Pelosi Almost Endorses Clinton, Almost Accuses GOP Of Racism

Pelosi Almost Endorses Clinton, Almost Accuses GOP Of Racism

By Melinda Henneberger, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi admires President Barack Obama’s vow to support only those Democrats who agree with him on what he calls “common sense gun reform.” But that doesn’t mean she’ll follow his lead.

“I’m glad the president has made that statement,” she said in a wide-ranging interview for Roll Call’s new series, Power Brokers, that will debut on Friday. But “we in the House of course have a diverse caucus,” and can’t afford to pull support from those who disagree, since “it really is important for us to have a Democratic majority” again — unlikely as that now seems to be in 2016.

Then, faster than you can say, “regular order,” she pivoted right away from guns: “One consensus that we have is that we support working families,” and “fight the trickle-down economy of tax breaks for the wealthy.”

Pelosi herself is a strong proponent of gun control, but doesn’t like to hear it put quite that way. “I’m a strong proponent of gun safety,” she said. “I don’t know that the president said gun control; we’re talking about responsible, reasonable, common-sense background checks.”

Whatever you call it, would the issue keep her from supporting, say, Rep. Gene Green of Texas, a strong proponent of gun rights who’s received “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association?

“Many people in the NRA support responsible background checks,” Pelosi said frowning, but not answering.

Dealing with the mental health piece of legislation intended to prevent mass shootings is challenging, she said, because of privacy issues and the fact that a “minute” number of those who suffer from a mental illness pose any threat.

But she batted down the suggestion that Congress hasn’t moved to combat mass shootings because Republicans only want to address mental health, Democrats have prioritized gun control, and neither will move without the other.

“It’s not that we’re saying we’re not going to do mental health until you do guns — we’ve never said that. I did mental health parity. I did mental health in the Affordable Care Act. We need to do more.”

Asked what she thinks explains the anger that seems to have propelled billionaire businessman Donald Trump to the front of the Republican field, she said, “I leave the Republican nominating process to the Republicans.” But the fury, in her view, is “basically economic, at a time when they feel they’re at a disadvantage” because “of our inability to contain the exploitation of Wall Street — some on Wall Street. But immigrants have always been a scapegoat.”

If the current Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is elected president, would she be any more likely to work successfully with Republicans in Congress than Obama has?

“I would hope so,” she said, but that depends on whether “the American people can be more aware of the obstruction,” that Republicans, as she sees it, have been responsible for throughout Obama’s presidency.

“People say, ‘Why can’t you get along?’ No, they’re obstructing the president. He has extended the hand of friendship to them over and over again. So I think in terms of Hillary Clinton — then, President Clinton — and, by the way, when she enters the Oval Office she will be one of the best prepared people to walk in there in modern times.”

Wait, was that an endorsement?

“Well, it may be, one of these days soon.”

Will she, though, be any more likely to work well with Congress?

“There are,” she said, pausing, “certain unspoken things about why the Republicans have gotten away with what they have gotten away with what they have obstructed with President Obama.”

She’s referring to race?

“Well, I’m referring to a lot of things, but nonetheless, I don’t know that the American people would tolerate, with increased awareness of why they are obstructing, why they would obstruct the first woman president of the United States.”

Another female leader in her party, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, recently got into some trouble for suggesting younger women may not be as enthusiastic about Clinton’s presidential campaign as older women because they’re “complacent” about abortion rights. Pelosi defended Wasserman Schultz from the criticism that followed; is that because she agrees that younger women are complacent, or that that issue explains the gap in enthusiasm between younger and older women? Neither, Pelosi said.

She certainly doesn’t believe the abortion issue is suppressing excitement for Clinton: “Young men and young women are gravitating to Bernie Sanders; it isn’t about one issue.”

Instead, “I support her because she’s a valued member of Congress.” Wasserman Schultz “came here as an experienced legislator, a progressive from Florida and I, again, value her service and her leadership.”

Speaking of leadership, is there anyone she sees as the next Nancy Pelosi — or for that matter, as the next Steve Israel? The perception, of course, is that the presumed next generation of leaders is giving up and moving on, with Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards running for the Maryland Senate seat that Barbara A. Mikulski’s retirement will leave open and Israel retiring from public service.

“I wouldn’t even think of naming a person here because there are so many excellent members” who will be coming up behind her, though neither Pelosi, who is 75, nor Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, who is 76, is in any hurry to retire.

