Friday, February 27, 2015

What can we learn about Chuy from last Little Village neighborhood mayor?

When Barack Obama became president-elect in 2008, I spent the next few weeks re-reading everything I could get my hands on concerning Harold Washington and “Council Wars;” suspecting that Republican reaction to an Obama presidency would bear similarities to the hostilities Washington faced from the City Council.

Some of that background has come in handy throughout the years, even though the modern-day GOP is slightly more subtle in its rhetoric than the Vrdolyak caucus was when expressing its racial contempt for Chicago’s first black man elected to be mayor.

WHICH HAS ME wondering if there are lessons from history that can be learned about what kind of mayor Jesus “Chuy” Garcia would be, should it somehow turn out that he gets himself elected on April 7 as the city’s first Latino (Mexican-American, to be precise) chief executive.

Specifically, I’m wondering about the story of Anton Cermak – whom I’m sure some people only know of as the guy for whom 22nd Street was renamed following his death in 1933.

A part of me sees similarities between former Mayor Cermak and Garcia and wonders if there is some larger lesson that can be learned about what kind of public official we would get should voters decide to make Chuy our mayor.

Now I’m sure some people will claim there is nothing in common between the two men. But I see similarities, and not just because both Garcia and Cermak came out of the same Little Village neighborhood southwest of downtown.

BACK IN CERMAK’S time, Little Village and Pilsen were eastern European enclaves – which is why it was natural that when Austria-Hungary-born Cermak came to Chicago, he settled there.

Why also it became the base on which he got elected in the early 20th Century to the Illinois House of Representatives, the City Council and then the Cook County Board where he moved up to being county board president. Garcia also is a pol who has served as alderman, state senator and county commissioner -- prior to running for mayor.

It was a collection of immigrant families who felt they were being ignored by the political establishment of the time that ultimately backed Cermak’s desire to be mayor in 1931.

Just as how now it seems to be a collection of immigrant families (albeit from the Americas instead of eastern European nations) who are the base of those who want Garcia to succeed in his mayoral aspirations against a candidate whom they feel ignores their concerns and is too focused on an elite of Chicago.

OF COURSE, TIMES change. Situations evolve. Back when Cermak made his mayoral bid, the political establishment was Irish and not interested in sharing much of anything with other Chicagoans.

Then-Mayor William Hale Thompson seemed unwilling to listen to others, and tried dismissing Cermak’s candidacy by attacking his credibility because he was so ethnic. A “bohunk,” to use the terminology of the time. “Pushcart Tony.” The guy who should be delivering your vegetables, rather than running the city.

I’m sure we’re going to get our share of tacky one-liners in coming weeks about how ridiculous it is to have a “filthy Mexican” in charge, instead of just contacting federal immigration officers to have him deported.

Let’s hope the mayor has enough sense not to go down that path himself, although I’m sure there will be political operatives willing to do just that.

CERMAK OVERCAME ETHNIC hostility by putting together a political coalition of people from all the ethnic and racial groups in Chicago whom the white Irish establishment didn’t want to bother with. It wound up being enough to win him re-election, and was the origin of the current political “machine” in Chicago that got Emanuel elected in 2011.

Garcia’s chances of winning could well be because he could unite the Latino population that accounts for about 30 percent of city residents with those African-American residents and even white ethnics who feel they have been forgotten about at City Hall.

For all I know, the matter may well be the descendants of the people who 84 years ago gave us “Mayor Cermak!” Which would be the ultimate bit of irony if it took this city’s diverse ethnic composition to help revamp the city political structure that it created way back when.

Garcia has implied that if elected mayor, he wants to put an emphasis on the neighborhoods, and in getting more police officers hired. Similar to how Cermak used his own political influence to get the then-brand-new Criminal Court building erected in his home neighborhood.

WHICH WOULD BE different from the string of mayors we have had for decades. Both Richard J. and M. Daley got hit with the same criticisms about favoring “the Loop” over the neighborhoods that we now hear aimed at Emanuel.

Could it take a Garcia to give Little Village (or perhaps we should now call it La Villita?) something for its character, other than living in the shadow of the county courthouse and jail?


EDITOR’S NOTE: Personally, I find author Gary Rivlin’s book “Fire on the Prairie” to be the best in telling the story of black political empowerment in Chicago and the days of “Council Wars.” If anyone has any suggestions of worthy books about the Cermak days, I’d be interested in knowing of them.

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