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Illinois Congressman Chuy García announces run for Chicago mayor

Fresh off winning reelection to Illinois' 4th Congressional District, the progressive Democrat has thrown his hat into the Windy City's already crowded mayoral race.

CHICAGO (CN) — Democratic Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García announced he was entering the 2023 Chicago mayoral race on Thursday, less than 48 hours after winning reelection to his seat in Illinois' 4th Congressional District.

"This is significant," Evan McKenzie, head of the University of Illinois - Chicago political science department, told Courthouse News following the announcement. "He's a member of Congress, he has the visibility of having run before, he's popular in Chicago politics."

García is one of several progressives challenging Democratic incumbent Lori Lightfoot, whose relationship with the city's nascent left has steadily soured since she took office in 2019, running as a reformer. The mayoral election is set for Feb. 28.

"We live in the City of Broad Shoulders, but today, Chicagoans are calling out for help," García said in his campaign announcement. "From crime to unemployment to affordable housing, there is so much uncertainty ahead."

García was born in the Mexican state of Durango in 1956, his father working as a farm laborer in the U.S. under the WWII-era bracero program. He immigrated with his family to Chicago in 1965, and has been involved in local politics since the early 1980s. Besides representing the 4th District, he has served as a labor organizer, a committee member of the Cook County Democratic Party and an Illinois state senator.

He also ran for the Chicago mayorship once before, in 2015. Though he lost to then-incumbent Rahm Emanuel by 13 points, his campaign was seen as a rebuke to Emanuel's austerity policies. These included rate hikes for Chicago's public transit system and the single largest public school closure in the city's history - under the watch of Emanuel's appointed public school board, 50 schools, mostly in the city's low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods, shuttered. The for-profit charter schools that emerged to replace them remain a thorny political issue in Chicago to this day.

In his campaign announcement, García stressed his connection to another progressive figure in Chicago politics – Harold Washington, the city's first Black mayor. Washington served as mayor from 1983 to 1987, and was allied with García at a time when most white City Council members and local Democratic operatives opposed him. García's campaign announcement comes 40 years to the day after Washington announced his own mayoral candidacy.

"As our movement did 40 years ago, when Harold Washington announced his run for mayor, we're standing together to say it's time for City Hall to work on behalf of all its people," García said.

But García is not the only progressive in the crowded race. Of the dozen declared candidates, Illinois state Representative Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, local community organizer Ja'Mal Green and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson all run to Mayor Lori Lightfoot's left. Johnson in particular is in a strong position to dominate the race's left flank, having been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union and Service Employees International Union Local 73.

Johnson's office did not respond to a request for comment on what García's candidacy means for the commissioner's own.

Crowded races often benefit incumbents, though McKenzie said that Lightfoot shouldn't relax just yet. Chicago mayoral candidates need 50% of the vote to win outright, otherwise the election goes to a runoff between the two most popular candidates. McKenzie predicted that's exactly where this election is headed.

"The effect of so many [progressives] running is that it's going to split the vote," the professor said. "So the question is, will she win with 50% of the vote? I think the answer is definitely no. She'll go to the runoff in first place, but the question is who will be in second."

Chicago's first openly gay mayor, Lightfoot won in 2019 with the support of progressive Black figures - including her now-opponent, Green - and many voters on the city's predominantly white North Side. However, McKenzie said her four tumultuous years in office have cost her many of her old North Side supporters.

"I think that a lot of that North Side support has evaporated," he said. "I think she wants... to bolster support among other communities on the West and South sides."

Unfortunately for Lightfoot, the Southwest Side is García's home turf: he grew up in the area's majority Latino La Villita, or "Little Village," neighborhood, and in the 2015 mayoral race he handily won city wards scattered across the same west and south neighborhoods Lightfoot is now courting.

"To have someone like Chuy García in the race creates a real challenge in those areas," McKenzie said.

Lightfoot has also earned a reputation as being overly aggressive. In 2020 she reportedly threatened members of the City Council's Black Caucus to not "come to [her] for shit for the next three years" if they did not vote for her controversial 2021 budget proposal. Her repeated clashes with city political factions on both the left and right, such as the Chicago Teachers Union and the Fraternal Order of Police, respectively, have also cost her support.

Lightfoot herself addressed her combative reputation when she announced her reelection campaign this past June, and García took a veiled potshot at her for it in his Thursday announcement.

“Change doesn’t happen without a fight,” Lightfoot said in June. “It’s hard. It takes time. And I’ll be the first to admit I’m just not the most patient person."

"A mayor that will bring us together and unite us, instead of driving us apart," García countered Thursday. "I intend to be that mayor."

Prior to Thursday, McKenzie predicted a Lightfoot victory in February based on the fact that "there [weren't] any heavyweights to replace her." Now, he isn't so sure.

"He's the most prominent challenger in the race thus far," McKenzie said of García.

García's office did not return a request for comment.

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