The conventional wisdom is that Pelosi’s bench is getting thin.

Not so, she said: “The bench is very crowded. In fact, the bench is practically the whole stadium. … They all have a baton in their duffel bag; any one of them could step forward.”

She and Hoyer first worked together in their 20s, in the office of Maryland Sen. Danny Brewster. But she dismissed as all wrong the widely trafficked story that the perceived competition between the two Maryland natives might date to when Hoyer was made Brewster’s scheduler while Pelosi was relegated to work as a receptionist. “That’s absolutely not true. … I was in the reception area and did constituent mail; I learned a lot doing that. I don’t really know what Steny’s job — he had perhaps just what you describe — but Steny was ahead of me; he was in law school, and I had absolutely no intention of ever running for office. That is cute, but that’s not …”

… the genesis of the rivalry?

“No, and there is no rivalry, but it certainly was not any rivalry then.”

A definite rival in the marketplace of ideas, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, has for years now been talking about poverty and anti-poverty programs in a way that even Democrats haven’t always done; what does she make of that?

Only that words and actions are two different things, she said, as we see when “everybody talks about the middle class, and yet there’s the destruction of the middle class because of the trickle-down policies” of the GOP.

“I respect the sincerity of the speaker when he addresses the issue of poverty,” she said, “but his budget speaks louder than any words … and the Ryan budget was something very destructive to the aspirations of poor people.”

It’s still too early, she said, to weigh in on just how working with him is any different from working with his predecessor, John A. Boehner, though “they’re both very fine gentlemen.”

Asked what she most dares to hope House Democrats can accomplish in this new session, she began with a strictly political answer: “It’s really important,” she said, “for us to be able to convey to the American people what is at stake in the Congress, what the debate is about.”

What she hopes they come to see is that it’s really all about who has the leverage, the wealthy or the middle class. “That will be the debate; I don’t want to say (that will be the) fight.”

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 


Analysis: How The Presidential Campaign Got Religion

Analysis: How The Presidential Campaign Got Religion

By Melinda Henneberger, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — On Sunday, Hillary Clinton stood at the pulpit of Foundry United Methodist Church, which she’d attended as first lady, and said she’d just gotten some excellent, Bible-based advice from her former minister, J. Philip Wogaman: In keeping with the reading of the day, from Romans 12, he told her, “You’ve got to be nicer to the press.”

“I certainly will take that to heart,” she promised, and the congregation laughed.

Though she didn’t specify which lines in particular he was referring to, these seem to fit:

Verse 14: “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.”

Or 18: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”

Or 19-20: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”

Recently, her friend-turned-rival Donald Trump, the billionaire leading the GOP field, declined to single out any of his favorite Bible verses, though he often mentions that it’s his favorite book, just ahead of “The Art of the Deal.”

“I wouldn’t want to get into it, because for me that’s very personal,” he said on “With All Due Respect.”

But Clinton had no such qualms, and said Sunday’s reading happened to be a favorite, because of what it says about how we all have gifts, and all have different gifts we have a duty to put to good use.

She suggested that it is important to acknowledge our own gifts: The directive to “love your neighbor as yourself doesn’t mean much,” she said, “unless you love yourself first.”

Using our talents is “how we honor God,” she said, “who gave us these gifts in the first place.” It’s in doing so, she said, that “we can unlock the potential of every American…and of America itself.”

That feeling — and even some of the words she used to express it — echo the only other woman in the crowded presidential race, Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who often talks about learning in Sunday school that we all have different gifts from God, and that how we use them is our gift to God.

From Ben Carson questioning Trump’s faith to Joe Biden telling Stephen Colbert how much solace he draws from saying the rosary to Clinton’s return to her D.C. church, it was an unusually godly week on the campaign trail.

At Foundry United Methodist Church, which was celebrating the 200th anniversary since it was started by the lay-preaching owner of a Georgetown foundry, Clinton referred to herself as a “Methodist by birth and by choice.” As she has often in the past, she again spoke about the ways she’s been shaped by that experience, including when a minister took her all-white church youth group to visit various inner-city Chicago churches. And on one memorable occasion, to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. preach. “I left that hall a different person,” she said, “thanks to my church.”

