I was standing with a couple older gentlemen at Chuy Garcia’s primary-night party Tuesday, and they kept saying they were reminded of Harold Washington’s victory celebration 32 years ago.

Being a natural-born contrarian, I pointed out that Washington’s victory party was about 10 times as large as Garcia’s. “But the energy is the same,” they insisted.

There were similarities and differences. Washington won the Democratic primary (which would have meant a walk-through in the general election for anyone who didn’t happen to be black) with 37 percent of the vote; Garcia forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff with 34 percent.

Turnout was huge in 1983 and very low this time. That says more about the systematic alienation of voters due to the takeover of the political system by big money interests over recent decades than it does about the two campaigns.

Washington’s campaign was accurately called a crusade. It was an entire community roused to unity and action. Garcia’s could be called a movement, the work of hundreds and hundreds of neighborhood activists and union members who have knocked on doors, held community meetings and sat in at City Hall, focused on issues like schools, housing and living wages, week after week and year after year.

Mayor Emanuel’s accomplishment echoes that of Jane Byrne, another mayor who used City Hall clout to raise vast sums of campaign contributions, who flooded the airwaves with ads, but who just couldn’t pull it off. Both of them turned off voters — especially in black wards — and both of them inspired an upsurge of organizing in the city’s neighborhoods.

Both Byrne and Emanuel were put in office because of overwhelming black support, and both were denied victories four years later when black voters turned elsewhere.

And Garcia’s accomplishment certainly echoes that of Harold. He has upended the conventional wisdom that a people’s campaign couldn’t compete with the status quo. He has destroyed the illusion of inevitably that was Emanuel’s chief asset.

It’s not clear what Emanuel can do at this point. He has run from his record, posing as a progressive, but that turned out to be too far-fetched. He has saturated the airwaves with ads that claim great successes, but that didn’t connect with the real-life experiences of most voters.

He has also managed to make the president of the United States look irrelevant in his own adopted home town. It’s doubtful that President Obama is going to figure he needs to pull out all stops now to make sure his former aide keeps his job.

If “telling his story” didn’t get him over 50 percent, if the president’s support doesn’t do it, what does he do? Does he ramp up the negative attacks on Garcia?

Historian Rick Perlstein points out that in his attacks on Garcia and Ald. Bob Fioretti, Emanuel used Karl Rove’s playbook — take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn it around on him.

Both Garcia and Fioretti are longtime independents with strong records of standing up to what Perlstein calls “Chicago Way corruption.” Emanuel is a mayor who, to an unprecedented extent, has turned his office into an adjunct for his campaign-fundraising operation. Like Washington, both Garcia and Fioretti have paid heavy prices for their independence. Emanuel’s campaign tried to paint his opponents as corrupt, old-school politicians.

It was reminiscent of nothing as much as the vile character attacks that Harold Washington endured in his 1983 campaign.

And this came from a politician who has trimmed on issues (on which he now strikes ostentatious poses) from gun control to immigration rights, who for political convenience has championed policies that have devastated Chicago’s communities, who has relied on patronage workers from his first congressional campaign to his latest campaign, who is endlessly innovative in finding shady new ways of rewarding his campaign contributors.

Until this moment, Chuy Garcia hasn’t had a big citywide profile, but as longtime activists gathered Tuesday night would recount in stories, he’s been the elected official that progressives could count on when no one else would stand with them.

The guy has integrity and principles — which is more than you can say about the incumbent.

In two advisory referenda, Chicago voters overwhelming rejected key aspects of Emanuel’s mayoralty. By voting by an 80 percent margin in favor of public financing for a small-donor match system for campaign funding, Chicagoans expressed their disgust with the domination of big-money donors that Emanuel has exploited so skillfully. And by voting by an astounding 89 percent margin for an elected school board, they have delivered a resounding “no” to the education policies he has pushed through over widespread opposition.

If this election comes down to character and issues, Garcia wins.

Meanwhile, let’s recall Emanuel’s statement four years ago about the City Council. “They cannot be a rubber stamp,” he said the day after his 2011 victory. “That’s unacceptable. The challenges are too big. They can’t be what they were in the last few years.”

Nice words. But with Emanuel’s allies pumping thousands of dollars into attacks on Progressive Caucus aldermen this year, his camp showed that any peep of dissent would be punished.

On the side of dissent, several new progressive labor-community networks have emerged, including Grassroots Illinois Action, Reclaim Chicago and United Working Families. If they keep at it, they could have a long-term impact parallel to that of independents allied with the civil rights movement a generation ago. This week they succeeded in protecting all the progressive aldermen from defeat. Two — Toni Foulkes (16th) and John Arena (45th) — were forced into runoffs.

New progressives were elected on the Northwest and South Sides: Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and David Moore (17th). At least five more progressives will be in runoffs. These include Rafael Yañez (15th) — who was interviewed here last month — and Amy Crawford (46th). And they include as many as three Chicago Teachers Union members — Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), Tara Stamps (37th), and in a close race, possibly Tim Meegan (33rd).

If Garcia and the progressives running for City Council can connect with the widespread sentiment that a political and economic system that puts the interests of the wealthy over those of everyone else doesn’t work, they could really shake things up.







Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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