Why Jesus “Chuy” Garcia Should Look to Anton Cermak’s Chicago Mayoral Campaign for Inspiration

tags: Chicago, Jesus Chuy Garcia, Anton Cermak

Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of "Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia" and is currently at work on a book entitled "Dockworker Power: Struggles in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area." He has published extensively on labor history and politics.

When considering Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s impressive run to become Chicago’s next mayor, many cannot help but make historical comparisons. Understandably, Harold Washington’s historic victory in 1983 springs to mind—not the least because Garcia served as a key Washington ally during those years. However, Washington did not run against a seemingly unbeatable incumbent, nor was he an immigrant.

Perhaps a better comparison is to 1931, when Anton Cermak built the original multiethnic coalition, shook up the city’s entrenched politics and won the mayor’s race. Cermak asserted that the government needed to help ordinary people rather than corrupt business elites and sought to reduce the violence then plaguing the city. Sound familiar?

Cermak—yes, there’s a street, formerly 22nd, named after him—pulled off an incredible victory by defeating William “Big Bill” Thompson. The parallels to the current election are striking.

Cermak arrived in the United States as an infant with his Czech parents from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like most immigrants, they came with next to nothing. First, they lived in a small town south of Joliet where Cermak, just a child, worked with his father in a coalmine. When Cermak was 12, his family moved to Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood, home to a large and thriving Czech community—the same neighborhood Garcia lives in today, more commonly referred to as Little Village and the heart of the city’s Mexican population.

As a teen, Cermak worked as a railroad brakeman and teamster, earning the nickname “Pushcart Tony,” before entering politics. He was elected to the state House of Representatives, City Council and Cook County Board of Commissioners before announcing his intention to become mayor. Incredibly, Garcia also was elected to the state legislature, City Council and County Board. ...

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