These days, Democrats are no less likely than Republicans to speak this way; Jesuit-educated former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley once said that his Catholic faith taught him “to search for Christ in the faces…of the homeless men who lined up for a meal every morning” and to “recognize and confront the enemy within _ the original sin of our own culture and environment that would have us think less of people who because of race or class or place are not like us.”

If anything, it’s Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew, whose lack of “God talk” is unusual for a presidential candidate.

That wasn’t always the case, particularly among Democrats; when John Kennedy talked about his Catholic faith, it was to assure America that he wouldn’t be taking orders from Rome. But John Kerry’s decision not to talk about his faith during his ’04 run was a mistake, he said later:

“Despite this New Englander’s past reticence of talking publicly about my faith,” he said in an ’06 address at Pepperdine University, “I learned that if I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me. I will never let that happen again.”

Like Kerry, Biden has not often spoken of his faith in public, and even now, he seems to feel it’s a little unseemly to do so: When Colbert asked him point-blank on his show last Thursday how his faith had helped him deal with the death of his first wife, their daughter, and now his son Beau, he said this:

“First of all, it’s a little embarrassing to speak about me. There’s so many people — maybe some people in the audience — who have losses as severe or worse than mine and didn’t have the incredible support I have. I have such an incredible family. And so I feel self-conscious talking about — loss is serious and it’s consequential, but there’s so many other people going through this.

“But for me, you know my wife when she – she’s a professor – when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I’m shaving, and she put up a quote from Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard said, ‘Faith sees best in the dark.’ And for me, my religion is just an enormous sense of solace. And some of it relates to ritual, some relates to just comfort and what you’ve done your whole life. I go to Mass, and I’m able to just be alone, even in a crowd; you’re alone. I say the rosary. I find it to be incredibly comforting. What my faith has done is it sort of takes everything about my life, with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion, and I don’t know how to explain it more than that, but it’s just the place that you can go. And, by the way, a lot of you have been through this; the faith doesn’t always stick with you. Sometimes, it leaves me. So I don’t want to come off like …”

Colbert finished his thought: “You don’t want to come off as pious or a holy Joe.” In an interview that was intentionally short on laughs, they both pretended that that last play on words was funny, just to lighten the moment.

Hillary Clinton, however, was never among those in her party who’ve felt that faith in God is too personal a thing to share in the public square. In a 1993 cover story in the New York Times Magazine called “Saint Hillary,” the late writer Michael Kelly made her out to be someone who overdid it, and was quite a moralizer, both tedious and grandiose on that account.

The piece began, “Since she discovered, at the age of 14, that for people less fortunate than herself the world could be very cruel, Hillary Rodham Clinton has harbored an ambition so large that it can scarcely be grasped. She would like to make things right.”

More than 20 years later, “Saint Hillary,” evangelizer for the “politics of virtue” as portrayed in that story, is not how much of the public sees her; on the contrary, a recent poll found that 30 percent of the Democrats surveyed said they don’t find her honest and trustworthy, while only 4 percent said that of Sanders and 5 percent of Biden.

Trump, meanwhile, says outright _ and here he does get points for honesty — that no, he’s never really felt the need to ask God to forgive him — yet he nonetheless ranks at or near the top with evangelical voters. When he takes communion, he said, “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness.”

Could it be that even strongly religious voters no longer take professions of faith from candidates at face value — or hold the lack of such professions against them? Until another candidate besides Trump threads the same needle, of course, it will be hard to say.

And when Pope Francis visits Washington, New York and Philadelphia later this month, even Trump may be tempted to murmur a mea culpa under his breath.

Photo: America: Where religion meets patriotism. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Will Hillary Clinton Run Against Her Husband’s Welfare Legacy?

Will Hillary Clinton Run Against Her Husband’s Welfare Legacy?

By Melinda Henneberger, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Almost 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton made good on his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” some of his oldest friends were beside themselves. The plan, as originally conceived, had been to pump significantly more money into programs designed to move poor single mothers off of assistance and into jobs, which couldn’t be done on the cheap. Yes, Clinton had proposed a strict time limit on benefits, but he had also pledged to “make work pay.” As it turned out, only one of those two things happened.

On August 22, 1996, Clinton proudly signed a Republican bill that pushed recipients out of the program after five years and ended an entitlement in place since the New Deal. “In a sweeping reversal of Federal policy,” The New York Times story on the event began, “President Clinton today ended six decades of guaranteed help to the nation’s poorest children.”

