This article was reported in collaboration with the Chicago Reader.
They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi jabbed at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her progressive “squad” of allies— Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—in 2019.
In an October 2020 Vanity Fair profile, Ocasio-Cortez vowed, “You keep telling me I’m just four votes, so I’mma go get more.”
Sure enough, in January, newly elected Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.)—progressives who successfully primaried centrist incumbents, much like Ocasio-Cortez— were inducted into the Squad.
But back in October, Ocasio-Cortez had a few others in mind. Tallying potential allies to Vanity Fair, Ocasio-Cortez listed prospective Congress member Kara Eastman of Nebraska (who lost a second close attempt to unseat a Republican) and one seated Democrat: Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.).
García might seem an unlikely Squad ally. The mild-mannered, middle-aged, mustachioed legislator joined the freshman class of 2019 with decidedly less fanfare and has shared none of their national media spotlight. Unlike the four younger, more vibrant and magnetic upstarts, all of whom fall a decade or more beneath Congress’ average age of 58, Chuy is 64 with 30-plus years of political experience. He won his seat without a fight.
While García is little-known nationally, in Chicago he is known simply by his nickname, Chuy, and for a political career that has bucked the city’s political establishment. His soft-spoken, sometimes equivocal manner can often seem at odds with his fiery resume. In 1983, García was a core part of the multiracial coalition of Blacks, Latinos and “lakefront liberals” who upended Chicago’s notorious Democratic machine to elect Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.
In 2015, with the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union and a progressive coalition furious at sitting Mayor Rahm Emanuel, García forced a runoff election. Emanuel won, but suddenly, García was synonymous with a progressive agenda, winning an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). During the 2020 presidential contest, García became a surrogate for Sanders, helping raise Sanders’ profile in Latino communities nationwide.
Given this history, it’s not surprising that García has taken up with Congress’ left rebels. Ocasio-Cortez was at odds with the Democratic leadership from the beginning, joining 150 youth climate activists with the Sunrise Movement in a sit-in at Pelosi’s office even before she was sworn in. When Ocasio-Cortez introduced her first piece of legislation, the Green New Deal, on Feb. 7, 2019, García signed on that day. In turn, the entire Squad co-sponsored García’s “Reward Work Act,” cointroduced with Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a bill that would curb corporate stock buybacks and require publicly traded companies to allow workers to elect a third of their boards
When Tlaib and Omar vocally fought a House resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, García was one of only 16 Democrats to vote against it. (He stopped short of endorsing the movement, citing as the reason for his vote “the resolution does not advance the goal of a negotiated peace process.”)
García also co-founded the Future of Transportation Caucus with Pressley and Mark Takano (D-Calif.), served as one of four co-sponsors on all six bills and resolutions in Ocasio-Cortez’s Just Society package, and co-signed a bill by Omar for student loan relief and Rashida Tlaib’s proposal to study racism in the auto insurance industry.
Eighty-six percent of García’s bills were co-sponsored by at least one member of the Squad, according to an In These Times analysis of bills in the 116th Congress that had co-sponsors or a vote. And García in turn co-sponsored or voted for 64% of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed legislation and 50% of the Squad’s as a whole.
In a statement to In These Times, Pressley, a Chicago native, called García “a trusted partner in good trouble” and praised his legislative record. “I often say that the Squad is big, because it includes anyone committed to the work of building a more equitable and just world. I can think of no one who fits that description better than Chuy García. He’s a real one.”
García returns the compliment: “They are my allies. They are my soulmates. I love them.” He believes progressives can’t do without a young, fiery front line to help grow the movement with a new generation. “I’m going to turn 65 in April; I’m an older guy and I don’t have some of their attributes,” he says. For example, he doesn’t share the Squad’s charisma and social media savvy (though his Twitter feed does include cute videos of him shoveling snow, making tamales and sewing shut a Thanksgiving turkey to “lock up the flavor”).
But where García does align with Squad members and the Democratic Party’s larger crop of left challengers is in the conviction that politicians must be accountable, specifically, to working-class communities and grassroots movements.
“You have to maintain face-to-face contact, you’ve got to communicate in Spanish, and you must stay rooted in working-class experiences and values in order to be successful and make your movement sustainable,” García says.
