By Mike Lillis - 03/26/15 06:00 AM EDT
Despite their once-sour relationship, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) is going all in to help Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel win reelection over an insurgent Hispanic challenger.
Gutiérrez famously clashed with President Obama’s former chief of staff in years past, primarily over Emanuel’s positions on immigration reform — Gutiérrez’s signature issue.
“Rahm Emanuel has done the job I asked him to do,” Gutiérrez told The Hill this month. “He said, ‘What is it going to take to earn your support?’ And he earned it.”
The endorsement has since put Gutiérrez in an awkward spot, however — Emanuel’s runoff foe is Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Democrat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners and a fixture in Chicago’s immigrant rights community.
Despite being heavily outspent, Garcia held Emanuel to just under 46 percent of the vote, taking 34 percent himself and forcing the mayor into an April 7 runoff. A recent survey showed Emanuel with a double-digit lead head-to-head.
Garcia’s candidacy has been well-received by Latino voters — another recent survey indicated they support him over Emanuel by a margin of 61 percent to 18 percent — while at the same time leaving Gutiérrez to campaign against a fellow reformer he describes as “a wonderful public servant and a dear friend.”
Gutiérrez acknowledged last week that he might have approached the election differently had he known earlier that Garcia would throw his hat into the ring just a month after he gave his backing to Emanuel.
“I don’t have a magic ball to see the
future,” he admitted.
Still, Gutiérrez pulls no punches in his fight for Emanuel, staging commercials, visiting churches and co-hosting community outreach forums with the mayor to help immigrants living in the city illegally take advantage of Obama’s executive actions on deportations.
“It would be easy for me to simply say, ‘You know, Jesus is Latino; he’s a friend, a dear friend, and been an advocate all along — we share so many of the same things,’ ” Gutiérrez said. “But we [Emanuel and I] took an eraser to the board four years ago — he has been incredibly helpful — and I’m going to keep my side.”
The relationship between the two wasn’t always so chummy.
As a congressman heading the Democrats’ campaign arm a decade ago, then-Rep. Emanuel infuriated immigrant-rights advocates, when he warned that immigration reform was the “third rail of American politics” — a message he echoed as Obama’s chief of staff.
The tension reached a point that, when Obama named Emanuel his point man on immigration reform in 2009, it was seen by Hispanic lawmakers as a near-guarantee that nothing would be done.
“Telling us Rahm was in charge sent a clear message — nobody was in charge,” Gutiérrez wrote in his 2013 memoir, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.
Then, when Emanuel left the White House in 2010 to seek the spot being vacated by longtime Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Gutiérrez quickly endorsed his opponent, Gary Chico, and attacked Emanuel on everything from immigration to trade to his career on Wall Street.
“The last commercial Gary Chico did was me telling people you can’t vote for Rahm Emanuel,” Gutiérrez recalled this month. “It wasn’t even a ‘Vote for Gary Chico’ commercial. It was like, ‘Do not vote for [Emanuel].’ “
Several things happened that changed his tune.
First, Emanuel won. “I love Chicago,” Gutiérrez said. “And I’m not going to be in a fight with him for the next four years.”
Second, the mayor reached out in an effort to mend fences.
“He called me. He said, ‘Let’s take an eraser to the board.’ And we talked about what types of things I would want under his administration, so that I would have his support — not for reelection, but just so I would have his support for his tenure,” Gutiérrez said. “And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think there’s anything I asked him to do that he didn’t do.”
Among those efforts, Gutiérrez hailed Emanuel initiatives to hike Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 per hour; to offer two years of free community college tuition to high-achieving high-school students, regardless of citizenship; and to bar local authorities from enforcing federal immigration laws.
“People say, ‘Yeah, but he’s been anti-immigrant.’ You know, if I were to judge Rahm Emanuel’s positions on immigration, and use that same litmus test for every other Democrat, I’d have only a few Democratic friends,” Gutiérrez added. “He’s done a lot.”
Such sentiments have put Gutiérrez at odds with some of his longtime allies, including the Service Employees International Union, which launched a biting TV campaign last week attacking Emanuel’s record on crime, education and taxes.
“Because Rahm can’t change his record, we need to change mayors,” the TV spot says.
Gutiérrez defended Emanuel from such broadsides, arguing that the mayor’s working class initiatives are too often overlooked.
“He doesn’t tend to brag about them as much as I think he should,” Gutiérrez said. “I don’t buy this [argument], ‘You’re for the rich, I’m for the poor.’ I don’t buy it.”
It remains unclear how much influence the congressman will have in swinging votes to Emanuel’s side.
Lawrence Benito, head of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, admitted Emanuel has become “more immigrant-friendly” since becoming mayor. But he also suggested Hispanic voters retain a connection to the Mexican-born Garcia that Emanuel simply doesn’t have — with Gutiérrez’s support or without.
“People know and respect what the congressman has done for the community on the federal level. But all politics is local,” Benito said. “[Garcia] came from the neighborhood; he ran a community organization, and people feel that he’s one of us.”
Garcia’s office declined to comment, while Emanuel’s office did not respond to questions Wednesday.
Gutiérrez, for his part, has every confidence Emanuel will prevail.
“We’re going to make the case, and he’s going to win,” Gutiérrez said. “Absolutely no doubt.”