The bill wasn’t the solo handiwork of then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had proposed sending poor children to orphanages. Rather, a Democratic president with political capital to spare was freely approving what many in his party saw as a baldly punitive bill. And Hillary Clinton, who in this early phase of her campaign has made “the-deck-is-stacked” inequality a central focus, was fully in support.

Clinton’s signing of the bill was a source of near-physical pain to someone like Peter Edelman, then Clinton’s assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, who as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy had penned one of the earliest liberal critiques of welfare’s shortcomings, in 1967. RFK’s proposed antidote, however, had been a massive jobs program. Edelman had known Hillary Clinton since 1969, when he had put her in touch with his wife, Marian Wright Edelman, who became her mentor and employer at the anti-poverty organization she had just founded, the Children’s Defense Fund.

After Clinton signed the legislation, Edelman and his Health and Human Services colleague Mary Jo Bane, both of whom had been brought into the administration as advocates of a very different brand of welfare reform, did what few in Washington ever do — they resigned in protest. In an “Open Letter to the President” published in The Washington Post, Marian Wright Edelman called it a “moment of shame” for her old friends and their party.

The Edelmans weren’t the only ones who were alarmed. New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose U.S. Senate seat Hillary Clinton later filled, warned that children would be sleeping on hot-air grates if Clinton signed the bill. The liberal icon Paul Simon, of Illinois, said, “This isn’t welfare reform; it’s welfare denial.”

The pain was all the sharper because the consensus among Clinton’s aides, both those who supported and opposed the bill, was that the move was not politically necessary. Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos told the president that he did not have to sign the bill to be re-elected, but was far enough ahead of GOP nominee Bob Dole that he’d win in November either way.

Two decades later, much of the left feels that Moynihan, Simon, Bane and the Edelmans have been proven right: In the early years, in a strong economy, many single moms did move from welfare to work. “When people think about welfare reform as a success, that’s what they’re talking about,” says LaDonna Pavetti, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But since 2000, those gains have slipped away, until “now we’re almost back to where we started.”

There’s no question that a smaller percentage of Americans are getting the help they need: In 1996, 68 of every 100 families living in poverty received cash assistance. Today, only 26 of 100 do, and in 10 states, that number is under 10. Because federal aid is no longer guaranteed to anyone living in poverty, states can simply make it harder to qualify for help, and then point to the low number of people they’re serving as a measure of success.

Bruce Reed was the Clinton aide who wrote the phrase “end welfare as we know it” in one of his earliest presidential campaign speeches, and he still believes that the reform worked. “It was one of President Clinton’s proudest achievements,” Reed says, “moving 7 million people out of poverty in those 8 years — 100 times more than Reagan did” during his two terms in office.

Reed’s figures are correct. But digging into the numbers, a more complicated picture emerges. For one thing, 40 percent of those on welfare did not get a job, even in the early years.

“It did increase the work rate among never-married mothers,” says the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins, a Republican who helped write the welfare reform bill, “but that peaked in 2000 and has never gotten back to there because of three recessions.”

What’s more, as Haskins notes, the rate of extreme or deep poverty — defined as living on around $2 a day — has actually increased slightly: “There is a group at the bottom who are not better off. In the old days, they could stay on welfare forever, and now, any mom who does not have the ability to maintain her household and work at the same time is going to have trouble.”

In a campaign focused on both income inequality and the opportunity gap, how Hillary Clinton engages with her husband’s record on poverty and the safety net is liable to become a central question. And both Clintons have already said they’ve changed their minds on other issues that were central to his presidency. They no longer stand by his administration’s record on criminal justice — especially the mandatory sentencing guidelines that filled prisons and hollowed out communities — or on gay rights, which were seen so differently by much of the public two decades ago.

But welfare reform was to the Clinton administration what health care reform is to Obama’s; despite the controversy, it’s always been considered a signature achievement. At the time, there was no discernible daylight between the Clintons on the bill he signed. “I think her views were like his,” says Reed — “that the Republicans were wrong to play politics with extraneous cuts, but that there were good aspects of the welfare reform bill,” including stepped-up child support enforcement, which made it, on balance, something to be proud of. Reed notes that most of the cuts to immigrants’ benefits in the bill were later restored.