As García’s national profile grows, it’s these working-class communities (and experiences) at home in Chicago he will have to remember to stay in the good faith of the Left.
García has deep roots in Chicago’s predominantly Mexican neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village. As a boy, García moved to Pilsen from Mexico in 1965. He grew up in Little Village, where he still lives today. The anecdotes about his community work are many and varied. In 1997, he fought the University of Illinois at Chicago’s expansion into Pilsen, advocating for affordable housing instead. In 2001, García led a 19-day hunger strike to force Chicago to build a new high school in Little Village, which opened in 2005.
“If there was any fight anywhere that a union asked him to be there, he’d be there,” says Carl Rosen, president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and a long-time friend of García. García says Rosen keeps him honest.
García was first elected to the U.S. House in 2018, stepping into a seat held for 26 years by another member of Mayor Harold Washington’s coalition: Luis Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez, who has been called the “Martin Luther King Jr. for Latinos” because of his crusading support for immigration reform and anti-colonial policies in Puerto Rico, had become more and more of an establishment figure in Chicago. In the 2015 mayoral election, for example, Gutiérrez endorsed Rahm Emanuel over García. Progressives who remembered Gutiérrez’s socialist roots and principled 1993 vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement (which García pushed Gutiérrez to make, according to both García and Rosen) were disappointed in Gutiérrez’s allegiance to “Mayor 1%.”
After 13 terms, Gutiérrez announced he would not seek reelection—just a week before the 2017 deadline to file. Instead, he anointed García as his successor, a move that veteran politicos saw as a way to neutralize Emanuel’s likeliest adversary in the 2019 Chicago mayoral race. (Emanuel later decided not to run.)
By 2018, then, García was squarely mixed up with Chicago’s Democratic establishment, especially in the eyes of the city’s young, very left and very energized coalition of Black and Brown activists and organizers. They had been galvanized by the city’s police shooting (and subsequent cover-up) of Laquan McDonald, as well as Emanuel’s spree of public school and mental health clinic closings. When García endorsed Lori Lightfoot for mayor—a favorite of lakefront liberals opposed by the Chicago Teachers Union and various racial justice activists—they felt betrayed.
Outside a congressional campaign fundraiser in the summer of 2018, García was confronted by protesters from a neighborhood organization he had helped found: the Pilsen Alliance, a 21-year-old anti-gentrification group. They wanted García to include Medicare for All in his congressional platform.
“At that moment, he was kind of wishy-washy,” recalls Pilsen Alliance director Moises Moreno. “We were just there to make sure.” (García did become a co-sponsor of the Medicare for All Act of 2019.)
The way Moreno sees it, García can be counted on to take a progressive stance—when pushed. Pilsen Alliance is part of a statewide coalition to repeal Illinois’ ban on rent control, for example, and Moreno gripes it took too long for García to voice his support. Moreno chalks it up to Chuy’s lifetime in politics, begetting pragmatism and an attachment to long-standing relationships that can read as complacency.
Andrea Ortiz, a lead organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), has been pleased with García’s role as Congressman so far. When pressed on any shortcoming, she laughs and says “he’s no AOC” when it comes to centering youth voices. (For example, García was one of the few congressional progressives to vote against Pressley’s proposal to lower the federal voting age to 16.)
But Ortiz adds that García has “always been supportive” when the BPNC has pushed for more progressive policies and services to support working-class Latinos. Unlike his predecessor, she says, Chuy actually meets with neighborhood groups on a regular basis.
Neither Moreno nor Ortiz has any bones to pick with Chuy’s congressional record. So far, he’s come out strong on housing issues. In January 2020, for example, García was one of the chief architects, with the Squad and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), of the People’s Housing Platform, a package of seven House bills addressing homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.
On immigration policy—key in García’s district, where a third of the population is foreign-born—García picked up where Gutiérrez left off. García was instrumental in getting families with mixed immigration status included in the second round of federal pandemic payments, with back pay for those who didn’t get the original $1,200 relief checks. He is the chief sponsor of the New Way Forward Act, a bill reintroduced in late January and backed by more than 200 immigrant justice organizations, which pushes the envelope on Biden’s comprehensive immigration reform agenda by ending mandatory detention, among other measures.
