed cameras, not closing any more schools (Rahm closed 50 public schools, and is on track to open 60 privatized schools by 2017), having an elected Chicago Board of Education – not one appointed by the mayor. He supported a Chicago minimum wage of $15 an hour (Rahm is raising it to $10 this year, $11 next year, $13 in 4 years.)

Garcia had said unions will have to give up concessions at the bargaining table. There will be “some tough medicine to be swallowed by all of the partners. So there’s no gravy to go around.” [7]

And Chuy wanted to hire 1000 more cops to patrol Afro and Latino neighborhoods.

This is a program for the 99% of us? Nor did Chuy Garcia even attempt to involve people around a progressive program. To a lot of liberal-left people, not being Rahm is sufficient, but to move more people, he needed to offer them an actual alternative – and keeping schools open, eliminating red light cameras, more cops in Afro and Latino neighborhoods, promise for more efficient government – just didn’t cut it.

If Rahm had lost it could have shown that people power can top corporate money power in a campaign. But Chuy did not offer an actual program for real progressive change any more than Emanuel did, and we should not hide that. Even if Chuy were mayor, we would have higher taxes, cuts in services, and the public employee pension debt would be used to pit the public against public employee unions. Would either Chuy or Rahm make the 1% pay, or at least institute a progressive tax? No.

Rahm represents the 1%, just as Bush did, but would Chuy represent the people any more than so many liberal-leftists thought Obama would in 2007? His program and the choices his limited himself to in paying Chicago’s debt – raise our taxes, cut our services, cut pensions – say no.

Chicago can save a considerable amount of money by making the police obey the law. Since 2008 Chicago has paid out over $360 million in police murder, brutality and torture cases, the most being $52 million in 2008, $84.6 Million in 2013, and, $54 Million in 2014. What did Chuy say about this? Did he support creating a police civilian review board, or closing the CPD Homan black site? No, he called for hiring 1000 more cops. [8], [9].

Rahm Emanuel is really no more a Mayor 1% than any other big city mayor. And if Chuy Garcia were elected there is no reason the 1% wouldn’t own him too, assuming it doesn’t already. Recall a previous Chicago “community organizer” who called for “change we can believe in.” Bush’s party was thrown out, and we got the peace candidate who kept the war in Iraq going 8 more years, even widened it. The first person Obama chose for his cabinet? Rahm Emanuel. Chicago progressives who supported Obama for president in 2007-2008 fostered similar illusions about Chuy for mayor. And it was their progressive candidate for president in 2008 who backed Mayor 1%. We’d think these well-educated liberal-leftists would have learned a few lessons from this experience.

To advocate for throwing the bum out and putting in a new mayor offering token changes is not any “left” position. In reality, in the US, the amorphous category “left” encompasses liberal Democrats to those whose political activity is founded on seeing society as divided into classes in conflict. Unfortunately many who consider themselves in this latter sub-group advocated and organized for Chuy, drawing people back into the Democratic Party as a vehicle for real social change. It was said we could pressure a Mayor Chuy Garcia to “do the right thing,” while Rahm would just give us the finger.

That was said before: once Obama was elected, we would “hold his feet to the fire” to make sure he would live up to his promises. That didn’t happen, instead we were fed excuses why Obama couldn’t carry out his promises. This later turned into Obama apologetics. [10]

We could see what little influence progressives actually had on Chuy Garcia. They could not make him budge on his pledge to hire 1000 more cops, or to take a stand on the Homan Square black site. Chuy said Homan Square needs more “investigation.” Progressives couldn’t even move Chuy to say we should close Homan while we “investigate.” Instead, they stopped their protests around Homan.

That should be a very serious cause for concern, not only about what was Chuy’s real agenda, but about liberal-leftists who drop their own agenda to elect him.

The money exists to maintain the present level of social services, fund pensions, raise the minimum wage. It is there in the military budget, but we are not demanding the federal government to pay off local and state debts. Just on the F-35 jet, Washington is wasting $1.5 trillion building 2500 of them. If Obama built 1850 of the unneeded jets instead, the savings would pay off all Chicago and Illinois debt. [11]

Or we can tax the rich: now the top 1/10 of one percent of US people are worth as much as the bottom 90%. Over the last two years, the 14 richest Americans made $157 billion dollars, more wealth than the bottom 40% of the population possess. The inequality of our present class system is probably worse that of feudal Europe. It is inexcusable that a politician deemed progressive doesn’t address this with concrete action. [12]

If we do not prioritize slashing the military budget, combating US wars, on taking back much of the wealth the 1% took from us, then we will pay with cut services, wages and pensions.

Neither Chuy nor Rahm brought this up. But why were we diverted into a mayoral race between two candidates who offered only worsening conditions for us? The real difference in the campaign was that one candidate said “I’m sorry I’ll have to do this” and the other who said “You deserve it.” That Chuy’s “no more red light cameras-no more school closings-elected school board-hire 1000 more cops” was the “progressive” program that liberal-left people supported, then we shouldn’t be worried about Rahm is now going to do to us, but we should be worried about we are doing to ourselves.

Let’s pretend Chuy had adopted a program representing the 99% and won the April 7 election. It would not be any lasting victory over the 1%. To win we need a movement, and Chuy had no movement around him like Harold Washington and Obama had. For instance, in 1983 election of Harold Washington as mayor, 82% of voters voted. In the April 7 run-off, 40% voted, with Chuy getting 43% of that, hardly a sign of a movement.

But had Chuy won it would not be a victory over the 1% any more than Washington’s and Obama’s victories. Even assuming they had intention of putting the people first, as soon as they won they sent home the movement that brought them to power. That left them in a weak dependent position vis-a-vis the entrenched power structure the 1% had aligned against them.

This is quite different from the electoral campaigns of Hugo Chavez or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, or Evo Morales in Bolivia. They maintained the programs and movements they helped build to become elected, and once in office, used the increasingly organized people as a counterweight to fight the tremendous power of the 1%. That way they could overcome obstacles the 1% put in their way and implement an agenda benefitting the 99%. Harold Washington and Obama did not do that, but saw their movements only as electoral tools.

This highlights one important difference between using elections to advance the struggle of the people’s movement and using the people’s movement to settle for electing a liberal who plays by the 1% ‘s rules. The illusions fostered around Chuy Garcia’s campaign shows we still need to learn that lesson.

Stan Smith is an antiwar activist in Chicago



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