In Hillary Clinton’s first memoir, “Living History,” published in 2003, she wrote at some length about the fight over welfare reform. Clinton had vetoed the first two bills that hit his desk, but when the third one passed, she wrote, “I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage — though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system … I was most concerned with the five-year lifetime limit, because it applied whether the economy was up or down, whether jobs were available or not, but I felt, on balance, that this was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence.”

There were political considerations, of course: “The legislation was far from perfect,” she wrote, “which is where pragmatic politics entered in. It was preferable to sign the measure knowing that a Democratic administration was in place to implement it humanely. If he vetoed welfare reform a third time, Bill would be handing the Republicans a potential political windfall.”

She was nonetheless sorry, she wrote, that “Bill’s decision, and my endorsement of it, outraged some of our most loyal supporters,” including the Edelmans, and “(i)n the painful aftermath, I realized that I had crossed the line from advocate to policy maker. I hadn’t altered my beliefs, but I respectfully disagreed with the convictions and passion of the Edelmans and others who objected to the legislation.”

In the book, Clinton came very close to suggesting that they were naive, and said outright that that kind of purity was easy for people in their position: “As advocates, they were not bound to compromise, and unlike Bill, they didn’t have to negotiate with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole or worry about maintaining a political balance in Congress.”

Engaging with the entwined issues of inequality and poverty will inevitably mean engaging with the consequences of the welfare bill Bill Clinton signed, though she has not done so yet. Asked if she would distance herself from welfare reform as she has from ’90s-era mandatory sentencing, a Clinton campaign spokesman issued this statement: “Hillary Clinton has a long record fighting for everyday Americans and their families, and she is running to make sure all families are not only able to get ahead, but stay ahead. In the coming months she will discuss more details on her approach to addressing children and families living in poverty, including how best to support those families who rely on the safety net of welfare to temporarily keep their families afloat during the hardest of times, as well as other ideas to further strengthen families and help them move forward.”

Many anti-poverty advocates are hopeful that Clinton will address the holes in the safety net head-on, finally repairing the system that she and her husband had a hand in creating: “Welfare reform needs to be revisited,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University and a former national co-chair of Catholics for Obama. “I think Hillary needs to stand up and say, ‘My husband and the Republicans in the ’90s really thought they’d put together a package that was going to fix welfare and poverty but didn’t fix either one.’ She needs to call America to the barricades in the struggle against deep poverty.”

Will she? Robert Putnam, whose new book on the inequality of opportunity in America today, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” said Clinton had “used extremely well chosen words, I thought, that kids everywhere should have the same opportunities as her granddaughter.” Speaking that way, he added with a laugh, “emphasized the ‘It Takes a Village,’ and Children’s Defense Fund part of her resume’ — and she has a rich, complicated and not always internally consistent one — but she didn’t just discover this issue yesterday.”

Already, at this early stage in the campaign, Clinton is speaking with more specificity on the subject than her rivals on the right, calling for more support for child care and early childhood education. At Effie O. Ellis Early Learning Center in Chicago last week, she criticized Republicans in Congress for making America “turn its back on our children and working parents.”

Yet even as Clinton talked about fairness, those she called by name were not the have-nots, but members of the middle class: “When we talk about child care, we’re talking about the economy, we’re talking about families, we’re talking about fairness. We’re talking about all the values that we believe are necessary to raise healthy, successful, productive children in society today. … I want you to get ahead and stay ahead. And I want the words ‘middle class’ to mean something again.”

At the same stop, in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, she listened to Lakesia Collins, a single mom of three boys who makes $10 an hour: “It kind of hurts me that I can’t afford things for them, but I’m able to work. It really is shameful for me because I can’t give them what they need because I don’t make enough money.” Work still doesn’t pay, in other words.

Those completely left out of both our safety net and the policy debate so far include older women who have done physical labor all their lives — what do they do after their bodies start to give out? — and mothers who are not disabled enough to qualify for SSI, but are not able enough, for a constellation of reasons, to go straight to work, either. “I’m a true believer in work,” says Pavetti, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “but our programs are set up as, ‘You do it now or you never do it.'”

Some remedies for inequality that are being discussed, on and off the campaign trail, include raising the minimum wage, extending Earned Income Tax Credits, subsidizing wages and doing more to support job training and job readiness, along with more macro solutions like financial sector reform, rethinking trade agreements and bankruptcy rules, and allowing the government to negotiate health care costs.