But perhaps where García has most blazed a trail is on foreign policy, a place where, advocates say, left energy in Congress can be lacking.
A who’s who of progressive political activists, organizers, union bigwigs and elected officials gathered at the Hyatt Regency hotel, a half mile from the U.S. Capitol, for the annual Progressive Strategy Summit in October 2019. Plenty of international dignitaries hoped to find high-powered U.S. allies, Gustavo Petro among them. A Colombian senator and former mayor of Bogotá, Petro had recently completed a historic (though unsuccessful) run for president.
Petro, once part of the M-19 guerrilla movement, had long renounced armed struggle in favor of mainstream politics. He was helping to resuscitate the Left in conservative Colombia, where movement politics had been repressed and marred by years of violence, and backlash against Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro works against it. At the event, Petro was somewhat lost in the shuffle—until García made a beeline for him.
“He came from the other side of this huge conference room, kind of darted across the room just to say hello to Petro and have a conversation with him,” recalls Alexander Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), who had been helping to welcome the Latin American delegation to the summit. This was Main’s first encounter with García, but the freshman representative would soon emerge as a key ally.
“[García] has a sort of internationalist streak to him that you don’t find in many members of the Progressive Caucus,” Main says.
García says his internationalism “relates back to who I am as part of an immigrant community.” As a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he kept up with Latin American newspapers and advocated against apartheid and U.S. intervention overseas. “I know our movements have to be international,” he says.
In Congress, García has demanded transparency from the Department of Justice for its role in the politicized prosecution of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. He has also co-signed a call for easing sanctions on Iran and pushed for a congressional investigation of the role of the Organization of American States in fomenting a coup attempt in Bolivia.
García is also leading a push for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to issue a massive $4.3 trillion release of “special drawing rights” (SDRs) to support poor countries during the pandemic. Special drawing rights are a financial asset created by the IMF that countries can cash in for hard currency; amid the financial crisis in 2009, for example, the Fund issued $182.6 billion in new SDRs. The plan is tantamount to an enormous cash infusion to the pandemic-stricken Global South. The U.S. Treasury is authorized to let the IMF release a certain number of SDRs on its own, but congressional approval is required for the scale in García’s bill, the Robust International Response to Pandemic Act.
García has “been helping build a foundation for what will be an extraordinarily helpful measure,” says David Segal of Demand Progress, a group that lobbies for progressive policy. “In terms of impact on human lives across the world, this would be one of the biggest impacts achieved.”
Progress to Congress
In the 117th Congressial session, García has already reintroduced the New Way Forward Act and Roadmap to Freedom immigration resolution, and he is helping steer federal environmental remediation funds to Chicago.
And García says he is looking forward to continued collaboration with the Squad.
With Democratic majorities in Congress, García’s quieter political style and reputation for bridge-building may prove key to progressives. He was elected to a leadership position in the Progressive Caucus and has been given spots on the House Natural Resources, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Financial Services committees (the latter along with Tlaib, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez).
García’s foreign policy positions should bolster congressional opposition to a hawkish, neoliberal influence from some of the Biden administration’s foreign policy picks, such as Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who crafted the Obama administration’s drone policy.
García rejects the assessment, made by centrist Democrats like Abigail Spanberger (Va.) and Cheri Bustos (Ill.), that bold progressive stances (such as defunding the police and cozying up with socialism) cost Democratic seats in 2020. “I disagree with the comments Spanberger and Bustos have made,” García says. “We haven’t unpacked all of the experiences in the 2020 campaign.”
He is optimistic about the Democratic Party’s prospects, especially those of the progressive wing. The Squad is growing. On January 3, Bush tweeted a picture of herself and Bowman with the original four members, captioned “Squad up.” The others retweeted, making it official. Freshman Reps. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and Marie Newman (D-Ill.) are also often named as honorary Squad members.
And if the Squad continues to find allies in Democratic representatives like García —and Reps. Jayapal, Khanna, Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), and Mark Pocan (Wis., co-founder of the new Labor Caucus)—the Squad will continue to become much bigger than “just four votes.”