The Latino Congressman Vying to Seize Chicago’s Population Shift to Win its Mayoral Race

“Chuy” Garcia is hoping to tap one of the fastest-growing populations in the Windy City ahead of the Feb. 28 election

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By Isis Almeida - José Orozco
February 10, 2023 | 08:54 AM

Bloomberg — US Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia announced his run for Chicago mayor in November at the Navy Pier waterfront overlooking the city skyline, surrounded by a crowd of about 100 followers, most of whom were Latinos.

When he touted his gender equity policies last month, he was at a local taqueria. This week, he turned to residents in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen to launch his property-tax relief program.

Garcia, 66, who was born in Mexico and moved to Chicago as a kid, is looking to become Chicago’s first Latino mayor. He’s hoping to tap one of the fastest-growing populations in the Windy City ahead of the Feb. 28 election, where rising crime rates and taxes are top issues for voters. The strategy may prove beneficial in a crowded race that counts nine candidates. A recent poll shows Garcia among the three top contenders along with Paul Vallas, a former head of Chicago Pulic Schools, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

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“Demographics is politics, so the more Latino voters, the more ears are willing to hear a candidate like Chuy, who’s from their world, who speaks to them, who knows them well,” said Tom Tresser, co-founder of nonprofit CivicLab.

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Chicago’s Latino population increased 5.2% in the 10 years leading up to 2020, while the number of Black residents declined and the city recorded a 1.9% growth in the total number of residents, according to Census data. Latinos first overtook Chicago’s Black community in size in 2020.

Garcia’s background, Spanish fluency and experience in almost every level of government including Congress could bolster his chances of becoming mayor.

“I do expect Chuy to get probably a majority of the Latino vote,” said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has endorsed Lightfoot for reelection. “The rest will be split among the other candidates, with probably Lightfoot getting the second most.”

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Chicago is home to about 2.7 million people, making it the third-largest city after New York and Los Angeles.

An independent poll commissioned by WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times, NBC5 and Telemundo Chicago shows Garcia, Vallas and Lightfoot in a three-way tie, meaning the race will probably go to a runoff on April 4. The poll has Garcia getting 20% of the overall vote, Vallas 18% and Lightfoot 17%, according to the 625 registered voters interviewed between Jan. 31 and Feb. 3. The poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error.

“I’m a son of Little Village, and I would be proud to be our city’s first Latino mayor,” Garcia said in response to questions for this article, citing a Hispanic neighborhood. “We fought and beat the racist, xenophobic machine that excluded African Americans, Latinos, women and other minorities for far too long.”

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Racial Voting

But while the shifting demographics is good news for Garcia, it’s far from being the decisive factor in this month’s mayoral elections. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the US, and racial voting has tended to play a key role in local politics. In the past, a candidate needed to get at least two racial groups to back them, with coalitions varying from mayor to mayor, Simpson said.

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Latinos have also historically voted at lower rates than both White and Black residents. Many aren’t US citizens or permanent residents, and therefore make up only 20% of registered voters in Chicago, even if they represent about 30% of the population, according to a March 2022 report from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

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Mayra Avila, president of the Southwest Collective, a nonprofit community organization, said Latinos are looking for more representation but acknowledges that little is being done to ensure the growing Hispanic population hits the polls.

“We want the change. However, numbers show that there’s a low voting count from the Latino population,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just status quo. They feel that things cannot or will not change, so why bother to vote.”

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Another challenge for candidates counting on the Latino vote is age. About 13% of the city’s Latino registered voters were 18 to 24 years old, according to the NALEO Educational Fund, an age group that’s less likely to head to the polls.

A crowded field is making racial politics even more relevant. Seven candidates are Black, leading to Black voters spreading out their support, Simpson said. Garcia is the only Latino running, and Paul Vallas is the only White candidate.

Latino Participation

“Racial voting will matter,” Simpson said. “The Black vote will be so split. The Latino vote will be somewhat smaller and go mostly to Chuy, so the White vote could be the deciding vote.”

To Jaime Dominguez, an associate professor at Northwestern University, White voters pose a challenge for Garcia, who forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff in 2015.

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“Lightfoot, granted, she was the first mayor to basically win the majority of the vote in every ward,” he said. “The White vote was very important for her. Chuy in 2015 did not do as well with the White vote. So I think his challenge is also going to be: Can he shore up the White vote this time around?”

Still, Latino participation has been increasing in all levels of government. The city currently has 12 Latino aldermen, up from seven in 2001. The state of Illinois now also has two Latinos in Congress, with the election of Delia Ramirez in the November midterm elections.

“People are looking for who they think is the best candidate that can best represent them,” said Sylvia Puente, president of the Latino Policy Forum. It’s a shift away from racial voting that “we wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago, maybe not even something we would’ve seen 10 years ago.”

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Population Decline

Garcia built a progressive reputation as a Chicago community organizer and has continued in the House as an advocate for immigrants, government social programs and financially stressed people those programs serve.

The candidate is also hoping to leverage his role as ally to Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, who won election in 1983 with help from Latinos. While Chicagoans frequently vote across racial lines, a Black-Latino coalition hasn’t existed since those days.

Lightfoot, the first Black female mayor, has faced a wave of criticism from her opponents for rising crime rates, which have sparked outrage among residents and business leaders. Chicago has also experienced some high-profile corporate departures in the past year, including hedge fund Citadel, plane maker Boeing Co. and the local offices of Tyson Foods Corp.

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Still, she has managed to pay down pension debt and elevate the city out of its junk rating, a move that will cut borrowing cost. Most candidates have yet to present a plan for pensions.

The city’s high property taxes have also been cited as a factor causing a decline in Chicago’s population.

Back in Pilsen, where property taxes increased 46% in the last year, Garcia pledged relief including a one-time grant of $250 for middle-and working-class homeowners meeting certain income thresholds. He also promised a $500 payout for qualifying properties that have seen an increase in the tax bill of at least double the city average.

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“The story of this neighborhood and so many across the city is also one of disinvestment, economic exclusion and soaring property taxes that are forcing residents to leave the city,” Garcia said at a press conference on Monday. “We’re going through a cost of living and a cost of housing crisis.”

--With assistance from Alex Tanzi and Mario Parker.

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