Peter Edelman, who supports Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, doesn’t expect her to revisit the ’90s when it comes to welfare reform. But then, he’s been mistaken about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s intentions before — for instance, the month before President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, when Clinton remarked that “You can put wings on a pig, but you can’t make it an eagle.”

“So a bunch of us hear that and think he’s going to veto it,” Edelman remembers, “and that’s what he wants us to think.”

Those arguing for the bill inside the White House back then included Reed, Rahm Emanuel, Mickey Kantor, and Al Gore, while those who opposing it were Donna Shalala, Robert Reich, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta, George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes.

The principle concern among those arguing against it was that it ended the legal right to aid. And while the states always set the amount of the benefit, Edelman says that they now they can effectively say, “You look like you could work; go away.”

A lot of states, Reed notes, “have stolen that money — legally — and use it for other things.” In Texas, for example, more than half of the federal welfare dollars support child welfare programs, and some states, according to Pavetti, have even used it for college scholarships. Though it does have to be used for low-income residents, she says, “it all depends where the shortfalls are.”

“There is no welfare in big chunks of the country anymore,” Edelman argues, “and because too many of the Democrats own a piece of it, nobody says it’s a terrible failure, but it is. You want people who can work to work, but we have a deeply damaged safe net.”

More than any presidential election since the civil rights era, this one is likely to focus on those who have fallen through that net. And more than any other contender, Peter Edelman’s old friend Hillary Clinton knows what’s at stake.

Photo: This is a woman no stranger to campaigning. U.S. Embassy via Flickr

Why Is Rahm Emanuel’s Challenger, Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia, So Happy?

Why Is Rahm Emanuel’s Challenger, Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia, So Happy?

By Melinda Henneberger, Bloomberg News (TNS)

CHICAGO — The campaign headquarters of Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has some fun touches, like the “emergency mustache” box — “You never know when you might need one” — and the supporter’s painting of Garcia as Superman propped up next to the basket of neighbor-baked banana muffins, each individually wrapped and stamped with a different Chuy-licious, go-get-’em message.

But there is not much private meeting space in the converted restaurant, where several dozen brown, black, and white volunteers of all ages are online and on the phone on Garcia’s behalf in the final days ahead of the April seventh runoff. And this, too, the candidate’s friend and three-time former campaign manager, Chicago Alderman Ricardo Munoz, blames on the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

“Nobody wanted to rent to us,” says Munoz, who had volunteered to find his former mentor, now a Cook County commissioner, the right HQ. Owners really feared the wrath of Rahmbo more than an empty building? “It’s the Chicago way,” he says mildly. “Happens all the time.”

Whether it’s wise to pump up the incumbent as so big and bad is debatable, but that Emanuel is more feared than loved is not, even as the most recent polling shows him opening a 48.5 percent to 32.1 percent lead — or 55.8 percent to 44.2 percent if the undecided option is taken out — in two surveys by Odgen & Fry.

“Emanuel’s heavily criticized attack ads continue to have an impact on the race,” according to the pollsters, since “Emanuel has used his financial advantage to define Garcia, using his own words, as someone who would have made the same decisions.”

The surprise runoff has now forced Emanuel to show a softer side, too; in last week’s debate, he highlighted how important it is for him to hug the grieving parents of shooting victims. But the major split still seems to be between those Chicagoans who see 55-year-old Emanuel’s confrontational style as a marker for those “tough choices” he’s always bragging about, like closing 50 public schools, and those who wonder what those choices have really gotten their city.

Chicago has $20 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, bond ratings downgraded to near-junk status, and a crime problem so serious that the mayor’s own 17-year-old son was mugged near his home in December.

On the airwaves that Emanuel’s campaign and the PAC that supports him are indeed blanketing, the anti-Garcia commercials would be almost comical if viewers could see the small-print disclaimers: That raise Garcia voted himself, because he’s “out for himself, not us,” was as a member of the state senate, in 1998. And his support for the “biggest property tax increase ever” was as an alderman in 1987, when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, tough choices were the only choice.

In an interview in a narrow wedge of a space next to a freezer in the back of his imperfect HQ, the challenger cites those attack ads as proof that the mayor is “panicking.” Garcia, however, is not, and as proof of his own support, he evokes all of the folks at the two St. Patrick’s Day parades who were chanting his name: “They’re summoning me over, to come over and give them high fives, they want buttons — we had green St. Patrick’s Day buttons, they went like hotcakes — so it’s been pretty phenomenal.”

Some of those folks, of course, were maybe “not 100 percent sober,” as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would say. But even as Garcia is losing ground over a pay raise he got 20 years ago, he insists he’s heartened by the response he’s getting on the campaign trail: “Probably the most curious thing about it is that little kids, children are tuned into it; they’re doing the mustache thing, the button thing, they like the name — I wasn’t sure whether the name would take, whether it was a big risk to roll out with ‘Chuy’ as a brand — and it’s been received phenomenally. You walk into a coffee shop, I’m at a bus-stop, walking down the street and it’s, ‘Hey Chuy!’ So that’s a surprise; I expected it would be ‘Hey, Garcia!’ but no, it’s ‘Chuy.'”

Now that that’s settled, what about his plan if elected? He hasn’t said exactly how he’d address the city’s various fiscal crises, but that’s not, he says, because he doesn’t want to turn off voters ahead of the election, or because he’s incapable of making unpopular calls. Instead, it’s because he thinks the situation Chicago’s facing is even worse than advertised, and doesn’t want to fake it or overpromise: “I’m bracing for the fiscal realities,” he says, and clears his throat, “and what I will inherit. I sense that it will be worse than what has been represented. That’s why I say that the first actions I will take will be audits of the finances as well as performance audits of the departments. Because they’ve never been done and thus my reluctance to get into the details of the measures we’ll take because we don’t have a baseline.”

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the biggest challenge his campaign faces is also money; his first TV spot just went up last week, finally. But, he says, “our greatest strength of all will be Election Day when we’ll have a group of between 5,000 and 6,000 people on the street knocking on doors and getting voters out…so I’m feeling really, really good that we’re going to win.”

If Garcia sounds a lot more upbeat than the newly chastened man who’s so far ahead of him in the polls, maybe that’s because insurgencies are a lot more fun than re-election bids. That’s especially true given the collective sigh of resignation with which even many Emanuel supporters view the inevitability of a second term. And it’s despite the self-fulfilling fear among some Chicago progressives that they don’t want to come out publicly for Garcia and then spend the next four years getting the treatment from Emanuel. Similarly, some national progressives don’t want to be seen as insulting Emanuel’s former boss, President Barack Obama, by supporting Garcia.

Liberals’ long list of beefs with what Emanuel has done as mayor includes his decision to close six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics three years ago _ a consolidation, he called it _ and recent reports that his Chicago Housing Authority put money into cash reserves that had been earmarked for affordable housing. And while Emanuel talks up his role in raising the minimum wage, the major rationale for his re-election is, as GOP Sen. Mark Kirk put it earlier this month, “I would worry about the value of the Chicago debt if Rahm was not re-elected.”

Turnout and the under-polling of Hispanic voters are the two unknowns that Garcia’s campaign is counting on, as he continues to make the case that “Mayor One Percent” is only interested in cutting deals for his corporate cronies and with his friend and former associate, the state’s new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.

When Garcia and Emanuel spoke for a minute just before debating last week, though, all was friendly, the challenger says: “We were carrying on; we were chatting; I hope the mics weren’t on,” he jokes, but no, “nothing improper or regretful was said; we talked about family and ‘Have you been home, other than to shower and sleep?'”

What Chicago would get with him as mayor, Garcia says, is the tough choices needed to keep the lights on, but also 1,000 new cops on the street, by reducing the outlay for overtime. But there would also be transparency and honesty about the options, he says, instead of Emanuel’s back-door increases of fees, fines, and penalties, and red-light cameras justified on public safety grounds when “it was only about money.”

A Mexican immigrant who came here legally as a child, the longtime community organizer talks as much about personal responsibility and consensus-building as another former practitioner from around here used to. And though he doesn’t know that guy as well as Emanuel does, when Obama first came to the state senate, Garcia says, “He asked me to help him learn the ropes of the senate and who was who. So I shared with him what I knew,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh, “but of course he went on to kind of do his own thing and look what happened!

“No one saw that coming; anyone who says they saw it isn’t telling the whole truth.” Although “obviously I knew that he was talented and very intelligent. And he came from community organizing,” he says, smiling, “so we kind of had that in common.”

Should Garcia win on April seventh, no one will have seen that coming, either.

Photo: Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia for Chicago via Facebook